POMED Notes: “Threats to Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders Worldwide – Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Hearing”
On Thursday, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing on threats and restrictions faced by human rights defenders and civil society. Congressman James McGovern (D-MA) chaired the hearing. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) was also present. Panel one featured Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department, Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Tomicah Tilleman, Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies at the State Department. Panel two featured Brian Dooley, Director of the Human Rights Defenders Program at Human Rights First, Adotei Akwei, Managing Director of Government Relations at Amnesty International, Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director on the Latin America Working Group, and Lisa Davis, Senior Advisor for International Legal Affairs at Freedom House.
For the full text of the hearing, continue reading below, or click here for the PDF
Michael Posner commented on how the divide is between citizens who dare come together to engage in public dialogues and those that remain silent. The common thread of civil society groups is they work through peaceful means. The U.S. works with those that want peace. He said the Obama administration does not support specific parties, but the right of expression. They listen to civil society groups and said the U.S. government supports civil society through programs, such as the Embattled NGO Assistance Fund. He finished by saying they should stay the course and remain vigilant.
Tomicah Tilleman said that this is a moment of profound change between government and citizens. He mentioned that civil society groups support change and more than 50 governments have introduced or considered laws against civil society. He mentioned some changes that the State Department had made, such as Secretary of State Clinton’s new strategic dialogue with civil society that was launched last month and increased training to State Department personnel to interact with civil society.
Donald Steinberg began his testimony by talking about how growing restrictions on civil society was a disturbing trend. He said governments are trying to place draconian laws on civil society. Focusing on development, he said that it works better when it draws on people in civil society, as they are the “eyes, ears and conscience of their communities.”
He also commented on the importance of sustainable development, not just economic growth. With regards to USAID, he said the four things it was doing was creating and enforcing international norms, demanding government include civil society in monitoring programs, acting as an incubator for civil society organizations, and advocating for these groups and protecting them when the need arises.
Congressman James McGovern opened his remarks by expressing disappointment that the arms deal with Bahrain went through even though the situation in Bahrain is getting worse. Posner responded by saying that the decision to give arms was based on national security interests and admitted to a number of unresolved issues in Bahrain. He said that violence was a daily occurrence, but no items were given to the Ministry of the Interior which could be used for crowd control. He also said the U.S. government was pushing for greater accountability.
Congressman McGovern responded by saying that he was concerned that the providing of arms could send the wrong message to the Egyptian government. Posner responded by saying now is a critical time in Egypt and going forward the U.S. will stand with civil society groups. Congressman McGovern asked what the U.S. can do when there are new restrictions on civil society. Steinberg said the State Department is supporting groups on the ground through different ways, mentioning the Open Government Partnership as an example. Posner said they are mindful of restrictions, and reiterated it was important to listen to the people on the ground in the individual countries.
Congressman Keith Ellison said that he was concerned about Egypt and talked about increasing assistance and the NGO crisis. Congressman Ellison said he talked to an American who stayed in Egypt to face the judicial system and says he believes that standing and making the case that the NGOs aren’t doing anything wrong is important. Steinberg agreed that those groups did nothing wrong. Posner said that IRI, NDI and Freedom House were all in Egypt to “build democratic muscles” and the focus has to be on what goes on locally.
Congressman Ellison said that the U.S. must get out of its ideological comfort zone and must support groups it might not totally agree with. He asked what to do in countries that are starting from ground zero with little to no civil society. Stein said the once you get people together to talk, they quickly build their own organizations. Congressman McGovern closed the first panel by saying that he was worried that once countries received military or economic assistance the pressure to reform was off, citing the case of Bahrain.
In the second panel, Brian Dooley submitted testimony about what he considered the “best practices” of the U.S. mission abroad, praising the work of Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, while expressing concern of U.S. inaction in Bahrain and Egypt. Adotei Akwei discussed human rights violations in Ethiopia and pressed the U.S. to stand up against human rights abuses there. Lisa Haugaard testified about the situation in Latin America, while Lisa Davis talked about policy recommendations for the United States government.