WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today delivered the following statement at a full committee hearing on democracy promotion:
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
“And to our witnesses: welcome. I want to especially thank Ken Wollack for 35 years of service. Congratulations on your retirement in September.
“Your organizations do incredible work promoting democracy around the world, making governments more accountable and responsive, and shining the light on abuses and corruption.
“It’s such important work, because around the world, democracy, unfortunately, is backsliding. According to the Freedom in the World report, democracy and global freedom have declined around the world for 12 straight years.
“In Africa—while we have seen a slight opening of political systems in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, the Gambia, and elsewhere—in Burundi, Rwanda, and the Republic of the Congo, the new normal has become ‘constitutional’ coups, which is term-limited incumbents changing the rules so they can stay in power. When I was in Africa with the Chairman, we tried to speak to the leadership about this, but of course they wouldn’t speak with us because they knew what we were going to say.
“Tanzania and Zambia show warning signs of creeping authoritarianism. And more and more governments are shutting down the Internet to stifle dissent and buy time to tamper with election results.
“In the Middle East, Tunisia’s progress has been inspiring, and we should help improve the climate for foreign investment there. But it’s another story in Egypt, where draconian laws have limited the ability of civil society to operate. And I’m a friend of Egypt so it really pains me when I say this.
“The recent elections in Iraq are overshadowed by reports of fraud, which should be cleared up by full recounts before forming a new government.
“Across Europe, democratic practices have steadily eroded. Turkey’s President, Erdogan, has consolidated power and cracked down on dissent. It’s just really disgraceful what’s going on in Turkey. In Hungary, refugees and migrants face hostility from the higher levels of government. In Poland, free speech and an independent judiciary are under attack.
“Now much of this is driven by Russia—a fake democracy—whose leader Vladimir Putin seeks to undermine western unity and discredit democratic institutions.
“Since 2014 in Asia, there’s been a military coup in Thailand; a populist leader elected in the Philippines, who shoots people on sight because he thinks they’re involved with drugs; ethnic cleansing in Burma at the hands of the military, very disappointing. Cambodia’s prime minister of 33 years has neutralized political opposition.
“And China grows more aggressive in oppressing its own citizens, quietly promoting its authoritarian model around the world as an alternative to western democratic values, and chipping away at international norms.
“Here in our neighborhood, in our hemisphere, Nicolas Maduro has turned Venezuela into a full-blown dictatorship with sham elections, political prisoners, and a denial of the country’s humanitarian crisis.
“Taken together, these cases and others become a problem for our national security.
“The United States wants to see vibrant democracies around the world—countries that share our values and priorities. Strong democracies make strong partners. When we collaborate with like-minded governments, we’re better able to meet challenges, project stability, and drive prosperity.
“On the other hand, the greatest threats we face come from places where governments are closed off, where human rights aren’t a priority, where ordinary citizens have less of a say in choosing their leaders. These are the places where vulnerable people are exploited and extremism is able to take root.
“So promoting democracy—helping to advance our democratic values around the world—the work that your three organizations do, as I say to the witnesses—should be at the center of our foreign policy.
“As I often say: it’s the right thing to do, because democracy helps people live fuller, freer lives, and it’s also the smart thing to do, because democracy is good for our security.
“That’s why it’s baffling that the Administration has decided that democracy is no longer a foreign-policy priority.
“The budgets the Administration has sent us seek to slash investments in diplomacy and development by a third. So many of the efforts we make around the world to strengthen democracy would be hobbled if Congress went along with these draconian cuts. Thankfully Congress did not.
“In Nicaragua, for example, 140 people have been killed in the last two months, primarily at the hands of President Ortega’s thugs. The White House request for democracy assistance in Nicaragua for next year? Zero.
“The three organizations represented today all rely on federal grants to carry out their important work. Not if the Administration gets its way.
“The State Department even removed democracy from its mission statement. What does that say about American values and American leadership?
“And on issues like this, leadership starts at the top. Democracy isn’t just under attack in distant places. The Economist’s Democracy Index recently downgraded the United States to ‘flawed democracy’ as opposed to a ‘full democracy.’
“Just yesterday, the President tweeted, ‘Our Country’s biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools!’ Attacking a free press, the way I see it, is an attack on democracy. It’s an attack on a fundamental right in this country.
“Our President has spoken glowingly of Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, Erdogan, Duterte in the Philippines, Xi in China. And of course, in Singapore, he had nothing but kind words for Kim Jong Un, a brutal dictator, a murderer who rules over the most repressive system in the world, all while attacking America’s closest friends like Canada.
“So the world looks to us to set an example, to show leadership, to advance our interests in a way that respects the dignity and rights of all people. And right now, I don’t believe we’re sending the right message.
“So I look forward to hearing from our witnesses, about how we can get back on track and revitalize democracy as part of our foreign policy.
“I thank you again, Mr. Chairman. I yield back.”
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