Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy Subcommittee on the Department of State and Foreign Operations Hearing on Democracy Programs

Mr. Chairman, I want to join you in welcoming an exceptionally distinguished panel of witnesses.  Thank you all for being here. 

Secretary Albright, the time and energy you have devoted to the topic we are here to discuss – both at the State Department and in the years since – is widely recognized and deeply appreciated.

Jim Kolbe, who I remember as Chairman Kolbe when he held that position on the House Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, it is good to have you with us. 

And Vin Weber, who represented the people of Minnesota in the other body, and of course Steve Hadley who has had a long and prominent career in international affairs. 

As Democrats and Republicans, we are all fortunate to live in a democracy where citizens can express themselves freely, engage in peaceful protest, and elect their leaders.  Two hundred and twenty-eight years of peaceful transfers of executive power is a tradition unmatched in human history.

Although our democracy remains a work in progress, we too often make the mistake of taking it for granted.  It is worth remembering that nearly 40 percent of the eligible voters in this country did not cast a ballot in the last election.   

At a time when many Americans are alarmed by the White House’s public attacks against the press, the judiciary, Members of Congress, and civil servants who disagree with the President, it is worth reminding ourselves that democracy, even in our own country, is not inevitable.  We all have to defend it.

That means here at home and in countries with repressive, autocratic governments that billions of people suffer under around the world. 

President Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin for being a “strong leader” is well known.  He called Egypt’s President el-Sisi a “fantastic guy”.  He congratulated Turkey’s President Erdogan on his recent consolidation of power, and he has invited Philippine President Duterte to the White House.  

Each of these leaders was elected, although not always freely or fairly.  But they have used their positions to dismantle or subvert the institutions of democracy and the rule of law in their countries and to silence their critics, including by intimidating civil society and the independent journalists and locking up members of the political opposition after sham trials, or worse.  In these countries and many others, being a journalist means living with a target on your back.

These leaders are part of what is becoming a global trend of governments enacting vaguely worded anti-terrorism laws to consolidate power, monopolize information, and make it dangerous or impossible for civil society organizations to operate. 

We provide more than two billion dollars annually to support democracy programs, which includes good governance, free and fair elections, freedoms of expression, association and religion, political parties, human rights, and civil society. 

These are the ideals we stand for, which should be the foundation of our foreign policy.  They are also rights that people everywhere look to us to defend – not as an empty talking point or a secondary or tertiary issue as I am afraid may the approach of this Administration – but as a priority.

We want to know what would happen if we cut funding for these programs, as the White House proposes.  We want to know what that would mean for the civil society organizations and individuals in Russia, Egypt, Venezuela, Cambodia and so many other countries who risk imprisonment or their lives for exposing corruption and standing up for freedom of expression and free elections. 

We want them to know that the Congress is aware of the threats and challenges they face;

  • that when it comes to standing up for them, we are united, Democrats and Republicans;
  • that we will support them even when the President of the United States praises their leaders who behave like despots;
  • and we want you to tell us what more we can do to ensure that the United States continues to be seen as an example of democracy and freedom for the world.

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