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U.S. Department of State

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

Remarks, Conference on the Efficiency of Providing Legal Aid
and Guarantees of Protection of Lawyers
Organized by the Human Rights Center and Legal Aid for People
Raubichi, Minsk, Belarus, November 10, 1999

Blue Bar rule

I am deeply grateful to Vera Stremkovskaya and to the organizers of this conference for kindly inviting me here to address such a distinguished audience of human rights defenders. On this, my first visit to Belarus, I have greatly appreciated your kind hospitality and the opportunity to exchange ideas at this most important conference.

I have come to Minsk, from Istanbul, Turkey, where I have spent the past few days at a pre-summit review conference organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, discussing what the OSCE calls implementation of "the human dimension," or the pursuit of human rights. Yesterday, those meetings marked the tenth anniversary of one of the most important landmarks in the historic struggle for human freedom, the fall of the Berlin Wall. That event signaled the beginning of the end of totalitarian rule for most of Europe. Although the setting of our discussions in Istanbul was the grand Ciragan Palace, the substance of those discussions-like the discussions taking place here at this conference--reminded me most of conversations that my family used to have around the dinner table when I was a boy. Like Vera Stremskovskaya, my late father Kwang Lim Koh was a lawyer and democracy activist. For a time, he represented South Korea as a diplomat, before his democratic government was overthrown by a military coup d'etat and he was effectively exiled to the United States, where I grew up. So it was at my family's dinner table, listening to my parents and their friends, that I first learned about Korean and American politics, democracy, and international affairs. It was in my home, in gatherings like this one, that I first 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.

Such informal conversations--whether over a family dinner in America or at this conference in Belarus--represent the most basic building blocks of a democratic community. They help us to identify a shared set of values and standards upon which we, or any community, can base our 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.

Eleanor Roosevelt, who played such a key role in the writing and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, understood the importance of such conversations. "Human rights," she said, "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 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." That, my friends, is ultimately what we gather here to discuss: how to build a transnational community of activists, thinkers, and practitioners-in the U.S., in Belarus, and throughout the OSCE region-- who share a common set of values: democracy, human rights, the universality of the human dimension, and respect for the rule of law.

Sadly, these shared, universal values continue to face challenges today. 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, silence their opponents, and shackle the press. Despite a half-century of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants, they continue to look for ways to undermine, suppress, and limit civil society, human rights, and the rule of law. We need look no further than Belarus to understand the consequences of such antidemocratic actions.

Such actions do not belong in today's Europe. Belarus is being left behind at a time when the rest of Europe is seeking to build a common foundation of democratic governance, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. The United States is deeply concerned about the situation in Belarus. We have adopted a policy of "selective engagement," restricting the number and level of official contacts while maintaining and developing our relationship with democratic forces, independent media, and non-governmental organizations. We have suspended all assistance to the Government, except for humanitarian assistance to health and educational institutions. As you know, Ambassador Dan Speckhard returned just this past September, after the resolution of a dispute over the government's failure to respect Vienna Convention principles on the inviolability of diplomatic residences. But I want to assure you that Ambassador Speckhard's return does not mean the normalization of relations between our two countries. Normalization cannot and will not occur until the Government of Belarus takes concrete steps to ensure democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law.

What specific steps are we talking about? How can this country demonstrate that it is a "true democracy?" Let me mention four critical elements: the will of the people, civil society, the rule of law, and an informed citizenry.

First, the will of the people. As my country knows from its own hard experience, democratization is a long and complex struggle, which does not come easily. Government "of the people" cannot be imposed from the outside; people must come to democracy by their own path. As my boss, Secretary of State 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."

Here in Belarus, the regime has sought to suppress democracy. It has used unconstitutional methods to rewrite the country's constitution, then used the new constitution to undermine or replace legitimate democratic institutions. Democratic legitimacy can only be restored by free and fair democratic elections in which all can participate on an equal basis and by restoring the necessary checks and balances among the branches of government.

The second core element of democracy is civil society. Realization of democracy means far more than just holding elections or referendums. The slow development of democracy in some states has demonstrated decisively that elections must be regarded not as an end in themselves, but 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. Democracy also requires the full flowering of civil society--the broad array of political parties, independent labor unions, independent media, non-governmental organizations, womens' 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 freely 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.

I have just come from Turkey, where after many years of tension between the Government and civil society, there are signs that the two may be reaching a new understanding. In his statement at the opening plenary of the OSCE Review Conference, the Turkish Ambassador said:

    "[W]e, [the Turkish Government] are aware that a strong civil society is the best and most effective safeguard against human rights violations. Therefore, we are taking measures to forge a new understanding and relationship between the government and NGO's. NGO's are emerging as a new force in Turkey, a fresh wind. My government has started to establish close dialogue with NGO's and will stay the course."
Last December, the United Nations General Assembly took an important step toward recognizing the important role that human rights advocates play in the development of civil society by adopting without opposition a new Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at its birth, the UN Defenders' Declaration does not yet carry the force of treaty, but in time, it could nonetheless become as important and significant a force for freedom as the Universal Declaration itself.

The Defenders' Declaration is not a substitute for the Universal Declaration, but rather an extension of its principles. Moreover, it echoes the thoughts expressed recently in Istanbul by the Turkish Government. Article 1 of the Defenders' Declaration states that "Everyone has the right to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms." Please think for a moment about this remarkable, transforming idea. People all around the world-- including many of you in this room--have dedicated their lives to this principle. Hundreds of thousands more--including, again, some you here today--have faced harassment or gone to jail for demanding that governments dedicate themselves respecting the human rights of their citizens.

Here in Belarus, those of you who have chosen to speak truth to power have done so at great risk of your freedom and even your lives. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Chigir, 13th Supreme Soviet deputies Anatoly Lebedko and Valery Shchukin, and Social Democratic leader Nikolai Statkevich are only a few of the many opposition figures who have been imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their political beliefs. Many have been detained for long periods without charge. Others, including Viktor Gonchar, Yuri Krasovsky, General Yuri Zakharenko, and Tamara Vinnikova have disappeared. Meanwhile, others, such as Semyon Sharetsky and Zenon Poznyak, have fled abroad out of fear for their safety. Taken together, this series of arrests, disappearances, and exiles has greatly exacerbated the climate of fear that exists in Belarus and made clear that citizens expressing opposition to the government are in great peril. The United States as well as the European Union and the OSCE have urged senior Belarusian officials to release those detained for exercising their right to free expression, and to respect internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression.

Why, in the face of these risks, do NGO defenders continue to promote human rights? The American Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. perhaps said it best in 1963, when he wrote: "I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham... I am [here] because injustice is here... Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

As the late Dr. King spoke truth to power in my country, courageous Belarusian defenders speak out for those here who cannot speak for themselves. As Belarusian patriots fought "za vashu i nashu svobodu" ("for your freedom and ours") in the last century, today courageous Belarusian defenders work for the rights of all. Yet the regime has harassed, conducted criminal investigations of, or barred from practicing law, independent lawyers such as Vera Stremkovskaya, Nadezda Dudareva, Gari Poggonyailo, and Myacheslav Grib, who have been willing to defend clients in politically motivated cases. We call on the Lukashenko regime to cease harassing and attacking human rights defenders, and to respect their human rights to free expression, association, and assembly. My government also calls on the regime to rescind Presidential Edict Number 12, reinstate Gari Poggonyailo, Nadezda Dudareva, and Myacheslav Grib to the bar, and to establish an atmosphere conducive to the operation of independent lawyers and private law firms.

A third element of any true democracy is the rule of law. Genuine democracy requires that democratic institutions and officials be guided by and constrained by the law--that is, a government accountable to the law, and not above it. To this day, the best explanation of the rule of law that I have heard came from my late father in the summer of 1974, when I was a student studying in Korea. That summer there was an assassination attempt against Korea's president, martial law was imposed, and army tanks rolled in the streets. At the 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 from Korea 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, had never yet escaped from military rule. He answered: "Now you see what democracy really means. In a society governed by the rule of law, if you are President, then 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 being governed by the rule of law, and not the rule of individuals. 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. They obey international human rights standards. Absent an independent judiciary and the rule of law, democracies seldom remain democratic for long. History shows that 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 with the capacity to hold leaders and institutions--in both the public and private sector--accountable.

But once the rule of law begins to crumble, accountability withers and along with it, democracy. Here in Belarus, those in power have sought to undermine democracy and end accountability by attacking the rule of law and stifling the independence of the judiciary. The legal system has become little more than a tool to advance this agenda. Laws have been passed not to protect, but to restrict human rights and democratic governance. The judiciary has been used to reward loyal followers, to rubber stamp decisions, and to silence peaceful, democratic opposition. These antidemocratic actions represent the rule of might, not the rule of law.

In genuine democracies, such executive overreaching is checked by a fourth key element of democratic society: the requirement of 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 tell their stories. But here in Belarus, the regime has sought to combat its critics by placing extensive restrictions on the media. Even internet access is limited to government-controlled service providers. Such measures have not stopped the courageous efforts of reporters and journalists like Pavel Zhuk and Pavel Sheremet, who have risked harassment, denial of the right to travel, cancellation of credentials, and even imprisonment to report the truth. Small wonder that a U.S. NGO, the Committee to Protect Journalists, has for the past three years identified the Belarusian regime as one of the world's ten worst enemies of the press.

In sum, the current government of Belarus is a holdout in an era of democratic growth. It has not shown the respect for the will of the people, civil society, the rule of law, or a free and informed citizenry that characterizes genuine democratic government. It is because of these systemic problems, not just particular cases, that I have come to Belarus today. This picture is discouraging. But let me ask that you remember my basic message as a hopeful one. As the remarkable decade since the fall of the Berlin Wall has shown, the world is changing dramatically. Over the past quarter-century, a profound democratic revolution, grounded in the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has reshaped the world political order and helped secure global economic prosperity. When future historians write about the end of the twentieth century, they will identify the growth of democracy--from 30 countries in 1974 to 119 today --as our greatest achievement, and preserving democracy as our greatest challenge. This is a genuinely global revolution, which is sweeping the world. I believe that it is only a matter of time before true democracy comes to Belarus as well.

I know that many of you are tired from your long struggle for human rights and democracy, and find it hard to maintain your optimism. As Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, my job is to travel around the world to places of human rights crisis. In recent months, I have been in Kosovo, East Timor, and Sierra Leone, three places where people have suffered unthinkable tragedy, hardship, and human rights abuse. In Kosovo, I saw thousands who had been driven from their homes; in East Timor, I saw many whose homes had been burned to the ground; in Sierra Leone, I saw innocent civilians--many of them children of only 3-years or 4-years old, whose arms and legs had been brutally amputated.

Yet what has struck me talking to ordinary people in these places is how cheerful they are, how optimistic they are, how indomitable and strong in enduring hardship and keeping hope alive. When I was in Belgrade last December, I gave an interview to one of the few remaining independent radio stations in Serbia, one which despite the best efforts of the oppressive Milosevic regime, had managed to find ways to reopen every time the government tried to close it down. My interviewers asked me, "What can you say to our people that will give us hope?" I answered, "My Boss, Madeleine Albright, was born in Czechoslovakia. Her family fled from the Nazis and the Communists and was exiled to the United States. And now she is the U.S. Secretary of State. My parents were born in Korea, they defied an antidemocratic regime, and became political exiles. And now I, their son, am the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. But today, both of our countries are free and democratic. Both of us have returned to our homelands and celebrated our countries' return to freedom. And all of this happened in our lifetimes. So please don't lose hope. Please remember how much can change in a single lifetime."

Just 10 years ago, as the Cold War raged on, many people thought that we would never see the fall of the Berlin Wall. As we now know, they were wrong. In the same way, some have doubted that we will soon see a genuinely democratic Belarus, committed to human rights and the rule of law. But history teaches that it is only a matter of time before we witness the democratic transformation of Belarus as well. I look forward to the day in the very near future when we will all gather again here in Minsk to commemorate that joyous occasion.

Thank you.

[end of document]

Blue Bar rule

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