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DOBRIANSKY: Aiding free societies

- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2008

OP-ED:

As countries observe the first International Day of Democracy today, it is fitting to take stock of a multilateral movement that began eight years ago as a voluntary, values-based commitment — the Community of Democracies. Led by Portugal, foreign ministers of all participating and observing countries within the Community of Democracies will meet in New York next week, on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly, to chart the way forward.

Recent events in Georgia are a stark reminder of the need for countries to come together when democracy, independence and sovereignty are under threat. The international community has reaffirmed its support for the democratically elected Georgian government.

Throughout the 20th century, we witnessed the forward march of democracy, including through the emergence of independent governments such as the one in Georgia. NATO, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other organizations grounded in liberal values helped replace centuries of European warfare with peace and dynamic economic growth. Authoritarian regimes in Latin America, Asia, and Africa gave way to representative governments, and millions of people thrived in freedom. More recently, the fledgling governments of Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, along with reform-minded leaders and courageous dissidents throughout the region, have been gradually dismantling the myth of a "Middle East Exception" by fortifying democratic institutions and opening space for civil society.

These achievements are due in part to the determination of the international community to join together in support of reformers and nascent democracies. This collective effort is embodied in the Community of Democracies, launched in 2000 by the United States, Poland and six other co-convening states, alongside a network of civil-society groups. The Community of Democracies aims to forge international consensus among countries committed to the democratic path on ways they can better cooperate to support and deepen democracy where it exists and to defend it where it is threatened. At its founding conference, over 100 participating states signed the "Warsaw Declaration," pledging to uphold and advance "core democratic principles and practices."

Participating states have since translated these aspirations into concrete actions, by such steps as: organizing assistance missions in 2004 and 2005 to promote stability and the rule of law in East Timor and Georgia; launching the International Centre for Democratic Transition in Hungary to collect and share the experiences of successful democratic transitions; building a "Democracy Bridge" between the Organization of American States and the African Union to share best practices on defending democracy and to establish an exchange program on electoral observation; developing and distributing the "Diplomat's Handbook for Democracy Development Support" - a "democracy toolbox" of best practices for diplomats to engage and assist civil society groups; continuing a focus on democracy education through multilateral institutions; and establishing a permanent secretariat in Warsaw to manage Community of Democracies programs and to foster continued growth.

The Community of Democracies has sought to complement and strengthen existing multilateral organizations. In 2000 and 2004, it met in the United Nations as a Democracy Caucus in an effort to make that body more responsive to pressing democracy and human-rights concerns. The coalition supported the creation of the UN Democracy Fund, which, as of last year, has funded over 100 civil-society projects around the world. To date, over 35 countries have voluntarily provided almost $96 million to this democracy-focused fund.

The Community of Democracies has also addressed the challenge of balancing development needs with democratic ideals under Mali's leadership in 2007. The community maintains a commonly held criteria of democracy while granting less than fully democratic countries "observer" status as an incentive for progress. On the unfortunate occasions when a government's commitment to democracy recedes, its participation in the community is jeopardized. As it has grown in recent years, a significant number of its newest participating or observing countries have predominantly Islamic populations, demonstrating the community's broad-based expansion.

New international alliances take time to grow and adapt. While it is important to assess the immediate impact of the Community of Democracies, the more determinative measure of the organization's success is its ability to inspire lasting democratic unity at a global level. It may take several decades before the track record of the Community of Democracies is indelibly established.

The Community of Democracies is an established, proven coalition which deserves our continued strong support. As the organization approaches its 8th anniversary, it remains the most promising venue for achieving a world of global democratic solidarity.

Paula J. Dobriansky is the U.S. Undersecretary of State for democracy and global affairs. Joao de Vallera is the Portuguese ambassador to the United States. Audrius Bruzga is the Lithuanian ambassador to the United States.