Press Conference in Maldives

James B. Steinberg
Deputy Secretary of State
The American Center
Male, Maldives
January 29, 2011

DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: Good afternoon, everybody. It's a great pleasure for me to be here. On behalf of Secretary of State Clinton, I want to express tremendous appreciation to the government and people of the Maldives for the warm welcome that I've received here. You know, I've heard a lot over the years about this beautiful country, but the chance to experience it first hand and to see the magnificent work that you're doing, the beautiful islands, the sea, and the vibrant society that you have here is a special treat for me, and I've been enormously impressed by what I've heard and seen during my short but really wonderful visit here. I hope this is the harbinger of many more visits by U.S. officials, and I'm grateful to the Embassy for the work that they've done in making this possible and their strong commitment to working with you.

I know and admire the enormous efforts you are making here to build a strong, vibrant, and tolerant democracy. You obviously face great challenges-as any new, emerging democracy does-but I am confident and have great belief in the efforts that you are making here. The local elections that you are going to be facing in just a few days are another important step in building that democracy, and we have confidence that they will be calm and respectful and help build towards greater engagement with the people here in this country and help you meet the challenges of making a democracy work where's there's good debate-lively debate-but also coming together in a spirit of compromise and focusing on the interests of all the people in the country to make progress in building a prosperous and stable society here in Maldives. It's important that I've had a chance to meet with your very able government officials-we have enormous respect for President Nasheed-and also with civil society. A hallmark of the leadership of Secretary Clinton is the importance we attach to civil society-to NGOs and other civil group-because we know that's the infrastructure that drives democracy. As important as elections are, having this kind of engagement of the citizenry makes democracy strong and vibrant, so we are strongly supportive of their efforts here.

I also want to pay tribute to the remarkable role that the Maldives play on the international stage. For such a small country in its early stages of economic and political development, you're admired around the world for your engagement in everything from the UN Human Rights Council to the remarkable work that you are doing on climate change, first in Copenhagen and now at the UNFCC conference in Cancun to your prominent role on the OIC and around the world. As our British friends say, if there's ever a country that punches above its weight, it's the Maldives.

We are proud to be your partner in so many of these different endeavors and look forward to working with you as you take on the chairmanship of SAARC and so many other important roles that you play regionally and internationally. We are proud to be your partner in dealing with some of the great challenges of our time, ranging from the problem of climate change to dealing with piracy (which is of enormous concern to all of us) to building a stable and tolerant society here in this country. You are an emerging model of a democratic and tolerant Muslim society that can have enormous influence in the thinking of countries around the world as you try to build this new model that we all respect. So, we are proud to be your partner and look forward to working with you closely on all these challenges going forward.

So, thank you for being here this afternoon and I'd be happy to take a few questions.

QUESTION: What are the core U.S. interests in the Maldives? Why does the U.S. perceive the Maldives despite its small size as being such an important partner?

DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: I think there are two different aspects to that. One is that we have some very practical interests in common-dealing with the challenge of climate change, dealing with the problem of piracy, dealing with security in this region-which are enormously important to us. So, we have practical things that we are working on together. But even more important is our deep conviction that democracy and freedom of expression and basic human rights are universal values and that they transcend culture and history and religion. And the model that the Maldives represents is demonstrating that even coming from a very different tradition and history, the people here aspire to the same goals that people around the world aspire to. [This] is a powerful symbol that this is not just an American ideal or a Western ideal but a universal idea. As I travel around the world and see the different ways in which different societies and cultures all see the value of democracy and human expression, to be able to point to this as such an important example is, I think, as important as the practical cooperation we do together.

Other questions?

QUESTION: When our constitution was drafted, if it included freedom of speech and of the media, it would have helped create a [unclear]. In the constitution we have now there are some areas where we are a little frail. I think the last person who spoke from the U.S. at this podium [Ambassador Butenis] also agreed that they will be looking into these things. So, have you done anything to understand what this problem is? Because unless some countries, some foreign powers, really go through this and bring it to the attention of the Parliament, I don't think they will correct it.

DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: I think that what's important is that we share experiences. When President Obama has talked about how we work together to build democracy and free societies, he said there's no single answer, there's no cookie cutter model, that each country has to find its own path based on these universal values. But what is valuable is the shared experiences and to talk about the challenges that we've faced, how we've tried to solve those problems and also how other democracies have tried to do it. I think we learn from each other and we recognize that you have to build the model that's unique to your own history and your own experience, but we can all learn from what's worked and what hasn't worked. It's that feeling of mutual respect and dialogue that allows us to say here's how we've done it and have you thought about these different choices. That's what we do as a government in terms of supporting your local organizations as you engage in a debate about your path forward. What's important is that we have a chance to explain our views, but we also recognize that democracy is not something we impose. It's something we try to share with others.

QUESTION: I think it's better that I explain why I mention this repeatedly. For example, the New York Times published an article not formulated by them. It is based on our original source which was published three years ago and no one has gone and complained in the court that this was a wrong statement or wrong report. So, when the New York Times published that report, I published a translation of it. But now I'm here in a court case.... After that, whether the media here agree or not, the media is afraid of writing certain things. They know it is true. So, somehow we need this [media] freedom.

DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: Well. I can't comment on this specific case as you can imagine. But I do think it's important and we obviously believe that the media plays an especially important role because democracy cannot survive and thrive without an open media that has a chance to express different views, to have a vigorous debate, to reflect different ideas, and to have the freedom to have those ideas exposed. And so it's been at the core of our own experience. It's why our First Amendment to our Constitution has to do with freedom of expression and freedom of the press. It's a central role, it's the oxygen of democracy. And so again, without commenting on specific cases, you can be sure that the United States is a partner and a friend and an advocate for the central role that you all play in making this democracy possible.

QUESTION: You said you had discussions with government officials as well as the President. What were the main issues that you discussed regarding the elections or any other issues or concerns?

DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: Thank you. We had a really comprehensive set of discussions. I met with the President and some of his advisors last night over dinner and then I met with members of the Cabinet again this morning. We talked about the full range of issues from the challenges of economic development and creating a good climate for jobs and investment here to the opportunities for building a strong social welfare system, strengthening education and creating good educational opportunities especially for people to have exposure beyond this country itself. And we will explore possible ways we can strengthen education exchanges and dialogue between United States and the Maldives. We talked about the challenges of extremism in this country and how we can work to help strengthen tolerance in the Maldives. We talked about problems of piracy. We talked at length about the problems of climate change and the enormous importance of what was just achieved in Cancun and the critical role that the Maldives played in helping to make that possible. So, we really had a very far-ranging set of conversations, and it help me understand better the challenges that you face, how you are trying to build a democracy, how in these early stages you need to find ways in which the parties can compete vigorously and yet come together and compromise and help advance the welfare of the citizens here, and again how the United Sates can help as a partner both bilaterally and through our work in international organizations to work together. We talked about security challenges. I had a chance to review the visit of Admiral Willard here, my own visit to PACOM before I came out to the region, and the opportunities to cooperate with you on maritime security issues. So, it is really a broad-ranging set of relationships. And I‘ve been very impressed during this visit just how broad-ranging those connections are, and I look forward to exploring how we can do more in the future.

QUESTION: Do you have any advice for the upcoming elections for the parties?

DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: I think as in all democracies this should be a vigorous but respectful debate in which people focus on ideas and recognize at the end of the day that-whoever wins and whoever loses the elections-you need to come together to take into account the interest of the people to find ways to govern. We have a very vigorous political debate in our own country (sometimes you win and sometimes you lose), but we recognize that we all have responsibility to look for common ground, to look for compromise, to look for ways to solve problems. And, you know, I've been impressed in just a short period of time that democracy has been taking root here, that you've made real progress, that your Majlis can move forward and I hope that it will continue to do so And these new local councils will help advance the welfare of the people here in this country.

QUESTION: You mentioned freedom of speech and the media--"the oxygen of democracy" you called it-but even the US has been criticized in its procedure to Julian Assange over Wikileaks. Do you think there is some kind of balance between freedom of speech and responsibility or how far does it go?

DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: I think the issue on Wikileaks has to do with our legitimate interest in protecting the confidentiality of some of the conversations that we have, not least of which because of our concern about human rights. When we talk in countries to people we want to be engaged with, people sometimes who are persecuted in those countries, and find out their perspectives (as I said we place high emphasis on engaging with civil society and unlike here where I can meet freely with representatives of civil society, there are other countries, much more repressive countries, where we have to meet in confidence to learn about the challenges they really face), those people take great risk to meet with us and share their ideas and there is a responsibility to protect all those confidences. And so, as the Secretary has said at great length, there is an appropriate place for confidentiality in government deliberations. But we also believe in the maximum openness that can be achieved consistently. And that's an approach that has been a hallmark of the American way. We have a strong commitment to freedom of information. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have worked very hard to reduce our reliance on classified information, so that is very important to us. And, as you know, the Secretary has also spoken out on internet freedom and the importance of the new media and that's been important to us as well. So we don't see that there is a conflict there; it is a recognition that there are different functions that have to be played, there is a balance that has to be addressed and that's what we are trying to do.

QUESTION: Some comments by the World Bank that were recently published were not very much in favor of our economic policies. So do you think our economic policies are going in the right direction?

DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: First, the World Bank has its own decision-making processes and it is an international organization not an American organization notwithstanding the very good service of my predecessor, former Deputy Secretary of State Bob Zoellick. I would say that there are challenges ahead. You have an economy which has made impressive strides. If you look at the progressive growth of per capita GDP here, it's quite impressive. You've come a long way and that's something you should be proud of, but there are challenges to make your economy more vibrant, more resilient to the global economy, to make it a more attractive home for investment, to deal with the challenges of rule of law and to make this a place where you can sustain economic opportunity for your people. Working with World Bank, working with the ADB and working with our own agencies, we want to help support your effort. I had a chance to meet with the finance minister and talk about the economy this morning to learn about some of the efforts that you are making here. And yes, there are challenges going ahead-we all face those challenges-but I think through deeper engagement, the efforts you've made to increase the involvement of the private sector and to built public private partnerships here are all impressive steps forward and we look forward to working with you to take that to the next level.

QUESTION: Two weeks after the UN elected the Maldives to a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, the U.S. State Department put the Maldives on the tier 2 watch list for human trafficking. Has there been any engagement between the Maldives and the U.S. State Department with regards to tackling this problem?

DEPUTY SECRETARY STEINBERG: We have. And I had a chance to discuss this with ministers this morning and with other officials. We recognize their challenges, particularly the elements of trafficking that have to do with labor and making sure that people who are seeking economic opportunity are not exploited or taking advantage of or coerced. This region frankly has particular challenges in dealing with forced labor and related issues on trafficking. What we are looking forward to with the government here is a road map on the way forward. We recognize as with any emerging economy that there are particular challenges, but if we can make step-by-step progress then we have a chance to move forward. The point of the watch list is not to punish but to indicate that there is an area of concern and to try to motivate efforts to go forward, and we want to do this in partnership with the government here.

Thank you all very much and again my great appreciation to all and to the people here for making such a successful visit, and I sure hope I have a chance to come back.