Today, we gather to discuss the wave of change that has swept the Middle East and North Africa. While each country’s experience has been unique, all of these democratic movements have sprung from a common desire for rights, freedom, economic hope, and human dignity. These universal aspirations are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the UN Charter, and they are fundamental to my country’s identity and history and to those of many countries. These principles – and the people who struggle to realize them in their own societies – deserve and demand our collective support. We are inspired by the courage of the people of the region, as they have shown their determination to move forward, and we believe that their efforts should be supported.
Now I approach these conversations with a healthy dose of humility, because we know that these revolutions are not ours. They are not by us, for us, or against us. But we also know that, as an international community, we do have the resources and capabilities to support those who seek peaceful, meaningful, democratic change. We must also have the will.
Now of course, change is unfolding in different ways in different places, and in each unique case, our tools have to be matched with the circumstances. Here at the UN Security Council, three cases in particular demand our attention today.
Let me start with Libya and the encouraging vote this morning to renew and update the UN Support Mission in Libya, UNSMIL. Last year, this council – backed by the Arab League and countries around the world – acted to support the Libyan people at the hour of their greatest need. Today’s vote reflects our continued commitment to Libya and its transitional government, which has made tremendous strides. And it also reflects the recognition that our work is not yet done.
We will continue to aid UNSMIL’s efforts to support the Libyan Government as it reintegrates those who took up arms in the name of change into a professional national army and a peaceful society. We will continue helping Libya secure its borders against proliferation, trafficking, and extremism, while treating refugees and migrants humanely. And after so much courage and sacrifice from the Libyan people, we are proud to help Libya build a new foundation for the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Just last week, Prime Minister al-Keeb was here in the Security Council, where he forcefully and eloquently defended this Security Council’s assistance on behalf of the aspirations of the Libyan people to chart their own futures. I don’t think there’s any additional comment any of us need to add to the record as to the appropriate measures taken by the Security Council in furtherance of the resolutions so authorizing action. We also met with Prime Minister al-Keeb in Washington, where we discussed Libya’s progress in paving the way for fair and free elections, as well as our work together on security, student exchanges, civil society, and medical care for Libya’s war-wounded. Ultimately, the measure of success for Libya will not be the death of a dictator but the birth of a successful, stable, and free nation.
The second case is Yemen. As Yemen unraveled into violence last year, this Security Council stood behind the efforts of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Yemeni stakeholders to find a peaceful solution. In the face of setbacks, we held firm. Now many challenges lie ahead. But last month’s successful presidential election and inauguration were promising steps on the path toward a new, democratic chapter in Yemen’s history. As Yemen continues its multiyear transition, reforms its constitution, convenes a national dialogue, and continues to grapple with its security and humanitarian challenges, we must remain engaged and supportive.
The third case is Syria. Five weeks ago, this council was unable to stand united against the horrific campaign of violence that has shocked the conscience of the world, one that continues unabated as we meet. We were blocked from even condemning the violence and endorsing a peaceful plan developed by Syria’s own neighbors.
Now the United States believes firmly in the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all member-states, but we do not believe that sovereignty demands that this council stand silent when governments massacre their own people, threatening regional peace and security in the process. And we reject any equivalence between premeditated murders by a government’s military machine and the actions of civilians under siege driven to self-defense. How cynical that even as Assad was receiving former Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Syrian army was conducting a fresh assault on Idlib and continuing its aggression in Hama, Homs, and Rastan.
We took note of the fact that this past weekend in Cairo the Arab League and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov agreed on the necessity of an end to violence, full, unimpeded humanitarian access, and a political process led by Kofi Annan and based on the terms of the Arab League and the United Nations General Assembly resolutions. We believe that now is the time for all nations, even those who have previously blocked our efforts, to stand behind the humanitarian and political approach spelled out by the Arab League. The international community should say with one voice – without hesitation or caveat – that the killings of innocent Syrians must stop and a political transition must begin.
The Syrian people deserve the same opportunity to shape their future that the Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, and Yemenis now enjoy. And our work here at the Security Council is just one part of what the international community must do to assist democratic transitions all across the Middle East and North Africa. We must support calls from within the region to strengthen each of the building blocks of stable, thriving societies: a responsive, accountable government; an energetic, effective economy; and a vibrant civil society.
Politically, many countries —including a number at this table –have unique, firsthand expertise in how to build durable democracies. And I appreciate the comments of the foreign minister of Guatemala. These are lessons we can and should share. Where countries are making gradual reforms, we should offer our support and everywhere we must safeguard, in word and action, the basic principles of democracy and universal human rights.
Now, I know that today there are those who question whether Islamist politics can really be compatible with these democratic and universal principles and rights. The people of the Arab Spring have a chance to answer that question.
Our policy is to focus less on what parties call themselves than on what they choose to do. All political parties – religious and secular alike – have a responsibility to their people to abide by the basic tenets upon which this body is founded: to reject violence; to uphold the rule of law; to respect the freedoms of speech, association, and assembly; to safeguard religious freedom and tolerance; to protect the rights of women and minorities; to establish independent judiciaries; to promote a free press; to give up power if defeated at the polls; and to avoid inciting conflicts that pull societies apart. These are standards against which we should all be measured, and we need to commit to uphold them together.
Our experience elsewhere in the world has taught us that successful political transitions are those that quickly deliver economic results—job opportunities and the hope for a better future. To succeed, the Arab political awakening must also be an economic awakening.
Governments across the region who share these priorities will need to keep making the sometimes difficult policy choices required to build a foundation for inclusive, private sector-led growth. As this year’s G-8 president, America is continuing the work of the Deauville Partnership started by France to promote regional integration, economic participation, job creation, and stabilization. The last of these is especially pressing: the international community must provide strong support for the IMF to quickly conclude an economic reform and stabilization program with Egypt. And we call on Egypt’s friends in the region and around the world to be prepared to use bilateral assistance to reinforce an IMF program with Egypt.
And of course, these efforts, economic and political, must include women. And I thank the Secretary General for making that one of the five points he recited. No transition can succeed with half the population left behind.
And durable democracy depends on civil society, and we are proud to support individuals and organizations seeking to improve their own societies. Now, I know again there are those who say the whole concept of civil society is a Western imposition. But after 2011, how can anyone honestly say that civil society is not indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa – and I would add everywhere?
We know that lasting change comes from within. Societies must be the authors of their own futures. But the international community can provide tools that help societies reach those goals. As new, elected legislatures abolish old laws intended to control civil liberties, we should continue our collective support for measures that will protect and nurture civil society, consistent with international human rights norms of free association, assembly, and expression.
No one in the region is exempt from the demands for change we have seen. When a country like Iran claims to champion these principles in the region—and then brutally suppresses its own people and supports suppression in Syria and other places—their hypocrisy is clear to all.
And President Obama and I have been consistent in our belief that the Palestinian people—like their Arab neighbors, Israelis, and all people—deserve dignity, liberty, and the right to decide their own futures. They deserve a viable, independent Palestine, alongside a secure Israel. And we know from decades in the diplomatic trenches that the only way to get there is through a negotiated peace—one that cannot be dictated from outside and one we will continue to pursue through every productive avenue, including a Quartet consultation this morning.
And let me also condemn in the strongest terms the rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel which continued over the weekend. We call on those responsible to take immediate action to stop these attacks. We call on both sides – all sides – to make every effort to restore calm.
Finally, and crucially, we have to recognize that the most consequential choices are the ones that will be faced in the months ahead. It is up to the people and leaders of the region to resist the calls of demagogues, to compromise and build coalitions, to keep faith in their system even when they lose at the polls, and to protect the principles and institutions that ultimately will protect them. Every democracy has to guard against those who would hijack its freedoms for their own ignoble ends.
Building prosperous, democratic societies is not the job of a day, a week, or even a year. It is a continuous commitment, and one we share. We, as a community of nations, must help the people of the Middle East and North Africa make the most of the rights and freedoms for which they have risked so much.