“The Most Important Title is ‘Citizen'” – President Obama on the Significance of a Civil Society
“The Most Important Title is ‘Citizen'”: President Obama on the
Significance of a Civil Society
September 23, 2014
05:09 PM EDT
The courage of Berta Soler, the leader of Cuba’s Ladies in White who
endure harassment and arrest to win freedom for the Cuban people.
The determination of Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg, speaking up
for the rule of law and human rights in their country.
The hope of young Palestinians in Ramallah, dreaming of building their
future in a free and independent state.
“It is the civil society leaders who, in many ways, are going to have
the more lasting impact,” President Obama said. “Because as the saying
goes, the most important title is not ‘president’ or ‘prime minister’;
the most important title is ‘citizen.'”
Speaking to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, NY, President
Obama explained how the voice of one citizen can remind us why a civil
society is so essential:
Citizens remind us why civil society is so essential. When people are
free to speak their minds and hold their leaders accountable,
governments are more responsive and more effective. When entrepreneurs
are free to create and develop new ideas, then economies are more
innovative, and attract more trade and investment, and ultimately become
When communities, including minorities, are free to live and pray and
love as they choose; when nations uphold the rights of all their people
— including, perhaps especially, women and girls — then those
countries are more likely to thrive. If you want strong, successful
countries, you need strong, vibrant civil societies. When citizens are
free to organize and work together across borders to make our
communities healthier, our environment cleaner, and our world safer,
that’s when real change comes.
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“It is citizens — ordinary men and women, determined to forge their own
future — who throughout history have sparked all the great change and
A citizen is a powerful force for change. That is why more and more
governments are doing what they can to silence them — from Russia to
China to Venezuela and more. “This growing crackdown on civil society is
a campaign to undermine the very idea of democracy. And what’s needed is
an even stronger campaign to defend democracy,” the President said.
To carry that campaign forward, he announced a series of new steps the
United States will take to protect and promote the strength of civil
societies across the globe:
All federal departments and agencies will now consult and partner more
regularly with civil society groups. They will oppose efforts by foreign
governments to dictate our assistance to civil society or to restrict
freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and expression.
We will create new innovation centers for civil society groups to use to
network and access knowledge, technology, and funding they need to put
their ideas into action. The first six initial centers will be located
in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, and in Asia.
The U.S. will expand support and funding for Community of Democracies to
better coordinate the diplomacy and pressure we exert to fight against
laws that restrict civil society.
We will increase our support for society groups across the board, from
emergency assistance to legal assistance to technical support. The
Treasury Department will finalize regulations so it is easier and less
costly for foundations to make grants overseas.
The realities of America’s national security present imperfect choices,
forcing the U.S. to work with governments that do not fully respect the
universal rights of their citizens in order to protect the safety and
security of Americans. “But that does not mean that human rights can be
simply sacrificed for the sake of expediency,” the President said.
So although it is uncomfortable, although it sometimes causes friction,
the United States will not stop speaking out for the human rights of all
people, and pushing governments to uphold those rights and freedoms. We
will not stop doing that, because that’s part of who we are, and that’s
part of what we stand for.
“When your governments may try to pass oppressive laws, we’ll try to
oppose them. When they try to cut off your funding, we’re going to try
to give you a lifeline. And when they try to silence you, we want to
amplify your voice.”
“If, amid all the restrictions, and all the pressure, and all the
harassment, and all the fear, if they try to tell you that the world
does not care and that your friends have forsaken you, do not ever
believe it,” President Obama said. “Because you are not alone. You are
In the darkest hours of our trials, President Obama urged all to
remember the words of Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long,
but it bends towards justice.”
The reason we support civil society is because we have seen in this
country of ours that it does, in fact, bend toward justice. But it does
not do so on its own. It does so because there are hands of ordinary
people doing extraordinary things every single day and they pull that
arc in the direction of justice.
That’s why we have freedom in this country. That’s why I’m able to stand
before you here today. And that’s why we will stand with them tomorrow.
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