Speaking to the Republican Party Convention, Mitt Romney said, “a free world is a more peaceful world.” He provided no explanation. In fact, there is a lot of evidence to support his assertion.
Where there is scant freedom, there is also abundant violence and rampant governmental corruption. Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, consistently trail in the global rankings of freedom by Freedom House, of perceived corruption by Transparency International, and in the Global Peace Index published by the Vision of Humanity organization.
Mr. Romney has failed to provide how he will promote greater freedom across the world, while Condoleezza Rice, speaking to the Convention in Tampa, ridiculed the Obama Administration for failing to provide leadership. In fact, President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have taken a courageous stand in supporting civil society campaigners in very difficult, autocratic countries, to the anger of the host governments.
Indeed, there was no mention in prominent speeches at the Republican Convention of the Arab Spring – a seminal event that inspired public protests in dozens of countries. Tens of thousands of Tunisians and Egyptians started it, overcoming their fears of vicious state security forces, to denounce their illegitimate governments. Their courage has given anti-corruption, pro-democracy campaigns unprecedented momentum in many parts of the world.
Supporting this momentum is vital. When it comes to backing civil society’s ability to speak truth to power, the Obama administration has displayed vital leadership. The President set the tone and the strategy early in his administration when on a visit to Moscow in July 2009, he attended a high-profile meeting of civil society leaders.
Typical of the leadership, for example, was a meeting with international civil society groups that Secretary Clinton had in Krakow, Poland in mid-2010, where she stressed, “For the United States supporting civil society groups is a critical part of our work to advance democracy.” And, on the same overseas trip a few days later in Yerevan, Armenia, she told another group of civil society activists that, “Democracy requires not just elections, but open dialogue, a free exchange of ideas, government transparency and accountability, and above all, an empowered citizenry, who constantly work together to make their country fairer, juster, healthier and freer.”
The rising energy behind many civil society campaigns for justice and personal freedom owe an enormous amount to the efforts of rising numbers of activists, investigative journalists, public prosecutors and swelling ranks of academics in dozens of countries. They have been raising public awareness of corruption, building networks to pool research and ideas, and exploiting the full potential of social media, to encourage protest and reform. U.S. support for those leading campaigns for democracy and against corruption is important.
Too often we fail to fully recognize the courage of those on the front lines. In 2000, as the Vice Chairman of Transparency International, the global anti-corruption non-governmental organization, I had the honor to present our annual integrity award to investigative reporter Lasantha Wickramatunga of Sri Lanka. On January 8, 2009, he was gunned down when driving to work. He was 52. His last article, penned the day before his death, was titled, “And Then They Came For Me.”
Lasantha had consistently investigated and reported on government corruption. His friend, J.C. Weilamuna, who has faced kidnapping, death threats and office bombings, heads Transparency International – Sir Lanka. He knows the dangers, yet he and his team of colleagues persevere convinced that their efforts will secure rising public support and contribute to both freedom and peace in his country.
I believe that in a rising number of countries today we are at a tipping point where bribe-takers and bribe-payers have ever fewer places to hide, where the prospects of sustainable reforms to curb corruption are improving significantly, and where the skeptics can now be sent packing. Yes, huge challenges remain and none are greater than sustaining civil society movements in many countries, from Russia to Egypt, where democracy and personal freedom are under serious threat; and in countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Venezuela, where activists are under daily threat.
The Obama administration has understood how important it is for the U.S. to support civil society, despite risks to government relationships. At stake is the prospect – now more real in many countries than ever before – of reducing barriers to freedom and creating less violent societies. Mr. Romney was right to connect freedom and peace, now he needs to show that he will follow the Obama example, if elected, and boldly support civil society led movements for freedom and against corruption.