Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Bush administration will create a $1 million fund to support democracy and human rights advocates around the world who are being harassed and persecuted by their governments, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.

Miss Rice also announced that, beginning next year, she will bestow a Freedom Defenders Award on a foreign activist or nongovernmental organization and a Diplomacy for Freedom Award on a U.S. ambassador for “working to end tyranny and promote democracy.”

“The fund will begin at $1 million and will be replenished each year as needed,” the secretary said. “This fund, to be administered by the State Department, will enable us to quickly disburse small grants to human rights defenders facing extraordinary needs due to government repression. This funding, for example, could go to cover legal or medical costs or short-term support to meet the pressing needs of an activist’s family.”

The initiative, announced at a State Department ceremony to mark Human Rights Week, is the administration’s response to a global trend of government crackdown on NGOs, said U.S. officials. They cited Russia and other former Soviet republics in Central Asia as examples of some of the most drastic measures.

A Russian law limiting the activities of NGOs and their ability to receive support from abroad sparked criticism from Washington and concern about their work with American and other Western organizations in the vast country.

The governments in Moscow and Central Asia “mischaracterized the recent color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, said a senior officer at a U.S. organization that promotes democracy around the world.

“Those governments wrongly concluded that the color revolutions were somehow fomented by the United States and by NGOs,” said the officer, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “What actually took place was that pro-democracy organizations were supporting a credible democratic process, not a particular election outcome.”

Barry F. Lowenkron, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said that, in addition to Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and others, countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East have “pushed back against NGOs.”

Even though the situation in Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Vietnam is not as grim as that in Iran, Burma or Venezuela, “a clear statement in support of NGOs is needed,” Mr. Lowenkron told reporters. He said the $1 million will come out of the $60 million budget of his bureau, pointing out that it is only “one vehicle” the administration will use to promote the rights of NGOs.

He also said that, if a foreign government does not allow U.S. funding to reach its recipients, the issue will become part of the relationship with that country.

American groups active overseas welcomed Miss Rice’s announcement yesterday.

“The amount of money is not as important as the political message this is sending,” said Kenneth D. Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute. “Any initiative that gives concrete expression to our commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law is something to be welcomed and should draw strong bipartisan support.”

Lorne W. Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, said it is important for imprisoned activists who are told that “no one in the outside world cares about them to know that we do care.”

“There are so many people out there who need help in court appearances or with paying fines,” he said.

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