Governments should view civil society not as a threat but as an asset, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today.
The authoritarian backlash against independent civil society groups was not only a violation of fundamental freedoms and international norms. Each time a journalist is silenced or an activist arrested, “it doesn’t strengthen a government, it weakens a nation,” she told a Global Town Hall (above) with civil society representatives from more than 40 countries.
A genuine democracy is like a three-legged stool, she said. One leg is responsive, accountable government; the second leg a dynamic, job-creating private sector, and the third leg a robust and vibrant civil society. It is in civil society that we live our lives, practice our faiths, and engage in what Alexis de Tocqueville called the habits of the heart.
Civil society’s work “has never been more important,” Clinton told today’s meeting at the State Department’s Harry S. Truman Building in Washington.
The Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society 2012 Summit is a reflection of the increasingly important role that non-governmental organizations – from labor unions to religious groups – are playing in global affairs, said Tomicah Tillemann, Clinton’s Senior Advisor on Civil Society and Emerging Democracies.
“We are seeing a renegotiation of many of the power relationships that have historically defined interaction between governments and citizens,” he said. “The emergence of civil society as a defining force in international relations is part of that transformation. We want to make sure that State Department and the United States are keeping abreast of that change.”
The Dialogue’s working groups – democracy and human rights, governance and accountability, labor, religion and foreign policy, and women’s empowerment – report to a Federal Advisory Committee that meets quarterly to review progress and recommend policy action.
“We’ve recognized that civil society organizations are not only influencing the agenda on these issues, they’re defining the agenda,” said Dr. Tillemann.
The State Department will establish Embassy Working Groups to engage local civil society groups around the world, Clinton said today. She also gave a commitment that the department will accept and act on all eight of the policy recommendations emerging from the Strategic Dialogue, specifically to:
- Facilitate diplomatic engagement with religious communities through more training and guidance for State Department officials;
- Build awareness for women’s rights in countries undergoing transition and work closely with MENA civil society groups and governments to ensure women’s rights are enshrined in new constitutions and protected in practice;
- Institutionalize a platform for dialogue with representatives from labor and business groups at G-20 Summits;
- Develop new opportunities for south-south cooperation on labor issues [an issue promoted by the Washington-based Solidarity Center*]; and
- Establish mission-based civil society working groups within the Dialogue to address issues of local and regional importance.
“We focus primarily on policy and how we can make changes in the way we do business that will help civil society organizations be more effective in their work,” said Dr. Tillemann. “We will be working to institutionalize forums for collaboration at the G-20 and other international multi-lateral meetings.”
*ACILS is a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.