Remarks by Secretary of State Clinton at Town Hall with Women,Youth, and Civil Society

Dushanbe, Tajikistan–(ENEWSPF)–October 22, 2011.  

Date: 10/22/2011 Description: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a town hall discussion in Dushanbe, Tajikistan Saturday Oct 22, 2011.  ( AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque, Pool) © AP Image

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you. Please let me tell you how excited I am to be here with you. Sher, thank you for that introduction and for being our moderator today. I wanted to thank the Aga Khan Development Network for supporting this forum and working so hard to create opportunities for the Tajik people and the Dushanbe Ismaili Center. Thanks to you for hosting us in this truly beautiful, impressive building here.

And I am delighted, to look out and see this large audience of people who are working to improve the lives of your fellow citizens and create a better future for your country. And I’m grateful to you because each and every one of you is helping to build a more prosperous, democratic future for Tajikistan. And it is exciting for me to see men and women gather together to make it here, and the future must include all citizens. A vibrant society that supports inclusive opportunity, prosperity, and rights for everyone knows that you will be more successful. And I’m also pleased to see so many young people because building that future is really all about you.

So I’m here mostly to listen. This is my first trip to Tajikistan. I have long looked forward to coming here. And I want to hear your views, your opinions and suggestions about the future of your country and the wider region. I know that Tajikistan is at a critical moment in its history. The effects of post-Soviet rule can still be felt. But there is such a feeling of hope and progress. And this year, with the help of several Tajik NGOs and the International Organization on Migration, I saw a very impressive report about the efforts of stopping the traffickers who have forced women and children to work in the cotton fields (inaudible). I’m also told that rural projects are exercising their right to own land and choose which crops to grow. And farmers may include supply chains and connections to capital end markets.

And more people in rural communities have access to safe drinking water. Pregnant women and families with young children are receiving better healthcare, and the polio outbreak from last year has subsided. We are very pleased and proud to support you in all of these and other efforts. Since establishing diplomatic relations in 1992, the United States has provided nearly $1 billion in assistance. But we know very well that it’s not what comes from the outside, but what comes from the inside – what comes from the hearts and minds and hard work of the people themselves. And we strongly support the right of Tajik citizens to receive a decent education, to own land, to enjoy a free and independent media, participate equally in the political process, and enjoy all of the universal rights that should be available to any man or woman. And we strongly believe that fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom, should be protected for all people, young and old, men and women.

So I’m looking forward to our meeting here today, I’m looking forward to meeting with the president and government officials later today. We want to talk in both settings about the future and what kinds of actions are necessary so that Tajikistan will have that better future which you deserve. We want some help increasing economic opportunity here in Tajikistan so that so many of your people do not have to leave home to find work, that there can be a flourishing economy right here.

Now we know that won’t happen overnight. Barriers to trade have to come down, more investment must be attracted. So the United States is supporting what we are calling the New Silk Road, a network of transit and trade connections to open up new markets for raw materials and energy and agricultural products that can be traded among all nations in the region. For example, we’re working with the Aga Khan Development Network to support clear energy to build an integrated energy grid along the Tajik-Afghan border. We want to spur growth, create jobs, invigorate the private sector, and fully integrate Tajikistan into the South and Central Asian economy.

In order to take advantage of these opportunities, there does need to be changes in the laws – changes to attract investment, a strong commitment to human rights and rule of law, to tackle corruption and abuse, to establish an independent judiciary, and other steps that will truly benefit the people of your country. And of course, women have to be at the table, part of the solution. And we know that women, because of the very heavy migration of men out of your country seeking work, we know that women represent more than half the population here in Tajikistan. And so we fully support women’s full participation. So I want you to know that you can count on America’s support as you take on all of these challenges, and we will try to be a good partner and a good friend.

So now, let me join Sher and start hearing from all of you. Thank you very much for being here. (Applause.)

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) I know that you were in Istanbul this week. I know that we share our – both of our common languages and culture, and we have varied interests (inaudible). What is next for (inaudible)?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think that that is a question that everyone in the region wants to know the answer to, and I would start by saying I think what happens next depends, yes, of course, on the Afghans, but it also depends upon the region as a whole. We are working with Afghanistan to transition security so that as troops from the United States and 48 other countries leave Afghanistan, the Afghans themselves will slowly but steadily take on the responsibility of defending and protecting their country. The United States is working on a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan so that they know we’re not leaving and abandoning them, that we won’t have an enduring presence in Afghanistan. We are working to help promote an Afghan-led peace process. There will be many of the insurgents and the fighters who wish to reintegrate into society, but there will be others who won’t, and we now need to begin to sort out who is who in that process.

But the idea that I briefly mentioned of a New Silk Road is very important to Afghanistan because instead of Afghanistan being the crossroads for terrorism and insurgency and so much pain and suffering over 30 years, we want Afghanistan to be at the crossroads of economic opportunities going north and south and east and west, which is why it’s so critical to more fully integrate the autonomies of the countries in this region in South and Central Asia.

I think you know very well that Afghanistan has historically been a place where many different countries and nationalities have vied for power and influence because of the strategic location. And the Afghan people have paid a terrible price, but their neighbors have also suffered from the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. So we’re looking for the support of the governments and the people in the region to try to promote those Afghans who want peace, security, stability. And that can come apart – come across over time if we have a plan.

So for example, there will be a regional meeting in Istanbul in about a week, 10 days, to bring the entire region together to start planning what is the region going to do to try to prevent the conflict from continuing or spilling over borders. So this is a big task ahead of us, but you’re right to ask it because it is key to the kind of progress that can be made not only there, but here and elsewhere.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Madam Secretary. (In Russian and Tajik)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: May I ask and perhaps share an email, what kind of internet access you currently have?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Does that make sense everybody? I think the question is really whether there can be a good dialogue between the government and NGOs, and whether there can be freedom of expression and opinion by the people of the country, particularly young people, because you referenced the activities of the so-called Arab Spring, and young people were certainly in the forefront.

Well, I can only tell you that I believe strongly that NGOs that are responsible and committed to the forum can play an important role and should be permitted to do so in every society. What is often unfortunate is that governments worry that NGOs have other agendas, that they are funded by outside interests, that they are truly trying to undermine or subvert the stability, the peace, the future of the country. And I think that that is a missed opportunity, so I would like to encourage the government here, as I do whenever I travel around the world, to have a dialogue with the NGO community. There are a lot of very experienced, accomplished people who care deeply about fixing education or healthcare or the environment or protected human rights, and they should have the opportunity to be heard.

But I know that that is an evolutionary process. It will take time. But I will certainly raise this with high government officials because I think that you’re at a critical moment in history, and I think Tajikistan needs all of the engagement and intelligence of all of its citizens, particularly its young people. And so I will certainly make that point.

MODERATOR: Next question.

QUESTION: (Inaudible?)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, let me start by saying that the United States strongly objected to the events in Andijan that we were very much on record, that we made our views known, and that we have had ongoing discussions with the Government of Uzbekistan that I will continue when I go there tonight – raising issues of human rights, of rule of law, the kind of fundamental freedoms that the United States strongly supports.

You quoted President Kennedy, and you will recall that when he was president, as with all of our presidents, they met with and tried to work with the Soviet Union despite very strong disagreements about policy, because we believe it is important to try to continue to exercise whatever influence we can on behalf of people who themselves may not have a voice. So when I go to speak with many leaders around the world – because you know there are many countries that have taken severe actions against the rights of their citizens in history; this is nothing new – but today, everybody knows about it. There is no way to keep it secret. It will be on the internet. When President Asad in Syria sends his security forces to kill peaceful demonstrators, they can’t hide that anymore.

So whether it is in this region or elsewhere, we do everything possible to make a strong case for those who cannot get in the doors and talk to their leaders. And I can assure you that we have raised all of the human rights issues in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. But we have also learned over the years that after a while, after you’ve made your strong objections, if you have no contact, you have no influence. And other countries will feel that vacuum who do not care about human rights, who do not care about fundamental freedoms. So despite the challenge, I would rather be having meetings raising these uncomfortable issues, pressing for change, than to be totally outside and let others come in that only want commercial, political, and other advantages.

So it’s a balancing act, but we try on an ongoing basis to get our message across and give heart to people inside countries that there are those outside who care about what is happening to them and are advocating for change on their behalf.

MODERATOR: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I will certainly do that because we care deeply about it. I cannot promise you that there will be some immediate change. You know that change in many of these situations takes time and effort, but I will certainly raise those issues, as I have before.

MODERATOR: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: I think that both Russia and the United States have interests in Central Asia. Obviously, you have a long history with Russia and you know that there are many important relationships that continue to this day that are going to be important in the future. The United States believes that we also have a role to play in Central Asia. We strongly support the trend toward greater openness, democratization, free market economies, because what we have found over many, many years everywhere in the world is that there are certain ingredients that, if in place, are more likely to benefit the people than other choices about how to organize the government and the economy.

So we are clearly trying to convey our strong support for the reforms that many of you represent. In Afghanistan, the relationship between Russia and the United States is very positive. Russia has been quite helpful in the last several years, certainly since I’ve been Secretary of State, in supporting the efforts of the NATO international forces to be able to move supplies into and out of Afghanistan from the north. Russia has been an active participant in the many meetings that have been held about the future of Afghanistan. So I think Russia is playing a positive role and cooperating certainly with us, with the Afghans and others, to try to find a way to bring this conflict to a close.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, you are accurate in pointing out that after 9/11, our visa process became much more difficult – I fully recognize that – for students and workers, professionals, and others. It has, I think, gotten somewhat better because our security measures have improved. But it is still a problem and we are working very hard to try to streamline it. This is a question I get asked all over the world, from Brazil to China to Tajikistan. So I’m well aware of the challenge, and I can assure you of trying to make it better.

I also very much appreciate your question about Afghan women. I met with a group of Afghan women when I was in Kabul, women that I’ve known now for 10 years, have worked with in Afghanistan, in the United States, around the world on behalf of improving the lives of Afghan women. I wanted to meet with them to assure them personally I would do everything I can to make sure that no one turns the clock back on them; that they will have the right to go to school, which the Taliban denied them; they will have the right to work, which the Taliban denied them; they will have the right to have healthcare, which the Taliban denied them. Because I think it’s absolutely essential; there cannot be a peace that sacrifices the rights of women. You will not have a sustainable peace and it would be wrong.

Now I cannot predict to you what any government of any country will do in five years, 10 years, or 20 years. But certainly, any government that comes about, has any process that the United States is part of must agree to renounce violence, renounce al-Qaida, and abide by the laws and constitution of Afghanistan, including the protections for ethnic minorities such as Tajiks and Uzbeks and (inaudible) and others, and the rights of women.

So that is our redline. We are absolutely clear on that. But eventually, the future of Afghanistan will be in the hands of Afghans, and what we are hoping is that the changes that have begun will strengthen the institutions enough and provide a base for many elements within Afghan society to stand up for their rights and not be intimidating and not permit any reversal of the gains that have been made. But your question is one that I think about all the time, because we cannot afford to let that happen in good conscience.

MODERATOR: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first, I am very pleased you had a chance to go to the United States because the United States, from its very beginning, has respected and honored religion. But we have a separation between religion and our state. So from the very beginning, we have said that the state cannot establish a religion. And we believe strongly that true religion, true faith and beliefs, should come from the inside, not imposed from the outside. And so if you’re imposing them from the outside, you have to use state power to do that. And we do not believe in that.

So the problem for many societies in transition who have a predominant religion in their society, which they respect and cherish because it is their national tradition, a particular religious orientation, is how to make sure you do not impose religion but you create space so that religion can operate. I think this is one of the biggest challenges facing many democracies in transition and many Muslim-majority countries, because there’s a new opportunity to try to define what one means by democracy, civil society, and human rights, including the right to have your own religion.

I believe that everyone is entitled to practice their faith, but no one is entitled to impose their faith on someone else. So how do you balance those two very strong principles? That’s what you have to work out in this country and so many other countries.

Religion has caused so many wars over so many centuries. I’m a Christian, and we’ve had so many wars, until recent times. If you were one kind of Christian you were fighting against another kind of Christian. I worked for many years to help resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland. It was between two different kinds of Christians. It wasn’t anybody else; it was Catholics and Protestants. And yet they were fighting each other and they were living in different neighborhoods and they were rejecting the rights of one or the other to have full citizenship. And it took years, but finally that conflict has been resolved.

But I see that all over the world now. Look what’s happening in Egypt: 10 percent of Egyptians are Coptic Christians. They’ve lived in Egypt for thousands of years. And now there are different kinds of pressures on them. In Pakistan, you have different sects of Muslims killing each other. In Iraq, you have Sunni and Shia. So I mean, you go around the world and you say to yourself something that should connect you to God should not cause you to try to kill, intimidate, coerce, or oppress your neighbor. I mean, that is fundamental to every religion. And yet we have seen historically that’s not what has happened.

So your question is a very important one. There should be freedom of religion but no coercion or oppression. And those who are religious should respect the rights of other religions and, in our country, even those who have no religion. And I can only hope that you can work out that balance. I know that there is a lot of concern in Tajikistan about certain people coming and saying that their way is the only way, and if you don’t do what we say, if you don’t dress the way we dress, if you don’t pray the way we pray, then you’re not religious. And I understand that. It’s a very serious threat.

But you don’t want that to happen, but you also don’t want to deny the right for people to be religious. So those of you who are religious, who care about the important role that religion can play in an individual’s life and in a society, I hope will continue to study how you can have religion without coercion, or you can have an openness like what you saw in my country where – I live in New York. I think we have every religion that is practiced anywhere on earth in New York. And sometimes there’s a little bit of friction and you rub up against people, but generally, millions of people worship on Friday, worship on Saturday, worship on Sunday, in the way that they have been raised or chose to believe. And that’s what I would hope for everyone.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) (Applause.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, the short answer is yes. But on a serious note, I would say that it’s very important for men and women to respect one another and to support one another and to encourage each other to live up to his or her God-given potential. And I am very fortunate in having a husband who strongly supports my work, strongly supports the work of our daughter, as her husband now does. And I am aware that in too many places in too many parts of the world, that is not the case, that women are not given the respect or the rights – because you need both – that they should have.

So I’m hoping that – I met a number of very active, dynamic Tajik women before I came in who have been part of economic and social meetings in Bishkek and elsewhere. And I’m hoping that every society will move toward recognizing that you can make so much more progress if the entire population is included. And if you leave half of your population out, you cannot make the economic, political, and social progress that you should be able to.

So on an individual level, it’s important to have that support. And on a national level, it’s important to have that support. And I would hope that would be the case here in Tajikistan as well as elsewhere.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first, I don’t know the specifics of what you’re referring to, but I know that Russia sells a lot of fuel to NATO. So I think there might be something in that. And I think it’s important that you do seek out greater foreign investment to diversify your economy. And I would say that there are several things you’ll have to do, which is to: open up the economy; make sure your laws are protecting contract rights so that international firms feel comfortable and safe investing in Tajikistan; tackle corruption, because that’s a big tax on any business whether it’s inside or outside or from outside the country; and look to have a concerted effort to reach out to international businesses so that more people know what we have to offer here.

And I think that certainly our Embassy can provide any of the NGOs who are working on economic development our assessment of what it would take to attract investment and what it would take to attract an ExImBank investment. We will certainly convey the interest you’ve expressed to the Export-Import Bank, and they can work with our Embassy to explain what they look for and what they would need to see before they could make such investment.

I would like to see Tajikistan attract much more foreign investment than you have thus far. And I think you’re going to have to deal with some of the internal legal and regulatory changes that are necessary. But there is a lot of incentive for you to do that, because then you could diversify your economy. So I would hope that that could be on the agenda with one of the NGOs here.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) (Applause.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: That was a popular question. (Laugher.) First let me say I am aware of your energy challenges in the winter. You apparently have a surplus of electricity in the summer when your hydro power is at full capacity; but obviously, in the winter hydro power is not as efficient, so therefore you have shortages in winter. And I know that since the 1970s, Tajikistan has been looking at this very large dam project. And the World Bank is currently doing two studies to try to reach an independent judgment, uninfluenced by any of your neighbors, as to whether this is the right best investment for Tajikistan.

I don’t know how the studies are going to come out by the World Bank. I am not, by any means, an expert in dam building or hydro power. But I will say this: That what we have seen in the last several years is that a lot of major dam projects around the world that have been in blueprints and not yet built for many years are not being built. Why? Because what was an efficient way to produce power in the 1970s or ‘80s is no longer so efficient. And therefore, looking at different ways of producing power, more decentralized, diversified power sources, is what many countries are now doing.

And so again, when the World Bank comes out with its study, it is not going to be a final word for your government, but I think the government should pay attention to what the World Bank says because this is a huge project. If it’s not doing to deliver what you need, then you should look at the expert advice from independent sources about what would work. There are other energy opportunities that I think experts have talked about in Tajikistan and there are ways of storing energy and producing energy that are more efficient with today’s technology than a large dam. So I don’t know, as I said, what the outcome is going to be. But it is important to have an independent assessment.

And the final thing I would say is that there are lots of really accomplished independent experts in the world today who are working with many countries. Because a lot of the big projects of the past are no longer efficient, and so we don’t want countries like Tajikistan or anywhere else to follow a path that in five or ten years you find out isn’t delivering what you need it to deliver.

So I will leave it at that. We’ll wait to see what the World Bank has to say, because I think they’re the – they’re doing a very thorough study, from what I’m told. But I think you should separate out the opposition to the project from Uzbekistan. Sometimes people do things just because your neighbor doesn’t want you to do it. (Laughter.) Your neighbor says, “Don’t cut down that tree.” You go and cut down the tree because you don’t like your neighbor. And then you wake up the next morning thinking, you know, I liked that tree, I’m sorry it’s gone.

So I would just urge you not to make a decision because somebody you don’t like doesn’t like it. I would make a decision based on what’s best for Tajikistan. And that’s the smartest way to don’t get mad, get even. Right? So I would hope that’s what your country does. (Applause.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) (Applause.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think you’re asking for more seminars and personal development kind of programs, and we’ll certainly talk to our Embassy about doing that. I think you’re right that fundamental change often has to come on an individual basis and from within, but I see it as both a bottom-up individual process and a top-down social-governmental process. Because if you don’t have a government that respects the individual and wants to unleash those powers within the individual so that you can pursue your business interests and your political interests or whatever, then you may not get the full benefit from the individual effort.

So I think you have to have both an emphasis on the individual training, as you’ve pointed out, and enabling from societies and from the government. It is not just the government. I mean, it’s in society – and I’ll go back to women – if in society certain groups of people within society believe that girls shouldn’t be educated or women shouldn’t be allowed to vote or participate, then no matter how well developed an individual is, that person is barred from participating. So it has to be bottom-up, top-down to create that really broad field of opportunity for everybody.

MODERATOR: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first, I haven’t yet had my meetings with the government. I came here first because I wanted to hear from you, and I will carry many of your concerns and questions with me when I go to meet with the government.

I think your second question is obviously important to me, because I think that women should be given the opportunity to serve in government as officials, as ministers. Many of you probably may remember, I ran for president because I think women should compete for all positions in the political system of their countries. And we had a very hard-fought election, and President Obama defeated me, but I then was proud to go to work for him when he asked me to serve in this government.

So I think that it is – it should be a question of personal choice. Most men and most women are never going to be involved in politics; it doesn’t appeal to them, they’re not interested in it, they don’t think that it’s their best use. But if you do want to participate in government and politics, you should be chosen on your merit, you should be selected because you have something to contribute, you’re a hard worker, you have some technical expertise, you’re a well-organized person. And that should be equally true for men and women.

So I would hope that more women will find it possible to participate in the government here and throughout the region. Everywhere I go in the region, I raise this issue. Yesterday, I had a long meeting in Pakistan with the new woman foreign minister, a young woman, well-qualified, very impressive. And here she is in a country where that’s not always expected. But it was – Pakistan had had a woman prime minister, it was India that had a woman prime minister, it’s Bangladesh which now has a woman prime minister.

So I think that there are many reasons why women should be given a chance to participate and be judged on whether or not they do a good job, just like a man would be.

MODERATOR: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you very much. (Applause.)