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Opening Remarks by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to the 2006 Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum

"Beyond Elections: Defending Human Rights in the Age of Democratization"

May 23-24, 2006 - Atlanta, Ga.

Thank you Karin, and all those who've made this conference possible. We are honored to have all of you here: not only the human rights defenders, but (also) those of us who in a small way are determined to defend the defenders.

We live in a very secure world, most of us, and we take many of our privileges of democracy and human rights for granted. And it's extremely valuable to us to have heroes come to The Carter Center and share your experience and needs, your frustrations, your desires, your fears with us. We at The Carter Center have been involved in this particular subject for a long time - that is, the interrelationship between democracy and human rights. It's not an automatic or simple relationship. For 20 years now, The Carter Center has considered the promotion of freedom and democracy to be an integral part of our thrust or commitment to human rights.

As part of that process, we have helped to orchestrate - (and) in some cases to monitor - 62 elections around the world. Three of them, the most recent included, were in Palestine: a place where human rights violations are sometimes overlooked but are extremely severe. We've helped with elections in large and small communities. The largest was in Indonesia where we were the unique monitors the first time that the Indonesian people had a chance to escape a dictatorship and choose their leaders. And we returned five years later for another successful election.

All of these that I mentioned have been very successful. The three Palestinian elections were among the best we've ever seen. The election council is comprised of some of the finest and most distinguished people in the Occupied Territories. Others, though, have not been so successful and I think it's incumbent on us to make a very frank and blunt assessment of what has and has not been a matter of pride at least a number of years after the elections were held.

The Carter Center established two decades ago a number of principles, and I would say one of the most important is that we have zero authority. In fact, when I go into a foreign country and make my arrival statement, this is a main emphasis that I place in my talk. We come into your country with no authority. The decisions will be yours. The form of government will be yours. The procedures for holding the elections will be yours. The choices will be yours. The accepting or rejection of the results will be yours. And the aftermath will be your responsibility. We don't believe it's proper for strangers to go into a country and ordain for them our concept of how their government should be. Certainly not by war or the rejection of choices that people make if the process is honest and fair and open and hopefully peaceful. The results of some of our election experiences have been mixed, for instance, in the same country.

We've had two elections in Liberia. Both of them fair, for the people expressed their choices freely. The first one was a disaster because of the choice the people made, and the most recent we hope brings prospect for a permanent peace and freedom and human rights to the people of Liberia. One of the most glorious elections in which I've been a part of was in Haiti in 1990. We had high hopes that for the first time the people of Haiti had expressed their view and that their chosen leader would be successful. It turned out to be a disastrous process and Haiti is still suffering. We're hoping that there might be some redemption coming for those people. I've been to Haiti eight times; several of them to help with election processes. But sometimes when the election is over, the international community takes the results for granted and we don't give the constant attention necessary for a newborn democracy to prevail.

Guyana is a place in which we've been deeply involved. They have democracy there, but the country is still sharply divided down the middle politically, ethnically, culturally; and the country still suffers, even with democracy from an absence of cooperation among its own political leaders and among its own people. Some democratically elected leaders have turned into despots. When I was still president, long before The Carter Center was born, we worked hard to eliminate apartheid in Rhodesia, and I had high hopes when Zimbabwe had its first elections. They made a choice which, as you know, has turned out to be a disaster for the people themselves.

Other leaders have tried to cling to power by using their enormous power authority as incumbents to orchestrate a change in their basic constitution that lets them stay in office beyond their normal committed time. Uganda is one example, where Museveni is still in office and now authorized to serve perhaps in perpetuity. Recently in Nigeria, where we have helped with two elections, the parliament seems to have rejected Obasanjo's (attempt) or support his attempt to perpetuate his term in office.

Sometimes popularity can lead to a strong man who depends completely on the support of his people. I would say Venezuela's one. We have helped to hold five elections in Venezuela including reelections, constitutional referendum, and so forth. There's no doubt that every election has been free and fair. They have very advanced techniques for holding election with touch screen voting and a printout ballot to substantiate the way you voted. But in the process, the elected president has become very strong. And the other elements of democracy, that is the institutions, have been perverted. The judicial system has been taken completely under control of the president. And the parliament almost unanimously belongs to the president. We don't know the outcome yet. But there's a case you might say of pure democracy where the people, if confronted today, would vote strongly for the incumbent with some elements preserving constitutional democracy having been perverted.

I would say that almost all democracies are fragile, particularly those that have been formed in recent years. There can be an excess of what you might call "survival of the fittest," because in authoritarian governments quite often the division of rights and privileges and benefits from the government are ordained sometimes by a benevolent leader. If democracy comes and there is a survival of the fittest, quite often within a democratic framework there can be a sharper division between the rich and powerful on one hand and the poor and helpless on the other. And this disparity increases dramatically, which quite often results in nondemocratic changes in leadership. In Latin America in the last decade or so, there have been about a dozen democratic leaders removed from office because of the inequity of sharing and the benefits of the government. Sometimes an elected leader decides that they are not susceptible to criticism and there is a subtle but ever-increasing deprivation of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press.

The abuse of those who criticize is one of the reasons for your coming here for this session. Because people like you, the defenders, have been abused by their own governments. Quite often the more powerful a democratically elected leader becomes, the more corrupt they become. They can trade governmental benefits for enormous contributions of money and power, and perpetuate themselves in office. And they've formed an ungodly relationship between a powerful leader who may have been elected and his constituency who are joining him in corruption. I would say that one of the most important lessons we've learned in the past few years is the need for great democracies to set sterling examples for the rest of the world. (Unintelligible)...that our own country has set for other struggling democracies where human rights might be in danger.

That time has been changed, and in the last few years we've seen an embarrassment come to my own country in the realm of human rights. Our democratic processes are still intact, we're still a great democracy, but the equation that used to be taken for granted between a great democracy and a great champion of human rights has certainly been brought into question. As we have arrested people in our own country - and foreigners - and deprived them of the right to be confronted with their accusations, held for an extended period of time without legal counsel, sometimes tortured; and when public notice is brought on torture in our own prisons, we've been guilty of sending prisoners to other countries where torture is more prevalent because it's secret or because it's not revealed in many ways.

So an absence of due processes and torture and renditions, so called, has brought discredit on our own country and I don't think there's any doubt that the influence of this change has been detrimental in many countries - many of which are your own homes. I would say another problem is sometimes the promotion of democracy results in elections that the promoters don't approve. We've seen our own leaders promote democracy since probably before I was even born. Our country has always promoted democracy in other countries, in various degrees of enthusiasm. But we've been involved in some of the democracies that have not been accepted by our own country.

I mentioned two already, we helped with the Venezuelan elections, we helped with the elections in Palestine in 1995, and 2005, and this year also. And our country doesn't like the results, our government, even though the election was completely honest and fair. The remarkable showing of human rights activists in Egypt has created a concern in Washington. And the recent election in Bolivia - we don't know the results of that election yet as far as the longtime effect on the people. But there have been expressions of disfavor from our country although the election was honest and fair. So powerful democracies, powerful nations, can't ordain the kind of government or the results of elections. We have to be accommodating as much as possible.

What is the overall guidance that we have in this confused relationship between democracy and human rights? I would say it's the international agreements that have been worked out during the last 60 years or more. These have been laboriously negotiated among nations, and result in Geneva protection of prisoners, and result in a universal declaration of human rights, and they result in a declaration that women's rights and children's rights will be protected. And the rejection of those - or even certain aspects of those international agreements - is a basic cause of problems that I've just outlined. As long as a powerful voices and international counsels genuinely support the international agreements that have been reached on the protection of human rights, that's the best insurance against abuse.

I don't know how to make a quantitative judgment, but I have a feeling that in the past few years - if you could measure the status of human rights and democracy joined together - I don't think there's been progress made. I think there's probably been retrogression to some degree in the worldwide commitment to democracy and human rights. And that's very disturbing.

This conference is a small group and like I said, The Carter Center has no authority; but I think that the promulgation of what you bring to us, the ability for the human rights defenders to consult with one another, and all of us (to) share in a common commitment to correct mistakes and to publicize problems is the purpose of this conference. We'll get a lot of news media coverage that will go to different parts of the world. There's a group here that will go to Washington to talk to leaders in my own government to convince them about the wisdom of promoting human rights and democracy together. And this will be a very good result.

Well, those of use who host this conference, those of us who come from human rights organizations - we come from the United Nations, from the World Bank, and other place - are humbled in our status in this conference. We come to learn from those of you who are on the front lines of preserving the finest aspect of the character of human beings. And I don't think there's any incompatibility between human rights, which are very accurately definable on the one hand, and democracy in generic terms, which has to have multiple folds. But the ability of people to choose their own leaders - with freedom of information and a lack of corruption - to correct mistakes made in election processes (is) very important.

So let me close by thanking you for coming and pledging to you that The Carter Center will use all its influence and support to make sure that your lives and the lives of people in your countries are better in the years ahead. Thank you very much.

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