Private Groups Key in Democracy-Building, State Official Says

By Michelle Austein
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Members of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) must work with nongovernmental organizations, human rights defenders and each other to put the principles of democracy into practice, said Barry F. Lowenkron, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

"There is no such thing as a perfect democracy," Lowenkron said in his address to the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw, Poland, October 13.  Every country, including the United States, must uphold the principles of tolerance, rule of law and minority rights, he said.

Lowenkron addressed the importance of nations working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to promote democracy, saying the contributions of civil society organizations remain vital to fulfilling the promise of the Helsinki Final Act.

The Helsinki Final Act, signed in 1975 by 35 countries, recognizes that countries' proper treatment of their citizens is an important element of regional security. (See related article.)

Lowenkron said NGOs' work in addressing both domestic and international challenges is crucial. "In today's world, the problems confronting states are too complex even for the most powerful governments to tackle alone," Lowenkron said. NGOs play a vital role in advancing human rights and democracy, he said.

Lowenkron noted that some countries have adopted laws and regulations that restrict or intimidate NGOs or force them to shut down. "Restricting the political space of NGOs only limits a society's own political and economic growth," he said.

A major focus of the OSCE's work must be to champion the efforts of NGOs as they foster peaceful, democratic change, Lowenkron said. "When NGOs are under siege, democracy is undermined."

Lowenkron also called on members to support and strengthen the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The office, a division of the OSCE, works with governments and NGOs to strengthen the rule of law, civil society and democratic institutions, foster free and fair elections, promote tolerance, eliminate human trafficking and ensure the equal rights of men and women.

The ODIHR has helped transform countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia from dictatorships to democracies, Lowenkron said. "These tasks, by their very nature, require a determined, long-term effort," he said. However, noted Lowenkron, many states are still in the early stages of democratic transition. The ODIHR faces stiff resistance in countries where challenges to democratic reform are greatest, Lowenkron said, and called on nations to strengthen the ODIHR's capacity to help meet those challenges.

A transcript (PDF, 3 pages) of Lowenkron's remarks is available on the U.S. Mission to the OSCE's Web site.

Additional information about the OSCE is available on the organization's Web site.