Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, today I rise to recognize the important role civil society plays in the promotion of democracy as we observe International Day of Democracy this September 15.
Twenty-five years ago, I stood in Berlin as the wall was coming down. I will never forget that moment when the will of the people was finally recognized. It’s true that we have seen extraordinary progress over the years. But in too many parts of the globe, basic rights continued to be denied to those fighting for democratic ideals.
Today, there is an unprecedented global crackdown on civil society organizations seeking to express their voice and exercise their rights. We’ve seen pervasive restrictions on civil society organizations enforced around the globe. Russia, in its worst political crackdown in post-Soviet history, has stamped the label of “foreign agent” on any civil society organization that receives support from other countries. Ethiopia’s 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation continues to hinder the work of human rights organizations and other civil society groups that receive more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign organizations. In 2012, Sudanese security forces violently attacked civil society representatives who were protesting against government restrictions. Egypt has prosecuted over 40 international aid implementers, sentencing them to prison for up to five years. In Laos, activist Sombath Somphone – a leader who dedicated his career to expanding civic space in Laos – has been missing for nearly two years after video footage documented his abduction at a police checkpoint. In 2013, government harassment in Sri Lanka forced the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation to close its office.
The developments that we see today have several notable features. First, the pushback against democracy is a global phenomenon and countries like Russia have established anti-democratic practices that are being emulated elsewhere. Second, global democratic reversals are not merely temporary aberrations but are likely to pose challenges for years to come. Finally, the global response has thus far been inadequate to meet these threats.
Moreover, democratic achievements cannot be taken for granted. A few days ago, Hungary’s National Investigative Office raided the offices of two organizations which help distribute civil society funds from the government of Norway. Thirteen NGOs are currently under investigation in Budapest, including the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), the local office of Transparency International, and the Roma Media Centre. These raids signal further deterioration of good governance, the rule of law, and human rights in Hungary.
I regret that the Hungarian government is pursuing practices at odds with the historic path to freedom Hungary pursued 25 years ago when that country opened the door for East German refugees and courageously helped pave the way for the end of communism. At a time when we need more democracy in Europe, not less, Hungary’s actions are not only harmful for democracy in Hungary, they undermine efforts to build democratic institutions throughout the region.
To call attention to widespread infringements upon civil society, I, as Chair of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the International Day of Democracy resolution. This resolution urges the recognition of the International Day of Democracy, affirms the role of civil society as a cornerstone of democracy, and encourages all governments to stand with civil society in the face of mounting restrictions on civil society organizations.
We cannot take success for granted; every day we must work to protect democratic progress. As we observe the International Day of Democracy this September 15, the international community must push back on these grave threats to civil society as well as protect the efforts by these organizations to build strong democratic institutions.
I would like to thank my colleagues for joining me in support of the International Day of Democracy.