President Obama Speaks at the Civil Society Forum

President Obama Speaks at the Civil Society Forum


President Obama: Thank you, President Varela. Thank you very much, Panama,
for hosting this Summit of the Americas. And most importantly for hosting the Civil Society Forum. And I thank everybody who’s
traveled here from across the region for the
courageous work that you do to defend freedom
and human rights, and to promote equality and
opportunity and justice across our hemisphere
and around the world. I am proud to be with you
at this first-ever official gathering of civil society
leaders at the Summit of the Americas. And I’m pleased to have Cuba
represented with us at this summit for the
very first time. (applause) We’re here for a
very simple reason. We believe that strong,
successful countries require strong and vibrant
civil societies. We know that
throughout our history, human progress has been
propelled not just by famous leaders, not just by states,
but by ordinary men and women who believe that
change is possible; by citizens who are willing
to stand up against incredible odds and great
danger not only to protect their own rights, but to
extend rights to others. I had a chance to reflect on
this last month when I was in the small town
of Selma, Alabama. Some of you may
have heard of it. It’s a place where,
50 years ago, African-Americans
marched in peaceful, nonviolent protest — not to
ask for special treatment but to be treated equally,
in accordance with the founding documents of our
Declaration of Independence, our Bill of Rights. They were part of a civil
rights movement that had endured violence and
repression for decades, and would endure
it again that day, as many of the
marchers were beaten. But they kept marching. And despite the beatings of
that day, they came back, and more returned. And the conscience of
a nation was stirred. Their efforts bent, in the
words of Dr. Martin Luther King, the arc of the moral
universe towards justice. And it was their vision for
a more fair and just and inclusive and generous
society that ultimately triumphed. And the only reason I stand
here today as the President of the United States is
because those ordinary people — maids,
and janitors, and schoolteachers — were
willing to endure hardship on my behalf. (applause) And that’s why I believe so
strongly in the work that you do. It’s the dreamers — no
matter how humble or poor or seemingly powerless — that
are able to change the course of human events. We saw it in South Africa,
where citizens stood up to the scourge of apartheid. We saw it in Europe, where
Poles marched in Solidarity to help bring down
the Iron Curtain. In Argentina, where mothers
of the disappeared spoke out against the Dirty War. It’s the story
of my country, where citizens worked
to abolish slavery, and establish women’s
rights and workers’ rights, and rights for
gays and lesbians. It’s not to say that my
country is perfect — we are not. And that’s the point. We always have to have
citizens who are willing to question and push
our government, and identify injustice. We have to wrestle with
our own challenges — from issues of race to
policing to inequality. But what makes me most proud
about the extraordinary example of the United States
is not that we’re perfect, but that we
struggle with it, and we have this open
space in which society can continually try to make
us a more perfect union. We’ve stood up,
at great cost, for freedom and
human dignity, not just in our own
country, but elsewhere. I’m proud of that. And we embrace our ability
to become better through our democracy. And that requires more than
just the work of government. It demands the hard and
frustrating, sometimes, but absolutely vital work
of ordinary citizens coming together to make
common cause. So civil society is the
conscience of our countries. It’s the catalyst of change. It’s why strong nations
don’t fear active citizens. Strong nations embrace and
support and empower active citizens. And by the way, it’s not
as if active citizens are always right — they’re not. Sometimes people start
yelling at me or arguing at me, and I think, you don’t
know what you’re talking about. But sometimes they do. And the question is not
whether they’re always right; the question is, do
you have a society in which that conversation, that
debate can be tested and ideas are tested
in the marketplace. And because of the efforts
of civil society, now, by and large, there’s a
consensus in the Americas on democracy and human rights,
and social development and social inclusiveness. I recognize there’s strong
differences about the role of civil society, but I
believe we can all benefit from open and tolerant
and inclusive dialogue. And we should reject
violence or intimidation that’s aimed at silencing
people’s voices. The freedom to be heard is a
principle that the Americas at large is committed to. And that doesn’t
mean, as I said, that we’re going to
agree on every issue. But we should address those
issue candidly and honestly and civilly, and welcome the
voices of all of our people into the debates that
shape the future of the hemisphere. (applause) Just to take one example: As
the United States begins a new chapter in our
relationship with Cuba, we hope it will create an
environment that improves the lives of the Cuban
people — not because it’s imposed by us,
the United States, but through the talent and
ingenuity and aspirations, and the conversation among
Cubans from all walks of life so they can decide what
the best course is for their prosperity. As we move toward the
process of normalization, we’ll have our differences,
government to government, with Cuba on many issues —
just as we differ at times with other nations
within the Americas; just as we differ with
our closest allies. There’s nothing
wrong with that. But I’m here to say that
when we do speak out, we’re going to do so because
the United States of America does believe, and will
always stand for, a certain set of
universal values. And when we do partner
with civil society, it’s because we believe our
relationship should be with governments and with the
peoples that they represent. It’s also because we believe
that your work is more important than ever. Here in the Americas,
inequality still locks too many people out
of our economies. Discrimination still
locks too many out of our societies. Around the world, there are
still too many places where laws are passed to
stifle civil society, where governments cut off
funding for groups that they don’t agree with. Where entrepreneurs are
crushed under corruption. Where activists and
journalists are locked up on trumped-up charges because
they dare to be critical of their governments. Where the way you
look, or how you pray, or who you love can get
you imprisoned or killed. And whether it’s crackdowns
on free expression in Russia or China, or restrictions on
freedom of association and assembly in Egypt, or prison
camps run by the North Korean regime — human
rights and fundamental freedoms are still at
risk around the world. And when that happens, we
believe we have a moral obligation to speak out. We also know that our
support for civil society is not just about
what we’re against, but also what we’re for. Because we’ve noticed that
governments that are more responsive and effective are
typically governments where the people are
free to assemble, and speak their minds, and
petition their leaders, and hold us accountable. We know that our economies
attract more trade and investment when citizens are
free to start a new business without paying a bribe. We know that our societies
are more likely to succeed when all our people —
regardless of color, or class, or creed, or
sexual orientation, or gender — are free to
live and pray and love as they choose. That’s what we believe. And, increasingly, civil
society is a source of ideas — about everything from
promoting transparency and free expression, to
reversing inequality and rescuing our environment. And that’s why, as part of
our Stand with Civil Society Initiative, we’ve joined
with people around the world to push back on those who
deny your right to be heard. I’ve made it a mission of
our government not only to protect civil
society groups, but to partner with you
and empower you with the knowledge and the technology
and the resources to put your ideas into action. And the U.S. supports the efforts to
establish a permanent, meaningful role for civil
societies in future Summits of the Americas. (applause) So let me just say, when the
United States sees space closing for civil society,
we will work to open it. When efforts are made to
wall you off from the world, we’ll try to connect
you with each other. When you are silenced, we’ll
try to speak out alongside you. And when you’re suppressed,
we want to help strengthen you. As you work for change, the
United States will stand up alongside you every
step of the way. We are respectful of the
difference among our countries. The days in which our agenda
in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United
States could meddle with impunity, those
days are past. (applause) But what it does mean — but
we do have to be very clear that when we speak out on
behalf of somebody who’s been imprisoned for no other
reason than because they spoke truth to power,
when we are helping an organization that is trying
to empower a minority group inside a country to get
more access to resources, we’re not doing that because
it serves our own interests; we’re doing it because we
think it’s the right thing to do. (applause) And
that’s important. And I hope that all the
other countries at the Summit of the Americas will
join us in seeing that it’s important. Because sometimes, as
difficult as it is, it’s important for us to be
able to speak honestly and candidly on behalf of people
who are vulnerable and people who are powerless,
people who are voiceless. I know, because there was
a time in our own country where there were groups
that were voiceless and powerless. And because of
world opinion, that helped to change
those circumstance. We have a debt to pay,
because the voices of ordinary people
have made us better. That’s a debt that I want to
make sure we repay in this hemisphere and
around the world. Thank you very
much, everybody. (applause) God bless you.

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