For Immediate Release: February 21, 2011
Washington, DC – On the one-year anniversary of the 2010 Washington Human Rights Summit, Human Rights First, Freedom House, the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy, the Indonesian Human Rights Working Group and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies call for renewed efforts by governments to combat restrictions to the fundamental freedoms of association and expression and to support those calling for human rights and basic freedoms around the world.
For the past five years, Human Rights First has closely followed and worked to address serious declines in political rights and civil liberties, especially freedom of expression and association. Recent events in Tunisia and Egypt may signal a turning point in this disturbing trend, marked by the use of violence to suppress peaceful demonstrations for political reform in Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Libya and Yemen; as well as a post-election crackdown in Belarus and efforts by influential authoritarian regimes like Venezuela, China and Russia to further restrict space for civil society.
“The momentous events in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing demonstrations throughout much of the Middle East demonstrate the degree to which individuals from every region of the world have come to recognize their rights to be heard as universal,” said Paula Schriefer, director of advocacy at Freedom House. “Sadly, freedom of expression and association–the cornerstones of accountable, democratic governance–have been the greatest victims of backsliding we have seen globally.”
One year ago, the 2010 Washington Human Rights Summit was convened to call attention to growing restrictions on freedom of expression and association and to stimulate a forward-looking vision for U.S. foreign policy, multilateral institutions, and the international community to address these challenges. Together with more than thirty leading human rights activists and front-line defenders from throughout the world, the participants laid out a Plan of Action for all governments and with particular recommendations for the United States, as the world’s most powerful democracy. Human rights defenders from 23 countries met with President Obama at the White House on February 19 to directly convey these recommendations.
“We are pleased that over the course of the last year the Obama Administration has found a stronger voice in its support for human rights both through its public rhetoric and through initiatives like the global internet freedom fund, the creation of an embattled civil society fund, and its new strategic dialogue with civil society,” said Neil Hicks, of Human Rights First. “However, recent events in the Middle East show us that the U.S. government must be more proactive and consistent in supporting the legitimate demands of people living under repressive governments for their basic rights and freedoms, despite other strategic priorities. True stability and security for the Middle East and for the United States lies in the principled, smart and consistent promotion of human rights ‘everywhere,’ as President Obama promised in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009.”
The United States has taken notable steps over the past year in its defense of freedom of expression and association. Speeches by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the importance of civil society and Internet freedom have been matched by funding initiatives to these sectors. The United States was also instrumental in the creation of a special mandate for freedom of association at the United Nations Human Rights Council and last week Secretary Clinton initiated a strategic dialogue with civil society. However, the United States was criticized for cutting funding over the past few years to Egyptian civil society organizations.
“Going forward, American support for the role of independent civil society in democratization processes now under way in Egypt and throughout the Middle East will be critical, not only for regaining credibility in the eyes of the people, but for the success of democratic reforms as well,” said Bahey Eddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “Among other things, we call on the United States to increase levels of foreign assistance to this sector—without interference by the Egyptian government—and to insist that civil society organizations, and human right groups in particular, are fully involved in bilateral dialogues between the U.S. government and the Egyptian authorities.”