Welcome to the State Department and welcome to the G-8 Broader Middle East and North Africa sub-ministerial.
I want to extend special thanks, first, to a partner and friend whose own life has spanned the distances we seek to bridge today: Tunisian Secretary of State Ben Abbes.
Second, I want to thank this year’s BMENA civil society co-chairs: The U.S. League of Women Voters and Tunisia’s AFORGHE (“are-forg”), as well as representatives from the Tunisian-American Chamber of Commerce and the many civil society and private sector organizations represented here today.
We gather at a tumultuous time, when the Broader Middle East and North Africa is filled with remarkable promise, terrible tragedy, and the palpable uncertainty that comes with real change. We feel keenly the loss of American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues in Libya. But we were heartened to see so many voices of conscience, from civil society and government alike, emerge to call for nonviolence and decency. We thank you.
I want to underscore that America’s commitment to support democratic transitions and reform in the region remains as strong as ever. We have always known that the path to democracy is rarely smooth or simple. America will continue to champion political rights and freedoms, economic openness and free, vibrant civil society because we believe these are the building blocks of stable, successful societies everywhere.
In that spirit, this year’s Forum for the Future will take on three critical challenges: women’s empowerment, economic governance and entrepreneurship, and freedom of expression.
First, we must continue our work together to promote the political and economic empowerment of women. This is a challenge for all nations, including my own. The struggle for women’s equality and inclusion is not just a moral challenge, but a necessity for a vibrant democracy and a vital ingredient of global competitiveness.
Second, people across the region -- men and women -- are seeking a sense of economic fairness and hope. Businesses small and large want the predictability and possibilities that come with open markets and transparent, responsive institutions backed by the rule of law. And government, business and civil society all have a crucial role to play.
Third, even as recent events force us to engage in an important dialogue about the limits of freedom of expression, let us not lose sight of the larger challenge: despite the great efforts of many in the region, a great deal of speech that does not fall into any grey area is nonetheless still silenced. A great many peaceful gatherings are crushed. Civil society organizations and their leaders are harassed just for discussing their visions for change. Let us use this Forum as a place to engage in open dialogue and an opportunity to expand basic freedoms within our societies.
Let me add that I say all of this with a healthy dose of humility. Turn on American TV and you will find clear evidence that no democracy is ever perfected. No nation can impose freedom or dictate change from outside. We in government realize that we do not have all the answers, and we cannot solve our countries’ problems on our own. When voices from business and civil society are allowed to be part of the discussion, they also share the effort and enrich the result -- leading to better decisions, better outcomes, and a shared sense of purpose and responsibility. We also ask civil society and businesses to recognize the positive steps governments have taken and to work collaboratively on the challenges ahead.
The mere fact that we are here together today is a sign of progress, matched by meaningful reforms in many countries. Many nations have also adopted the rhetoric of reform, but are still working to give these words their full meaning. Let us engage in that effort together. And let us always work with an eye toward results. Because it is not enough to speak of reform if you don’t also speak with reformers. It is not enough to have ideas. Together we must produce action.
Our goal for this year’s forum is to add, alongside the declaration of shared principles, an outcome document that commits each of us to actions we will take to promote women’s empowerment, improved economic governance and entrepreneurship, and freedom of speech and association.
In workshops over the past year, civil society, private sector, and government representatives discussed country-specific actions. We encourage governments to share these examples. Let us also use the plenary sessions to focus on specific actions you have taken over the past year and those you are willing to take to advance BMENA’s three themes.
In addition to the BMENA Initiative, many of your governments are involved in other international engagements, such as the Deauville process and the Equal Futures partnership, where you are making commitments that also advance the three BMENA themes. We encourage you to share those experiences with colleagues who may not be participating in those initiatives so that others can benefit from useful lessons learned.
For all of our differences, all of us here today are united in seeking answers to the great challenges of our time: how to build peace, rise above our divisions, expand prosperity and opportunity ever wider, and leave behind freer and more just societies for our children and their children.
We are far more likely to find the right answers if we search for them together. So, with common purpose and mutual respect, let us take up this work together. I wish all of you a good stay in Washington, and a productive set of meetings.