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Diplomacy in Action

Briefing on Secretary Clinton's Launch of Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society

Special Briefing
Tomicah S. Tillemann
Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies 
Washington, DC
February 16, 2011


MS. FULTON: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Department of State. We’re very pleased today to have with us Dr. Tomicah Tillemann, who is the Secretary’s Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies. As you know, today, we launched the first ever U.S. Strategic Dialogue with Civil Societies here at the Department of State, and Dr. Tillemann is here to speak to that initiative. So I’m going to turn it over to him to make some remarks, after which we’ll take a few questions before we get into the regularly scheduled daily press briefing.

So Dr. Tillemann.

MR. TILLEMANN: Thanks very much. Thank you. This morning we saw a significant step in the evolution of our diplomacy at the State Department. For the first time, Secretary Clinton inaugurated a strategic dialogue with a partner other than a foreign government. And at a moment when we see civil society playing an ever larger role in world affairs, she chose to launch this dialogue with civil society on the other side of this – the table. She was joined at the event by Administrator Raj Shah of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Under Secretaries Burns, McHale, Otero, and Hormats, and a number of other senior officials from the State Department and the White House who participated in the launch event.

This was, we hope, the beginning of what will be ultimately a much longer discussion about how the Department can enhance its cooperation with civil society in the months and years ahead. We anticipate that the dialogue will last for 18 months, and this dialogue will be modeled on the other strategic dialogues that we conduct with bilateral partners.

There will be a series of working groups that will be drawn from a broad section of global civil society and headed by senior departmental officials that will work to produce concrete deliverables, and the Secretary announced three this morning: governance and accountability, which will focus on anti-corruption issues and be chaired by Under Secretary Hormats; democracy and human rights, which will be chaired by Assistant Secretary Mike Posner of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; empowering women, which will be chaired by Ambassador Melanne Verveer; and we hope in the near future to inaugurate other working groups that will be led by other senior Department officials as I mentioned.

We anticipate that these working groups will come together regularly in Washington and also through the use of technology by bringing in civil society actors from around the world, and that we will, over the course of time, also see Secretary Clinton chair sessions of these groups as part of her international travel. The Secretary, as many of you know, has been actively engaged with civil society in her international travel since she began work at the State Department. But this will add greater focus, greater cohesion, greater coordination to our efforts, and also elevate this work, as I mentioned, alongside our partnership with bilateral partners.

Going forward, we see – particularly, in the context of events in the Middle East and North Africa – a need for us to strengthen our cooperation with this critical segment of society, and we were glad that this morning the Secretary was able to continue the strong message of support for civil society that she initially presented in Krakow last year as her keynote address to a meeting of the Community of Democracies, and has been continued by President Obama at the United Nations General Assembly and in other forums.

So this is a great initiative. We think it’s an important step in the way that we reach beyond governments and work with partners outside of State’s. And we’re looking forward to a very productive 18 months as we build out this partnership in consultation with civil society.

I should also note that this morning’s event included participation from civil society representatives from well over 20 countries here in Washington. We also had 50 embassies around the world that hosted events with civil society leaders who were able to participate via interactive video conferences, and 60,000 activists worldwide were invited to participate online, and we received and addressed many of their questions over the course of the dialogue.

So with that as a foundation, I would be happy to take any questions that you all may have.

QUESTION: The Secretary, in her comments, mentioned something about doubling a contribution to some emergency fund. Do you know – what are the details of that?

MR. TILLEMANN: The United States, for some time, has worked to identify and address what we refer to as regulatory threats to civil society, and these are instances where laws restrict the ability of NGOs or activists to operate and to act freely in the manner that they would like. In the last six years, 50 countries have passed new legislation that restricts the space in which civil society can operate, and we will be doubling our funding through USAID to programs that are designed to identify and address those legal and regulatory threats to civil society.

QUESTION: From what to what?

MR. TILLEMANN: We’ll – I’ll get you the exact numbers. It is from approximately 1.5 million to, I believe, 3.4 million.

QUESTION: How will you balance your relations between the civil society and the governments?

MR. TILLEMANN: It’s a big question and certainly something that is not a new challenge in our diplomacy, but one that is becoming ever more important as we see civil society taking a larger role in international relations. We seek, obviously, to engage governments and partners around the world, and that will continue. But we will also be doing more to reach beyond governments and speak directly to people. Again, this is the continuation of work that Secretary Clinton has been doing since she came to the State Department, but we will be doing it in a much more focused and much more intensive manner going forward.

QUESTION: Dr. Tillemann, you had just said that you spoke with 20 civil society nation representatives this morning. So what is the current dialogue that the U.S. has with this emerging civil society of Burma?

MR. TILLEMANN: We had a Burmese representative who was present at the meeting. We have very strong interaction with Burmese civil society in a number of programs that are intended to support Burmese civil society both within the country and also outside of Burma. And in many instances, you find strong activists in Burmese civil society who are no longer living in the country.

QUESTION: And with Burma’s new parliament in office, has the U.S. seen any progress between U.S. relations with the country?

MR. TILLEMANN: I’ll leave that to my colleagues in our Eastern Pacific Bureau, and they can get you better answers on that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: I’m wondering if you could just talk a little bit about how the Secretary’s policy on Internet freedom that you addressed yesterday overlaps with what you’re doing with civil society. Are there specific programs that you have in place or you anticipate having to encourage civil societies to use social media platforms? How is that working? And do you have any number on how much money we’re spending on that, if that training exists, how much money might be going into it?

MR. TILLEMANN: We see these issues as two sides of the same coin, and as the Secretary said yesterday in her speech on Internet Freedom, activism in cyberspace in order to be meaningful has to transfer over into the real world. And as a result, we’ve made this a key focus of our efforts to engage civil society and also a key component of our efforts to advance the issue of Internet freedom. We have a number of specific initiatives, particularly tech camps, that we’ve begun conducting most recently in Latin America, and going forward, we have a number scheduled. One we hope will take place alongside the margins of the annual or semi-annual ministerial meeting of the Community of Democracies in Vilnius this June, where we work in concert with actors in the technology sector and also other governments to bring together activists and leaders in the field of social media and other issues who are able to give activists access to tools that will make their work more effective. This is being done under the umbrella of our Civil Society 2.0 program.

QUESTION: Mr. Tillemann, do you have a way to assist in the role and impact of civil society groups in the Egyptian revolution to sort of map out a roadmap for the future and how – which group that you can help?

MR. TILLEMANN: One of the activists who was present at this morning’s meeting was Sherif Mansour, who’s a very well-respected Egyptian democracy activist, and that was a key focus of our discussion. Obviously, this is an ongoing topic of discourse, and we hope that we will be able to do more on this issue going forward. Clearly Egyptian civil society is at a point now where it is playing an extraordinary role in the future of that country, but we also recognize the need to be good partners for civil society as we move forward.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: James Rosen, Fox News. Can you expound on how this effort is or isn’t affecting our ability to influence events in Iran?

MR. TILLEMANN: Again, I think that’s a question that we may want to leave to the briefing that will follow this immediately. But it’s a good question.

QUESTION: Is Iran not part of the efforts that you’re involved with?

MR. TILLEMANN: There was an Iranian activist who was present at the table with the Secretary this morning, and Iran is very much part of the discussion on civil society, and it’s a country with a rich history of civil society. As the Secretary spoke about in Krakow, Iran historically has had some of the strongest civil society in the Middle East, and we are eager to do what we can to strengthen that civil society. We think it’s very unfortunate the regime has turned its back on that rich tradition of civil society.

QUESTION: And how do you plan to advance it?

MR. TILLEMANN: We have a number of mechanisms, and we can talk specifics later if you’re interested.

QUESTION: Why is that not a fit subject for discussion with you? You’re the one in charge of the program.

MR. TILLEMANN: I’m – some of those programs are conducted, actually, through other bureaus, and we can talk with some colleagues in NEA and other partners within the Department who will be better equipped to give you specifics on those issues.

QUESTION: I just have a couple of questions of details. Can you get us a list of the embassies, and you said well over 20 countries are – can you – how many, specifically?

MR. TILLEMANN: There were over – there were 50 embassies that hosted events in conjunction with this morning’s launch, and there were civil society representatives from well over 20 countries that participated in the discussion.

QUESTION: Do you know how many that is? Well over 20 –

MR. TILLEMANN: I don't have the exact number on the precise geographic breakdown of where everyone was from.

QUESTION: Okay. And can you give us a sense – when you say civil society activists, can you give us an example – some examples of who that would be?

MR. TILLEMANN: Sure. The Secretary has been very clear about her definition of civil society, and she was this morning. These are individuals who are not in government and they’re not in the private sector, but they’re operating in the space between those two pillars of society to make countries better and to advance the common good. And so in this case, in this morning’s discussion, we had democracy activists, we had writers and scholars, we had the head of the Afghan Human Rights Commission, we had partners from China who are working on issues such as HIV and AIDS, we had activists on LGBT issues from Africa. So this is a broad cross-section of global civil society and individuals who are seeking to make their nations better.

QUESTION: And just last one: The Secretary didn’t participate with anybody via videoconference, right, only people in the room?

MR. TILLEMANN: The Secretary’s portion of the program was with individuals in the room, and a subsequent discussion that was moderated by Under Secretary McHale and included participation from a large number of senior officials both from the Department and from the White House. We had many questions that were sent in from embassies and others overseas.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.) Was the Embassy in Saudi Arabia are part of this group?

MR. TILLEMANN: I will consult my list. I’ll tell you what happened with Saudi Arabia. Due to some of the broadcast limitations, Saudi Arabia was east of our broadcast window, so I don’t believe --

QUESTION: So it’s not part of the –

MR. TILLEMANN: They did not, as far as I’m aware, hold a live event in conjunction with this simply because the broadcast times didn’t map up.

QUESTION: Do you work with civil society Saudi groups?

MR. TILLEMANN: We certainly work with civil society groups in Saudi Arabia, and the Secretary has met with them regularly, particularly women’s groups, on her visits to the country.

QUESTION: Can you name the Iranian present there – the representative, and also can you expand on how the financial aid is going to work regarding with sanctions against Iran? I’m (inaudible) from Voice of America Persian News Network. Sorry.

MR. TILLEMANN: The Iranian who was present at the table was Azar Nafisi, who is a very well-known and well-respected writer. On the other issues, on the financing – and some of these initiatives we are still in an open conversation with representatives of civil society about how best to structure funding for these initiatives in order to ensure that they’re effective. And so if you’re referring specifically to the fund that the Secretary mentioned to support civil society organizations that are under pressure, we are in the midst of consultations with civil society right now. We hope ultimately that that fund will be administered by civil society and a partnership, and that they can take a leading role in determining how to allocate those resources most effectively.

MS. FULTON: I think we have time for about two more questions.

QUESTION: I was late, I’m sorry. Have you released or you are going to release the list of the activists from the civil society organizations from these countries?

MR. TILLEMANN: We, I believe, have released or can release a list of the activists who were at the table this morning for the Secretary’s event.

QUESTION: You will?

MR. TILLEMANN: Yes, we will.

QUESTION: Okay. Was there anyone from Turkey or from Caucasus or Albania?

MR. TILLEMANN: There were a number of participants from Eurasia. I’d have to go back and consult the list to determine whether there were individuals from those countries.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. FULTON: In the back.

QUESTION: What’s the process, like, of determining which groups interact as members of the civil society?

MR. TILLEMANN: It’s a great question, and it’s one that we are eager to answer in consultation and partnership with civil society. One of the things that we did for today’s event was to reach out to civil society organizations and ask them who they felt should be at the table for these discussions, and that’s a model that we hope we can continue to employ going forward.

QUESTION: How did you decide who to contact?

MR. TILLEMANN: The State Department has, for a long time, been extremely engaged with civil society and we have many good partners in the field. We try to maintain an open conversation with those partners. And we, as a result of those existing relationships, have a strong bench of people we can turn to when these questions arise.

MS. FULTON: We’ll take one final question.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up to what you said earlier about it being the hope and expectation of the State Department that these civil society groups could preside over their own distribution of their own funds, or the funds that we provide to them. Is that a realistic expectation in situations where these civil society groups and actors are situated in repressive regimes?

MR. TILLEMANN: What we’ve done in a number of instances already as it relates to our Human Rights Defenders Fund and several other projects is to build partnerships with civil society. Oftentimes, they have a strong presence on the ground; they know the other civil society actors, and they’re good judges of who are those individuals within these countries who are working hard to advance change and under pressure as a result of their activities.

So, obviously, you need to calibrate the structure of these initiatives to match the circumstances we encounter in each country, and that’s something that we’ll have to continue. And yet we have found that one of our strongest partners in helping to strengthen civil society is, not surprisingly, civil society. And they’re indispensible to the work that we do in our efforts to bolster organizations that are facing pressure from other governments.

QUESTION: Does our money get confiscated by repressive regimes, is what I’m wondering.

MR. TILLEMANN: We do our best to ensure that it doesn't.

MS. FULTON: Okay. With that, thank you, Dr. Tillemann, for spending some time with us.

PRN: 2011/226

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