`Steel vise` crushing global activists: Hillary

Intolerant govts across globe are "slowly crushing" activists, Hillary said.

Updated: Jul 04, 2010, 10:16 AM IST

Krakow: Intolerant governments across the globe are "slowly crushing" activist and advocacy groups that play an essential role in the development of democracy, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Saturday.

She cited a broad range of countries where "the walls are closing in" on civic organisations such as unions, religious groups, rights advocates and other nongovernmental organisations that press for social change and shine a light on governments` shortcomings.

Among those she named were Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Venezuela, China and Russia.

"Some of the countries engaging in these behaviours still claim to be democracies," Hillary said at an international conference on the promotion of democracy and human rights. "Democracies don`t fear their own people. They recognise that citizens must be free to come together, to advocate and agitate."

Before an audience of several hundred senior government officials, Hillary recalled Winston Churchill`s warning 60 years ago at Fulton, Mo, that an iron curtain was descending across Europe. She noted that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that curtain no longer remains.

"But we must be wary of the steel vise in which governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit," she said. Social activists, Hillary said, are being harassed, censored, cut off from funding, arrested, prosecuted or killed.

President Barack Obama, in a statement released in Washington, said the United States is particularly concerned about "the spread of restrictions on civil society, the growing use of law to curb rather than enhance freedom and widespread corruption that is undermining the faith of citizens in their governments."

Hillary`s speech came at the opening of a 10th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Community of Democracies, which has 16 members and is meant to forge international consensus on ways to support and promote democracy.

She recommended that the organisation set up an independent means of monitoring repressive measures against social advocacy groups, and that the UN Human Rights Council do more to protect civil society. She announced that the US would contribute USD 2 million to support the work of embattled nongovernmental groups.

Poland was a fitting setting for Hillary`s address. The country escaped from decades of totalitarianism in the downfall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe in the early 1990s — thanks largely to the efforts of the Polish labour movement, Solidarity — whose founder, Lech Walesa, was in the audience for the speech. Poland was holding a presidential runoff election Sunday.

Earlier on Saturday, Hillary expressed hope that Russia would drop its opposition to a US missile defence system in Europe and accept an offer to cooperate in developing technologies for shooting down hostile weapons.

"The offer stands," Hillary told a news conference after witnessing the signing of an amendment to a US-Polish agreement on the basing of US missile interceptors in Poland.

Hillary later flew to Baku, Azerbaijan.

Bureau Report