Testimony of Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Thank you, I welcome the opportunity to participate in today’s hearing, which is shining a spotlight on the disturbing trend toward growing restrictions on the space for civil society institution in a number of countries and the physical threats against citizens stepping forward to demand change in their societies.

In 1990, I served as foreign policy adviser to House Majority leader Richard Gephardt, and had the honor to travel with Mr. Gephardt, as well as Tom and Annette Lantos to Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, and Berlin within days of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

This trip afforded the unique privilege to see the changes through the eyes of Tom and Annette, who were true regional heroes.

In Prague, we sat down in a beer hall with Ivan Havel and other leaders of the Civic Forum.  Tom’s first question to the leaders was - when did they plan to turn their group into a political party and take over government?

Havel and his colleagues seemed baffled.  Over the next hour, they explained that their goal wasn’t to step into the shoes of the authoritarians.  Rather, it was about diffusing power throughout society – to lawyers, journalists, labor unions, religious leaders, business people, artists, ethnic groups, and, yes, playwrights.  It was all about creating space for citizens to run their own lives. 

I often think of this experience in my current job.  On recent trips, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with Afro-Colombians and indigenous people in Colombia; independent media and human rights lawyers in Georgia; displaced persons in South Sudan; disabled people and LGBT advocates in Vietnam; and women and youth activists, only steps away from Tahrir Square in Egypt.

Each participant’s perspective mirror the comments made in that Prague beer hall:  these heroes demanded a role in shaping the lives of their nations, their compatriots and themselves. 

But now we face a disturbing paradox – at a time of exploding social media and open communications, many governments are seeking to further close space for civil society through draconian restrictions. 

My colleagues, Assistant Secretary Posner and Special Adviser Tillemann, have outlined for you the most disturbing situations, addressing primarily the human rights and political aspects.  I want to focus on the development aspects.

From three decades of work in this arena, I’ve learned several lessons. 

First, development simply works better and is more sustainable when it draws on the full richness of civil society, involving them as planners, implementers and beneficiaries.  No government has a monopoly on good ideas, financial or human resources, ground truth or moral authority.  In these environments, civil society is often the eyes, the ears and the conscience of their nation.

Civil society plays a vital role as a watchdog against governmental abuse, corruption and inefficiency – working to hold officials accountable.

Civil society knows that development means more that high rates of per capita growth.  It means a sustainable improvement in socio-economic standards, growing educational opportunities, improved health, better housing and other social conditions.  Egypt, for example, experience 6-10 percent growth for much of the Mubarak reign, but the lack of inclusion and equity led to misdistribution of income and wealth, arrogance and corruption, white elephant infrastructure projects and lack of jobs, particularly for the youth. 

At USAID, we’ve addressed these concerns in four key ways.

First, we’re working to create and enforce international norms, working hand-in-hand with our own civil society institutions, including Interaction, associations of contractors, human rights groups, women’s associations and other partners.  At the Busan Development Forum last year, for example, the United States pressed hard and successfully for inclusion of strong language affirming the rights and importance of civil society.  Specifically, the document states that civil society organizations play a vital role in enabling people to claim their rights, to shape development policies and new partnerships, and to oversee their implementation.  Each signatory agreed to enable civil society to play its role as independent development actors, ensuring an enabling environment that maximizes their contributions to development.

We achieved similar normative statements in the Community of Democracies, the Open Government Partnership, within the UN General Assembly and other international forums. 

But it is telling that many of the governments that signed the Busan outcome document – and even those who led its drafting exercise – are the very countries seeking to restrict civil society. 

Thus, we are also demanding that governments include civil society in formulating development strategies and goals, in implementing these programs, as well as in monitoring, evaluating and demanding accountability.  This is especially true in implementing rural development and food security efforts under the President’s Feed the Future initiative; child survival efforts under the Global Health Initiative; remediation and adaptation efforts under the Climate Change initiative; and humanitarian relief efforts.

For example, we now have a requirement that each project proposal include a gender impact statement stating how the project will impact women.

Third, we are working directly to create civil society institutions.  A growing percentage of our assistance is going through reputable, transparent NGOs. 

We are helping to build these groups.  In the Philippines, for example, we set up incubators for 120 NGOs in human rights, environmental, and development space, providing training to create reliable financial, human resource, monitoring and evaluation systems.  In Cambodia, we have empowered 315 civil society groups to advocate for more space, as part of our global “Legal Enabling Environment Program.”

Similarly, last year at Afhad University in Khartoum, I was pleased to announce a new program to empower civil society women to participate in peace processes, which include providing training, stipends and physical protection, because we know that one of the most dangerous professions in the world is a women peace builder.

Finally, like our colleagues throughout government, we advocate for these groups in meetings with host governments by speaking out against abuses, providing financial support for those subjected to abuse, and, when appropriate, wrapping the American flag as a protective shield around advocates who want this protection.  The simple act of meeting with a senior American official – or a member of Congress, for that matter – can provide life-saving protection.

There is no higher purpose for the use of American power than to provide a stern reminder to those who seek to shut down civil society that they are indeed on the wrong side of history.

Threats to Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders Worldwide
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

Last updated: June 12, 2012

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