It is an honor to represent the United States at this year’s Forum for the Future and a pleasure to be back in Egypt. On behalf of Secretary Kerry, I would like to thank our hosts, the Government of Egypt and Her Majesty’s Government for bringing us together, as well as the Government of Jordan for having hosted civil society last week. I also want to recognize my G8 and BMENA diplomatic counterparts as well as our civil society colleagues, including the many that could not participate in this forum, for their hard work and commitment to transforming reform aspirations into action.
At its inception, the Forum was designed to galvanize partnerships between governments, the private sector, and civil society. Its launch was predicated on the belief that governments should leverage the talents, contributions, and aspirations of their citizens in promoting positive change. And it was grounded in the reality that when governments welcome the voices, ideas, and participation of all citizens, societies as a whole are strengthened and better able to address the myriad challenges facing their countries and the region.
Frankly, nine years later, we can and should be doing better to uphold the spirit of this Forum by emphasizing a meaningful role throughout the year for civil society, and by protecting the rights of association, assembly, and expression at home.
We are meeting today to affirm our commitment to empowering civil society, even as there are activists – including some in Egypt – who face criminal charges and intimidation for the peaceful exercise of their rights. We are gathered to profess our support for the peaceful freedom of expression and association even as legal restrictions and political intimidation of civil society increase in some MENA and G8 countries. We acknowledge and celebrate the many great achievements of civil society. But the governments represented in this room must also recognize our responsibility to uphold our end of the bargain, especially in these times of uncertainty.
Lest our apprehensions give us pause, we can recall the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one week after we’ve celebrated its 65th anniversary. The Declaration, rooted in collective humility and reflection following the carnage of conflict, serves as a reminder that when governments suppress the rights of individuals and minorities- even when doing so is popular or done in the name of patriotism – they do not create greater stability and security – to the contrary. One need only look at Syria for a tragic example of internal repression destabilizing a country and the region as a whole.
In this spirit, let us find common ground in the themes of this forum. Let us reconcile individual rights and collective welfare by recognizing that public assembly, free association, and free speech are individual rights that enhance and strengthen society as a whole. Let us also find common ground between economic reforms and inclusive economic growth by supporting entrepreneurship and by improving government accountability and transparency. And let us again recognize that the prosperity and durability of our societies depend upon the equal protection, participation, and rights of all, including women, youth, and minorities.
For our part, the United States will always defend peaceful exercise of free expression, which often includes views with which we disagree. Free expression is an indispensable foundation of our own democracy and pluralism. But we also believe that open and free speech encourages understanding, advances truth-seeking, and discredits and rebuts falsehoods. As in other parts of the world, we have seen new and powerful ways that free expression in the broader Middle East has shaped society and stirred public action. In Yemen, Morocco, Lebanon, and Tunisia, public campaigns flowing from new forms of media and collective expression and debate have made significant changes to policies, laws, and new constitutions on a variety of issues relevant to this forum, including civil marriage, women’s rights, the press, and the rights of civil society.
Without a doubt, some use violence and the power of free expression to express hateful views or to appeal to the worst instincts of human nature. This is shameful and deserves unequivocal condemnation. But banning speech through legal restrictions, press laws, or censoring new forms of social media will not make this speech go away, especially in an era where technology will always stay one step ahead of any attempts to suppress it. Criminalizing speech, through slander or blasphemy laws, or imprisoning those who express views that one may not agree with, stifles the free flow of ideas and encourages self-censorship.
Legal limitations are not the only threat to free expression. As noted by our civil society rapporteurs, journalists are more than ever under threat for the vital work that they do. In some countries, journalists are arrested or intimidated for editorial views or are censored by restrictive press laws. In others, journalists have faced threats from security forces and non-state actors for reporting the facts and bringing the truth to light. Just yesterday, an anchorman in Mosul, Iraq, was murdered; unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. The United States has committed to uphold the right to Freedom of Expression through its “Journalist Response Fund,” which provides training and emergency assistance to at-risk journalists, bloggers, and citizen journalists to help them conduct their work as safely and securely as possible. This is important, but we must as a collective do more to protect this critical institution and its brave practitioners.
We must also focus our attention on the vital role that women continue to play, and the challenges they continue to face, in promoting positive change in the BMENA countries. We do not have to look too far or wide for examples. In Syria, a group of brave women from civil society organizations have led efforts to ensure that women will have a voice in the future of their country on issues such as transitional justice, security, and governance. In Libya, the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace successfully empowered women to lobby for a zippered system to ensure a quota for women in Libya’s elections law. And there are many, many more.
But political, legal, and societal barriers still inhibit their full political and economic participation, and many women still face the ongoing scourge of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, rape, female genital mutilation, early and forced marriage, and so-called “honor” killings. Gender-based violence damages societies and hurts families, as we know all too well in the United States. While many groups, including organizations like HarassMap and I Witnessed Harassment here in Egypt, are raising public awareness of this issue, and other organizations help connect women with access to lawyers to help with their cases, governments must take steps to revise laws and enforce the laws.
In response to President Obama’s challenge to other heads of state to break down barriers to women’s political and economic participation, the United States launched the Equal Futures Partnership in 2012. Equal Futures partner countries are committed to legal, regulatory, and policy reforms to ensure that women fully participate in public life at the local, regional, and national levels, and that they lead and benefit from inclusive economic growth.
Finally, the United States is committed to promoting inclusive economic growth that provides all BMENA citizens with opportunities for a better future. We know that trade, investment, and growth depend on reform and good governance, but to be truly inclusive, growth must include accountability, transparency, and fair rules that enfranchise all people and not just the few.
The region’s entrepreneurs are a key driver of inclusive growth. Organizations like Cogite in Tunisia and the Bader Young Entrepreneurs Program in Lebanon have enhanced entrepreneurship, innovation, and free enterprise by fostering collaboration and community in their shared work spaces and training programs. A key example of our own efforts in this arena is the Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP). In partnership with the GEP, The Center for Entrepreneurship and Executive Development in Morocco and Tunisia will empower entrepreneurs to succeed in building networks, accessing international markets, and access to financing.
As parts of the region grow rapidly, reforms must also focus on eliminating forms of discrimination that inhibit the sustainability of economic progress and the rights and protections of workers must also be protected and enhanced. High profile events like the World Cup provide an opportunity for this region to show its commitment to fair and ethical labor practices.
As in years past, this region is not without its problems and perils. The difficulties are formidable; the challenges are daunting. It is easy to respond with indifference and take shelter in the comfort of the status quo. But we can no longer take a “business as usual” approach.
Today, we highlighted three areas where we can and should achieve real and lasting change – freedom of expression, women empowerment, and economic development. Progress on all three fronts will require the partnership of government and its citizens. Sustainability demands the protection of the rule of law. And the future – as the name of this Forum connotes – will depend on the hard work, sacrifice, talents, and commitment of the great people of this region. As you march forward down this path, we will stand with you in pursuit of a world that is more just, more free, and more peaceful.