KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Saturday a “steel vice” is crushing groups that promote democracy and civil liberties around the world, and defended U.S. government funding for them.
Speaking on the eve of a Polish presidential run-off, she held the country up as a model democracy that emerged from Soviet domination strong enough to survive an air crash that killed its president, military leaders and many lawmakers in April.
However, Clinton cited many countries — from Iran and North Korea to Cuba and Zimbabwe — where nongovernmental organizations are banned, harassed or restricted.
Such repression had an ideology cast in the 20th century, particularly by communist governments, she said, but today it was often motivated by sheer power politics.
“More than 60 years ago, Winston Churchill came to the United States to warn the world’s democracies of an iron curtain descending across Europe,” she said in a speech. “Today, thankfully ... that iron curtain has fallen,” she said, referring to the collapse of European communism two decades ago.
“But we must be wary of the steel vice in which governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit,” she added.
On the second stop of a five-nation tour of the former Soviet bloc, Clinton made the comments at a meeting of the Community of Democracies, an intergovernmental group that seeks to promote democratic norms and civil society.
She proposed the group create an independent means to monitor repression of NGOs and take other steps to promote their work, including coordinating diplomatic pressure to protect them when they come under attack.
She also announced the creation of a fund — to which the United States would commit $2 million — to protect embattled groups and invited others to contribute.
Clinton defended the U.S. practice of funding such groups abroad, a practice that is not embraced by all governments and is regarded as meddling by some countries.
Earlier Clinton laid a wreath to pay tribute to the victims of the April 10 plane crash in Russia that killed 96 people including President Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s top military commanders and the central bank governor.
They had been planning to mark the 70th anniversary of a massacre of Polish officers by Soviet forces in Katyn forest during World War Two. Their Tupolev plane crashed in thick fog near Smolensk airport in western Russia.
Poland holds the final round of voting on Sunday in a presidential election brought on by Kaczynski’s death. The race pits his twin brother, conservative Jaroslaw Kaczynski, against Bronislaw Komorowski, the business-friendly acting president.
Clinton avoided taking sides and U.S. officials said she had no plans to meet Komorowski.
“Whichever candidate is chosen, the United States will continue to be your friend and partner,” she told a news conference with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski.
Before the news conference, Clinton witnessed the signing of a pact which allows the United States and Poland to carry out plans to station U.S. missile interceptors on Polish soil to defend against potential threats from Iran and elsewhere.
U.S. President Barack Obama decided last year to scrap a Bush-era plan to deploy a longer-range missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, opting instead to use smaller sea- and land-based missile interceptors.
“The United States is deeply committed to Poland’s security and sovereignty,” Clinton told the news conference, at which she also announced plans for the United States and Poland to cooperate on exploiting shale gas.
While there were reports last year that Poland was unhappy with Obama’s abandoning the Bush missile defense plan, Sikorski said his nation preferred the new approach.
“When President Obama announced the new configuration of the system, we did say that we liked the new configuration better but I think you didn’t believe us,” he said. “I hope now that we have signed the annex, I hope you do believe us.”