Tonight was the opening ceremony for CIVICUS’s 9th World Assembly. I’m lucky that it’s in my home town of Montreal this time and that I have a chance to attend over the next three days. The overall theme of the assembly is “Seeking Solutions: Economic Justice.” Young enthusiasts attending the Youth Assembly easily embrace the message, some participants expressing their willingness to change the world we live in and seeing this assembly as an opportunity to learn. Having attended a few such conferences in the past, and being (a fair amount) older than the youth assembly crowd, I came with an open mind and the hopes of meeting new and dynamic people. Nonetheless, the sceptic in me, occasionally burned and derisive of civil society’s role lack of vision and opportunistic selfishness, kept my expectations in check.
Haitian-born Canadian star Luck Mervil was our master of ceremonies at Montreal’s massive Palais des Congrès. His relatively neutral and measured tone created an environment which someone during break called “almost subdued.” CIVICUS’s Secretary General, Ingrid Srinath, spoke with a smile that convinced the audience of her genuine commitment to CIVICUS’s goal of “Acting together for a just world.” She shared the stage at one point with Mario Lubetkin, Director General of the Inter Press Service News Agency, and both conversationally mapped out the axes of our discussion over the next few days.
One of the issues raised by Mr. Lubetkin was for us to identify how “civil society” – that ambiguous, means-everybody-except-the-government-sometimes term – is perceived in global public opinion. It is a poignant observation to make, for he mentions, as did others, something I find is a regrettable reality: the dispersion of civil society. Many NGOs, CBOs, INGOs, or CSOs or other members of civil society are far too often in it for themselves. Reasons for this abound, but it can be attributed in part to a lack of (or unwillingness towards) networking, donor demands that restrict the opportunities for organizations to cooperate together, and inherent challenges in working with other organizations, including government agencies. While the challenges are complex, the solutions are never in short supply and always rest on an important pillar: how can we (and “we” can be in the broadest sense of people who associate themselves as being part of “civil society”) work together? Finding the answers and acting upon them to make them a reality make up the essence of this assembly.
I would hope, as Mrs. Srinath convincingly argued, that we will somehow be able to work together “in order to consolidate the collective outrage of citizens from around the world.” Having such an assembly, as one participant voiced, is an important element in “protecting the spaces that civil society has.” We need to reaffirm our legitimacy as agents of positive social change, as actors who can speak up for the voiceless and make governments accountable for protecting, respecting and fulfilling everyone’s human rights. I was pleased to no end to hear throughout the evening the importance, voiced by most speakers (including a video message from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), of the primacy of human rights as foundational to the creation and sustainability of democratic, economically just, socially progressive and environmentally-conscious spaces in which we live our lives.
As the evening drew to a close, a speaker from Uzbekistan gave a heartfelt account of the struggles she and other civil society workers face in her country. She’d been imprisoned for her views, and after the last CIVICUS assembly in Glascow in 2008, while she was still in jail, she heard of the empty chair with her photo which organizers had placed for her. Upon hearing this, she told us that she could not stop herself from crying. The appeals made on her behalf for her release meant – and still mean – a great deal to her. She ended by making her own appeal for the release of another political prisoner, Maxim Popov, who’s been jailed in her country for 7 years. She’s hoping for a change, and that’s what we’re all here for.