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Ambassador Thorne speaks at the International Training Course Social Media & Human Rights in Florence

Ambassador Thorne speaks at the International Training Course Social Media & Human Rights in Florence


Robert F. Kennedy Europe Journalism Award Ceremony

June 18, 2012

RFK Office, Florence


Thank you very much for that introduction.

I am honored to open this conference on “Smart Dissidents” together with Mayor Renzi, Louis Bickford, and others from the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights.  Louis has been a lifelong advocate of human rights globally, and the RFK Center is lucky to have him.

I would like to congratulate and thank Mayor Renzi for the support he has offered this event and the work of the RFK Foundation in Florence, in general.  Many of you may not know that the unique venue here in Le Murate that includes the RFK Foundation is available thanks to the Comune, and particularly the Mayor. 

Mayor Renzi has also been a pioneer in the use of social media in Italian politics and government, and this event is testament to the fact that he understands the transformative role that social media can play in promoting better, more open government.

However, I am most honored to be here with the participants from throughout the Middle East and Africa who have shown personal courage, often risking their own lives, to transform their countries, make their governments more accountable to their people, and to offer a better future for their children.

Discussing the Arab Spring last November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rhetorically asked herself why the U.S. supported the grass roots changes underway throughout much of the Arab world and elsewhere.

In a strong affirmation of American values, the Secretary said, “Fundamentally, there is a right side of history.  And we want to be on it.”

Thus, it is with great humility that I stand before you, the courageous people who helped move the tectonic plates of history, often through simple acts of digital defiance.  In that spirit, let me offer you a few words of personal encouragement.

On June 6, 1966, Robert F. Kennedy addressed students in Cape Town, South Africa.  South Africa remained under apartheid and the American civil rights movement still had so much to achieve.

In a speech dedicated to the celebration of liberty, RFK said:

“The first element of this individual liberty is the freedom of speech:  the right to express and communicate ideas, to set oneself apart from the dumb beasts of field and forest; to recall governments to their duties and obligations.”

“To recall governments to their duties and obligations.”

That is precisely what you have done in your countries through your Facebook posts, the tweets you have sent, the protests you have organized, and sometimes, through the jail time you have served.

You have held government accountable for abuses it has committed, the resources your leaders have sometimes squandered, or even for the roads they have not paved.

This is much of what bloggers and cyber activists do in Italy and in the United States, as well.  Mayor Renzi may sometimes be uncomfortable because of the e-mails and tweets he receives, but he tries to answer them honestly, and I know the effort is appreciated.  It is sometimes uncomfortable even for the U.S. government, but it is as good for American democracy as it has been positive for your countries.

The U.S. Government, too, has embraced social media as a tool for diplomacy.  The former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, visited many parts of that struggling country to see firsthand the brutal atrocities being committed by the Assad regime against its own people.  Personally courageous?  Yes, but what was innovative was that Ambassador Ford would regularly update his Facebook page with personal accounts of what he had witnessed.

In Italy, I have asked my embassy to actively reach out to Italian youth through Facebook and Twitter.  With this tool, we can directly reach our audience without having to filter our message through the media.  At the same time, the Italian public has a direct way to communicate with us, sometimes forcing us to deal with issues publicly that we might otherwise prefer to avoid.

We call this eDiplomacy.

In the case of Ambassador Ford, he was doing exactly what you have done in your countries:  he used the Internet and social media to hold government accountable by openly reporting the injustices the Assad regime was committing.

I firmly believe more openness is good.  United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1913 that “sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants.” 

The newly-created digital tools of the last few years have given you, as activists, the ability to shine that light on your leaders.  Information transferred immediately around the world is like digital sunshine, disinfecting governments of corruption and exposing their activities to the eyes of all its citizens.

In the United States, we start with the principle that we should strive to achieve as much openness and freedom as possible on the Internet.  Exceptions will be necessary, but we should always aspire to the goal of openness.

Translating that into policy, Secretary Clinton has clearly stated that U.S. policy is “to work internationally to promote an open, interoperable, secure, and reliable information and communications infrastructure that supports international trade and commerce, strengthens international security, and fosters free expression and innovation.”

In other words, our policy is to keep the Internet available to you, the world’s positive actors for change.  Note that the Secretary said we want to work with global partners to ensure this openness internationally—not just in the United States.

However, the Internet can be used by terrorist groups and others who seek to undermine freedom.  Regimes in Iran and Syria have used it effectively to oppress their own people.  We must also be vigilant to protect ourselves from those who wish to use digital tools destructively or to deny their citizens the ability to exercise their freedoms via Internet. We can only achieve that working with our international partners.

To that effect, since 2008, the United States government has spent $76 million on Internet freedom programming, and we will commit an additional $25 million this year.   These programs provide training and tools to civil society activists, in the Middle East and throughout the world—people just like you—in order to enable you to freely and safely exercise your rights on the Internet and via other communication technologies.  For example, in Syria, we are providing humanitarian, non-lethal aid, including communications equipment, to non-violent democracy activists to assist their efforts to promote a peaceful transition in Syria.

I would like to leave you with one last thought:  leaders, like you, of revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere helped bring down oppressive regimes.  However, as difficult as that was for you, experience has shown that removing the oppressor turns out to be the easy part.  Building an open and free society will prove a longer and more arduous task. 

The fact that progress may seem slow might be disheartening.  Citizens subject to tyranny for so long have to learn the rules of civil society, and there will be setbacks.  The same digital tools that you used to bring down dictators will be instrumental as you organize and educate your societies in preparation for democracy.  The same tools can also be used to spread disinformation against you, or expose corruption and abuses that may develop in the movements you support.  It is vital that you be vigilant, address errors, and maintain close communication with your constituency.

To the critics who point to failings and violence in the new democracies, I respond that at least they have a chance to succeed.  Under the rule of oppressive regimes, that would never be possible.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said during the height of his struggle for civil rights in the United States:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 

You have achieved much, there is a lot of work ahead of you, but be heartened by the knowledge that you are the architects of the right side of history