Greetings from President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and former Secretary of State Albright
T-H. Ilves: Good evening to you from Washington, DC. We’re genuinely thrilled to be participating from across the ocean at this very important conference where I can’t be this year because I am at a different conference. We are committed across the ocean and world to fundamental freedom – of association with each other –which is at the core of democracy and human rights. In Estonia’s own history, the freedom of association, initially among peasants, grew into full nation-statehood because people shared the same ideas. We have seen throughout history the same kinds of issues developing – in Ukraine and the Middle East. Freedom of association and the freedom of ideas to move across borders and between people lie at the core of Western liberal democracy. Not that it has to be Western. Liberal democracy is something we all believe in. Madam Secretary?
M. Albright: It’s a great pleasure to be here, Mr. President, and at this conference. I do believe in the essential principles of human rights that allow all of us to express ourselves. And you’re here for more than just a conference; you’re here to get an award from the National Democratic Institute for your innovative spirit and dedication to democracy. So it is my pleasure to be with you especially, and I’m very glad you can be here with us.
In terms of the importance of freedom of association, I’d say that authoritarian governments work their hardest to keep people separated from each other so they can’t share ideas. The idea of freedom of association allows people to be able to talk to each other, create groups of like-minded individuals, to have civil society function in a way that there’s transparency and possibility of asking questions. What you’re practicing in civil society is the capability of talking to people, to create cooperation between citizens and the state. I think that Estonia, thanks to you Mr. President, has had a remarkable history in becoming a part of the EU and NATO and being a great leader not only in e-government but also in democracy. As chairman of the board of the NDI, I am so grateful for you for hosting NDI activity in Tallinn, you’re wonderful hosts and it does provide an example of what can be done when people who can associate with each other can promote democracy generally and provide an incredible example. I’m sorry we took you away, but I’m not sorry we have the possibility of giving you this award because no one is more deserving of the award.
T-H. Ilves: Thank you for your kind words. One thing I wanted to say is that we in Estonia feel an obligation to promote the very thing that we had been denied for 50 years. Now it is our chance to do something and we want to do it, too. I know how important it was for us to know that people far away on the other side of the Wall cared about what we were doing and helped us. Some countries that used to be behind the Wall and now no longer are have suddenly decided to forget, but we feel a strong need to share our understanding of how important it is to help democracy spread, as we were without it and we know very well how difficult it is. Even if it’s in our own benefit – it benefits Estonia’s security to have democracies around us.
I also wanted to point out that the freedom of association sounds like a vague idea, but it is never a vague idea for authoritarians. The first thing they did in Estonia and every other country where authoritarian rule has taken place is to ban civil society. Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate the thought of independent discussion and people talking to each other. Why else ban the Boy Scouts or Red Cross or other organizations that always get banned when totalitarians take over. But the burgeoning of civil society is amazing to watch. We saw it in our own country and all across Eastern Europe and I hope we will see it in many others.
M. Albright: Democracy is not an event, it is a process, and requires a lot of tender loving care, and the idea that people really reach out to each other. When I was Secretary of State I started something called the Community of Democracies, which still exists, about sharing best practices, what really does make democracies work, and naturally civil society is a basic aspect of it. Estonia and you specifically have done a great job at not forgetting and making clear that it is a process and requires that tender loving care. An important thing people tend to forget is in order to have democracy work, you have to have citizens who are more than just consumers. They have to be able to criticize the government if that will move the process forward. Governments should not be afraid of criticism, civil society can provide that counterpoint, and you have made it more accessible through what you have done in e-government and encouraging people to move forward and ensuring a basic human right – the capability of expressing one’s views.
T-H. Ilves: We hope that other people elsewhere from the Middle East to Maidan get to see this and take it to heart. I’d like to thank the Institute of Human Rights in Estonia – I think it s another example of the fact that we consider it our duty to continue to stand up for the issues we felt strongly about back when we didn’t have the fundamental rights and freedoms and that we don’t forget how cherished they are and how much we need to safeguard them.