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IRI forms advisory council to promote democracy, freedom
Diplomatic Pouch / January 7, 2016

By Larry Luxner

Luminaries, human rights activists and former heads of state representing countries from Slovakia to Mongolia will comprise a newly established 16-member panel to advise the nonprofit International Republican Institute (IRI) on global political issues.

The Washington-based IRI said its International Advisory Council aims to support the organization’s vision of democracy “at a time when individual freedoms are being challenged in so many places.”

Among the council’s members are John Howard, second longest-serving prime minister in Australia’s history (1996-2007); Mikulas Dzurinda, prime minister of Slovakia from 1998 to 2006; John Agyekum Kufuor, president of Ghana from 2001 to 2009, and José Ramos-Horta, Nobel Prize-winning president of Timor-Leste from 2007 to 2012 and one of the leaders of his country’s fight for independence from Indonesia.

Also on the panel: Andrés Pastrana, president of Colombia from 1998 to 2002, and later Colombia’s ambassador to the United States.

Founded in 1983, the IRI is a nonpartisan organization that helps political parties become more issue-based and responsive; it also works to boost the role of marginalized groups in the political process, such as women and young people. As such, the IRI promotes democracy worldwide — often with its nonprofit counterpart, the National Democratic Institute.

“IRI’s council demonstrates that there are strong voices who believe in promoting democracy and citizen-oriented government,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairman of the organization’s board of directors. “From former prime ministers and presidents to a Nobel laureate, and leading advocates in good governance and human rights, the members of IRI’s International Advisory Council bring a wealth of experience to the institute and its work.”

Joining Pastrana on the prestigious panel is Luis Fortuño, former governor of the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Fortuño, a pro-statehood politician who led the island from 2009 to 2013, was defeated in his 2012 re-election bid by the current governor, Alejandro García Padilla of the Popular Democratic Party.

A corporate finance and real-estate lawyer by profession, Fortuño became the first Republican to be elected governor of Puerto Rico since 1969, and the second Republican ever to win election as the island’s non-voting resident commissioner in Washington — a position he held from 2005 to 2009.

He told the Diplomatic Pouch that despite the current economic crisis sparked by the commonwealth’s $73 billion fiscal deficit, Puerto Rico’s consistently high voter turnout — “it’s always above 70 percent and at times close to 80 percent” — sets an example for other democracies where electoral participation is much lower.

“The preservation and defense of freedom and the promotion of democratic values around the world is ingrained in our nation,” he said in a phone interview from San Juan. “It’s really an honor to be able to help guarantee that the people’s will in other parts of the world are not just promoted but protected as well. To the extent I can contribute to IRI’s efforts is something I cherish.”

In May 2014, Fortuño led IRI’s delegation to monitor a fractious presidential election in Panama. Opposition leader Juan Carlos Varela won that contest with nearly 40 percent of the vote, replacing billionaire businessman Ricardo Martinelli. On Dec. 22, Panama’s Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Martinelli, who is wanted on spying and corruption charges, and is believed to be living in Miami.

Fortuño said he’s particularly interested in promoting democracy throughout Latin America and the Caribbean; in the past, IRI has also monitored elections in half a dozen regional hotspots including Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Fortuño, who chaired the Congressional Hispanic Conference during the 110th Congress, is one of several prominent Latinos on the new council. Others include former Sen. Mel Martínez (R-Florida), a Cuban-American who was also U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, and Mexican-American attorney Anna Escobedo Cabral, 56, who served from 2005 to 2009 as the 42nd treasurer of the United States.

Also on the IRI’s new international advisory council:

* Sihem Bensedrine, a human rights activist and journalist from Tunisia who was jailed by the Ben Ali dictatorship and is now president of the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission.

* Lucinda Creighton, a member of the Irish Parliament since May 2007 and former vice-president of the European People’s Party.

* Stockwell Day, Canada’s minister of international trade from 2008 to 2010, and now a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation.

* Mo Ibrahim, founder and chairman of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and a leading voice for good governance and transparency in Africa.

* Yong-Hi Kim, secretary-general of South Korea’s National Election Commission.

* Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion and now mayor of the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev.

* Brian Loughnane, federal director of Australia’s Liberal Party from 2003 to 2016.

* Oyun Sanjaasuren, a member of Mongolia’s Parliament since 1998, former Mongolian minister of foreign affairs (2007-08) and chairwoman of the Special Olympics Committee of Mongolia.

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