July 24, 2024

Secretary Antony J. Blinken at Freedom House 2023 Annual Awards Ceremony

Secretary Antony J. Blinken at Freedom House 2023 Annual Awards Ceremony

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Thank you very, very much.  Good evening, everyone.

Let me start by thanking my good friend of so many years, Mike Abramowitz, for the honor of joining Freedom House tonight and helping you to celebrate the 2023 Annual Freedom Awards.  Now, we have to be honest with people; we’ve known each other for a while, going back to our college days.  We both wrote for our college newspaper.  Or, more accurately, I wrote for Mike because on the Crimson he held the title of president back then.  (Laughter.)

There’s something else you need to know about Mike.  I tended to write a lot of opinion pieces read by, if I was really fortunate, one or two of my roommates and a family member too.  (Laughter.)  I was always trying to get Mike to write more opinion pieces.  And his answer back then in being reluctant to do that was I just don’t know, I really see both sides and I just have trouble coming out on one side or another.  (Laughter.)  Well, something’s changed in all those years, because I know, we know Mike, as being someone who is resolutely, ferociously on the side of democracy, freedom, and human rights.  (Applause.)

We have here tonight leaders from across the Executive Branch, Congress.  I think Chairman Mike McCaul is here, Representatives Swalwell and Panetta, others.  Your presence reflects the bipartisan commitment to standing up for universal freedoms, universal rights, to standing up for democracy.  And it’s an honor to be able to work with you and other members in Congress every single day to try to uphold that agenda.

Now, when this organization was founded eight decades ago, the specter of Nazism loomed over Europe.  In the rise of Hitler, the men and women of Freedom House saw a threat not only to freedom on the continent, but to life and liberty everywhere.  And so they threw their full weight behind pushing President Roosevelt to enter World War II to join the fight against fascism.

Ever since, Freedom House has taken on challenges to freedoms everywhere – from standing up against McCarthyism, advocating for civil rights, to, in our time, protecting human rights during the pandemic, combatting transnational repression.

The Freedom Index that Mike spoke about is one of the most powerful tools that we in government have.  Being able to refer to an objective, unbiased source that shows us the trajectory for good or back of democracy in our world, it helps guide our work and it is that unimpeachable document that we can use to try to leverage progress in country after country.  And indeed, what we see today 71 years later is Freedom House helping lead the charge to defend and advance freedom and human rights in what is, I think everyone in this room knows, an extremely challenging and difficult time.

Globally, just to focus on the human rights dimension, governments have jailed upward of a million people just for exercising their fundamental human rights and defending the human rights of others.  That includes one of tonight’s Freedom Award recipients: Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza – sentenced to 25 years for speaking out against the war in Ukraine, and also for a lifetime of courageous work to seek a better future for his fellow Russian citizens.

Millions of others are defending human rights on the frontlines, often at extraordinary personal risk.  People like Aida Ghajar, the first journalist to publish Mahsa Amini’s name after her death.  We’re honored that Aida is here to accept tonight’s second Freedom Award.

For months now, Aida and hundreds of thousands of Iranian women, girls – with the support of many of their male compatriots – have demanded their basic freedoms be respected, even in the face of the most brutal repression.

Countless journalists are working to expose and report on the truth in extremely dangerous conditions.  Today, we were devastated to learn of the death of an AFP video journalist Arman Soldin in eastern Ukraine.  Our thoughts are with his family, with his loved ones, with the entire AFP family.

Just a week or so ago I had the chance to welcome back to the State Department another remarkable journalist, Ben Hall from Fox, who traveled with me at the beginning of my tenure in this job and then was grievously wounded in Ukraine doing his job – trying to cover the war and bring its realities to people around the world.  It was just a wonderful thing to have Ben back at the State Department back on the job after coming back from truly horrific injuries.

But he, so many others who are on the frontlines trying to make sure that they’re shining a light on what’s going on in the darkest recesses of Earth, more important than ever.  And there’s a lot to be said about press freedom in this moment, but I’ll save that for another day.  (Applause.)  Thank you.

The work of so many who report on and advocate for human rights and human dignity – including our extraordinary Ambassador to Liberia Michael McCarthy, also being honored tonight – is both incredibly dangerous but even more so incredibly consequential.

President Biden has worked to put the promotion and protection of human rights, fundamental freedoms, at the core of our diplomacy.

At the State Department, we’ve been ramping up programs to provide emergency support and legal assistance to those who are out there defending human rights around the world; pressing for the release of political prisoners; holding human rights abusers accountable, including with sanctions, visa restrictions; strengthening the rule of law and systems of transnational[1] justice. We’re also engaging constantly with our civil society partners, like Freedom House, on how to best defend and advance human rights in the face of traditional challenges as well as evolving challenges.

And of course, one of the most rapidly evolving challenges – not a surprise to anyone here – is technology, both in the affirmative pursuit of human rights but also in further enabling repression.  And that’s what I thought I’d spend a little bit of time on tonight.

Now, I suspect everyone in the room felt the same way.  For a time, it seemed that leaps in technology would be a gamechanger, tilting the balance of power away from human rights abusers and in favor of human rights defenders.

In 1989, President Reagan summed up the consensus view at the time when he said, “More than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom that the world has ever seen.”

Since then, of course, the internet, digital technologies have connected and empowered billions of people: amplifying their voices, providing the opportunity to form communities, expanding economic opportunity.  And in many ways, expanding freedom for human rights defenders specifically, technologies provide a platform to connect, to collaborate, to communicate across borders.

Yet, at the same time, as we all know too well, in many of the same places where human rights defenders are using technology for good, authoritarians and repressive regimes have abused technology to carry out their own transgressions.

In short, we’ve been reminded powerfully that technology is not inherently good or bad.  Whether it makes our societies more or less equitable, whether it promotes or represses human rights, whether it brings us together or drives us apart – that’s up to all of us.

The United States is committed to doing whatever we can, drawing on the full range of our own tools, diplomatic and otherwise, to try to maximize technology as a force for good and to minimize its misuse.

We’ve also made historic investments like the CHIPS and Science Act, because we know we can only be effective in shaping these technologies in a way that aligns with our values – in particular, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms – if countries that support freedom maintain leadership in cutting-edge technologies and are playing a lead role in shaping the norms and rules by which these technologies are used.

Our human rights future is going to be shaped, simply put, by our technological future.  And that’s particularly so in four areas where we have to work together if we’re going to achieve the goals that unite us.

Let me just mention these quickly.

First, surveillance technology, particularly spyware.  Our digital lives make us all vulnerable to new forms of surveillance tech, embedded in the devices we carry in our pockets, we wear on our wrists, we have in our homes.

For many here tonight, the proliferation and misuse of surveillance technology is a daily and growing threat.  Journalists, political activists, opposition figures, human rights advocates, others across nearly every continent have been targeted with commercial spyware that’s readily available to governments and nongovernmental actors alike.

Nongovernmental reports have found that over 70 governments around the world – including democracies – have acquired commercial spyware or data extraction technologies.

Now, governments, of course, can use surveillance technologies to help protect national security; to enhance law enforcement, public safety, the environment, critical infrastructure.  But they have to be used in a way that’s consistent with domestic law, with international law, and with proper legal authorization, safeguards, and oversight.

That’s why we have mobilized a government-wide effort to try to shape how surveillance technology is used.  We’ve been putting significant restrictions on the export of technologies and inputs used for surveillance and other malicious cyber activities by governments.

We added spyware companies that have enabled the misuse of their technology to something called the Commerce Department’s Entity List, which prevents these companies from receiving products or components from our own firms without the approval of our government.

We will continue to identify and sanction foreign companies that develop and supply software and other surveillance technology to governments with a record of using these tools to abuse human rights.

This year’s Second Summit for Democracy, President Biden issued an executive order that bans the U.S. Government use of commercial spyware that poses a risk to our own national security, including that which has been used to target U.S. Government personnel or devices or has been misused by foreign actors to target dissidents or abuse human rights.

We’ve also encouraged the 36 other governments that are part of the Freedom Online Coalition to begin to adopt guiding principles on surveillance technology to prevent its misuse by bad actors, like targeting people based solely on their race, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their political views, or any other classification protected by law.  And we’ll keep working to bring more countries online with these efforts.

A second area I just wanted to highlight quickly, where we’re seeing technology’s impact most significantly on human rights, and that, of course, is internet freedom.  Governments are finding new ways to restrict access to the internet, to choke off the information that citizens take in and that they share.  Some shut off the internet altogether.  Others, of course, use censorship and punitive laws to control how the internet is used.

According to Freedom House’s most recent Freedom on the Net report, internet shutdowns and internet censorship by governments are now at an all-time high.

Now, we know unfettered access to the internet is essential for defending human rights and human freedoms.  Aida Ghajar’s news outlet Iran Wire used the internet to receive critical information from inside Iran to do everything from documenting an accurate death toll from the repression of protests, to sharing live footage of the regime’s crackdown, to gathering and disseminating reporting by its network and citizen journalists.  One Iranian journalist put it this way and explained of the protestors:  “People don’t have weapons. They have mobile phones.  They have social media.”  These are among the strongest tools in democracy’s arsenal.

So we are leading a global effort to try to advance – to protect and to advance internet freedom, particularly in areas where governments are most aggressively repressing it.

When the Iranian regime tried to throttle internet access for most of its 80 million citizens, we issued a General License that enables technology firms to provide more digital services, hardware, and software to people in Iran, from access to cloud computing services to better tools to enhance their own online security and privacy; in other words, to be able to remain connected with each other and connected with the rest of the world.  These tools have been essential in helping Iranians not only report on the regime’s abuses, but to tell their own stories and exercise their right to free expression.  We’re committed to expanding similar efforts around the world wherever necessary.

The third thing I wanted to highlight.  While we’re working to promote access to the internet for all, we’re also working to address threats to human rights that come with an open internet, including online harassment, abuse, disinformation.

Now, online abuse doesn’t, of course, target only human rights defenders.  Instead, the internet and digital technologies are often used to amplify attacks on vulnerable groups – women, the LGBTQI community, marginalized ethnic or religious groups – and undermine our broader fight for human rights.  So this year, we launched what is now at least a 12-country Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse.  We’re encouraging private sector to become engaged with us as well.

We’re also working to address the massive challenge of online misinformation and disinformation – again, something familiar to everyone in this room.  To cite one example, of course, Russia continues to push a steady, relentless stream of disinformation about its war of aggression against Ukraine, to lie about and cover up horrific abuses it’s committed, to try to justify committing others.

In response, the State Department has developed an AI-enabled online Ukraine Content Aggregator to collect verifiable Russian disinformation and then to share that with partners around the world.  We’re promoting independent media and digital literacy.  We’re working with partners in academia to reliably detect fake text generated by Russian chatbots.

Which leads to a fourth area that I wanted to mention tonight, a fourth area where technology and human rights are converging, and that, of course, is emerging technologies, particularly artificial intelligence and biotechnologies, including genomics.

As a system that reflects the data on which it’s trained – including the biases embedded in that data – AI can, of course, amplify discrimination and enable abuses.

It also runs the risk of strengthening autocratic governments, including by enabling them to exploit social media even more effectively to manipulate their people and sow division among and within their adversaries.

In October, the White House put out a Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights – some basic principles to try to guide the way that we design and use automated systems in ways that protect our people and defend our democratic values.  These include the principle that people should be protected from unsafe and ineffective AI, and that people should know when an automated system is being used and understand how it affects them.

The National Institute for Standards and Technology also developed a risk management framework for how to measure and manage the risk of automated systems and make AI that’s safe, accountable, and fair, and that protects privacy.

Now, I think it’s also not a secret to everyone in this room and particularly to those of you who are either serving or have served in government to suggest that one of the biggest challenges that we face in government is keeping up with technology as a general rule, including AI.  It takes us a while to figure it out, to understand it.  By the time we do, it’s usually leaped several generations ahead.  And then we go to regulate it; we tend to take out a 2 by 4 that governments use instead of a scalpel that may be more effective.

So one of the things that we are doing relentlessly, and including in my department at State, is to bring in much more expertise than we’ve had in the past to help us in real time better understand the technologies that are shaping our world and to work together in figuring out how best to try to shape them in a way that advances the good and minimizes the bad.

It took me a while working in government over the years as someone trained in the humanities, as most of us are working on foreign policy, to understand that I needed scientists and technologists in the room just to tell me whether I needed scientists and technologists in the room.  (Laughter.)  So we’re getting there.

But just recently, the State Department stood up an entire new bureau for Cyberspace and Digital Policy.  We have an incredibly effective senior envoy for emerging technologies.  We want to make sure that not only are we at the table, but we’re really helping to shape the discussion at that table about, again, how these technologies are going to be used because they so powerfully affect our lives.

Access to human genomic data opens up a whole other set of human rights concerns.  Advances in biotechnology have enabled genomic surveillance based on a person’s DNA, potentially facilitating abuses.  And we’ve seen some of those, for example, committed by the People’s Republic of China against Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.  We’re also concerned by reports of the spread of mass DNA collection to Tibet as an additional form of control and surveillance over the Tibetan population.

Going back to last September, President Biden issued an executive order on biotechnology and biomanufacturing innovation, which seeks to ensure that the United States and our partners continue to lead and set norms and rules on advanced biotechnology in a way that is rights-affirming and reflects our values.

Now, we know these principles and guidelines aren’t the final word in navigating the extraordinary complexities around these technologies, which evolve, as I said, almost faster than we can keep up with understanding them.  But they are a way to start to create guardrails and to shape the space, particularly as countries on the cutting edge of tech-enabled repression seek to export their models and technologies, with all the biases and risks that they contain, and to do so at scale.

These four challenges – and others that we know will emerge in the months and years ahead –  require all of us to try to work harder, to work smarter, to work more collaboratively than ever before.

At the same time, for our administration as we consider the larger challenge of strengthening democracy and pushing back against autocracy, we’ve tried to put in place some foundational pieces that will help us do that.

Over the last few years, we’ve been working very hard to invest in ourselves, to make sure that our own country is as competitive as can be and that it’s delivering on the things that people  most want and expect.  Because fundamentally, if we can’t demonstrate that our democracies can deliver, if we can’t demonstrate that we can compete effectively, we’re going to be on the losing end.

The other half of the coin is making sure that we’re engaged, truly engaged, in the world.  And so we’ve worked very hard to re-engage, to rejuvenate, to re-energize our alliances, our partnerships, starting but not ending with our democratic partners around the world.  Because if we can build convergence among countries about the way to approach these problems, if we can multiply the weight that we bring, we are going to stand a much better chance in being effective and getting real change and defending more effectively the freedoms and rights that are under challenge.

But what I know powerfully is this:  It’s simply not enough for governments to do this.  We can’t, we can’t do it alone.  On the contrary, more than ever before we need partnerships.  We need partnerships with the private sector.  We need partnerships with nongovernmental organizations.  We need partnerships with academia.  We need partnerships that bring together all of the stakeholders in this fight to strengthen, to preserve, to defend our democracies and to uphold human rights.

We know that in so many ways all of these stakeholders are more empowered than ever before.  And if we’re not together on the takeoff, we’re probably not going to be together on the landing.

At the end of the day, we together have a shared commitment and a shared responsibility to uphold the freedoms that so many of us have tended to take for granted but that Freedom House never has.  I think the great power, the great strength, the great contribution that Freedom House has made over so many years is precisely that: not taking freedom for granted, not taking democracy for granted, not taking human rights for granted; on the contrary, telling us, showing us, that we have to fight for them and we have to fight for them together every single day.

Now, I suspect many have been awakened to that proposition a little bit more recently, but I hope it commits all of us to try to find ways to work together in ways perhaps that we haven’t before.  So what I really wanted to share with you tonight is simply that, speaking on behalf of our administration, we will continue to look to Freedom House and to human rights and freedom defenders writ large who have always been and have to remain our North Star.  We ask you to continue to work with us, including by sharing your ideas, by sharing your perspectives, and yes, holding us accountable.

[1] transitional

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-freedom-house-2023-annual-awards-ceremony/