Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

GWBush Institute – opening remarks

I’m speaking today at the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University on a conference on cyberdissidents. My colleague Hal Roberts and I are here to offer the technological counterpart to what’s otherwise a meeting to celebrate and recognize online dissent – we’re tasked with explaining how internet censorship works, what are good and bad ways of fighting it, and what policy interventions we would recommend.

Ambassador Jim Glassman, the founding Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute, is the host for the day. In introductory remarks to the media, he notes that the institue today is highlighting the work of dissidents at work around the world “in the tradition of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Natan Sharansky, Lech Wa??sa,” recognizing that people today are using the tools of new media and the internet. The dissidents here today represent five countries that that Freedom House has ranked as “not free” or “partly free”.

The conference is the fourth the Institute has produced in the past two months – the building of the actual Bush center is three years off, but SMU is currently hosting these events. The inaugural conferences are focused on four issues, “on-partisan way”: education, global health, economic freedom and human freedom. This is the first even on human freedom, and Ambassador Glassman promises work on two cross cutting fields: social entrepreneurship and women’s issues. Glassman also notes that there’s an acute interest in new media, which is a “carryover from the Bush presidency”.

Ambassador Glassman introduces former First Lady Laura Bush. She begins her remarks by observing, “Expansion of freedom is the calling of our times. Nations that respect the rights of their citizens are more likely to respect their neighbors.” She tells us that she and former President Bush continue to meet with dissidents, as they did during the Bush presidency. Referencing a conversation she and the president had with dissidents this morning, she says, “their stories are an important reminder that tyranny cannot crush the spirit of freedom present in life.”

Mrs. Bush tells us that there are serious challenges to freedom around the world today. People under repression should “know that the people of the US stand with them. Whether they raise voices on from Iran through Facebook” or from countries like Burma, we raise our voices with them.

She notes that Burma continues to silence Aung San Soo Kyi, despite outrage from many nations, keeping her in isolation to prevent her from having an influence. She tells us about presenting a “Vital Voices” award to a 16 year old who testified about a campaign of rape in the Shan State in Burma. She celebrates Dr. Cynthia Mong, who works tirelessly in refugee camps on the border between Thailand and Burma, providing lifesaving aid to victims of landmines.

“I hope you noticed that the two people I mentioned – Aung San Soo Kyi and Dr. Cynthia Mong – are both women. Women’s rights are human rights. And it’s critical to ensure that women can participate as men can.”

Mrs. Bush introduces her husband, former President Bush, who notes that “Laura cares deeply that all people should be free.” President Bush tells us “I care about the universality of freedom. I have a deep belief that people all want to live in a free society. I believe that Muslim mothers want their children to grow up in a free and peaceful world, just as with American mothers want their children to grow up in a free and peaceful world.”

President Bush tells us that his institue is “going to advance human freedom for the sake of peace.” He is concerned about a tendency towards isolationism. “There’s a tendency to conclude that the work of freedom is too hard so long as we’re comfortable here in the US.” One of the lessons of 9/11 is that concerns overseas matter to national security at home. “If we allow isolation to be a dominant philosophy, we forget our own past as a compassionate nation.”

“We’re going to focusing on the freedom agenda to remind the country that free societies are in our national interest.” He intends for the Institute to encourage people on the front lines of thre freedom movement and give them a platform.

“I was nervous about starting a think tank, that we’ve got people to come, sit around and think. It’s important to have experts sit and opine, but we also have to act.” And so the center hopes to inspire people to make a difference in their communities at home and abroad.

The goal of this conference is to celebrate and recognize people willing to challenge the status quo in their homelands. “We’re so blessed that we sometimes forget the need to embrace courage,” the courage exercized by people who refuse to take the lack of a free society for granted.

The Bush institute wants to provide “support for those struggling against tyranny and injustice.” Bush acknowledges Oscar Morales, one of the founders of Colombian group “FARC No Mas”, which provides evidence for how the internet can be effectively used to advance the freedom agenda. He notes that Mohsen Sazegara, the founder of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, is now a visiting fellow at the Bush center – “it’s an improbable journey, one that can be instructive.”

Pointing to the future, Bush notes that the center will include a “freedom repository” in the future, intended to be a “place where dissidents, underground preachers, political prisoners can store letters, diaries and writing to be memorialized.” This will be “used as an educational tool to fight off isolationism, inspire others,” and wll be the beginning of a focused effort on using tools to advance democracy and freedom.

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