Ambassador’s Remarks at Counterpart International’s CIVICUS Presentation

Ambassador's Remarks at Counterpart International’s CIVICUS Presentation (Evelina Arabyan/StateDept)
Ambassador’s Remarks at Counterpart International’s CIVICUS Presentation (Evelina Arabyan/StateDept)

Honorable guests, ladies and gentlemen:

Good Morning. I congratulate Counterpart International and all Civicus’ implementing partners for developing the Armenia case study of the 2010 Civil Society Index. The cooperation undertaken for its production was exemplary, involving civil society organizations, representatives of the international community, numerous government agencies, academia, media and the business community – and as we saw from the report that kind of cooperation is exactly what Civil Society needs to be more effective.

The United States Government has supported this effort in helping Armenian civil society and citizens embrace new knowledge, understand new realities and find new ways of making civil society more diverse, free and transparent.  Just last week Secretary Clinton, in a dialogue with representatives of civil society from around the world, emphasized the U.S. Government’s support for strengthening and promoting a greater role for civil society in countries undergoing democratic transition and development, including Armenia.

The 2010 report is valuable because it outlines opportunities and identifies positive factors which exist in Armenia for civil society development, such as the strong values of non-violence and tolerance and a tradition of cooperation and self-organization.

The report underscores Armenian civil society organizations’ ability to positively affect policy reform and to address social needs. It also notes that existing legislation is generally favorable and supportive, although there is a worrisome decree and the law needs work regarding the rights of NGOs to raise funds.

Although it identifies many important advances, the report notes that many issues and problems still remain.  Of these, there are two that I think are of paramount importance.

The first is that civil society organizations have low levels of membership. The inability to extend their outreach to increase citizen participation in their activities undermines their effectiveness. While organizations may speak for society at large, they won’t be able to argue that their proposals are indeed in the public interest unless they can show that they speak for a constituency.

There are a number of ways they can do this, but, however it is done, it is vital that civil society organizations work to demonstrate in concrete terms that they enjoy a significant base of support.

Second, civil society organizations need to strive to be models of ethical conduct, transparency, and accountability.  Civil society reflects it culture; however, if it is  going to make an effective case that elected officials and public servants need to govern and behave ethically, it needs to adopt new values and practices that allows it to position itself as a model of integrity and good governance.  In effect leading society.  In so doing, it can more effectively and legitimately hold public officials to account.

While civil society faces challenges, I want to stress today that when civil society has the courage to act it can move mountains, even in environments where it does not have the freedom to do so. Sometimes governments like those mountains right where they are, but when civil society summons enough support to push government toward fundamental change, it is almost always a sign that the time has come for the mountain to move.

We already see many examples of success when civil society groups genuinely believe in their mission and work hard to bring a change.  It is important to understand that civil society organizations can play a dual role of both criticizing government policies and current practices while consistently and constructively engaging with the government to find solutions and participate in the decision making process.

It’s also important to understand that criticism of the government does not equal lack of loyalty or patriotism; in fact, sometimes it is the highest form of patriotism.

Your initiatives as civil society will be most successful when you are able to work with a cross-section of Armenia’s most active NGOs and activists, with the agents of change within the Armenian government, and with citizens at large. This event is an important milestone in bringing all of us together to reiterate our commitment to strengthening democracy for the Armenian people.

Thank you all and congratulations to Civicus, Counterpart International, and their partners in producing such a useful report.