Community of Democracies Working to Support Countries in Transition, Defend Civil Society
Press briefing with
Dr. Tomicah Tillemann
Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies,
Head of U.S. Delegation to the Community of Democracies Meeting
Ms. Maria Leissner
Ambassador for Democracy, Sweden
Mr. Suren Badral
Ambassador-at-Large to the Community of Democracies, Mongolia
Palais des Nations, Geneva
March 1, 2012
Dr. Tillemann: Good afternoon, and thank you all very much for being here.
We are here for, as was mentioned, a meeting of the Governing Council of the Community of Democracies. Over the last two years the Community of Democracies has really been transformed from a forum where democracies could get together into a platform for democracies to get things done. That transformation couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s occurred at a moment in history when we are in the midst of a great wave of democratization in North Africa and the Middle East and where there’s a tremendous interest in the principles and the practices that make up democracy. We are within the Community of Democracies working hard to support countries that are in the midst of promising transitions to democracy and also working to support and defend civil society around the world and assist them in their efforts to strengthen democratic norms and practices in the countries where they operate.
I’ll say just a few words about the activities of the Community of Democracies and a number of the initiatives that it’s pursuing, and then would be delighted to have Ambassador Badral and Ambassador Leissner speak a bit about the important roles that they are playing in the transformation of the organization and its activities going forward.
The Community of Democracies has refocused around two specific goals. The first is providing concrete support to countries that are in the midst of transitions, and this takes a variety of forms, from task forces that have been established to support transitions in Moldova and Tunisia to assistance with the issue of democracy education which is a key priority for Mongolia’s presidency, and the community has also been focused on providing support to civil society.
A series of five working groups have been established within the community on different thematic challenges. Canada, for example, leads a working group that has been extremely successful in coordinating efforts to stop laws that would have had a damaging effect on civil society and would have inhibited the ability of non-governmental organizations to carry out their work. We also have other working groups that are focused on promoting the rights of women in countries that are in the midst of transition, and a number of other efforts that are helping to advance these principles going forward.
Today we are very encouraged by a new item that has come up for discussion which is the topic of how the Community of Democracies can engage more effectively at the United Nations and with the UN Human Rights Council specifically. And a proposal from civil society which plays a critical role in the Community of Democracies has been put on the table that would allow for the creation of a working group within the community to align its efforts and activities with the activities of the Human Rights Council.
We’ve already seen some areas in which there is a harmonization including the issue of protecting the freedoms of association and assembly, and following the Community’s decision to engage very actively in this area the UN Human Rights Council has adopted a new mandate for a Special Rapporteur on the Freedoms of Association and Assembly which we viewed as a very positive step forward.
We would like to see more of that mutual reinforcement across different areas where the Community is engaged and where the Human Rights Council is engaged.
So we’re looking forward again to a very comprehensive discussion, concrete support to countries like Tunisia and Moldova that are participating in these task force initiatives, and we’re looking forward to developing new mechanisms for supporting civil society and aligning the work of the Community with the efforts that are underway here in Geneva at the Human Rights Council.
Let me ask Ambassador Badral in Mongolia’s capacity as President of the Community if you would be willing to say a few words about the organization and Mongolia’s priorities.
Ambassador Badral: Mongolia has taken over the presidency since last July. Since then we have put forward a number of priorities.
The top one is to develop the activities related to democracy education. We have already organized preparations for a number of activities. One would be international seminar in Ulaanbaatar.on the [education] about democracy jointly organized with UNESCO.
A second would be to organize regional Asia Pacific conference on education for democracy in India, jointly organized with the government of India.
A third would be as a mission of draft resolution to the United Nations General Assembly this fall on the [education] for democracy.
These are three activities that we have already established. Some are the basis, the foundations to proceed with another priority for Mongolia, to focus the activities of the Community on Asia. Asia has been a bit left over during the last few years but now under the chairmanship of Mongolia we are focusing on the Asia Pacific region. What we have done in this respect is to establish certain partnerships within the Asian countries that democratic to promote the democratic values throughout Asia, to strengthen those democracies that have been already in place. In this respect we are also working closely to engage a number of countries that are emerging as potential democratic countries like Kyrgyzstan and Burma.
The President of Mongolia is planning to visit Burma in April at the invitation of the President of that country. It is a bilateral visit, but at the same time we are going to meet the democratic position parties including Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. Our plan is to invite Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to the ministerial conference to be organized in Ulaanbaatar.next year in 2013 to come in person.
As we know in the past, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi wasn’t able to travel and we always used to send video message to the ministerial offices. But this time we are planning to bring her in person to Mongolia so that she can be representative in person in Mongolia to speak on behalf of democratic processes in Burma.
These are the activities and we are looking forward very much to proceed with our informed measures that we have taken upon since last July.
Dr. Tillemann: Thank you very much.
Ambassador Leissner has led the effort to reform the Community of Democracies and has played a critical role in the transformation of the organization. One of the key changes that has occurred out of that process is the creation of a new position of Secretary General of the Community of Democracies. In the coming months the Community will have a selection process to have its first Secretary General. And I will note totally parenthetically and coincidentally, that Ambassador Leissner was just nominated by Sweden to serve as Sweden’s nominee for the position of Secretary General of the Community of Democracies.
Ambassador Leissner: Thank you very much.
I was asked, or Sweden was asked a couple of years ago by the Lithuanian presidency of the Community of Democracy to take on the work for the Reform Working Group. The reason why was that Lithuania asked us why are there so few countries in, for example, Western Europe, active in the Community of Democracies? And when I searched my mind there were a number of things that we were not very happy with in the Community of Democracies and I told him exactly why. It’s not very well structured, it seems to lack institutionality, it’s not very much focused, it doesn’t have a clear mission statement, and I named a number of different items that we were not entirely happy with from the Swedish point of view which have held us back in our engagement.
Then of course it was quite difficult to say anything but yes when we were asked to lead the reform process.
As Dr. Tillemann said, we have during the last couple of, well more than a couple of years, during several years now we’ve seen a very interesting change and a window of opportunity globally when it comes to democracy. The earlier backlash against democracy, support and democracy promotion, has given way to a more nuanced understanding that when we, democracies want to support democracy, when we talk about democracy, we don’t prescribe one model. We prescribe certain principles but there is no single model of democracy. The Community is now a more pronounced inclusive organization. There are standards that you have to live up to. You have to earn your invitation to the ministerial meeting every two years, you have to earn your membership of the Governing Council. But there is an inclusivity that should not block countries from all over the world to participate.
We worked out a mission statement for the Community of Democracies, and let me quote. “The Community of Democracies seek to support democratic transition and consolidation worldwide and help bridge the gap between principles of democracy and universal human rights and practice.”
It is this gap, because there is no lack of speeches on the high principles of democracy and human rights. What is lacking is the respect, the living it, the implementation. This is where we hope to be able to make a difference, but in a slightly different way. We’re not a think tank. We’re not an organization with projects on the ground asking for contributions or projects and programs. We are primarily an engine for making the countries who participate work in a more coordinated way, become stronger because we support one another, and do things together and try to move the democracy agenda forward. I think that is our strength. It is the creation of democratic “we” that is the strength of the Community of Democracies.
This is also why it is now so interesting to be able to discuss also on invitation from the civil society representations active here in the network in Geneva to discuss how could the Community of Democracies create or have an impact on the work in the United Nations when it comes to democracy and human rights?
There is a Democracy Caucus already existing in the structure but it has until now primarily been about having formal meetings and not necessarily playing or coordinating [inaudible]. Exactly how this mechanism would work, it would of course be something entirely up to the representations in Geneva to work out how they best can work together. But the idea is that through the Community of Democracies there would be a common democratic voice in the United Nations and in other international organizations.
It is also with great pleasure I note that the United Nations itself has traveled quite a distance during the last three or four years when it comes to moving from looking at democracy as a value to using democracy as a norm. And the United Nations, Secretary General’s guidance note from 2009 on democracy is of course a very important document to use and to get inspiration from in the future work of the Community.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We can open it up for any questions if there are questions.
Media: I have a question. [Inaudible] from Kuwaiti [inaudible].
You mentioned the change in Tunisia and of course in several other countries through the last year. After this year, after one year we see now new governments, new assembly generals, most of them are majority [inaudible], and there is public opinion that [inaudible] the West would not support such countries because they are now Islam. Therefore, this is what’s said in the public opinion. And in addition to that, the Egyptian Prime Minister, for example, said last week the West promised us provincial aid in [inaudible], I don’t remember exactly how, but they didn’t [take] anything to support the democratic position in Egypt. If we put both these things together we doubt that the West are really interested in supporting the democracy process in the Middle East.
Dr. Tillemann: I can say just a few words on that. I think the most compelling response is to look at the concrete actions we’ve taken on the ground and the Community of Democracies just held a meeting of its Tunisia Task Force on the ground in Tunis with excellent participation and leadership from the Tunisian government; a representative of the Tunisian government is going to be with us this afternoon at the Governing Council to present a number of proposals that they have made to the task force and request assistance in specific areas. That assistance is being provided. The United States for its part has already set aside millions of dollars to facilitate the work of the task force and has set aside tens and tens of millions of dollars to support transitions in Tunisia and hundreds of millions around the region.
We provide hundreds of millions of dollars in economic assistance to the region. Egypt is one of the largest recipients of U.S. assistance of any country in the world. So I think the proof of our commitment is in our actions. Even at a time of austerity when many Americans are facing financial challenges of their own, we’re stepping up and demonstrating that we want this region to succeed and we want individuals in the region to be able to realize their full potential. I think that other members in the Community of Democracies, while I don’t want to speak on their behalf, by and large share that view and that commitment.
Ambassador Leissner: I would like to add a few personal words about your question on Islamic [parties]. Religious belief, faith, as the basis for a political party is something that we know very much about in my country. It has been a very valid source of political engagement for more than one party and is highly respected, and I would like to say on a personal note I believe that it’s actually a very good value base for a political party.
I don’t have any doubts that Islamist parties in the wake of the Arab Spring are going to be entirely respectful of democracies since they were indeed in the front lines asking for freedom. So there is no doubt, I believe, that in the future we will have less upset debates about this because if we look at all the world it is something extremely natural that we will find in each and every country.
Media: Boris [inaudible], local freelancer with bad hearing, especially when you all sit so far from me. So I am not sure —
I thought I read that you were calling this press conference because there was a two-day meeting of the Community of Democracy, and I did not get whether actually there is one, where, when, is it open to the media, what is the — I heard you speaking on that Community but not on the meeting.
A second question, I have bad news for you. I think there is another Community of Democracy which is called the United Nations, [inaudible] but still [inaudible] for the declaration of human rights and [inaudible] much bad will would be [inaudible] as we do in schools. So why don’t we create a Community of Democracy from the United Nations?
Dr. Tillemann: Both very good questions.
First on the issue of the meeting itself, this is a meeting of the Governing Council of the Community of Democracies. The Governing Council is made up of 27 countries and serves as the decision-making body of the Community of Democracies. The high level portion of that meeting just took place and the working sessions are about to begin. They’re going on down the hall a ways. They’re not open, the working sessions are not open to the press.
Media: Not even the low level meetings?
Dr. Tillemann: The working sessions are not. The high level sessions are open to the press, but it is going on today and then we have many of the working groups that are meeting tomorrow.
On your second question, at the founding of the Community of Democracies, Kofi Annan who was then the Secretary General of the United Nations came and strongly endorsed this initiative saying that he looks forward to the day when the Community of Democracies will no longer be needed and when the United Nations truly can function as a community of democracies. But until that time comes there is an urgent need for the Community of Democracies, especially within the United Nations. And ever since that time we’ve worked closely with the United Nations. We had a very senior representative from the United Nations at the high level meeting that just concluded of the Governing Council, and we see the UN as a critical body and vitally important and feel that the Community of Democracies can play a very useful role within the UN.
Media: [Inaudible] Agency. You said you don’t have any projects on the ground, but do you have any that [inaudible]? Any projects —
Ambassador Leissner: Projects on the ground not as an ordinary organization in its own name, but yes, projects on the ground meaning the type of cooperation, for example, that we had in the task forces that Tomicah Tillemann was talking about.
Dr. Tillemann: The task forces that we have established at the request of both the Moldovan government and the Tunisian government operate as a platform of sorts for coordinating democracy assistance in those countries, and they allow both governmental partners, and in each case there are about 20 governments participating in the task force, and critically important civil society partners to come together to hear requests from the local government, to identify projects that can be supported either on a bilateral basis or occasionally by pooling resources, and again as Maria indicated, this is not an organization such as UNDP that carries out its own activities with a big bureaucracy. But what it does provide is a very useful platform for orchestrating collaborative efforts between its members and participating countries.
We’re not currently engaged in Syria and the Community’s focus has been and I believe will remain on countries that are in the midst of promising transitions and are a little bit further down the road than is Syria. But it is certainly a, the area of democracy support is one where the community is very active and looks forward to engaging in any country that reaches a point where assistance is requested.
Media: I have a question about the cooperation with Libya. I had an interview with the Libyan Prime Minister yesterday and he told me that they are in need of cooperation with the West, especially in the democracy process and in many other fields. Do you think that it could be possible to cooperate with the Libyan government?
Dr. Tillemann: We certainly have a great deal of cooperation with the Libyan government on a bilateral basis and I think we are moving to a point where it will be possible to have more and more cooperation on a multilateral basis.
Media: Which fields exactly do you have cooperation on?
Dr. Tillemann: The U.S.?
Media: Not the U.S., the Community.
Dr. Tillemann: The Community at this point does not have programming in Libya. Hopefully we will get to a point where that’s possible soon.
Moderator: Thank you very much.