Stephen Biegun, Deputy Secretary of State
Foreign Minister Arescu, Secretary General Garrett – I thank you and your teams for organizing this important discussion to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Community of Democracies and the Warsaw Declaration.
Former Secretary Albright, we applaud your tireless efforts as a champion for democracy and your ongoing support for the Community of Democracies.
I’m pleased to join you in reflecting on how we as a community of democratic states should address challenges to democracy arising from the global COVID-19 pandemic. The United States co-founded this Community because we believe democratic values and respect for human rights underpin global peace, security, and prosperity. Twenty years later, the United States stands firmly committed to the purpose and goals of this coalition.
The United States believes that democracy is the answer in times of crisis, not the oppression and corruption of authoritarian regimes poorly equipped to respond to the needs of their people. We know, however, that sustaining democracy requires hard work, careful stewardship, and constant vigilance. It faces challenges and even setbacks.
Some governments exploit an international community distracted by the pandemic to restrict human rights and fundamental freedoms in their countries, claiming this oppression is necessary – or even advantageous – for stopping the spread of disease. We have seen them use disinformation; censor independent media; scapegoat religious and other minority groups; restrict access to the Internet; expand mass surveillance; stifle political and civic activism; and suspend the rule of law.
It’s precisely in times like these – when more is demanded of us – that democracies must act together to promote and protect our values, strengthen democratic institutions, and uphold the rule of law. It is also necessary to solving public health crises, because it builds public trust and legitimacy, which has been key in mitigating previous epidemics.
In this regard, we know what works:
Government transparency and accountability, the full and inclusive participation of civil society and other stakeholders, and free access to timely and accurate information are critical. Transparent, inclusive, and open governments are better able to coordinate national health responses, rapidly and accountably deploy emergency procurement processes, and harness new and emerging technologies that protect public health.
Governments should engage all sectors of society in developing, implementing, and communicating public health measures. The full participation of women and persons from all marginalized communities – including religious, racial, and ethnic minority groups, persons with disabilities, and LGBTI persons – in decision-making fosters more resilient, peaceful, and democratic societies.
Civil society and independent media play especially positive roles during times of crisis. As a critical link between governments and the publics they serve, they help build public trust, efficiently communicate public concerns to authorities, and push governments to share critical updates and counter the spread of disinformation and misinformation.
It is essential during crises for governments to respect freedom of expression, whether exercised offline or online and including for members of the press. Governments must not engage in state censorship under the guise of protecting public health, including by shutting down Internet access or blocking platforms or content that is protected by freedom of expression. Such censorship poses an unquestionable risk to public health.
In the face of challenges and efforts to undermine the democratic principles we hold dear, we in this Community must work together to promote and protect these principles – including by speaking out with a unified voice whenever and wherever they are threatened.
It is more important than ever that the UN, regional, and other multilateral bodies illuminate the human rights issues in closed and restrictive societies, and make every effort to communicate with and support where possible civil society under threat.
The United States stands side by side with this Community and civil society to face the challenges of the 21st century with a deep faith in, and commitment to, our shared democratic principles.