Repression of civil society groups on rise, says Clinton


KRAKOW, Poland – US secretary of state Hillary Clinton expressed alarm on Saturday about what she called a growing crackdown on citizens’ groups around the world and announced a fund to help them fight back.

In what aides called her most important speech in a four-day trip through former Soviet-bloc countries, Mrs Clinton said the repression symbolised by the Iron Curtain had given way to often more subtle government pressures .

“We must be wary of the steel vice in which many governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit,” Mrs Clinton told an international meeting of democracies.

In her speech, Mrs Clinton bluntly accused US adversaries such as Cuba, North Korea and Iran of pressuring or outlawing civil society groups.

But she also chided Russia and China, with whom the Obama administration has sought to build closer ties.

Critics have accused the administration of abandoning former president George W Bush’s emphasis on democracy. Administration officials deny that, saying they are redefining a democracy policy that was discredited by such actions as the invasion of Iraq.

Mrs Clinton has emphasised that the Obama administration’s approach goes beyond pressing for free elections to finding ways to build up democratic institutions and public interest groups that fight corruption and promote environmental causes, women’s rights and other goals.

Speaking in Krakow, Mrs Clinton held out Poland as a model of democratic and free-market transformation.

If Poland has been a democratic success story, though, many other former members of the Soviet bloc have not. Of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, eight are consolidated authoritarian regimes, according to a report released last month by Freedom House, an US watchdog group that aims to support the expansion of freedom around the world.

“Two decades after the collapse of communism, the rulers of these countries are again using brutal security forces, pliant courts and tightly controlled news media to systematically crush political dissent,” according to the group.

Mrs Clinton travelled to one of these states, Azerbaijan, on Saturday night and is scheduled to visit Armenia, which, according to Freedom House, has a “semi-consolidated authoritarian system”.

In her speech at the weekend, Mrs Clinton noted that 50 governments had issued new restrictions on non-governmental organisations in the past six years, singling out Congo, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Ethiopia and Venezuela as examples.

“We must address this crisis,” she told the audience, which was marking the 10th anniversary of the Community of Democracies. One of the founders of that group was a predecessor and close friend of Mrs Clinton’s , Madeleine Albright, who attended the event.

The organisation has languished in recent years, but Poland’s government is trying to revive it. Mrs Clinton pledged to establish a fund with $2 million to help citizens groups under siege hire lawyers and acquire mobile phones or internet access.

Mrs Clinton also used her trip to assure the Polish government that the Obama administration was not neglecting it as it focused on “resetting” relations with Russia.

Polish officials had complained they were left in the dark last year when Mr Obama decided to scrap a long-range missile system that the Bush administration had planned to partially base there to deflect Iranian missiles. – (Washington Post/Bloomberg)