Monday, February 26, 2018 at 12:00
Thank you very much Mr. President. It is a great pleasure to be here. Ministers, Members of Parliament, Members of the European Parliament, fellow diplomats, ladies and gentlemen, members of the civil society and, of course, the media.
I guess perhaps I am the only non-European today, so I take my role here with a certain degree of humbleness, but also one of great friendship and commitment to this region and to the continent.
It is a very important moment here in Macedonia and the region.
I’d like to begin first by recognizing three members of European Parliament – Messrs. Vajgl, Kukan, and Fleckenstein who will be later here, and his predecessor Mr. Howitt. I have been in Macedonia now for three years and it has been my pleasure to work with them and to benefit from their wisdom over the past three years, as the United States and Europe have helped Macedonia through what was a profound political crisis. Indeed, the close US-EU partnership in Macedonia and in the region as well has been a force for progress, and that continues now.
The citizens of Macedonia see their future firmly in the EU and NATO, with upwards of 75 percent favoring membership in these two organizations. I would guess that in many of our own countries, member countries, they would not achieve such level of popularity. The trick is to translate that broad popular support into the political will needed for reform required for membership. In that regard, over my past three years here in this country, I’ve come to understand and appreciate that the need for the rule of law, is perhaps the greatest challenge facing this country. As I know from my colleagues in other U.S. embassies in the region, it is a challenge really for the whole region.
There’s a sentence in the European Commission’s Enlargement Perspective for the Western Balkans, I think, that gets to the heart of what the United States and the EU mean when we discuss the rule of law. It says, “Joining the EU is far more than a technical process; it is a generational choice, based on fundamental values, which each country must embrace more actively, from their foreign and regional policies right down to what their children are taught at school.”
And indeed, the North Atlantic Charter echoes this same concept in its first paragraph. Far more than a security pact, NATO is an alliance built to protect the very values that lie at the heart of our shared Euro-Atlantic heritage and civilization – democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law. Countries that join the Alliance make the decision to fully embrace these values. Why does this matter in a security alliance? Because we have seen all too often that weak rule of law makes countries vulnerable to corruption and other malign influences; in short, it makes for weak allies.
Strengthening the rule of law sadly requires more than legislative changes, it requires behavioral change. It requires that kind of generational choice that the Commission speaks of. It means citizens themselves demanding accountability, transparency, and information from institutions. It means citizens refusing to look the other way when they see corruption and abuse; and indeed it means no longer shrugging one’s shoulders and accepting things the “way they are” in the face of nepotism or cronyism.
The difficulty with all of that, and this is a challenge frankly in democracies old and young, is that a society cannot really legislate behavioral change. It will not happen overnight. But I am firmly convinced that leaders, governments, and parliaments in particular, play a critical role in establishing the structures and the norms that force an institution, that force officials to be open and accountable and that allow citizens to trust that their voices will be heard.
I think we can all talk about rule of law in lofty terms, but it comes down to very specific, concrete acts. Here in Macedonia, the rule of law has been undermined, by among other things, a fundamental lack of transparency. In the judiciary, too often serious court cases are shrouded in mystery and competing political conspiracies. No wonder courts are among the least trusted institutions in this country. Parliament cannot rule over an independent branch of government but Parliament can exercise its legislative and budgetary authorities to encourage openness instead of secrecy, to make transparency the norm instead of the exception. This does not mean meddling in specific cases; indeed, judicial decision-making must be free from political pressure. But it does mean encouraging the judiciary to open itself up. Court records should be publically available, court hearings open for all to attend, and judicial decisions prompt and understandable to the average citizens. For example, the Criminal Code of the Republic of Macedonia already requires a complete electronic record of each trial proceeding. That electronic record should be available to both legal professionals who need it and any citizen who wants to listen. Doing that requires resources, to establish that system and get it functional.
In a similar vein, the decision by the Ministry of Justice to conduct a review of the automated court case management system is laudable, and we were pleased to see the report has been made available to the Judicial Council and to the prosecutorial offices for appropriate action of any official abuses. Such reviews and accountability should be a regular feature of judicial governance in Macedonia and elsewhere, as one step to ensure citizens that the court system is not somehow rigged. It is a very basic trust that is lacking right now.
Questions of individual integrity also undermine trust. I’ll give you an example. Earlier this year, the Prosecutor’s Council made appointments to a division of the Public Prosecution. One council member participated in the decision for the reappointment of a prosecutor, and that prosecutor was investigating a close family member of that member of the council. That council member’s participation in the decision represents a clear conflict of interest it seems to me, and recusal would be the appropriate remedy. However, this did not happen in this case. No one really knows what happened, and as a result, both professionals in the judiciary and the wider public lose another little ounce of confidence in the system. Individual actions matter.
How do we know about this story? Because a handful of journalists covered it. That’s the good news. Indeed, courageous, active, and independent media and civil society are vital to efforts to strengthen the rule of law. On such instances as I just mentioned, journalists must doggedly pursue those stories. And when they can’t get answers or information from public institutions who may be very interested in not having the story out, or entrenched interests push back, they need to report back to those roadblocks they face and keep the issue in the open. I am not naïve, this takes great courage, anywhere in the world. At the same time, those very same journalists have a responsibility to understand actually how courts function, to avoid sensationalist reporting that undermines legal procedures and could indeed violate the rights of the accused. In that way I think the judiciary could come to see quality reporting as its ally in building citizen trust in the institutions.
Parliament has the power more broadly to open up access to public information and public proceedings, which can expose varying kinds of conflicts of interest. In my country, in the State of Florida, there is a rather extreme example of this where any discussions between two or more members of a public agency or public commission must take place in public. A sunshine law in the sunshine state. That law was passed intentionally, to prevent secret meetings of public officials and the conflicts of interest that may arise in such meetings. But it only works in practice because the public takes their right to attend seriously; they show up. Indeed, for any of this to work, citizens have to be active and engaged.
Macedonia has experienced an incredible amount of change in the last three years. You have made significant progress in passing the reforms necessary to move forward on the Euro-Atlantic path. But passing legislation and changing regulations, that’s the easy part. The challenge that now faces you is implementing the oversight, the transparency, and the accountability that can help induce behavioral change. Your actions, the people in this room, your leadership, your integrity are fundamental to success. Indeed they are a catalyst of that success. That is what will ultimately embed the core values I mentioned earlier– democracy, rule of law, individual liberty– into your society and institutions. That sounds like a pretty daunting challenge but from what I have seen in the last three years, one really should be optimistic. Things can change.
This is an exciting and hopeful time for Macedonia and indeed the rest of the region. The United States is proud to be your partner as you build the stable, prosperous and resilient democracy, ruled by laws and moving forward to NATO and the European Union.