BY Advocate.com Editors
December 14 2009 4:30 PM ET
Six weeks ago, in Morocco, I met with civil society activists from across the Middle East and North Africa. They exemplify how lasting change comes from within. How it depends on activists who create the space in which engaged citizens and civil society can build the foundations for rights-respecting development and democracy.
Outside governments and global civil society cannot impose change, but we can promote and bolster it.
We can encourage and provide support for local grassroots leaders: providing a lifeline of protection to human rights and democracy activists when they get in trouble—as they often do—for raising sensitive issues and voicing dissent. This means using tools like our Global Human Rights Defenders Fund, which in the last year has provided targeted legal and relocation assistance to 170 human rights defenders around the world.
We can stand with them publicly—as we have by sending high-level diplomatic missions to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, and as I have done around the world from Guatemala to Kenya to Egypt to speak out for civil society and political leaders and to work backchannels to push for the safety of dissidents and protect them from persecution.
We can amplify the voices of activists and advocates working on these issues by shining a spotlight on their progress —so often courageously pursued in isolation—and by endorsing the legitimacy of their efforts. We can recognize their efforts with honors like the Women of Courage awards that First Lady Michelle Obama and I presented earlier this year and the Human Rights Defenders award I will present next month, and we can applaud others like Vital Voices, the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights, and the Lantos Foundation, that do the same.
We can give them access to public forums that lend visibility to their ideas, and continue to press for a role for non-governmental organizations in multilateral institutions like the United Nations and the OSCE. We can enlist other allies like international labor unions who were instrumental in the Solidarity movement in Poland or religious organizations like those championing the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa.
We can help change agents to gain access to and share information through the Internet and mobile phones so that they can communicate and organize. With camera phones and facebook pages, thousands of protestors in Iran have broadcast their demands for rights denied, creating a record for all the world, including Iran’s leaders, to see. I’ve established a special unit inside the State Department to use technology for 21st century statecraft.
In virtually every country I visit – from Indonesia to Iraq to South Korea to the Dominican Republic -- I conduct a town hall or roundtable discussion with groups outside of government to learn from them, and to provide a platform for their voices, ideas, and opinions. When I was in Russia I visited an independent radio station to give an interview, and to express through word and deed our support for independent media at a time when free expression is under threat.
On my visits to China, I have made a point of meeting with women activists. The U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 inspired a generation of women civil society leaders who have become rights defenders for today’s China. In 1998, I met a small group of lawyers in a crowded apartment on the fifth floor of a walk-up building, who described their efforts to win rights for women to own property, have a say in marriage and divorce, and be treated as equal citizens.