Article

Remarks by Ambassador Frankie A.

Reed at the Attorney-General’s Annual Conference

Fiji, December 2, 2011

Salutations: The Attorney General, Minister for Justice and Anti-Corruption, the acting Solicitor General, Chief Justice of Fiji, Members of the Diplomatic Corps, Members of the Judiciary, Members of the Legal fraternity, fellow speakers, distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen. Ni sa bula vinaka and Thank you for the warm welcome and for your invitation. I am pleased to speak today on the system of representative government in the United States, a system which has served the American people well. Our journey has at times been difficult, messy, and even occasionally violent, but the positive result of our political development, I believe, helped make us the open, transparent, freedom-loving, and prosperous society we are today. My remarks are organized in three major parts: firstly an overview of how democracy is essential to the pursuit of a just, equitable, and accountable political system in the United States; secondly an exploration of the U.S. system of government and elections, and finally, a summary of how this guides our interaction with foreign governments. As an American citizen, I have many opportunities to vote. My ballot typically gives me the right to vote for six different offices: a Congressional delegate in the House of Representatives; one of my two national senators; my state governor; state legislature representatives other state officials chosen by direct election; members of my school district board; and sometimes my local judges. I might also vote on popular referenda, to change the legislative majority vote needed for tax issues, or to approve a bond issue for the county library system. One characteristic of being an American citizen is that you can be a frequent voter. Even overseas, American citizens can register to vote and send in ballots by mail. For example, with less than one year to go before our 2012 national election, the American Embassy will assist American residents abroad to register with their state in time to receive and mail back their ballots. I do not take my voting rights for granted, however. In the United States, women did not have the national right to vote until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, in 1920. The post-Civil War 15th Amendment that took effect in 1870 gave Black Americans the right to vote in law, but not in practice in many areas. African Americans often were denied the right to vote through local restrictions and “poll taxes” that disenfranchised the poor, especially rural Blacks. Only in 1965, through the Voting Rights Act, did the national government decisively prohibit discrimination against voters. Elections and Democratic Development As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked at Georgetown University, “Democracy means not only elections to choose leaders, but also active citizens; a free press and independent judiciary; and transparent, responsive institutions that are accountable to all 2 citizens and protect their rights equally and fairly. In democracies, respecting rights isn’t a choice leaders make day by day; it is the reason they govern.” In the United States, elections form the starting point for all our other democratic institutions and practices. Genuine democracy, however, requires substantially more than elections. American democracy has constitutional limits on governmental power and guarantees citizens’ basic rights. Our society fosters a democratic culture and rule of law that governs politics between elections, and constrains those who might be tempted to undermine election processes. In the United States, we believe that democracy is the best form of government capable of securing and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms over the long term. Countries in which power is concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers are the world’s most systematic human rights violators. That said, no form of government is without flaws. Democracy is a system of government of, by and for the people, based on the principle that human beings have the inherent right to shape their own future. In the United States we have built-in correctives and counterweights to the flaws of human nature throughout government and society, such as robust civic institutions, a vibrant free media, a legislature and judiciary independent of the executive and well-established rule of law. The hallmarks of the American democratic system are a strong civic tradition based on more than two hundred years of independent and pre-independence local government tradition. Our system of government is grounded in a robust Constitution, fixed election dates, and the ability of citizens to vote at various intervals and levels of government. Strong and effective electoral institutions – the result of hard-fought battles in American political history – reinforce public expectation that the electoral results will be respected. They assure defeated candidates that the victors’ terms of office will be limited and there will be opportunities to compete again. The U.S. Constitution The Constitution of the United States is the basis for the machinery and institutions of the U.S. government. The American Constitution is the world’s oldest charter of national government in continuous use. It is not our first constitution, however. It was written in 1787 during the Constitutional Convention, which was convened in the midst of political crises that followed the American Revolution and the inefficiency of the Articles of Confederation. Ratified in 1781, the Articles of Confederation served as the first constitution of the 13 original states, but the Congress originally had no power of taxation, relying on contributions from the states. With weak central authority, relations were tense between the states and the acting central government. The Constitutional Convention was an effort to ease those tensions and to create a single political entity from the 13 independent former colonies—the ideal expressed in the motto of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum” (From Many, One). In 1789, after nine states ratified it and the newly-elected Congress met, the Constitution became the law of the land. With 27 amendments—or additions—it has remained so for over 230 years. The United States Constitution embodies the principle that out of many different peoples, one national society can be created. The Founders wanted unity and stability. But they also wanted to safeguard the rights and liberties of states and individuals by balancing power among individuals, states, and the branches of the national government. The first ten 3 amendments to the American Constitution, known as the “Bill of Rights,” guarantee the rights of individuals and powers of the individual states. The result is a system of shared functions designed to prevent any one element from gaining too much power. The three branches of Government The Founders established three separate and co-equal branches of government—the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The functions of these branches are described in the first three articles of the Constitution. The U.S. Constitution attempts to ensure that no one branch of government assumes too much power over the others by providing for the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. The legislative branch – the Congress – is comprised of two houses (a “bicameral” body), the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both the House and Senate must approve new laws, which may be vetoed by the president. While the legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch oversees the enforcement of all federal laws, and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court and lower state and federal courts) interpret the laws and ensures that they are constitutional and provide equal protection. The president’s cabinet members, under the Constitution, cannot hold positions in another branch (though they can be recruited from these branches), giving the chief executive flexibility in selecting the Cabinet and preventing conflicts of interest between branches of government. Together with fixed election dates, these are significant differences between our republic and a Westminster parliamentary system. Aiding our citizens in viewing the accountability of their government is a free press, sometimes known as “the Fourth Estate.” With it rights enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment, the free press communicates political debates, reports on issues that rise into the public discourse, and investigates and publicizes abuses of office or the law. Checks and Balances Each branch of the Federal government has the latitude to limit or “check” the power of the other branches. For example:
  • Congress – the legislative branch – has the power to pass laws, but the president – the executive branch – has the power to veto them.
  • The president has the power to nominate Federal Court judges, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members and senior officers of the executive branch and armed forces, but they must be approved by the Senate. Sometimes these nominees are rejected, or result in highprofile political battles, as in the cases of Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. As mentioned earlier, the president can veto legislation; but that power can be overridden by a 2/3 majority of Congress.
  • The Supreme Court – the top court in the federal judicial branch – has the power to nullify laws passed by Congress – the legislative branch – if they decide a law is unconstitutional.
  • Congress has the power to impeach federal officials, including the president, vice president and federal judges.
  • The free press and the right of citizens to free association and assembly help keep government accountable and responsive.
American Elections: Regular and Diverse American elections are held at regular intervals. National presidential elections take place every four years. Congressional elections for the entire lower house, and for one-third of Senate members serving 6-year terms, occur every two years, and state and local elections usually coincide with national elections. In addition to elections for office, many state and local ballots include referendums and initiatives, which allow the people to directly determine a government policy. State and local governments are largely responsible for organizing elections and voter registration. State, county, and municipal election boards administer elections. These boards establish and staff polling places – often in public schools – and verify the identity through a voters’ registration roster of individuals who come to vote. State laws specify the qualifications of candidates and how elections are to be administered, including registration procedures, local and national electoral districts, the location of polling places, and even the kind of ballots used. Electing the President: The Electoral College The public vote for presidential candidates does not translate into a direct election for president. In common practice, each state awards that states’ votes in the “Electoral College” to the winner of the states’ vote. The number of votes each state has in the Electoral College equals the total number of House and Senate representatives that state has in Congress. This system reflected the Founders’ need to accommodate large and small states, and doubts at the time about how to manage a direct popular voting system. The American Constitution does not define political parties or the “presidential primary” system, now underway in the United States, by which the major parties elect delegates to choose their final candidate for president. State regulations govern political parties and voter registration, and parties in each state manage their statewide primary elections. These may be a direct popular vote primary, or a “party caucus” that meets at neighborhood levels to select the state parties’ favorite. Respect for the Rule of Law in America Respect for the rule of law by both the American government and people underpin the success of the U.S. democratic system. The United Nations defines the rule of law as when “all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.” Rule of law implies respect for fundamental civil rights and procedural norms and requires that these transcend the outcome of any given election. In our democracy, the election returns do not alter protections for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or the independence of the judiciary. New leaders, regardless of how broad their electoral mandate, may not call these norms into question nor threaten the rights of any citizen, including those who supported a losing candidate. The evolution of our democratic system continues to present new challenges in the 21st Century. The problems of campaign finance; the “gridlock” between branches of state and national government dominated by opposing political parties; the high cost of elections; and in some states, the election of judges whose campaigns become dependent on financial 5 contributions, are only a few examples of genuine problems subject to lively debate in the United States. When Friends Disagree I am honored to speak to you today about American democracy, and to recognize that despite deep common interests and high regard for democratic traditions and respect for the rule of law and international human rights conventions, the United States and Fiji have differences based on Fiji’s loss of its elected government and constitution. I have worked in the Pacific before, and understand the Pacific Way of inclusive consultations, consensual agreements and mutual respect. We do not always agree with our friends, or expect their agreement with us on every point of policy. President Barack Obama recently said, “Every nation will chart its own course. Yet it is also true that certain rights are universal; among them, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and the freedom of citizens to choose their own leaders.” A Commitment to dialogue on areas where we disagree is fundamental to our own embrace of democratic principles. Our annual reports on human rights, religious freedom, investment climate, and other topics cover every part of the world because American citizens want to see how values that we hold dear to the exercise of our liberties are maintained in other societies. Democratic values have always found a way to be communicated among those searching for freedom. A recent study by State Department advisor Steven Radelet, studying the growth of democracy and economies in Africa, where I also have experience, finds that competitive elections lead to better governance, accountability, and economic policies, This encourages the “best and brightest” entrepreneurial leaders to contribute further to society, rather than moving abroad. Improved education and empowerment of women, in particular, has proved to be one of the best predictors of sustained economic development. While I recognize the great differences in comparing such different regions of the world, the thematic conclusions about democratic reform and economic advances are compelling. As friends, we shall continue to raise our concerns. A free press should not be feared or disparaged. In an era of instant communication, global media alternatives, and social networking, a free press should be embraced and seen as adding value to public discussions. We encourage inclusive dialogue, with outcomes respected by both sides, which builds confidence to discuss a progressively wider circle of issues. In this light, I look forward to seeing the lifting of the Public Emergency Regulations in preparation for Fiji’s 2012 constitutional consultations, and the implementation of electronic voter registration next year. In the United of States, protection of Americans’ basic freedoms is encapsulated in the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These time-tested American rights are also reflected in articles 19, 20, and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The PER in Fiji, in contrast, provide that, I quote, “any broadcaster or publisher upon direction by the Permanent Secretary for 6 Information must submit to him or her all material for broadcast or publication material before broadcast or publication.” And, the government “may, by order, prohibit such broadcast or publication.” And, a “procession, meeting or assembly,…may be ordered to disperse by any police officer or any administrative officer, or any member of the Armed Forces of or above the rank of Sergeant.” Conclusion The United States, like all democracies, is not perfect. Our own democracy still is evolving. The United States’ journey toward liberty and justice for all has been long, difficult, and messy, but we are proud that we continue to make important progress. Features of American elections systems that have endured are:
  • Unalterable, regular elections on a fixed timetable- every two years for legislative elements and every four years for president. This has remained constant even in civil war and international wartime.
  • Independent branches of government which not only “check and balance” at the national level, but provide for multiple routes of electoral accountability and provide avenues for interests that lose power in one branch to maintain their voice in another, contributing to confidence in the overall system.
  • A federal division of responsibilities between national, state, and local levels.
  • An adaptable Constitution that defines and limits national powers and guarantees the rights of its citizens to free expression and to amendment of the constitution over time.
Our democracy and its underpinning systems are works in progress. The answers that we have found to our problems are not the same answers the Fijian people will find themselves. Our independent branches of government, our free media, our openness to the world, and, most importantly, the civic courage of impatient American patriots, help us keep faith with our founding ideals and our international human rights obligations. We are a Pacific nation and recognize our unique relationship with multi-ethnic Fiji. The people of each country must construct for themselves a system of representative government that suits their history and traditions. However, if history has taught us anything about the process, it is that developing that system must be based on an open dialogue and fully inclusive process to ensure that democracy endures. The American experience developed a democratic system that safeguards human rights, reflects the will of the people through free and fair elections, maintains the rule of law, and is open to reform and amendment. It is my hope that when Fiji returns to democracy, in accordance with agreed benchmarks and international standards, it will result in a system of representative governance that serves its people as well as we Americans have been served by ours. Thank you.

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