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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Harold Hongju Koh
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Address at Inaugural Conference of the Democracy Forum for East Asia
Seoul, Republic of Korea, July 13, 1999

Blue Bar rule

Building Democracy Together

President Kim Dalchoong, President Gershman, distinguished colleagues and friends: Thank you for inviting me to come home to Korea, a country that my parents left 50 years ago in search of democracy. This is my second visit to Korea since I became a U.S. government official last November. In my relatively short time in government service, I have had the privilege of traveling to nearly 25 countries: from Beijing to Bogota, from Jakarta to Budapest, from Belgrade to Bangkok. I came here to Seoul, yesterday, directly from Kosovo, where last week I witnessed destroyed homes, burned villages, and a people traumatized by unspeakable atrocities. Yet at the same time, in Kosovo's capital of Pristina, I saw inspiring seeds of hope: the beginnings of an extraordinary international effort, led by the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, non-governmental organizations, and the people of Kosovo themselves, to return a culture of democracy and human rights to that war-torn region.

Incredibly, only months after they had fled by the thousands to refugee camps around the world, with their lives apparently shattered, the people of Kosovo have largely returned home to rebuild their lives. As I walked down the streets of Kosovo, refugees were reopening restaurants, drinking coffee in street-side cafes, selling fruit, driving taxicabs, publishing newspapers, and reopening radio stations. Looking at the scene, of UN jeeps honking, street merchants yelling, and children laughing and playing, I marveled again at the indomitability of the human spirit-- the powerful will that drives all of us, even under the most dire circumstances--to rebuild our lives from the ashes in an effort to govern ourselves.

With these images of Kosovo still filling my head, I cannot tell you how much it means to me to return here to Korea--my family's homeland--to honor your own successful struggle to achieve democratic values. Coming here fills me with a sense of wonder and pride: the wonder of a child who saw his parents give up so much in their quest for democracy and the pride of a parent who can now show his American children how much their Korean relatives have achieved in the last half-century. I am sure that when my parents left this country 50 years ago, and watched from America while the Korean war left this country in a state painfully reminiscent of today's Kosovo, that they never dreamed that one day their son would return to a free and democratic Korea as the United States' Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

These personal ties make it my particular pleasure to be here at this, the first event organized by the Democracy Forum, an innovative and collaborative effort by the National Endowment for Democracy and the Sejong Institute, with the sponsorship of the Asia Foundation, the Korea Council of Citizens' Movement, and the Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper. One of my very first acts as a government official last fall was to join the planning for this event, and I was thrilled and honored last November, when only days after I was formally sworn in to my new job, I accompanied President Clinton here for his announcement, with President Kim Dae Jung, of this forum to promote and strengthen democracy in East Asia. This meeting brings together democratic governments and civil society from throughout Asia and the Pacific. It unites scholars, parliamentarians, leaders of non-governmental organizations, and government officials. Over the course of the next few days we will talk to each other, learn from each other, disagree with each other, and, in the end, I hope, find common cause in our efforts to promote democracy throughout this region: from Malaysia to Indonesia, from Thailand to Australia, from Japan, to Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Mongolia. The discussions, I expect, will be intense, and will resemble those that many of you have had in less formal settings. In my case, they will remind me of conversations we used to have around the dinner table at my parents' home when I was a boy. It was at that table, listening to my parents and their friends discuss politics, democracy, and international affairs, that I learned to respect and honor my parents' most cherished fundamental values: human rights, respect for the freedom of others, democratic decision-making, and the rule of law.

These informal conversations--whether at a dinner table in New Haven, Connecticut or at a conference table in Seoul, Korea--represent the most basic building blocks of a democratic community. They help identify a shared set of values and standards upon which community members can base their behavior. They help generate what Alexis de Tocqueville called "habits of the heart"--those characteristics of human nature that encourage otherwise isolated individuals to connect with one another into a broader community, in the process reinforcing democratic institutions and encouraging communal respect for human rights.

Traditionally, such community development took place at the local or national level. But increasingly, today--linked by air transport, telecommunications, the global media, and the astonishing power of the Internet--we are building a global community of democracies with shared institutions, shared ideas, and, most importantl, shared values. As Eleanor Roosevelt, our great American First Lady and the guiding light behind the writing and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognized 50 years ago, the concept of a community of understanding is integral to the growth of a shared culture of democracy and human rights. "Human rights,"she wrote, "begin . . .[in] small places, close to home--so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. . . . the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college [s]he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere." So this, ultimately, is what our discussion here is about-- building a regional and global community of activists, thinkers, and practitioners who share a common set of values: democracy, the universality of human rights, and respect for the rule of law.

Unfortunately, these values we share remain under challenge today. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants recognize a right to democracy, many of the world's dictatorships continue to look for ways to undermine it. Too many governments continue to deny their citizens the right to choose their own government. Their leaders speak of democracy, even as they rig elections, suppress dissent, and shackle the press. We need look no further than the brutal acts of the Milosevic government in Serbia-Montenegro and the anguish that it has wrought on its own citizens throughout the former Yugoslavia to see the consequences of such antidemocratic actions.

But what are the crucial elements of democracy? Let me mention just five.

First, the will of the people. As both of my countries, the United States and Korea, know from harsh experience, democratization is a long and complex struggle, which does not come easily. Government "of the people" cannot be imposed from the outside; countries must come to democracy by their own path. As my boss, Secretary Madeleine Albright, recently noted, "[D]emocracy must emerge from the desire of individuals to participate in the decisions that shape their lives . . . . Unlike dictatorship, democracy is never an imposition; it is always a choice."

A second element, civil society. As we will discuss in our second panel today on the Role of Elections and Parliaments, democracy means far more than just the holding of elections. The slow development of democracy in some Asian states has demonstrated decisively that elections must be regarded not only as an end in themselves, but also as the means to establish a political system that fosters the growth and self-fulfillment of its citizens by promoting and protecting their political and civil rights. As tomorrow afternoon's panel on the role of civic organizations will explore, democracy also requires the full flowering of civil society--the broad array of political parties, labor unions, non-governmental organizations (or NGOs), women's groups, and societies and clubs that encourage political and social participation. Groups like those that many of you represent serve as an important conduit by which individuals may express their dissatisfaction with politics as usual. It is precisely because of the power of civil society that so many governments seek to limit or quash its influence.

Third, the rule of law. Genuine democracy requires that democratic institutions and officials be guided by and constrained by the law--that is to say, a government accountable to the law, and not above it. As tomorrow morning's panel on civil-military relations will explore, the rule of law requires a society in which both the military leadership and the civil bureaucracy recognize that their power and authority comes from their administration of the rule of law, and not the other way around. To this day, the best explanation of the rule of law that I have ever heard came my late father, Dr. Kwang Lim Koh, in the summer of 1974, when I was a college student studying here in Seoul. That summer there was an assassination attempt against Korea's president, martial law was imposed, and army tanks rolled in the streets. At the exact same moment, back in the United States, President Nixon resigned from office and was replaced by Vice President Ford. No tanks rolled, no soldiers appeared, and our constitutional republic continued. I called my father and asked him how it could be that the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, could change governments without military incident, while Korea, a much smaller country, continued to show the signs of military rule. His answer was: "Now you see what democracy means. In a society governed by the rule of law, if you are President, the troops obey you. But in other societies, if the troops obey you, then you are President."

What my father was talking about was the importance of the rule of law. Governments committed to the rule of law respect individual rights, rule through a body of laws that are transparent, predictable, based on popular will, and fairly and equitably applied. Mature democracies have a fair and efficient legal system led by an independent and professionally competent judiciary that acts as final arbiter of the law. Absent an independent judiciary and the rule of law, democracies seldom remain democratic for long. Once the rule of law crumbles, it is difficult to restore. Indeed, many of the discussions in which I participated last week in Kosovo were about how to rebuild the rule of law--how to train judges and prosecutors, how to reconstitute a civilian police force, how to restore public confidence in a system of social dealing based on respect for law, rather than revenge and retaliation. But once established, a strong rule of law helps to assure sustainable economic development, to combat corruption, to support social stability and peace, and to carve out necessary space for individual political and economic activity. It also provides the average citizen the capacity to hold leaders and institutions--in both the public and private sector--accountable.

Fourth, genuine democracy requires unfettered minds and an informed electorate. Only free media--whether print, broadcast, or electronic--can guarantee that citizens have access to the information they need to make political decisions. If a government can control information or limit press freedom, it can usually preordain elections, stunt civil society and manipulate the judiciary. Throughout the world, journalists risk harassment, arrest, imprisonment, and even death to get the story told. Other factors play an equally important part in making democracy more than just elections. They include respect for human rights; the right to peaceful political dissent; vibrant political institutions; open and competitive economic structures; freedom of religion and belief; mechanisms to safeguard minorities from oppressive rule by the majority and vice-versa; and full respect for women's and workers' rights. Building such a culture of democracy is never easy, but the profound rewards are stability, prosperity, and the enrichment of the human spirit.

Fifth, as our opening panel this morning on the Economic Crisis and the Future of Democracy will surely discuss, democracy and genuine respect for human rights remain the best paths for sustainable economic growth. Some traditionally repressive governments have granted their citizens greater individual authority over economic decision-making, but without accompanying relaxation of controls over peaceful political activity. They have argued that their people can enjoy economic freedom without the accompanying political freedom. Advocates of this school of thought, the so-called "Asian way" to prosperity, claim that democratization is impossible until economic development reaches a certain level, and that democracy and human rights are inherently "Western" values that are somehow alien to most Asians. They also argue that certain societies, particularly those in Asia, would do better under authoritarian systems with benevolent despots.

All of you hear have heard these claims, and know that they are not true. As we have recently seen, although the authoritarian development model may generate prosperity for a brief period of time, it cannot sustain economic growth in the face of corruption, cronyism, and continued denial of citizens' rights. When severe economic downturns occur, authoritarian regimes cannot respond flexibly or effectively to economic problems. Without genuine democratic mechanisms to channel popular displeasure, the government must often choose greater repression to avoid popular uprising. Contrast for example, Indonesia, where last year a Soeharto regime lacking both accountability and transparency saw an economic downturn quickly deteriorate into a political crisis, with the situation here in the Republic of Korea, where genuinely democratic elections gave President Kim Dae Jung the popular support he needed to implement the tough austerity measures and economic reforms needed to start this country on a path out of its economic crisis. These cases demonstrate that there is no unique"Asian way" to economic growth without democracy, any more than there are unique "Asian cultural values," that authoritarian governments can invoke in an effort to deny universal human rights to their citizens.

To confirm this, we need look no further than here in the Republic of Korea, or close by in the Philippines, Mongolia, Thailand, Bangladesh, and now, Indonesia: all countries in which authoritarianism has now given way to democracy. In each of these countries, we have seen that political and economic stability need not be purchased at the cost of democracy and human rights. We have seen that indeed, democracy has proven to be the engine of, not the obstacle to, economic recovery and growth. As this conference reaffirms, in this region, a new generation of popularly-elected leaders has embraced the idea that democratization, economic development, and the protection of human rights are interdependent values, not antagonistic ones.

In fact, my own life and career are living proof that Asians love and value human rights and democracy as much as any peoples. True Asian values--the values that my family, and I imagine, all of yours, shared over the dinner table--include respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, even in times of economic crisis. In sharing these values, Asians have participated in a worldwide trend toward democratization--a trend that has made tremendous strides in our lifetime. In the past 10 years alone, the community of electoral democracies has almost doubled, in large part because democratic institutions offer the best guarantee of respect for human rights as well as the best chance to improve the lives of average citizens. The contrast between the brittle economies of most authoritarian states and the relatively resilient economies of most democratic states demonstrates the centrality of democratic participation to public confidence in economic growth and reform. As Vice President Al Gore noted last November, in his speech at the APEC summit in Malaysia, "History has taught us that freedom--economic, political, and religious freedom--unlocks a higher fraction of the human potential than any other way of organizing society."

If these five elements--free will, civil society, the rule of law, free expression, and free markets--are the cornerstones of democratic society, how do we expand on these elements to build a global culture of democracy? Here, take comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone. This conference represents only the latest manifestation of this growing culture of freedom that is spreading around the world. Over the past 18 months, a series of meetings have laid the groundwork for a worldwide network of democracy activists and practitioners. In Bamako, Mali, African governments and activists met with aid officials from donor nations to discuss democratic development. In New Delhi, India, the world's democratic NGOs gathered to discover shared values that transcend regional, cultural, or religious differences. Just a few weeks ago, in Sa'ana, Yemen, emerging democracies from Mongolia to Morocco met to identify common concerns. Here in Seoul, the World Bank and the Korean Government co-sponsored an important conference on the interrelationship between democracy and economic growth. In Belfast, Northern Ireland and Montevideo, Uruguay, women from government and NGO communities gathered at Vital Voices conferences to promote greater political participation for women. Early next year in La Paz, Bolivia, Latin American democracies and NGOs will join with development experts to build on the ideas and momentum generated in Bamako.

This emerging network of democratic activists and governments has begun to assert its influence in multilateral fora as well. The Council of Europe, at whose 50th birthday celebration in Budapest I had the honor of representing the United States only weeks ago, mandates that its members be democratic. The Organization of American States has similarly pledged to respond collectively to disruptions to democratic Rule. In April the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva adopted--for the first time ever--a resolution acknowledging that democracy is a universal and fundamental human right. As primary sponsor of the resolution, the United States would like to thank its co-sponsors, who I am proud to say included the Republic of Korea, in helping to secure its passage. The resolution, which the Commission adopted by a vote of 51-0 with only China and Cuba abstaining, marks an important area of work for the Commission in the next century: the promotion of the right to democratic governance as both a means and an end in the struggle for human rights. And at the end of this month, in Sarajevo, at the first meeting of the leaders of the Southeast Europe Stability Pact, national leaders will commit themselves again to democratization and human rights as a key element in the rebuilding and stabilization of the Balkans after the Kosovo crisis.

In short, democracy is contagious, and the expansion of a global network to promote democracy has been impressive. But unfortunately, Asia has lagged behind other regions and multilateral institutions in the burst to promote democracy by multilateral means. As you are all well aware, to date, Asia has not developed the kind of regional fora that have so facilitated democratic development in Europe and the Americas. Today, there is no Organization for Security and Cooperation in Asia to address the "human dimension" of Asian problems. There is still no Inter-Asian Commission or Court for Human Rights. There is no binding, regionally ratified Asian Convention on Democracy and Human Rights. This is a startling discrepancy with which the governments and concerned citizens of the region must come to grips. I hope that we can take advantage of this unique regional forum to begin to address this startling discrepancy.

In short, we must use this and other conferences to identify new ways to nurture younger and older democracies on a global scale. The time has come to take advantage of the growing convergence of democratic forces in the world to forge a global community of democracies that can work together in a variety of different fora toward these ends. An organic "transnational network" of democratic leaders, scholars, media leaders, and activists could share common experiences, help advance democratic governance where it has recently sprouted, and help strengthen democratic practices where democracy already has deep roots. They also could exchange experiences in building democratic institutions, identify best practices, and coordinate democracy assistance programs. As part of the process of enriching governmental dialogue, leading thinkers and representatives of civil society could share their perspectives as well.

It is not yet clear where all of this dialogue will lead. But we certainly can hope that, 50 years after the Universal Declaration proclaimed that "all human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights," that we are making significant strides toward a more democratic world that can make that promise a reality. We certainly can hope that the thousands of conversations that have helped engender the global democratic revolution will also generate an international dialogue on the importance of democratic governance, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. We can hope that gatherings such as this will reinforce the global community of democratic nations. I look forward to joining you over the next two days--and in the coming years--in dialogue over these ideas and in working together to keep that dialogue flowing.

Let me mention in closing a meeting I had in Kosovo a few days ago. A Kosovar political activist said to me: "many of our homes are destroyed, many of our people are killed. But now we can sleep calmly, and in freedom. I would happily sleep on stones, if I can sleep calmly and in freedom." As I listened to her, I could not help but think of my late father, Dr. Kwang Lim Koh, who in the early 1960s had the privilege of serving as Ambassador to the United Nations and Minister to the United States in a Korean democratic government. When that government was deposed, he told me that he would never, ever serve a government that was not committed to the cause of democracy and human rights. He passed away in America almost 10 years ago, still a Korean citizen. Although he was a political scientist, he never enjoyed the right to vote, the chance to participate in Korean political life, the rich opportunity to engage in the discussion about Asian democratic values that we will enjoy over these next few days.

But although my father is not here, I have come in his place, as the official of the United States Government charged with thinking about how best to promote democracy and human rights worldwide. Were my father alive today, I am sure that this would be one of his happiest moments. On his behalf let me urge you to please think hard, speak wisely, and imagine broadly. Yolshimi ki-p'i saengak hako; hyon-myong ha-ke mal-ha-go; nol-bun anmo-gul ka-ji-sip-shiyo.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I look forward to a most stimulating conference. Thank you very much. Kamsa hamni da.

[end of document] Blue Bar rule

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