FROM: U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT
Public Safety and Access to Justice
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Open Government Partnership Steering Committee Ministerial
Mexico City, Mexico
April 23, 2015
As prepared for delivery
Thank you all for having me here. This is a timely gathering. Public safety and access to justice are high priority issues in the minds of many civil society representatives in the United States and, I should say, in the minds of American citizens generally. It is no secret that the conduct of law enforcement has been a headline issue for us this last year. In the United States, we believe that an informed and engaged civil society is essential to ensuring that government faithfully discharges its duties to protect its citizens, to guarantee human rights, and to hold itself and its officials accountable for their actions. We know that we’re not perfect. But we are committed to improvement and to upholding institutions that allow us to address our shortcomings. In this spirit, we’re looking forward to sharing ideas and best practices so that we can all build, or restore, trust between people and their government.
Because in countries where citizens lack trust and confidence in their government, where they do not feel enfranchised in decisions affecting their lives, there are a range of costs. Some can be drawn to violent extremism, others to gangs and crime. Corruption is more likely to increase; police and judicial power more likely to be abused. Basic services are distributed unjustly. Innovation and entrepreneurship are stifled as elites focus their power on maintaining a status quo that enables their unjust enrichment. In such societies, the state may seem like it’s growing stronger at the expense of civil society, but in fact institutions that lose the trust of their people often turn out to be hollow. They are strong until the day they are not; they create turmoil and instability that affects their neighbors and the world.
OGP points the way to an alternative, to creating a space where government and civil society can work together – to build trust and to ensure transparent, accountable, citizen-enabled and innovation-powered governance. Last September, President Obama challenged us to support civil society at home and abroad. The strength and success of nations depends, the President has said, on allowing citizens to solve problems without government interference, and on robust engagement between governments and civil society to advance shared goals.
One of OGP’s grand challenges, around which participants are encouraged to develop commitments, is “Promoting Safer Communities.” This is the most undersubscribed of OGP’s grand challenges, yet it is one of the most critical challenges facing countries in every corner of the world, in part because civilian insecurity can express itself in so many different ways—in gang violence and organized crime, in violent extremism, or officials who are complicit in corruption and human rights violations. Across a range of countries and communities, the security and justice sectors may be simply inadequate in creating secure conditions, guaranteeing access to justice, and protecting against human rights abuses. This creates space for crime and extremism to flourish and limits the potential for individual opportunity and economic growth. And ultimately, the persistence of these conditions can undermine the stability of the political system itself.
There is growing interest among civil society organizations in increasing OGP’s focus on this challenge area, and related issues such as access to justice and the promotion and protection of human rights. Transparency International’s new initiative on Safer Communities in Latin America is one example of how civil society and governments can work toward common goals – and I hope Cecilia will be able to share some of the ideas of this groundbreaking effort. With such examples in mind, we are hoping to start a discussion to explore how OGP can help advance the community security challenge.
In my country, events of the past year have called us to take a fresh look at questions of public safety, access to justice, and the need to strengthen police-community relations. In Ferguson, Missouri, public demonstrations and civil society interventions drew the nation’s attention to the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown and to concerns about the practices of the Ferguson Police Department. In addition to opening civil and criminal investigations, our Department of Justice sent mediators to create a dialogue between police, city officials, and residents to reduce tension in the community. In addition, DOJ is involved in a voluntary, independent, and objective assessment of the St. Louis County Police Department, looking at training, use of force, handling of mass demonstrations, and other areas where reform may be needed.
As President Obama has said, “[t]he fact is, in too many parts of (the United States), a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color.” At the President’s request, the Attorney General convened roundtable discussions among law enforcement, elected officials, and community members in six cities in December 2014 and January 2015. The President also appointed a Task Force on 21st Century Policing, made up of governmental and civil society members, which engaged a wide range of state, local, and tribal officials; subject matter experts; and community and faith leaders to develop a series of recommendations on how to strengthen public trust and foster strong relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect.
As we continue to strive for what our founding fathers termed “a more perfect union,” we encourage you both to make suggestions to us on what has worked for you in addressing such challenges and to consider what in this example may work in your country contexts.
We also want to hear your thoughts on how this set of issues manifests in different regions and countries. How, in your experience, do open government initiatives strengthen public safety and access to justice? Are there ways for OGP to encourage more countries to commit to improvements in this area? And if we consider access to justice and promotion and protection of human rights core parts of the open government agenda, should we build more robust evaluations into the IRM assessment? Finally, we need to come out of this session with more than great thoughts. We invite your specific recommendations on how OGP can empower citizens to play a role in ensuring accountability in the security and justice sectors.
It’s a lot to think about so with that, I’d like to turn to Cecilia for her remarks before we open up the floor for discussion.