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Breaking the "Steel Vise:" U.S. Government Support for Civil Society

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Over the weekend at the Community of Democracies conference in Krakow, Poland, Secretary of State Clinton made an important speech that set out in unambiguous terms the U.S. government's support for independent civil society. She noted that it -- together with representative government and a well-functioning market economy -- is a vital part of the "three essential elements of a free nation" and is necessary for any country to progress in the 21st century.

The forthright tone of Secretary Clinton's remarks was in welcome contrast to some of the administration's earlier and more equivocal statements about human rights and democracy. She described the disturbing trend of increasing numbers of countries that are tightening restrictions on the activities of independent civil society organizations, as well as intensifying harassment and persecution of civil society activists. She likened this process to a "steel vise in which many governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit." She even prefaced this remark by referring to the iron curtain. It was particularly welcome to hear the Secretary describe these restrictions as a challenge to democracies presented by the idea that "people are subservient to their government, rather than government being subservient to their people," and to identify them as "an assault on one of our fundamental democratic values."

Now that the administration has a clear policy on supporting independent civil society, the real challenge will come in implementing it. What can the U.S. government do in practical terms to reverse the damaging trend that Secretary Clinton so eloquently discussed?

For example, in Russia, there can be no doubt that the unresolved killing of leading activists like Anna Politkovskaya and Natasha Estemirova has had a chilling impact on the activities of independent civil society organizations. Nonetheless, independent civil society organizations in Russia continue to operate in an atmosphere of intimidation, physical violence and official harassment. In fact, Russian authorities have just announced the prosecution Oleg Orlov, the head of Estemirova's organization, Memorial, on charges of "spreading false information."

In Egypt, civil society operates at the whim of the authorities with no legal protection for basic rights to freedom of expression or assembly. To register under Egypt's restrictive laws of association is to give up organizational independence and submit to intrusive government powers.

These harsh realities are typical of the challenges faced by civil society activists, especially those who criticize government policies in sensitive areas like human rights in an increasing number of countries.

The measures announced by Secretary Clinton in Krakow are a step in the right direction. They promise action in the rights areas, including at the United Nations and within regional human rights institutions. They also noted the development of a new independent mechanism for measuring repressive measures against NGOs.

The real challenge will come as Secretary Clinton, President Obama and other senior U.S. officials conduct business with countries in which independent civil society activists are facing repression. Many of these nations are close U.S. allies and partners. Will the Secretary make the same commitments she made before a friendly audience in Krakow when she is in Moscow, Cairo or Beijing? Will she do it publicly, so that beleaguered activists and people in the societies where they work can hear it? Are U.S. officials prepared to make the case for the importance of independent civil society even when to do so will irritate their hosts?

Independent civil society activists around the world are waiting to be convinced by this administration's stated commitment to human rights. They are hoping that the Krakow speech is a sign of better things to come, but only time will tell.

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