Remarks at the Community of Democracies Ministerial

William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
April 29, 2013

Good Morning. President Elbegdorj, Foreign Minister Bold -- thank you for hosting this ministerial and for your superb leadership of the Community of Democracies. I also want to thank the Community of Democracies’ first Secretary General Ambassador Maria Leissner and her team for their excellent work to advance the principles on which this organization is founded.

I’d first like to read a message from President Obama to this important gathering of the Community of Democracies, and then add a few brief comments:

I want to thank President Elbegdorj and people of Mongolia for your committed leadership of the Community of Democracies. Along with everyone gathered in Ulaanbaatar, you have helped transform the Community from a forum where democracies get together into a platform for democracies to get things done.

In our interconnected world, new technologies and tools for activism are remaking the relationship between citizens and governments. That’s why it’s so important to build the infrastructure, like the Community of Democracies and the Asia Democracy Network, to support collaboration between democracies and civil society. And it’s why we need leaders in every sector, but especially diplomats, to help us expand that cooperation. The Community of Democracies is already providing a platform for exchanging ideas with some of the world’s newest democracies. Through working groups, task forces in Moldova and Tunisia, and the LEND Network, you’re strengthening the next generation of democratic leaders, empowering women, and standing up for civil society. This is the sturdy foundation on which we need to build together.

Our nations go forward together, knowing that the work of building democracy isn’t easy. The gains can at times be incremental, and the job is never truly finished. It falls to every generation to build on the work of our predecessors and to leave our children societies that are more just and equitable, where their rights and dignity are respected. As you continue this noble work, you will have a friend and partner in the United States.

It is an honor for me to be here in Ulaanbaatar, a very fitting setting for a very significant meeting to promote our shared interest in vibrant democracies and civil societies. The preamble to the Mongolian constitution affirms the Mongolian people’s aspiration to develop “a humane, civil, [and] democratic society.” This is a worthy and universal aspiration.

The calls for dignity, freedom, and democracy we have heard from Tunis to Sana’a are no different from those we heard two decades ago in Warsaw or Ulaanbaatar. This ministerial is a testament to how far democracy and the Community have come in so many different parts of the world.

Look at Asia. A region long claimed by some to be ill suited for democracy, Asia today is home to India and Indonesia, the first and third-largest democracies in the world, and to democratic success stories stretching from Timor Leste to the Republic of Korea.

And right now, we are witnessing encouraging signs of a democratic opening in Burma. After decades under one of the continent’s most repressive regimes, Burma has undertaken promising new reforms that have resulted in the release of political prisoners, the registration of opposition political parties, and elections that sent one of democracy’s genuine heroes, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to parliament and to the Community of Democracies Ministerial today.

At our last ministerial, the Community heard your call to support democracy in Burma. Today, we are honored by your presence, and we reaffirm our support for democratic reform in your country.

There are no regions, and no regimes, exempted from the obligation to be accountable to their citizens and respect their rights. The promise of stability, when based on the denial of human dignity and universal rights, is a false promise. When governments clamp down on political expression, violate human rights, and fail to provide economic opportunity, they sow the seeds of their own downfall.

That is one of the reasons why advancing democracy is not only the right thing to do – it is also the smart thing to do. Democracies make for stronger and more stable economic, political, and security partners. And, as President Obama emphasized, the world needs the Community of Democracies to stand shoulder to shoulder with the hundreds of millions of people around the world who are working on behalf of more transparent, accountable and responsive governments.

To do this effectively, the Community of Democracies needs to become better at learning, networking, and taking concrete action.

First, we know that the world’s most oppressive regimes are effective at sharing best practices in repression – from the use of regulation to suffocate civil society, to censorship of online expression. Democracies need to innovate and learn more quickly from one another and share best practices for advancing open and representative government – not just with each other but with societies in transition and under repression. The Community of Democracies is the obvious platform for gathering and transmitting these lessons.

Second, we need to build new networks among our democracies to advance this goal. The information revolution provides new tools to connect citizens with each other and their governments. We need to harness the potential of this phenomenon to cultivate new ideas and new solutions.

Finally, the Community of Democracies needs to continue its transformation into a body of action.

In the two years since our last ministerial meeting in Lithuania, we have made significant progress on all three counts. We have enacted far-reaching reforms and remade our institutional architecture and governance. We have established a Governing Council that is truly democratic, enabling the organization to make tough decisions, including the suspension of countries where democracy has seriously faltered. We have launched a series of initiatives -- including the LEND Network – to provide on-demand democracy support to countries in transition. And we organized working groups to tackle critical issues such as combating threats to civil society, empowering women, and supporting democracy education.

We need to sustain this momentum. Our citizens and circumstances demand that we do more and go farther. Let us come together to meet this challenge and in so doing continue to offer people around the world the opportunity to one day see their nations join the community of democracies.

Thank you.