THE BLOG

Hilary's Fight for Freedom -- Her Crucial Legacy

03/01/2013 04:57 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2013

No U.S. secretary of state devoted as much energy, time and determination to encourage non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in many difficult and dangerous parts of the world to speak truth to power. Her actions in support of human rights, the building of democracy, the strengthening of the rule of law, and opposition to government-driven corruption, were remarkable.

As her successor, John Kerry, now starts traveling the world -- this week sees his first overseas trip to Europe -- it is vital that he continue to voice unequivocal support for the increasingly besieged NGOs in a rising number of countries.

Right now we are seeing authoritarian governments react harshly to the successes that civil society are registering in organizing mass public protests and promoting their causes. Accordingly, activists are confronting increasing barriers to their operational activity, curbs on their ability to undertake advocacy, restrictions on their ability to build contacts and communicate widely, and mounting difficulties in organizing meetings and public demonstrations. From Russia to Sri Lanka, the activists for freedom and against governmental abuse of office are under mounting attack.

Kerry needs to learn from Hilary's example. To illustrate -- on July 5, 2010, at a meeting with civil society leaders in Yerevan, Armenia, Clinton declared: "Democracy requires not just elections, but open dialogue, a free exchange of ideas, government transparency and accountability, and above all, an empowered citizenry, who constantly work together to make their country fairer, juster, healthier, and freer."

Tirelessly, Mrs. Clinton toured the developing world and Eastern and Central Europe to encourage civil society activists to speak truth to power and pledge U.S. support for their pro-democracy, human rights, anti-corruption agendas. She recognized that government threats against these non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and restrictions on their activities were rising as a direct result of the success of so many of the campaigns.

The former secretary of state's contribution in support of NGOs deserves to be recognized as one of her outstanding accomplishments in office. It provided enormous encouragement to activists in many countries where they are threatened on a daily basis. Her tireless efforts, often to the considerable discomfort of her government hosts overseas, improved the standing of the United States in much of the world.

She spoke passionately. For example, at an international conference in Poland in early July 2010, she recalled the heroes of the Solidarity Movement in the 1980s, and then she said:

Over the last six years, 50 governments have issued new restrictions against NGOs, and the list of countries where civil society faces resistance is growing longer. In Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, physical violence directed against individual activists has been used to intimidate and silence entire sectors of civil society. Last year, Ethiopia imposed a series of strict new rules on NGOs. Very few groups have been able to re-register under this new framework, particularly organizations working on sensitive issues like human rights. The Middle East and North Africa are home to a diverse collection of civil society groups. But too many governments in the region still resort to intimidation, questionable legal practices, restrictions on NGO registration, efforts to silence bloggers.

But Mrs. Clinton then said:

It is our responsibility to address this crisis. Some of the countries engaging in these behaviors still claim to be democracies because they have elections. But, as I have said before, democracy requires far more than an election. It has to be a 365-day-a-year commitment, by government and citizens alike, to live up to the fundamental values of democracy, and accept the responsibilities of self-government. Democracies don't fear their own people. They recognize that citizens must be free to come together to advocate and agitate, to remind those entrusted with governance that they derive their authority from the governed. Restrictions on these rights only demonstrate the fear of illegitimate rulers, the cowardice of those who deny their citizens the protections they deserve. An attack on civic activism and civil society is an attack on democracy.

The secretary announced the creation of a special fund to help to protect embattled NGOs, adding:

For the United States, supporting civil society groups is a critical part of our work to advance democracy. But it's not the only part. Our national security strategy reaffirms that democratic values are a cornerstone of our foreign policy. Over time, as President Obama has said, America's values have been our best national security asset.

Hilary Clinton's activities in this area will form a central part of her legacy in public office. Her efforts have helped to encourage many NGOs, who despite the tightening vice of governmental threats and restrictions, continue to wage their increasingly effective campaigns. Many of them are deeply grateful for the explicit encouragement that they received in recent times from government of the United States.