Op-Ed: Building a more democratic hemisphere

By John Kerry

This week we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first Summit of the Americas, hosted by President Clinton in Miami, a city that exemplifies the vital connections between the United States and its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere.  As we look toward the seventh Summit of the Americas next April in Panama, it is a propitious moment to consider what we have achieved and to focus on a forward-looking agenda that spurs further progress.

The Western Hemisphere is essential to U.S. interests for many reasons, not least of which is job-creating commerce.  Hemispheric partners buy 40 percent of U.S. exports.  We sell more goods to Canada than to China, more to Mexico than to Japan, more to Brazil than to France.  Together, we created a network of free trade agreements that stretches from the northern to the southern tip of the Americas, opening our economies and creating shared prosperity.  Initiatives linking our small businesses and expanding economic ties have brought millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class.

But even as more people benefit from the hemisphere’s prosperity, we must partner across the Americas to ensure all people benefit from the shared democratic principles we celebrated at the first Summit in 1994.  We must speak up together when democratic freedoms and institutions come under attack.  When necessary, we must act together, whether against Ebola, transnational crime, climate change, or those who would deprive others of their inherent rights to freedom of expression or assembly.

We know that democracy must be built on a strong foundation and receive constant reinforcement and renovation.  Democracy is hard work, and we all benefit from the solidarity of friends who share our values, just as we must stand ready to help others who are undertaking the same task.

Democracy depends on meaningful elections, almost universally embraced across the Americas in recent decades.  But the full measure of representative, responsive democratic governance, however, goes deeper.  Elections must be accompanied by a level playing field for political candidates, independent electoral authorities, media, and civil society, clear separation of powers with independent legislatures and judiciaries, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Democracy is not just measured by the actions of governments; it is also measured by the quality of civic life – the role of citizens in shaping their own future.  A vibrant civil society elevates and advocates important issues that may not be on a government’s agenda.  Citizens need free access to the broadest possible range of information and ideas in order to participate effectively in public life and hold those they elect to represent them accountable.

The major threats today to freedoms of the press, expression, and association in the Western Hemisphere are state interference, criminal violence, and institutions unable or unwilling to protect these freedoms and enforce the rule of law.  We must defend the inherent right of individuals to express themselves.  We must push back against efforts by governments or others to constrict the free flow of diverse information and views.

The quality of a truly free press can only be assessed by citizens themselves:  do they have free and varied access to the widest possible array of information?  Freedom of assembly is measured by whether civil society can, without undue restriction, come together peacefully to express themselves without fear of violence or incarceration.  Sadly for many of the regions’ citizens, the answer to both questions is “no.”

We must reassert the leadership and shared vision our hemisphere signaled in the first Summit of the Americas, which was later enshrined in the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter.  The United States strongly supports the proposals pending before the Organization of American States to ensure implementation of the Charter.  We also support the independence and integrity of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to preserve its critical role in promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms in all countries of the hemisphere —including our own.

The United States is a proud signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights, and we champion its core values.  Although our Senate has not given its advice and consent to ratification of the Convention, as a party to the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other human rights treaties, we have already accepted the core substantive obligations contained in the Convention. The values reflected in the Convention’s values, together with those of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and most of all our own Constitution and laws, form the basis for our engagement in the Americas.

We can be proud of the consensus we have reached in this hemisphere around democratic values.  But we cannot be complacent.  When we stand still, we fall behind.  As we approach the next Summit of the Americas, we need to vigorously reaffirm these values and commit to revitalizing the institutions that defend them.

John Kerry is the U.S. Secretary of State.