Remarks to Open Government Partnership Annual Summit

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
October 31, 2013

MODERATOR: Wonderful. Thank you very much. I’m delighted to say that we are now joined by the Honorable John F. Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, in a live link to Washington.

It’s good to have you, Secretary of State. How are you?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m fine, thank you. I’m glad to be with you.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We were just beginning with William Hague talking about the commitment to OGP on behalf of the British Government. Could you tell us in terms of your own reflections on why OGP is so important an initiative?

SECRETARY KERRY: Sure, and I’d be happy to. But let me just begin by saying hello to William and what a pleasure it is to be with him and with all of you. And I want him to know that he persuaded me. I was sitting here listening to him and it sounded great.

Do you want me just to share some thoughts with you?

MODERATOR: Yeah, why not?

SECRETARY KERRY: Way to go, William. Thank you. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: Yeah. Go ahead.

SECRETARY KERRY: All right. Well, first of all, let me just start by saying that there are about 20 reasons why I wish I could be there with you in London right now, and those are all of my meetings here today. But obviously, I’m not. I’m glad we’re represented there at the meeting. But I just want to start by thanking Foreign Secretary Hague for the British Government’s tremendous leadership on this front. I mean, really, between the G8 and the U.S. process on the post-2015 development agenda, as well as in the Open Government Partnership, our friends in Great Britain have really been extraordinary leaders on this.

And so from the President on down including (inaudible) Ambassador Power at the UN and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and myself, we are deeply committed to the mission of the OGP. And for us, I think, much as William was describing to everybody a moment ago, the reasons for our support ought to be – and embrace of everything that this stands for, ought to be self-evident. It’s very hard to overstate the impact that civil society has had on our structure of government and who we are and what we do.

The fact is that in the United States, in Great Britain, in countries like ours, people have the freedom to assemble, the freedom to speak out, the freedom to organize, to call for government change. And in our countries, both of our countries, the media holds extraordinary power and extraordinary freedom and ability to be able to shape thinking, and people. Individual people, through their own individual organizing efforts or through the nongovernmental organizations that they choose to become part of, all have this freedom to be able to shape the media – to have an impact through the media.

So here in our country, I’ll tell you that’s something I grew up with starting in my early years in college, and even before President Kennedy was elected in 1960 – his first political event I took part in. I’ve watched these forces shape our lives. We had the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s when we were all students. We had the Women’s Rights Movement that struck out for women’s equality and has really transformed our nation. We had the labor movement. Almost every single movement towards progress – the peace movement – all of these have had a profound impact and they’ve all been grassroots homegrown because we have this ability to throw our ideas on the table.

And I think – I spent a couple of years when I came back from being involved in the war in Vietnam, and I spent a couple of years organizing and working to end the war. And one of the lessons that came out to me through that was, therefore, how important it is for government to be accountable. That was a period of time when government regrettably lied to the people it represented. And those lies saw us involved in a war that was wrongful and inappropriate.

So I also took part in the first ever Earth Day here in the United States, and I was an organizer in Massachusetts at the grassroots level. And we had 20 million people come out of their homes free to make their feelings heard, and they had a profound impact on our country because after the 1970 movement that brought those 20 million people out, they didn’t stop there. They translated that into political activity that targeted the worst votes in Congress and organized to defeat them. And they did defeat seven of the 12 so-called “dirty dozen” worst votes on the environment. And that ignited a legislative response that produced the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and actually created the Environmental Protection Agency that we have in the United States today that is busy trying to deal with climate change and other pressing issues.

So the bottom line is very simple, that those of us who came out of that period – Vice President Biden, myself, and others – believe very strongly that this kind of effort, the civil society effort, is what creates a farm system for future leadership. And you can see it with Lech Walesa, you can see with Vaclav Havel, you can see it even with Barack Obama, President of the United States, who was himself a community organizer at the beginning of his public engagement.

So look, we think that it’s a remarkable achievement that in the two years since the OGP was founded, the initial list of eight participating countries has now grown to include more than 60 countries. And from Brazil to Turkey to Liberia, more and more countries are passing laws that are guaranteeing citizens the right to information. And at the State Department, we are using our ongoing strategic dialogue with civil society to bring new ideas to the table. And we have a new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, and that’s a direct result of an idea that came out of that dialogue.

And so our hope is that through this work of the OGP, we can all maximize this notion that we live in this globalized, interconnected world. And President Obama issued a challenge at the UN recently to commit to spending the next 12 months working together to make concrete progress in these areas.

So I don’t want to go on and on. I know you want to have a little more of a dialogue here.

MODERATOR: We do. Yep.

SECRETARY KERRY: But I just wanted to emphasize how committed we are to this. We all – as President Obama said, as other countries back down, we have a responsibility to step up and we need to do it together. And I think that’s what’s important.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much indeed, Secretary of State, for your time. I know you’re very busy, but we enjoyed having your inputs here and raised some very important points.

I’d like to go to Aruna Roy next, because as John Kerry was mentioning there, the importance of civil society groups working at a grassroots level is incredibly important, and that’s what you do in rural India. There is the perception somehow that in places like rural India, the whole idea of open government is not important. Is that the case?

MS. ROY: Well, we’ve had a lot of humor to begin with this evening, so I’d like to say that when we went to civil service institution, some colleagues of mine and I, and we were presented as civil society members, many of them were deeply upset and they said, “Do you think we are uncivil?” (Laughter.) So I think civil society itself has to be unpacked. And the people who live in rural India are intelligent people. Like Urmo said, ordinary people are intelligent. They are bright. We don’t listen to them. And we have Gandhi. Gandhi traveled all of India, listened to people, and that’s how the national movement for independence really originated, and civil disobedience (inaudible). Listening to human beings whom we dismiss as ordinary is part of the Indian culture.

So Indian – rural India, which really suffers the worst of the worst of Indian democracy, is where democracy is most alive. That’s where they want to set it right. They don’t want – they do protest, they do struggle. And those photographs we saw on the screen are, of course, typical photographs, but it doesn’t end there. They protest to create something, to make something, to make – they don’t want violence, they don’t want to beat up somebody. But they do want their bread. They do want their health services. So it was through that – this kind of protest that the right to information campaign was actually born. And we do think that their voices were really very strong. And they created the kind of discomfort that’s necessary that we talked about this morning. There was a lot of discomfort, there were many people who thought it was terrible, but the dialogue began, which has ended here in a sense.

So the dialogue began between people, the civil servants, and the politicians. And it’s in that dialogue, through the course of the dialogue, and the dialectic, that there was protest and advocacy, that the concept of a free, transparent, working environment grew.

MODERATOR: Just very quickly to you first, William. And then also if you’d like, Secretary of State, how important – because one of the themes of OGP is about supporting or creating the space for civil society groups to function, because it is under threat. You look all around the world, whether it’s freedom of expression, freedom of the media – how important is that? You go first, William, and then if you’d like to comment afterwards, Secretary of State.

FOREIGN SECRETARY HAGUE: Well, it is – it’s hugely important, and I think that means it matters a great deal what example we set in our own countries. After all, we cannot change everything that happens in other countries in the world. But we can set a good example ourselves. We’ve learned to do that here in the UK with our own open government action plan, and my colleague Francis Maude, who’s done the most fantastic job in pursuing this whole agenda nationally and internationally. But the first time we did an open government action plan, I think civil society told us we hadn’t included civil society in it – quite forcefully, actually, I think. And so the second time we did it, they are very much part of the plan and part of the input into it.

So it’s very, very important in a country like ours, an extraordinarily free and open country. And I think if we set that example and we do so in other European countries and in America, well, then it leaves fewer excuses for other people in the world where it is – it can be even more important.

MODERATOR: Secretary of State?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I agree with that and I think the simple reality is that in a democracy, and particularly with the vibrancy of the social media today, you really have to be open. I mean, it seems to me we’re seeing a new accountability in a lot of places. What happened in Tahrir Square, the pace at which information moves and events unfold, is different from ever before.

I heard a story the other day. I was in Asia at the Asian summit, and one of the stories going around there was about how in one country – I’ll leave it unnamed – but in one country an official was caught on social media with a sort of white spot where his tan line was on his watch. And so there was no watch, but somebody realized he had been wearing one. So they went back and found some pictures and they found him with a different watch almost every day of the week, much more expensive than he could afford on his government salary. (Laughter.) And boom, they found, as a result, corruption and he lost his job among other things.

But so there’s a new policeman on the block, very different from the past, and that is this broad accountability to the people. But before that even existed, one of the fundamentals of our notions of how you govern is you’ve got to listen to people. And the White House has recently developed a new means of trying to tap into this, which is an online petition platform called “We the People.” And just in the last two years, more than 10 million users have generated more than 260,000 petitions on topics ranging from gun violence to how you unlock a cell phone. (Laughter.) It’s pretty amazing.

And one of the virtues of this – and I think William will agree with me – is those of us in government in positions like I have, we come and we go. I’m here, if I don’t screw up, for another few years. (Laughter.) But there are a lot of groups out there that have a lifetime expertise built up advocating for the environment, or for children, or for one thing or another. And we need that input because they will have much better information in many cases in a more grassroots people-based view than somebody who may come in and out of government. And the whole purpose really is to listen to people and build on that experience. So it’s invaluable. Absolutely invaluable.

MODERATOR: We like your honestly, Secretary of State. I wish I could tease out the name of the country that – of the story you were saying earlier. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think if you Googled it, you’ll find it. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: I’d like to come to Mo Ibrahim, if I may. And Mo, you and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation have been very involved at looking at good governance and exceptional leadership in Africa, well-known for your work and the work of the foundation on that. I want to talk about two things: business, and the importance of business and business leadership in this whole issue of OGP, and particularly in terms of transparency. And what does the Open Government Partnership need to do in order to continue raising the bar in terms of commitments and on towards sustaining its progress?

MR. IBRAHIM: Right, just two tough questions.

MODERATOR: Two quick questions, I know.

MR. IBRAHIM: Right. And I’m really amazed by the absence of the business people from our group here. Businesses have a stake in open government. It’s important for the business, and business is also coming under extreme pressure from so many sides now. So we need to clean up their acts, and we have seen so many really sad incidents. Every day I open the newspaper, a bank has been fined a billion dollar, somebody been – it’s really tough what is going there.

So it’s time for business to show us really that they are good citizens. And that is something important for business to be here. There is no business people really joining our (inaudible) part of civil society, and open government is important for the business. And we really need to invite the business people. It’s not like they should be invited; they should knock at the door, actually. That’s as far as business.

As far as commitments, it’s too early yet. We only had two years now. We managed to produce the first reports on the – for the (inaudible) countries. I’m concerned about a number of things. First, for the credibility of this body, we need to produce really credible reports – country reports. And to produce country reports, we’ll have to hire research teams in each country to producing the reporting on each country commitment. That’s if we are serious about this. That was --

MODERATOR: That’s the independent reporting mechanism –

MR. IBRAHIM: That’s (inaudible) whatever of the – yes, of partnership. That needs money. It needs funding. And I’m very concerned about the state of the funding. The last time I looked at our account was a few days ago. I found something very strange. Civil society – actually four foundations – funded over $4 million. Sixty governments funded $1.6 million. And I can – to Secretary of State there, I’m not going to include you there because Britain done very well. You’ve done half of this 1.6. You are okay. (Laughter.)

But United States, I mean, contributed only $200,000. This compared with, I mean, $800,000 -- $600,000 from UK. I mean, UK hasn’t got three times the GDP of the United States. I mean, we know there’s some –

FOREIGN SECRETARY HAGUE: (Inaudible) when they started. (Laughter.)

MR. IBRAHIM: We know there have been issues – the Congress and the budget – but I think you’ve got some budget now. And you saved the ticket because you didn’t come here today to the meeting. (Laughter.) So you saved the ticket. So you really need – (laughter and applause).

SECRETARY KERRY: That might get you an additional 5,000. (Laughter.)

MR. IBRAHIM: Because, seriously--

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t think that’s the – I don’t think that’s going to (inaudible) my ticket does. (Laughter.) But let me announce something, if you will, because we’re very engaged in many, many parts of the world. I’m very proud. We may not give to every single entity that asks, but we’re giving literally hundreds of millions of dollars in these kinds of efforts, and I’m proud to say that no country in the world is putting as much money into developmental issues as we are every single year. So I don’t feel defensive about it.

But I am happy to tell you today that the United States – we’re announcing right here at this moment that we’re putting $2.5 million into a pilot anti-corruption project in West Africa. And it’s designed to facilitate collaboration between governments. So I think we are prepared to put the money up, but I’ll have to check into why the OGP isn’t getting more and I’ll find out. (Applause.)

MR. IBRAHIM: And actually – and really in fairness, I think about United States because I have the Secretary here and I love him, I’m a fan of him. (Laughter.) But really the truth has – we have to be frank. Friends have to be frank with each other. But many governments really do not cough up. And this is not a free ride, and it’s unfair for civil society to bear the brunt of this and governments to have a free ride. So commitment means commitment, and we need you to do that in order for us to produce really credible reports and to really go forward. So that’s a big challenge for us, actually.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you very much. I wish we could go on and on, actually, but I know that William’s got a very tight deadline. Secretary of State, thank you very much indeed for joining us and giving us your time.

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s good to be with you.

MODERATOR: Much appreciated. (Applause.)

MS. ROY: I just want to ask him a question.

MODERATOR: Wait one second, we’ve got one more question from Aruna, Secretary of State.

MS. ROY: I just have a question which I want to ask both of you. The world has become much better place, there’s more transparency in governments, there’s more accountability. And at the same time, there are more restrictive laws being passed by all governments today than ever before, and there is an attempt at surveillance by my government and your governments. Why is this happening? I want to know. Because if we are going to become an open society, we should always trust each other, and we don’t have to spy or suspect or believe that the other one’s bad. (Applause.)

I trust you. I trust you. I believe that there is a social contract between the two of you and all of us that we will work in the interests of each other. It’s such a delicate balance that when it gets disrupted that it takes a lot of time to set it right. I’m not being critical negatively, but I really want the world to be a better place. And we’ve been building this trust – we call talk of trust deficits. We’ve been building it with so much care – me with my government, all my friends here with their governments. We want it to prosper.

FOREIGN SECRETARY HAGUE: John, that’s one for you, there. (Laughter and applause.)

MODERATOR: That wasn’t me. That was William. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t know, William. Does that mean that you guys have never or do never – no, I’m not going there. (Laughter.)

Can I just say to you – look, I’ll just answer you very quickly and I’ll answer you very directly. There is no question that the President and I and others in government have actually learned of some things that had been happening, in many ways, on an automatic pilot because the technology is there, the ability has been there, over the course of a long period of time, really going back to World War II and to the very difficult years of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, and then, of course, 9/11. The attack on the United States and the rise of radical extremism in the world that is hell-bent and determined to try to kill people and blow people up and attack governments – not just us, but the Tokyo subway, London train station, Madrid. Many, many, many parts of the world have been subject to these terrorist attacks. And in response to them, the United States and others came together – others, I emphasize to you – and realized that we’re dealing in a new world where people are willing to blow themselves up. I mean, walk into a building, or trucks, they’re willing to be filled with fertilizer and plant it outside a building and blow it up, no matter who’s in it.

And there are countless examples of this. Look at Nairobi the other day, where al-Shabaab goes into the Westgate mall and kills dozens, almost a hundred – more than a hundred, more than a hundred people innocently killed doing their shopping.

So what if you were able to intercept that and stop it before it happens? We have actually prevented airplanes from going down, buildings from being blown up, and people from being assassinated because we’ve been able to learn ahead of time of the plans. I assure you innocent people are not being abused in this process, but there’s an effort to try to gather information. And yes, in some cases, it has reached too far inappropriately. And the President, our President, is determined to try to clarify and make clear for people and is now doing a thorough review in order that nobody will have the sense of abuse.

But I want to assure you that (inaudible). Just the other day it was – there was news in the papers of 70 million people being listened to. No, they weren’t. It didn’t happen. There’s an enormous amount of exaggeration in this reporting from some reporters out there. What we’re trying to do is in a random way find ways of trying to learn if, in fact, there is a threat that we need to respond to. And in some cases, I acknowledge to you, as has the President, that some of these actions have reached too far, and we are going to make sure that does not happen in the future.

MS. ROY: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Secretary, thank you very much, indeed, for your time. Appreciate it very much. (Applause.) Thank you also to Foreign Secretary William Hague and to Aruna Roy and to Mo Ibrahim. Thank you very much.

PRN: 2013/1332