Washington — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Asian countries to continue their progress toward democratic reform and emphasized the importance of women’s rights at the International Women’s Leadership Forum on July 9 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Clinton commended Mongolia for its recent history of successful elections and urged other nations to follow its example by recognizing the important connection between democracy and equal participation.
“If there is one characteristic that every strong democracy in the world shares, it is that they are fully open to all of their citizens — men and women — and a democracy without the participation of women is a contradiction in terms,” Clinton said. “So whenever we talk about how to support democracy, we must be sure that women are not just a part of the discussion, but at the table to help lead that discussion" and countries must "remain committed to helping more women worldwide gain roles in their governments, their economies and their civil societies.”
Recalling her first visit to Ulanbaataar as first lady 17 years ago, Clinton said that her admiration for Mongolians’ commitment to democracy had since grown with the successful administration of six elections, the passage of a long-awaited freedom of information law and evidence of greater political debate on Mongolian television. Mongolia’s path toward democratization, in combination with the steps taken by countries like Burma and Timor-Leste, are a testament to what Asia can accomplish, she said, but more must be done to ensure the development of a stable, norms-based regional order.
“This is the right time to be reminding ourselves about the importance of democracy in Asia as many countries grapple with the question of which model of governance best suits their societies and circumstances, because the path they choose will shape the lives of billions of people of the region and beyond,” Clinton said. “And what we want for the people of this region, as we do for the entire world, is that you be free to make these choices for yourselves, because people who are free to choose overwhelmingly choose democracy.”
Though some governments continue to resist reforms and restrict their people's freedom, Clinton said, people across Asia are nevertheless beginning to call for significant political and social change, and democratic nations must reaffirm the advantages of democracy and rebut the erroneous arguments used by its opponents.
Opponents often argue that democracy threatens a nation’s stability, failing to recognize that it offers society a safety valve, she said.
“It is true that clamping down on political expression or maintaining a tight grip on what people read or say or see can create the illusion of security, but illusions fade because people’s yearning for liberty [does] not,” Clinton said, alluding to a tactic frequently used by authoritarian regimes. Democracy, in contrast, creates real security in turbulent times because it enables minorities to express their views peacefully and ensures that elections give legitimacy to leaders who must make difficult decisions for the national good.
Some also claim that democracy is a luxury that only wealthy countries can afford, but this argument is fallacious, she said, because long-term economic liberalization cannot occur without political liberalization.
“Countries that want to be open for business but closed to free expression will find the approach comes with a cost,” Clinton said. “Without the rule of law, people with a good business idea or money to invest cannot trust that contracts will be respected and corruption punished, or that regulations will be transparent and disputes resolved fairly, and many will end up looking for opportunities elsewhere.” Countries that deny their workers universal rights also tend to suffer losses in productivity due to labor unrest.
In short, Clinton said, attempting to hold back the tide of political liberalization is “a losing battle” because growing prosperity creates a middle class that eventually demands a role in politics and governance. South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan and Mongolia have all illustrated this inexorable relationship in the course of their development.
Nations striving toward democratic governments can learn from, and be held accountable by, successful democracies, Clinton explained. She said fledgling democracies can receive the support they need through participation in the Community of Democracies (CD), an intergovernmental organization of democracies and democratizing countries. Citing the CD’s ongoing initiatives in Tunisia and Moldova, Clinton said the organization can help countries strengthen the rule of law, defend civil society and tackle corruption.
A vital component of democratization is women's participation, Clinton said, and there is still much more to be done to promote women's rights. Women leaders must build support networks and democratizing countries must protect civil society, since women active in civil society and NGOs are often those who manage to break into democratic politics.
Clinton concluded by reaffirming that Asian countries must ensure in the coming decades that their people not only become wealthier, but also freer.
“I’ve said before that much of the history of the 21st century will be written in Asia, and it may turn out to be a century in which economies grow, conflicts are avoided, security is strengthened, and those would be good outcomes and we are working hard to achieve them,” she said. “But they will not be sustainable unless we are also working to reinforce an architecture of rights-based rule of law in every nation in every region of the world.”
After addressing the International Women’s Leadership Forum, Clinton launched the Leaders Engaged in New Democracies (LEND) Network, a CD initiative that uses modern communication technology to create an online forum for leaders to exchange information about the construction of their own democracies.