WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today delivered the following keynote address at the second Summit of Democracy.
“I believe we are in the midst of a global democratic renewal. One where democrats and freedom fighters are seizing the initiative and standing up for their rights,” Chairman Menendez said. “It’s our job to continue on with the legacy started by the likes of Aristotle and Korais in Greece….As defenders of freedom and democracy, we must take up that mantle. It is our turn in the arena. Our turn to stand in the shadow of these giants and defend the principles that they dedicated their lives to.”
“To those who have been forced to flee their homeland, do not lose hope of returning. To those who are living in the shadow of a brutal dictatorship, do not despair. If we dedicate ourselves to the cause of freedom around the world, I believe democracy will flourish, light will win over darkness, and that we will triumph over tyranny,” Chairman Menendez added.
Find a copy of the Chairman’s remarks as delivered below.
“Good afternoon everyone. To the parliamentarians, diplomats and distinguished guests that are here.
Two years ago, the people of Cuba took to the streets chanting ‘down with the dictatorship.’
Government forces tried to silence the protestors with tear gas and violence.
Afterward, I had a Catholic priest from Cuba visit me here in Washington.
He told me about a young man who came to see him in church.
The young man said to him, ‘I would fight…’
‘I would give my life for the cause of freedom…’
‘If only someone would know that I died.’
If only someone would know that I died.
I think about that that kind of incredible bravery two years later, and I know that in the long-term, democracy will succeed.
That’s why I’m so grateful to have the chance to speak to you as we close out this Second Summit for Democracy.
As we see the challenges facing democracy globally…the challenges facing those who seek to uphold its basic underpinnings, we meet today at a moment in which a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Evan Gershkovich, was just wrongfully and illegally detained in Russia. These are the types of challenges we face today…
And at this critical time, it is clear we must do more and come together with our allies to confront a growing cabal of authoritarian countries around the world.
I know you have spent a good part of the Summit speaking to the potential of artificial intelligence and technology to meet this global challenge, but I would like to take this opportunity to broaden out that conversation a bit.
I want to say to Secretary Blinken, who I know will be here shortly, that I thank him for being a strong partner in this fight for democracy, and for joining so many—from all across the world—who care so deeply about this cause.
This is a fight that is very close to my heart.
My parents came to the United States as refugees in 1953 from Cuba, escaping a dictatorship.
They did everything they could to get to this country.
To them, the United States was truly a shining city upon a hill.
Growing up in New Jersey, my family had to struggle to give us a shot in life.
But as hard as that struggle was, we knew we had a chance because we were free.
Free to pursue our goals.
Free to work where we pleased.
Free to speak out for what we believed in.
When I look around the world today, I see average people who are willing to risk everything for the cause of freedom and democracy.
Iranian women who took to the streets despite tear gas, torture, and executions.
The Burmese who peacefully protest a military dictator that has kept a boot on the neck of their nation’s democratic ambitions.
The Uyghurs who stand up for human rights even as Beijing uses biometric data and facial recognition technology to repress them and very often have them in a concentration camp.
And in Ukraine. Despite bombing maternity wards, the targeting of civilians, and Putin’s nuclear threats, Ukrainians have fought back.
Freedom is not set in stone and democracy is not a finished product.
It is something that we need to continuously fight for and defend.
That’s why just two days ago, I held a democracy hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
When I looked across the table at our witnesses, I could see the fire burning in their eyes.
Leopoldo Lopez, who was brave enough to speak out against the brutal Venezuelan regime.
They tortured him and sent him to solitary confinement. But still he comes out of prison, fighting for freedom.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is widely believed to have won an election against the dictator in Belarus.
She was another one of our courageous witnesses.
The relentless drive of these freedom fighters inspires me each and every day.
It’s why I led the bipartisan passage of the State Department Authorization last year.
From the Cyber Bureau to the Global Internet Freedom funds, it was a vision for taking on the challenges of the future.
This year, Senator Risch—the Ranking Republican on the Committee—and I are working on another bill to put us on a stronger path to our challenges with China.
With resources and staffing, it will strengthen our economic tools and our engagement throughout Latin America, the Middle East and Africa to make sure we are advocating for democracy and human rights.
It will also modernize our tools to combat digital authoritarianism and disinformation.
Because if democracy is going to succeed, we need the most up-to-date, cutting edge technology on our side, much of which you have heard about or engaged with over the last two days.
To keep the internet on when dictators try to turn it off.
To shield the identities of journalists and political activists.
To stop commercial spyware from being used to target human rights advocates.
And to track autocrats’ stolen wealth using open source data and financial forensics.
As vanguards of the democratic order, we all know what is at stake in this fight.
That’s why in the coming weeks, I will introduce legislation to counter authoritarianism and help those fighting for freedom.
It will create a limited visa category to provide safety to human rights defenders and democracy advocates.
It will also address transnational repression and combat the corruption that nourishes autocratic regimes.
We need to defend the principles that free people cherish and millions more yearn for around the world today.
It’s our job to continue on with the legacy started by the likes of Aristotle and Korais in Greece.
By Thomas Jefferson, Caesar Chavez and Martin Luther King.
Today, this legacy lives on with names like Kara-Murza, Tsikhanouskaya, Otero, Lopez and, yes, Zelenskyy.
As defenders of freedom and democracy, we must take up that mantle. It is our turn in the arena.
Our turn to stand in the shadow of these giants and defend the principles that they dedicated their lives to.
I have been at a lot of these gatherings where commentators like to say that around the globe, democracy is backsliding.
That autocrats have the upper hand and the good guys are on their back foot.
But I tell you they are wrong.
Wrong, because I believe we are in the midst of a global democratic renewal.
One where democrats and freedom fighters are seizing the initiative and standing up for their rights.
My friends, I have been fortunate to champion these issues in Congress over the past three decades.
In this time, I have come to learn that solidarity with democracy activists is a lifelong endeavor, not one tied to a specific democracy program or summit.
Our work is never complete and requires constant tending.
So I would like to share four observations based on my experience.
First, to our Secretary of State.
U.S. diplomats must consider support for democracy and human rights central to their role in advancing U.S. interests.
They need to be trained and incentivized to carry out this mission around the world.
If we say democracy is under threat then our diplomats must be an essential part of the frontline response.
Second, to those parliamentarians in this room and beyond.
International solidarity, and action from our legislative bodies, is essential in the global fight for freedom.
I work with a team of chairs of Foreign Relations Committees from around the world to support democracy and human rights.
With our joint statements, legislative ideas, and initiatives, we are a strong voice for freedom, particularly at times when our governments cannot or may not go as far.
So I urge my counterparts to join this effort and make sure that legislators are a robust voice in this cause.
Third, we must be agile and ready to support those democracies facing economic hardship.
The President of Zambia, a strong partner of the United States, recently said quote, ‘You can’t eat democracy.’
He is right.
So when a country is trying to do the right thing, we need to move quickly.
Whether it’s U.S. private investment or through USAID, DFC or MCC, we need to show that democracies can deliver for their people.
Fourth and finally, we need to support all elements of democracy.
That is why I was glad to speak at this event representing the first branch of our democracy.
We need to support small ‘D’ democrats: civil society and political parties, independent labor unions and journalists.
Finally, let me close with a few words from a letter the Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza wrote me after he was arrested in Russia.
He wrote quote, ‘Soviet dissidents liked to say that night is darkest before the dawn—and they turned out to be right.’
He went on to say: ‘Despite everything, I know that one day Russia will be free—and we will always be grateful to those who stood with us at this most difficult hour.’
As someone facing up to twenty years in a Russian prison it was moving to see him quote human rights advocate Irwin Cotler who said, ‘the worst nightmare for a political prisoner is to be forgotten.’
So to Vladimir and all the jailed Russian dissidents, we will not forget until you are free, and do not give up hope.
To those who have been forced to flee their homeland, do not lose hope of returning.
To those who are living in the shadow of a brutal dictatorship, do not despair.
If we dedicate ourselves to the cause of freedom around the world, I believe democracy will flourish, light will win over darkness, and that we will triumph over tyranny.
The work you are doing here is critical to making that a reality.
Thank you very much for having me.”
Remarks edited lightly for clarity.