At UN, Obama Seeks Transparency Commitments

23 September 2010

President Barack Obama Sept. 23, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, called for “specific commitments to promote transparency.”

His proposal came after he spoke about the need for open societies, open government, and accountability.

He then stated: “In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable. And now, we must build on that progress. And when we gather back here next year, we should bring specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundations of freedom in our own countries, while living up to the ideals that can light the world.”

In the portion of his remarks about development policy, the U.S. president talked about empowering farmers and entrepreneurs, saying that “the obligation of government is to empower individuals, not to impede them.”

“The same holds true for civil society,” Obama continued. “The arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble and by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change and by free media that held the powerful accountable. We have seen that from the South Africans who stood up to apartheid, to the Poles of Solidarity, to the mothers of the disappeared who spoke out against the Dirty War, to Americans who marched for the rights of all races, including my own.”

The president then spoke for “a free and open Internet.” He said:

Civil society is the conscience of our communities and America will always extend our engagement abroad with citizens beyond the halls of government. And we will call out those who suppress ideas and serve as a voice for those who are voiceless. We will promote new tools of communication so people are empowered to connect with one another and, in repressive societies, to do so with security. We will support a free and open Internet, so individuals have the information to make up their own minds. And it is time to embrace and effectively monitor norms that advance the rights of civil society and guarantee its expansion within and across borders.

Open society supports open government, but it cannot substitute for it. There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny. Now, make no mistake: The ultimate success of democracy in the world won’t come because the United States dictates it; it will come because individual citizens demand a say in how they are governed.

According to Obama, “There is no soil where this notion cannot take root, just as every democracy reflects the uniqueness of a nation.”  He announced plans to visit India and Indonesia later this fall en route to the G-20 meeting in South Korea, follwing by a stop in Japan.

“Each of these countries gives life to democratic principles in their own way,” Obama said. “And even as some governments roll back reform, we also celebrate the courage of a President in Colombia who willingly stepped aside, or the promise of a new constitution in Kenya.”  He continued:

The common thread of progress is the principle that government is accountable to its citizens. And the diversity in this room makes clear — no one country has all the answers, but all of us must answer to our own people.

In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable. And now, we must build on that progress. And when we gather back here next year, we should bring specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundations of freedom in our own countries, while living up to the ideals that can light the world.

President Obama also spoke about the UN’s role in the advance of human rights and protecting the rights of women.  He called for opening all elections to international monitors and increasing the U.N. Democracy Fund.

“And it’s time to make this institution more accountable as well, because the challenges of a new century demand new ways of serving our common interests,” the president commented.

He concluded with a call to fight “the boot of oppression,” urging, “Don’t stand idly by, don’t be silent, when dissidents elsewhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten.”

White House Issues Fact Sheet

The White House later issued a fact sheet that touts the Obama administration’s domestic transparency initiatives, lauds some international developments, and suggests what countries could do in response to his challenge.

On international accomplishments, it states:

International Efforts on Open Government

There is also significant momentum internationally to make government more transparent and accountable, and to promote public and private innovation, in part by making use of new technologies. Examples include:

• The Right to Information: Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, and India have passed progressive legislation guaranteeing the right to information and mandating the regular release of information in formats accessible to the public.

• Open Data: The United Kingdom, Australia, Norway, New Zealand, Estonia, and Canada have launched efforts similar to data.gov with the goal of proactively disclosing government data that citizens can readily use.

• Transparency and Accountability: From Brazil to Kenya to India, governments are enlisting communities to track the delivery of services, including in education and health – recognition that citizens can be valuable partners in fighting corruption and improving the efficiency of government.

Regarding future steps, the fact sheet did not describe any mechanism for follow-up, but said offered some suggestionof national actions.  The fact sheet states:

 A Global Effort to Foster More Open Government

Today, in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, the President recognized that, in all corners of the globe, countries are taking unprecedented steps to make government more open and accountable.  President Obama challenged those in attendance to build on this progress.  He invited Leaders to join him next year in making specific commitments to promote transparency, fight corruption, energize civic engagement, and leverage new technologies to strengthen the foundations of open government.

Some governments may guarantee access to information as a fundamental right and commit to new efforts to put information in the hands of citizens.  Others may empower constituents to track the assets of public officials.  Countries may identify new ways of seeking the views of the public to improve the quality of our decision-making and the efficacy of our investments.  Others may propose innovative approaches to tapping the expertise of the private and non-governmental sectors in solving complex problems.

While the individual commitments will differ, the collective force of a global effort will signal our resolve to transform the way we govern, empower citizens, and restore the frayed social contract between citizens and their leaders.

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