VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — The United States and fellow democracies on Thursday encouraged newly energized political activism in the Arab world and the older resistance movements in repressive corners of Europe, offering some practical tutorials on how to organize online and how to cover one's tracks.
"I know some of you are here at great personal risk," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told participants in the "Community of Democracies" gathering in Lithuania's capital. "But we come here for our common commitment to human rights and freedom."
The meeting was deliberately held only a short distance from Belarus, Europe's last autocratic stronghold. Some participants traveled the approximately 20 miles from Belarus, where authorities are cracking down on demonstrators amid the country's worst financial crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago.
Belarusian police violently dispersed a peaceful rally Wednesday by thousands of people protesting the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. Police beat and detained dozens of people after crowds defied official warnings and torrential rain to march down a central street of the capital, clapping in unison.
Much of the democracy meeting's opening day dealt with the new mechanics of protest, such as social media networks. At one event, civil society groups from Africa to Asia to Eastern Europe stepped up to tell America's top diplomat that government repression is on the rise.
At another, bloggers, human rights activists and protest organizers were coached in techniques to get their messages past government censors and onto the Internet, while masking their electronic footprints so as to avoid reprisal.
Clinton told participants at a "tech camp" that governments were constantly coming up with new ways to curb Internet freedom.
"We need to add to our numbers and find new ways to get over, around and through the walls," she said in a surprise appearance to a room full of young activists.
For Clinton, it was the second leg of a European swing to promote human rights and democracy. She visited Hungary earlier Thursday to inaugurate a human rights institute named after the late Rep. Tom Lantos of California. She will travel to Spain before returning home.
The choice of Hungary and Lithuania was symbolic. Both countries offer an example to peaceful demonstrators elsewhere, having shaken off the yoke of authoritarian regimes during the last great wave of liberal upheaval, when the Iron Curtain came down in 1989.
With protests persisting in Syria, Yemen and other countries of the Arab world, Clinton said emerging democracies from Europe to Latin America to Asia need to help other countries along the same path. And all should "show solidarity with those in the streets of Belarus, in Libya and around the world," she added.
In a wide-ranging speech in Budapest, Clinton expressed veiled concerns about China, expressly rejecting the creed of those countries "trumpeting national economic growth over freedom and human rights." And at a news conference afterward she cautiously chastised the host Hungarian government over constitutional changes and a new media law that have been criticized in Europe.
The Obama administration is alarmed by the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Belarus, where Lukashenko's iron fist has long been an asterisk to democratic change in eastern Europe. The U.S. and European governments have applied travel bans, asset freezes and other sanctions to officials culpable in human rights abuses, while directing funds toward economic development and travel opportunities for private Belarusian citizens.
Two Belarusian youth activists attending the conference in Lithuania said the Lukashenko government has relentlessly sought to stamp out dissent. They described the active opposition as largely limited to students and educated citizens. The movement needs the support of working class people, said the activists, who asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisals when they return home.
Associated Press writer Pablo Gorondi contributed to this report.
- President Alexander Lukashenko
- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
- Community of Democracies
- human rights
- Eastern Europe
- resistance movements