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Civil Society Takes Spotlight At Global Democracy Gathering
The Washington Diplomat / September 2010

By Larry Luxner

KRAKOW, Poland — Ten years ago, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Poland’s foreign minister at the time, Bronislaw Geremek, hit upon the idea of bringing together free nations to discuss how to strengthen democratic institutions around the world. Earlier this summer, 87 foreign delegations — along with 200 civil-society activists from blatantly unfree countries like Burma, China, Cuba and Zimbabwe — converged on Krakow for the 10th anniversary of the Community of Democracies.

Hosted by Poland’s current foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, the July 3 event took place at Krakow’s elegant Opera House and the nearby Juliusz Slowacki Theatre. The undisputed star of this High Level Democracy Meeting — as it was known — was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who eloquently spoke of the role civil society played in defeating communism throughout Eastern Europe a generation ago.

“Poland actually is a case study in how a vibrant civil society can produce progress,” she said. “The heroes of the solidarity movement, people like Geremek and Lech Walesa and Adam Michnik and millions of others, laid the foundation for the Poland we see today. They knew that the Polish people desired and deserved more from their country. And they transformed that knowledge into one of history’s greatest movements for positive change.”

Clinton, who spoke for about 45 minutes, acknowledged that not every country boasts a civil society movement on the scale of Solidarity. But most nations do have a critical mass of activists, writers, churches and other organizations that work through peaceful means to push their governments to do better for their people — the United States being a perfect example.

“It was civil society, after all, that gave us the abolitionists who fought the evils of slavery, the suffragettes who campaigned for women’s rights, the freedom marchers who demanded racial equality, the unions that championed the rights of labor, the conservationists who worked to protect our planet and climate,” she said, noting that “I began my professional life in civil society. The NGO I worked for, the Children’s Defense Fund, helped expand educational opportunities for poor children, and children with disabilities, and tried to address the challenges faced by young people in prison.”

Building on her own experience, Clinton said that “a commitment to strengthening civil society has been one of my constants” throughout a public career as first lady, senator from New York and now secretary of state.

“I was able to work with Slovakian NGOs that stood up to and ultimately helped bring down an authoritarian government. I have seen civil society groups in India bring the benefits of economic empowerment to the most marginalized women in that society. I have watched in wonder as a small group of women activists in South Africa began with nothing and went on to build a community of 50,000 homes … Even in the most challenging environments, civil society can help improve lives and empower citizens.”

At the other end of the spectrum are the worst dictatorships on Earth, she said.

“North Korea, a country that cannot even feed its own people, has banned all civil society,” Clinton said. “In Cuba and Belarus, civil society operates under extreme pressure. And the government of Iran has turned its back on a rich tradition of civil society, perpetrating human-rights abuses against many activists and ordinary citizens who just wanted the right to be heard.”

To strengthen the role of civil society, Clinton urged the Community of Democracies to establish an objective, independent mechanism for monitoring repressive measures against NGOs.

“Secondly, the United Nations Human Rights Council needs to do more to protect civil society,” she said. “Freedom of association is the only freedom defined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights that does not enjoy specific attention from the UN human rights machinery. That must change.”

In addition, she said, the U.S. government will work with the Organization of American States, the European Union, the African Union, the Arab League and other regional blocs to do more to defend the freedom of association. And finally, Clinton urged her fellow foreign ministers to develop a rapid-response mechanism to respond in situations where freedom of association comes under attack.

“When NGOs come under threat, we should provide protection where we can, and amplify the voices of activists by meeting with them publicly at home and abroad, and citing their work in what we say and do,” she noted, announcing that the United States would contribute $2 million to a new fund to support the work of embattled NGOs. The money will be used to provide legal representation, cellphone and Internet access, and “other forms of quick support” to NGOs under siege.

“Ultimately, our work on these issues is about the type of future we want to leave to our children and grandchildren,” said Clinton. “And anyone who doubts this should look at Poland. The world we live in is more open, more secure and more prosperous because of individuals like Lech Walesa, Adam Michnik and others who worked through the Solidarity movement to improve conditions in their own country, and who stand for freedom and democracy.”

Dominik Jankowski isn’t old enough to remember the summer of 1980, when Walesa led his fellow Gdansk shipyard workers on a strike against Poland’s communist regime. But Solidarity, the movement Walesa began, has had a profound effect on the young activist. Jankowski, 27, works as chief editor at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation — one of many Polish NGOs of the type Clinton praised in her speech.

Named after a famous Polish-American Revolutionary War hero, the Casimir Pulaski Foundation is a Warsaw think tank dealing with world affairs (particularly those of Eastern Europe), the transatlantic relationship and regional defense issues. The foundation was established in 2003 — a few months before Poland officially joined the European Union — and Jankowski was brought aboard two years later.

“In the last 20 years, we Poles have managed to build the beginning of civil society based on sound fundamentals,” he said. “However, our mission is not completed.”

Katarzyna Pisarka runs a different kind of NGO. The European Academy of Diplomacy, located in Warsaw, aims to prepare young people all across Poland and other formerly communist countries for careers in international diplomacy.

Previously known as the Academy of Young Diplomats, the institution opened its doors in 2004. It works very closely with Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also cooperates with the ministries of defense, agriculture, interior and regional development.

“We thought there was not enough engagement of young people in foreign issues, and not enough knowledge about diplomacy,” she explained. “As far as we know, we’re the only one in Poland doing this.”

Operating on an annual budget of only $500,000, the Academy’s funding comes mainly from students themselves; the annual program costs 500 euro and is highly competitive.

“We accept 250 students from among 800 applicants each year, and 90 percent of them come from outside Warsaw,” she said. “We train diplomats to serve overseas. We teach them diplomatic protocol, public speaking and how to negotiate, especially inside the EU. All the training is in English.”

Pisarska, whose husband Zbigniew happens to be president of the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, said 5 to 10 percent of the academy’s students are non-Poles, but they do have to speak Polish. “We bring diplomats from Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine and Russia. We teach them the same skills we teach our diplomats. Additionally, we offer a whole program on how the EU works.”

Since 2004, more than 1,500 people have graduated from EAD’s programs; the vast majority now work at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the EU and other international organizations. One of its staunchest admirers is Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. national security adviser during the Carter administration.

“I am very much impressed by the initiative you have undertaken,” Brzezinski recently said. “It represents a new Poland, the Poland of the 21st century, and a Poland that — for the first time in an extremely long time — is geopolitically entrenched in something larger than itself, and yet friendly to Poland’s national identity and political sovereignty. By training a new generation of Polish diplomats, EAD is rending a real national service.”

Added noted historian Norman Davies: “The European Academy of Diplomacy does more than shape future Polish diplomats. It is an institution with the mission of building a stronger Poland within a unified Europe, a Europe without borders between East and West.”

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