Briefing on the Upcoming Community of Democracies Meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania

Special Briefing
Michael H. Posner
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Tomicah S. Tillemann
   Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies 
Washington, DC
June 24, 2011

MS. FULTON: Good afternoon and welcome – or excuse me, good morning and welcome to the Department of State. We’re very pleased to welcome you here to our special press briefing this morning. Before we get into that, I would like to make a brief announcement. This is going to be issued – released in a statement by our spokesperson, Toria Nuland, very shortly. The statement is about Secretary Clinton’s upcoming travel to Budapest and Vilnius.

Secretary of State Clinton will travel to Budapest, Hungary June 29th to participate in the dedication of the Lantos Institute. The establishment of the Lantos Institute has been supported by the Government of Hungary to promote Hungarian-born Congressman Tom Lantos’s long commitment to democratic principles and the protection of individual and human rights. While she’s there, Secretary Clinton will meet with Prime Minister Orban, Foreign Minister Martonyi, and representatives of civil society while in Budapest.

Moving on, she will then travel to Vilnius, Lithuania from June 30th to July 1st in order to participate in the Community of Democracies Sixth Ministerial. The ministerial will bring together senior government officials, parliamentarians, NGOs, women and youth leaders, and the private sector to advance the shared goals of strengthening civil society and supporting emerging democracies. During her visit, the Secretary will participate in the Women Enhancing Democracy gathering of world leaders, which is held under the auspices of the Community of Democracies’ Working Group on Women’s Empowerment. She will also host a session of the Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society, which is focused on challenges to the freedoms of speech and association. While there, the Secretary will also hold bilateral meetings with the President Grybauskaite, Prime Minister Kubilius, and other Lithuanian officials.

And so here to elaborate on the Secretary’s participation in the Community of Democracies meeting, we are fortunate to have with us today Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner and Dr. Tomicah Tillemann, who is the Secretary’s Special Advisor – excuse me, Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies. I’d like to invite our two speakers to the podium and we’ll be followed by a few short questions. Please.

DR. TILLEMANN: Thank you very much. This trip will take place in the run-up to the Fourth of July, when Americans celebrate the importance of democracy. And it also occurs at a time when popular movements for democracy are reshaping the geopolitical landscape of countries, including Tunisia and Egypt. And against that backdrop, this is an opportunity to drive home the importance of democracy and civil society in our foreign policy, to recognize the renaissance of good activity that’s occurring within the Community of Democracies, and to follow up on the ambitious civil society agenda that the Secretary announced in her landmark speech at last year’s meeting of the Community of Democracies in Krakow.

On Thursday the 30th, the Secretary will be in Budapest, where she will participate in the inauguration of the Lantos Institute. The Lantos Institute was created to advance human rights, democracy, and transatlantic relations, and continue work on these important issues that were championed by Hungarian-American Congressman and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos. The institute was created with the support of all of Hungary’s mainstream political parties, and its opening is an opportunity to reinforce our commitment to pluralism and the values for which the institute will fight. The institute will be co-chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will also be attending the opening. And the Secretary, on Thursday morning following the inauguration of the institute, will also hold a series of bilateral meetings with Hungarian leadership and consultations with members of Hungary’s civil society.

We’ll then go to Vilnius that afternoon, and the Vilnius ministerial of the Community of Democracies provides a case study in how Secretary Clinton’s vision for diplomacy and 21st century statecraft is reshaping the way that countries collaborate with each other. The meeting will bring together different actors in democracy, including senior government leaders, civil society representatives, women, parliamentarians, youth, and the private sector around the shared goals of advancing civil society and supporting emerging democracies. During the last two years, the Community of Democracies has undergone a transformation from a forum where democracies could get together into a platform where democracies are getting things done. And that shift from an aspirational body to an operational platform has occurred with strong support from Secretary Clinton and at a time when there is a real need for international backing for civil society and newly emerging democracies.

There are a number of important initiatives that will be highlighted in conjunction with this meeting. I’ll let Secretary – Assistant Secretary Posner speak to most of those, but I want to highlight a few. One is a tech camp that will be occurring in the run-up to the ministerial. This is an initiative that will bring together 85 civil society activists from around the region, but primarily from Belarus, and provide them with training from technology experts in how to make their work more effective. We’ll also, as you heard, be holding a session of the Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society. And then the following day, at the main ministerial, the Secretary will be delivering opening remarks and speaking about several new initiatives that have come out of the Community of Democracies.

One of these is something called the Democracy Partnership Challenge, which creates a new race to the top for emerging democracies. It’s a mechanism for coming together with other nations that share a commitment to supporting countries in transition, and it will focus this year – in its inaugural year – on Tunisia and Moldova. And we’re looking forward to a very good discussion about how the ministers, leaders, and civil society representatives gathered in Vilnius can support transitions in those two countries.

Secretary Clinton will also be highlighting the Community of Democracies’ new mentorship initiative, which is using an online platform that was developed in partnership between the Community of Democracies Secretariat in Warsaw and the National Democratic Institute in the United States to make an online clearinghouse for sharing information on democracy support and linking individuals who played key roles in past democratic transitions, particularly in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, with individuals who are currently playing key roles in transitions in other parts of the world.

Secretary Clinton will also highlight her very successful efforts to operationalize the civil society agenda she outlined in Krakow, and Assistant Secretary Posner can speak to some of the specifics and the great initiatives that she will be discussing in the context of that work.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thanks, Tomicah. Just to follow up with three quick points. Last July, in Krakow, the Secretary spoke about the embattled NGO environment where, increasingly, governments are restricting the space for civil society nongovernmental organizations to function. In the last several years, at least 50 governments have enacted new laws or regulations which make it more difficult for NGOs to operate. So coming out of that speech, which sort of set the tone, we’ve really done three things in the last year: One is to initiate the civil society dialogue, which happened here earlier this year. The Secretary will be meeting with a group of NGO activists in Vilnius to discuss the same issues – what are the constraints, what are the challenges they face, how can we be helpful in creating a more open environment for them to operate?

Secondly, we announced last year the establishment of a fund, a $1 million fund called the Lifeline, the Embattled NGO Assistance Fund. So we’re putting our money where our mouth is, and we’re saying we’re going to actually provide financial support for advocacy initiatives to challenge these restrictions, but also support for individual NGOs when they get in trouble – legal assistance, trial observation, and the like. We’ve also – we’re in good company. We’ve now got 12 other governments that are supporting the Lifeline Fund: Australia, Benin, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Sweden. So 12 other governments have matched our $1 million and the fund is now going to be getting underway. We’ve identified seven international NGOs to help us actually implement this. So that’s the second deliverable from last year.

And then the third thing is that the Secretary has been engaged in individual countries, like Cambodia, where governments have initiated new restrictions. This is an ongoing problem. In some respects, governments are learning bad behavior from one another, and the Secretary, as a diplomatic matter, has stepped up and really made this a key priority. So those will be the things we’ll be discussing in Vilnius.

MS. FULTON: Okay. With that, let’s open it up for a few questions. Dave.

QUESTION: I presume that Belarus will be discussed in Vilnius. Where do you stand now with Belarus? They seem to have gone completely retrograde with the election and the arrest of the presidential candidates. What’s your strategy now to improve things there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We are indeed greatly concerned. My deputy, Tom Melia, has been there and has been trying to create a coordinated strategy with our Western European allies. The environment there is terrible, as you say. The government has cracked down not only on the political opposition but civil society and a range of others. So we’re deeply concerned about it. We’re going to continue to press. We can’t do it by ourselves, but we need our European partners and we’re pushing. We will have this very much on the agenda in Lithuania.


QUESTION: Just a follow-up on that. I was wondering if you could characterize what role Russia might be playing in the Belarus situation. Are they being helpful? Are they someone you’re looking to help – for help on this?

And the second is on the Hungary stuff, the Hungarian ruling party recently sort of rammed through a new constitution over the objections of its opponents. People are saying it’s – the Council of Europe is saying it’s a threat to democracy. Is the Secretary going to take this up with the Hungarians? Is there any concern that on this democracy trip she’s visiting a place that’s going in the wrong direction?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I’ll let Tomicah answer the second, but let me answer the first. On – with respect to Russia, we have had an ongoing discussion. We had a Russian bilateral a couple of weeks ago where this issue was raised. We don’t see eye-to-eye on this, and so one of the challenges, frankly, for us right now is to try to increase the dialogue with the Russians but also to make sure that we, with our Western European and Central European partners, are actually ramping up the pressure on the Lukashenko government because we’re not satisfied now with what we’re seeing.

QUESTION: Is Russia a member of the Council of Democracies?


DR. TILLEMANN: On the Lantos Institute, we’re obviously very aware of the concerns that have been expressed regarding the passage of the revisions to Hungary’s constitution. And it is precisely in that context that we feel it’s important to go and support the Lantos Institute, which is a place where all of Hungary’s mainstream political parties have come together and agreed on priorities, have agreed to work together to strengthen human rights, to strengthen democracy, and to strengthen the core values that should be the foundation of a pluralistic society.

QUESTION: Is the Secretary going to make any sort of personal representations to the Hungarian prime minister about this or to the party?

DR. TILLEMANN: I expect --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: She’ll be meeting with senior leadership of the Hungarian Government and will raise a range of these issues.


QUESTION: Can I ask you a question about your visit to Bahrain? What did you achieve with your meetings? And also on Syria, how far did you go to consider the violence in Syria and to equate it to a crime against humanity, or are you going to refer it to the ICC? Can you tell us what you are doing on this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think this briefing is really about the Europe trip. I will say about Bahrain is, as I’ve done everywhere, I met with representatives of civil society across a broad spectrum. It is a place where there are very real pressures on civil society, so again, keeping with the theme of this briefing, it’s part of what we do when we travel anywhere.

I did a press conference in Bahrain. You can – it’s on our website. You can – it was quite extensive in what I said.

And on Syria, as you know, we continue to be gravely concerned about the escalating violence, very concerned about the deterioration of the humanitarian situation. We’re pressing hard and we will keep – it’s very much on our agenda.

QUESTION: Are you --

MS. FULTON: I think we – sorry.

MS. FULTON: We have time for about one more question. Do you have a follow-up? Or --

QUESTION: Yes. I mean, are you doing anything with all these YouTube images about the violence in Syria?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We are both addressing this diplomatically in every way we can. We’ve raised – we’ve made a number of public comments. But we’re also very concerned and working with the Turkish Government in terms of the humanitarian consequences. The situation is very serious. It’s getting more urgent every day and we are clearly calling on the government there to stop the violence. We’re very aware of the human cost of this, and we will continue to press.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. FULTON: Okay. Last question, Goyal.

QUESTION: Thank you. Sir, thank you, and welcome again. Since we met last time here, what is the change as far as human rights and democracy is concerned, let’s say the wave of freedom in the Middle East and also in Burma and in Sri Lanka? Also there is now – I don’t know whether you have concern or not with going on in India, I mean, in different directions, but because of corruption. And civil society is coming out because of corruption and black market money and all that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Maybe I can – I’d be glad to come back at some point and have the larger conversation. I will say with respect to this agenda that one of the things that’s so important to us, important to Secretary Clinton, is that we help empower and amplify local voices. Societies change from within, and a critical element of a sustainable democracy is that people have the right to speak their mind, to organize, to communicate on the internet, to meet in the public square. That’s what this agenda is all about: creating more opportunities for people to speak freely, to organize, to operate, and to challenge these violations wherever they occur.

QUESTION: And finally, is this good for the United States or is the U.S. ready to handle all these changes around the globe?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, we are doing our best, and I think we are responding appropriately. And again, the notion is that change occurs from within societies; we want to reinforce the agents of peaceful democratic change by giving them ample voice and ample opportunity to engage within their own society and have a stake in what happens.

DR. TILLEMANN: One last little point on that question. I think it’s precisely for that reason that it’s important to come together with other nations that share our values, share our commitment to democracy, and work together to find mechanisms for addressing some of these changes. And that’s one of the reasons why we view this as an important trip.

MS. FULTON: Okay, I’d like to thank our speakers for their time, and thank you for joining us today.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

PRN: 2011/1057