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Remarks at the Civil Society Forum Global Townhall

Press Conference

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Location: Washington, DC

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good morning, everybody. Thank you, Linda, very, very much for opening this exciting beginning of a very exciting three days, and we're really delighted to welcome everybody here. Thank you all for joining us this morning to have a candid back-and-forth about a critical topic, and we are particularly grateful to all of our panelists. I want to thank Shaka Ssali for helping to -- not helping, but for moderating this event, but really for helping to bring to it an elegance and a confidence with respect to the topics that we're talking about, and I'm particularly grateful to our presidents, President Mahama of Ghana and President Kikwete of Tanzania for being here with us.

And I'm delighted that Vice President Biden will be joining us at the end of the townhall, and I think that's one of the reasons why it took you a little longer to get in here than it does normally. I want to thank those who are tuning in online who have fed in some of the questions and some of the comments through YouTube, and I want to thank all of the government reformers who are here today for what you do. We salute your courage; we thank you for your visionary leadership in forging partnerships with civil society.

And as I said at the beginning, this is really one of the opening events in these three days which we are genuinely very excited about. What is happening and what can happen in Africa are both extraordinarily exciting concepts. This is a moment of amazing opportunity for Africa, and I think that's what brings all of you here. That's why we've brought together leaders from 50 countries across Africa for this historic summit. It's also why we're determined to deepen our partnerships and to deliver on remarkable opportunities for peace, for security, for economic growth, and perhaps most importantly of all in the context of what brings us here today, the empowerment of people through their government, through their civil society.

I want to be clear about something: To get this moment right for the long term, which is what matters; to really drive change and create lasting opportunity, we need to invest in relationships not just with those who are in charge -- in charge today -- but with those who are pushing for change, some of whom in the right opportunity of democracy and of process might be in charge in the future. Trust is the heart of governance, and that trust begins and ends with a strong and vibrant, inclusive, and independent civil society. That has been proven in country after country through all of history.

For me, I began as an activist. I began as somebody who protested a war that I was -- that I served in. I also learned at that time that this is a pretty personal process when you engage in the effort of civil society. It's also something I saw firsthand when I participated in the first-ever Earth Day in Massachusetts back in 1970: A movement of people who reacted to their felt needs, who reacted to the fact that they were living next to toxic waste sites that made them sick or possibly even gave them a cancer that they would die from, people who didn't want to drink water that was polluted, people who knew there were a better set of choices.

And so that movement of people -- not government, people first -- led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act. All of it came out of the reality of civil society making itself felt. The fact is it changed the face of our environment forever, we hope, and I know from all of that as you do the difference that activism can make.

Empowered civil society is the foundation of every successful democracy here in the United States, in Africa, and around the world, because in the end, our most enduring relationships, most consequential relationships are not with one particular government at one moment in time. It's not with those who are in power for the short run. The legacy is really shaped by the people of a country and the people of a continent, the people of Africa who stand on principle for the long haul and who are increasingly connected to the world around them and who, therefore, aspire to greater and greater set of opportunities.

I'm looking out at a bunch of mobile devices that right now are transmitting what I'm saying. That's a different world from anything we ever lived in. And increasing numbers of people all around the world are connected all the time to everywhere, and they know the choices that everybody else has in some other place. This has a profound impact on politics, a profound impact on choices. And the fact is that no politician, nowhere in the world -- no president, no prime minister, no government -- can take that genie that has been released to the human spirit and somehow put it back in a bottle. That's why everywhere I travel as Secretary of State, especially when I visit countries that are in the middle of a transition, I meet with civil society groups. And I look to those discussions to help inform our foreign policy, to meet shared challenges and uphold the shared values that define all nations. I will just underscore the word "shared."

Strong civil society and respect for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights -- these are not just American values. They're universal values. They're universal aspirations. And anyone who reads history and knows history understands that. Why? Because diversity is always a better predictor of success than uniformity; because strong institutions are always more effective, more durable, and more predictable than strong men or women at one particular moment of time; and because good statecraft recognizes that the pendulum of history is moving towards greater liberty and freedom for individuals.

Those are, in fact, the very aspirations that drove Nelson Mandela to reject recrimination in favor of reconciliation and insist on relinquishing his office so that there would be a peaceful transfer of power. Those are the aspirations that are reflected in opinion poll after opinion poll all across Africa, where large majorities of Africans support free, accessible, and fair elections, and limiting their presidents to two terms in office. Those are the aspirations that drove Wangari Maathai to launch the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and transform the way that Africans relate to the environment. And those are the aspirations that drove Frank Mugisha and others to risk their lives for LGBT rights and equality and non-discrimination in Uganda.

The United States supports the establishment of institutions that translate the will of the people into actions that promote transparency and accountability from leaders, and that, ultimately, safeguard freedom and justice for all. And we support governments in their partnerships with civil society in order to realize these aspirations, from Ghana to Botswana to Tanzania. That's why I joined with President Obama and leaders from 25 countries on the margins of the UN General Assembly last year to launch Stand With Civil Society. We're engaged in a global campaign to support, defend, and sustain the work of civil society, and we're coming together with countries in the Open Government Partnership and Community of Democracies to support engagement with civil society on countless shared priorities and active fronts across the globe.

Why does America care whether countries around the world, including African states, enforce the rule of law, reform their economies, and embrace pluralism? Very simple. We care because we believe that when people can trust their government and rely on its accountability and transparency on justice, that society flourishes and is more prosperous and more stable than others. We believe that opportunity and prosperity are powerful antidotes to the violent urges of extremism and division. And we know that the gravest threats to the security of nations almost invariably come from countries where people and their governments are at odds, where they are divided. That is why we will continue to encourage civic engagement and reach out. And we will continue to support press freedom, including for journalists charged with terrorism or imprisoned on arbitrary grounds. We will continue to stand up for the constitutionally-mandated term limits, as I have in countries around the world, including Africa. And we will urge leaders not to alter national constitutions for personal or political gain. We will continue to stand up and speak out for civil society organizations around the world and in Africa that face attacks, that push for less onerous regulations on their work, and that struggle with restrictions on what they can do, what they can say, where they can work, how they can obtain funding. And we will continue to stand up and speak for the rights of all persons with disabilities, and we will continue to stand up and speak out for LGBT activists who are working for the day when tolerance and understanding really do conquer hate. And we will do so because we know that countries are stronger and more stable when people are listened to and given shared power.

None of this is easy, and I'll be the first to admit that the world is more complicated and more dangerous today than at any other time in recent memory. But that is exactly when we need to believe in the possibilities of alternative avenues of solving these problems. I believe in those possibilities; President Obama believes in those possibilities. I know our panel does. And when we look back, I am confident that we will say that the people of Africa took advantage of this extraordinary moment of opportunity. That is our call to action; that is our charge. And that is why we are here today, so let's dive into that discussion now. Thank you. (Applause.)

I gather I have the privilege of taking a couple of questions. Is that right?

MODERATOR: Yes sir. Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, for your words of wisdom. I have to say, frankly, that I am profoundly honored and exceedingly humbled to have the opportunity to host you on this panel today.

You have two questions from the African continent. One is from Justin Burundi -- Justin, actually, from the Republic of Burundi: "As part of the assistance the U.S. provides to Africa, how might the U.S. work with African countries to produce constitutions that promote the freedoms of association, assembly, and speech like the one the United States currently has?

SECRETARY KERRY: (Laughter.) I think that's what I was just talking about, but look, in the end, most African countries -- interestingly, most African countries have very strong constitutions. And those strong constitutions, if you read them and analyze them, actually do provide very clear separation of power, rule of law, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech. Even the principles of nondiscrimination are contained within most of the constitutions in Africa.

So Africa has done pretty well in drafting the constitution and putting together the basic concepts. Where there has been a challenge, obviously, is in making sure that it is followed, and that requires the building of capacity. Doesn't happen overnight, didn't happen here overnight. We had a first constitution, as everybody I hope recalls, before we had the second, more durable constitution, and even that constitution has been amended many times.

Slavery was written into our Constitution before it was written out of our Constitution. And we all know what a battle we had in this country in order to do that, and we are still battling to make sure that our Constitution is, in fact, upheld and applied in the law in terms of voting rights and the way districts are divided. This is not unique to one continent or one place. It's part of politics, part of human nature, and that is the greatest struggle of all. We're still working to perfect, everybody is. We have to work together. The key is to have leadership that is committed to fundamentally building that capacity, and that capacity has to be built in a healthcare system. It has to be built in an education system. It has to be built in the judicial system. It has to be built in the economic rules of the road so that there's fairness and an opportunity to grow with investment and create opportunity by creating jobs.

It's hard work. Democracy is hard work. But most people who have practiced it say as difficult as it is and as imperfect as it is, it is the best thing against any other shape of government on earth because it respects people's rights to organize, speak out, be who they are, and have an impact on the outcome. Most important thing I can think of in terms of answering that question is be among the activists who are here today, be among the civil society proponents in your country, work with civil society. That's how you create the kind of accountability that makes a constitution meaningful, and that's the most important thing of all.

MODERATOR: The second question is from Bagase from the Republic of Botswana, and he says: "Tackling poverty is one of the greatest challenges faced by African states. What policies or legal framework would you advise African leaders to adopt to reduce economic inequalities among the African populations? Can you speak to the role vibrant civil society plays in ensuring economic growth that benefits all Africans?"

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that's a big, big topic, and I'll try to give it a really -- (laughter) -- I'll try to give it as tight an answer as I can, then I'll abandon the panel to really solve it. (Laughter.) I'm confident the presidents will have very strong views about what they're already doing in order to do that.

Poverty is everybody's great challenge. When I was in one African country recently and having dinner with the foreign minister, I was talking about one particular sectarian component of the society, and he was describing to me how poverty was the challenge because these young minds were being captured by extremist views which first offered them money just to bring them to the table, but then once they captured the mind, didn't have to offer them money anymore and were beginning to put them out there as activists and recruiters and even people to take on certain extremist kinds of missions.

Bottom line is if we leave the minds of young people to those who will fill the vacuum of power with malicious intent, we're all in trouble. Radical religious extremism is being offered as an alternative without every saying how it will offer up a healthcare plan or an education system in which everybody can thrive without ever talking about building infrastructure or creating a government in which people will be able to participate. They just say, "Live our way or else you may lose your life." That's it. That's not an alternative.

And that's a challenge, let me tell you, as we struggle with the Middle East right now and we see ISIL doing what it's doing and unilaterally declaring a caliphate and engaging in its own practices. We understand this more than ever before, and we see it in Boko Haram, we see it in other entities through Africa. We see this tension on the ground. So we all have a stake in this. This is not an African problem. This is everybody's problem and everybody's challenge. There are millions upon millions of young kids in Africa who need to be educated in the next 10 years, and it is critical for all of us to recognize how that is related to stability and the end of conflict and the provision of opportunity.

So poverty is the challenge for all of us. You have people like Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation and you have President Obama who has made it a singular effort to try to reduce the level of poverty and be engaged in Power Africa and other initiatives. I was part of an effort in the Senate back in the 1990s and President Clinton signed it into law at the end that created AGOA. And AGOA is raising the level of job level, of commerce and trade, but not fast enough.

That's one of the reasons why President Obama asked people to come to Washington to have this conversation in the next few days, because we need to decide, all together, how we are going to attack poverty. And it is done not by one single program. There's no silver bullet. There's no single shot on this one. It's a holistic approach, and it begins at the earliest stages of a child's life and it goes all the way through the building of family and the building of opportunity and the offering of jobs and education and technology and transformative kinds of opportunities that come in this modern world we're living in.

What's exciting is that 10 or 11 of the fastest-growing countries in the world are in Africa today. And the reality is this is not something over the horizon. This is here now if people will make the right choices, which is why we say it's so important to shed light and transparency on these things.

One of the final things I'll say is corruption stands in the way of achieving some of these goals. If people want to accrue wealth for the few and not share it with the people of a country who are part of that wealth, then we're going to have a problem, all of us, and no one faster than the people in that place where that corruption has superseded the kind of transparency and accountability we're talking about.

So I hope you will dig into that question here in the course of this morning and in the course of the next three days, because Africa has the resources. Africa -- and the resources are not just -- they're not defined by oil and gold and what's in the ground. The resource is the people, the knowhow, the capacity, the desire. And if that is harnessed properly, there is no limit to the rapidity with which growth can take over in Africa, and a different set of possibilities and opportunities will be known.

Not so many years ago, many more countries in Africa were at war with each other and there was much less opportunity. This is happening. I don't look at this as the same kind of challenge it was 15 or 20 years ago. It is moving unbelievably fast, and I think we have a huge opportunity here in the next few days to define those choices and to begin to work together in order to guarantee that life changes even more rapidly for all those people who are holding those mobile devices around the world and looking at the choices the rest of the world is making.

Thank you all. Appreciate it. (Applause.)


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