Remarks to the International Women's Leadership Forum
Secretary of State
And I can – I am delighted to commend Mongolia for convening this International Women’s Leadership Forum, and it’s a great honor for me to be here on the stage along with Kim Campbell and along with Ms. Kang, the High Commissioner for Human Rights Deputy from the United Nations. I see in the audience a wonderful friend, someone who was the first woman president of Kyrgyzstan. Roza, it’s wonderful to see you and please, let’s give you a round of applause. (Applause.) And Ambassador Leissner, who will be leading the efforts of the Community of Democracies, and to all the officials here in Mongolia, particularly to the newly elected women members of the parliament, congratulations. (Applause.)
If there is one characteristic that every strong democracy in the world shares, it is that they are fully open to all of their citizens – men and women – and a democracy without the participation of women is a contradiction in terms. So whenever we talk about how to support democracy, we must be sure that women are not just a part of the discussion, but at the table to help lead that discussion, and to remain committed to helping more women worldwide gain roles in their governments, their economies, and their civil societies.
I’m delighted that here in Mongolia, supporting the rise of women leaders is a national priority. The number of women in parliament tripled after the recent elections, as the President said and as you just saw. And these women are blazing a path for all Mongolians who have the drive and desire to serve, to follow. And Mr. President, I love the way you ended your remarks, that you hope someday there will be a woman president of Mongolia. So I think the United States and Mongolia should be in a race to see who gets there first. (Applause.)
Seventeen years ago, when I was the First Lady of my nation, I made an unforgettable trip to Ulaanbaatar. And like many who came here, I was enchanted certainly by the nation’s beauty, but by its hospitality and particularly the energy and determination of its people. And I was especially inspired by the Mongolian people’s commitment to democracy. Against long odds, surrounded by powerful neighbors who had their own ideas about Mongolia’s future, the Mongolian people came together with great courage to transform a one-party Communist dictatorship into a pluralistic, democratic political system.
During my trip 17 years ago, I was delighted to give a speech at the Mongolian National University, and there I offered a challenge to anyone who would suggest that freedom and democracy are exclusively Western concepts. The answer was simple. I said, “Let them come to Mongolia. Let them see people willing to hold demonstrations in subzero temperatures and travel long distances to cast their ballots in elections.” So great was their commitment to making Mongolia’s democracy strong.
And since that time, Mongolia has held six successful rounds of parliamentary elections. You recently passed a long-awaited freedom of information law giving your citizens a clearer view into the workings of their government. On Mongolian TV, people from across the political spectrum openly and vigorously debate ideas. And Mongolians deserve our support today as you work to improve freedom of the press, hold the symbol of fair elections to an even higher standard, and root out corruptions of all kinds wherever it may be found in order to build a durable democracy. Now here we are. We have all come to Mongolia to reaffirm our support from democracy in the region and the world, and in particular, to highlight the role and opportunities for women in democracies.
Now I have come here as part of an extended trip across Asia. Yesterday, I attended a conference in Japan, one of our most important democratic allies, to help support a fledgling democracy, Afghanistan. Tomorrow, I will travel to Vietnam and then on to Laos, where I will be the first Secretary of State to visit that country in 57 years. And then later, I will join leaders from across the region in Cambodia for the ASEAN Regional Forum. My trip reflects a strategic priority of American foreign policy today. After 10 years in which we had to focus a great deal of attention on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is making substantially increased investments – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in this part of the world. It’s what is called our pivot toward Asia.
As President Obama and I have described, we want to help build an open, stable, and just regional order in the Asia Pacific based on norms and institutions that benefit all nations and all peoples. And therefore, our strategy incorporates three broad dimensions of America’s engagement – security, economic, and common values. The first, security, has of course gotten a lot of attention recently. And while it is very important, it is only one part of our strategic engagement. We view our economic outreach in Asia as equally vital, and I will be speaking about that throughout this trip.
But I have to say that in many ways, the heart of our strategy, the piece that binds all the rest of it together, is our support for democracy and human rights. Those are not only my nation’s most cherished values; they are the birthright of every person born in the world. They are the values that speak to the dignity of every human being. They are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, making clear that these are not to be given by a government to any individual, because every individual already owns them. And together, the elements of security, economics, and common values undergird our vision of a region that is peaceful, prosperous, and free.
This is the right time to be reminding ourselves about the importance of democracy in Asia as many countries grapple with the question of which model of governance best suits their societies and circumstances, because the path they choose will shape the lives of billions of people of the region and beyond. And what we want for the people of this region, as we do for the entire world, is that you be free to make these choices for yourselves, because people who are free to choose overwhelmingly choose democracy.
Why? Well, because it offers people the chance to live with dignity and to create better lives for their children; it offers societies the best way to resolve disputes peacefully and to share a common vision for one’s society and nation; and by every measure, democracies make better neighbors and partners to other nations. They are more innovative, they tap into the free expression and intellectual capital of the people of their democracy. They inspire people to try to solve problems themselves, not just relying on their government. They give people a way to devote energy to productive political and civic engagement which reduces the allure of extremism. And open societies offer more opportunities for economic, educational, cultural, and people-to-people exchanges which are part of the foundation for peace. So working to expand the global Community of Democracies is not just the right thing to do; it is also the strategically smart thing to do. And as we have seen here in Mongolia, everyone has a stake in the growth of democracy.
Now I know there are some who will say that while democracy can work well elsewhere in the world, it isn’t perfectly at home in Asia. They suggest that it is unsuited to this region’s history, maybe even antithetical to Asian values. Well, I think all we have to do is look at what is happening across Asia today, in countries large and small, to rebut these notions. During the past five years, Asia has been the only region in the world to achieve steady gains in political rights and civil liberties, according to the nongovernmental organization Freedom House.
Consider Thailand, which has overcome sharp political differences and military rule to restore democratic governance. The people of Taiwan recently held vigorous but peaceful presidential elections. And Timor-Leste, Asia’s youngest democracy, held parliamentary elections just this weekend. The Philippines held elections that were widely praised as a significant improvement over previous ones, and also they launched a concerted effort to fight corruption and increase transparency in government. In India, the world’s largest democracy, more than 1 million women have served in local elected offices in villages and cities across the country, working every day, and producing results that improve the lives of citizens. It’s as the President said; they’ve improved the lives for children, improved the lives for people with disabilities, improved the lives for the elderly, improved the lives for other women.
And consider all that has been achieved in Burma. After decades of military rule, the government there released political prisoners, passed laws allowing the formation and operation of political parties, taken steps to protect the freedom of expression, and has begun to make efforts to heal bitter ethnic divisions. And Aung San Suu Kyi, who for decades was the imprisoned conscience of her nation, is now able to speak freely and take her rightful place serving in parliament.
These and other achievements across the region show what is possible. And they stand in stark contrast to those governments that continue to resist reforms, that work around the clock to restrict people’s access to ideas and information, to imprison them for expressing their views, to usurp the rights of citizens to choose their leaders, to govern without accountability, to corrupt the economic progress of the country and take the riches onto themselves. At this decisive moment, as governments across Asia are weighing the future and courageous people everywhere are working for change, the United States and likeminded nations and organizations are called upon to make the case for democracy loudly and clearly. Those who oppose democracy rely on a few arguments, which we must counter at every turn.
Their first argument is that democracy threatens stability. But in fact, democracy fosters stability. It is true that clamping down on political expression or maintaining a tight grip on what people read or say or see can create the illusion of security, but illusions fade because people’s yearning for liberty do not. By contrast, democracy provides a critical safety valve for society. It allows people to select their leaders, it gives those leaders legitimacy to make difficult but necessary decisions for the national good, and it lets those in the minority express their views peacefully, and that helps ensure stability and continuity through political transitions.
Another argument we sometimes hear is that democracy is a privilege belonging to wealthy countries, that developing economies need to put economic growth first and worry about democracy later. Now Asia does have several examples of countries that have achieved initial economic successes without meaningful political reform, but that too is a shortsighted and ultimately unsustainable bargain. You cannot over the long run have economic liberalization without political liberalization. Countries that want to be open for business but closed to free expression will find the approach comes with a cost. It kills innovation, discourages entrepreneurship which are vital for sustainable growth. Without the rule of law, people with a good business idea or money to invest cannot trust that contracts will be respected and corruption punished, or that regulations will be transparent and disputes resolved fairly, and many will end up looking for opportunities elsewhere.
Countries that deny their workers their universal rights, including the right to unionize, pay a cost in lost productivity and greater labor unrest. And furthermore, it’s a losing battle because when economic empowerment finally takes root, when a middle class is formed, popular demands grow for a say in politics and governance. Anyone who doubts that political openness and prosperity go hand-in-hand only have to look to South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan – democratic societies that have delivered tremendous economic benefits. Or look right here in Mongolia, where gross domestic product is growing by double digits. And we’ve seen very clearly that parliamentary elections go hand-in-hand with greater economic opportunity.
Now of course, successful democracies are not created over night. Ours wasn’t. We’ve been at this for a very long time, as you know. And it took quite a number of years to work out many of our challenges. And several of the places I’ve mentioned have only started their journey toward democracy within the last 20 or so years. It takes time to build a strong democracy. And it doesn’t only begin and end with the first free election. In fact, too many places try to pretend they’re democracies because they held one election one time. But we know that is not democracy at all; it is authoritarianism by just a different guise.
As we look at the unique strengths, challenges, and histories of individual nations, we know everyone has to find their own path. But we can learn from each other, we can encourage each other, we can hold each other accountable. We can find the best ways to strengthen the rule of law, to tackle corruption, how to support civil society. And the Community of Democracies helps us do all of these things.
The Community’s new task forces in Tunisia and Moldova are delivering concrete support to countries undergoing promising transitions. It is also playing a key role in defending civil society. And later this afternoon, I will help launch a new Community of Democracies initiative, The LEND Network, that will use 21st century technologies to support leaders in emerging democracies.
The United States wants to be a strong partner to all those who are dedicated to human rights and fundamental freedoms. And it is one of the reasons why we so highly value the role of women, because for us it is just a given that unless we have women involved at every stage, we cannot achieve the promise of democracy.
When I was here 17 years ago, I had just come from the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women, which had been held in Beijing. There, I said that women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights. Well, that is as true today as it was then. I’m very pleased that we’ve seen progress since then. Not enough, and not everywhere, but we can see what can be accomplished by staying focused on the role and rights of women. And as we elect more women to more high-level positions, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We also think it’s important that women themselves network to support each other, which is why this conference is essential, because there are some specific challenges that women in leadership positions face. And we need to be sure that we share information, share experiences, and support each other. And it’s often women coming from civil society, from NGOs, that assume a role in democratic politics. That’s why protecting civil society is especially important for women.
So we speak out against repressive laws and harassment of civil society. We’ve created an emergency fund for NGOs and individuals who come under threat. We have strongly supported a Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Assembly at the UN Human Rights Council. We have created a new global forum, the Open Government Partnership, to promote transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. And we speak out on behalf of marginalized people – racial, religious, ethnic minorities, LGBT people, and yes, still women.
I’ve said before that much of the history of the 21st century will be written in Asia, and it may turn out to be a century in which economies grow, conflicts are avoided, security is strengthened, and those would be good outcomes and we are working hard to achieve them.
But they will not be sustainable unless we are also working to reinforce an architecture of rights-based rule of law in every nation in every region of the world. We need to make the 21st century a time in which people across Asia don’t only become wealthy; they also must become more free. And each of us can help make that happen through our policies, our programs and our actions. And if we do, the benefit is not only will people be more free, but they will be more secure and more prosperous. If we don’t, we will limit the human and economic potential of this great region.
So as members of this vibrant Community of Democracies, let us rededicate ourselves to the shared mission of protecting the rights of people everywhere. And here in Asia, let’s rededicate ourselves to building a freer region. And as we do that, I can say with the same level of certainty that I felt at 17 years ago, if you want to see democracy in action, if you want to see progress being shaped by leaders who are more concerned about lifting up their people than fattening their bank accounts, come to Mongolia. If you want to see women assuming more and more positions of responsibility rather than being marginalized and left behind, come to Mongolia.
So for me – (applause) – there could not be a better place, Mr. President, to talk about the necessity of our working together to ensure that more nations in Asia look like Mongolia, provide opportunities to their people as you are working to do here, hold up women and their rights and opportunities as part of the national treasure of their country. So yes, let them come to Mongolia. They will not be disappointed. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)