CIVICUS Day 2: an update. Among other things, on human rights defenders: "They’re being arrested, so we know they’re doing their job."

The second day of the CIVICUS World Assembly is over. Well for me it’s over, and I’m at the train station waiting to go home after a long but enjoyable day. The challenge with writing about a day so full of things to write about is that I find it hard to address everything. So I won’t, and I’ll place an emphasis only on the things that struck me.

Before doing this, a quick jump back to the previous day, when a speaker mentioned something that bugged me. Perhaps bug is not the right verb, but at the very least some of the things she said, or at least the way she said them, were unproductive as a means of moving forward with a constructive dialogue. She peppered her discussion with statistics about the state of the world. Things like: in the past minute, about 20 children have died around the world, or about 25000 children around the world died today. You know the kind: the ones which are mind-numbing to the point where you react upon hearing them in a number of ways: you’re horrified, you’re ashamed to be a human being who hasn’t done enough, you feel uncomfortable because you know the stats and you’re doing what you can, but you still squirm in your chair. I think I fall in the latter category. I guess it’s OK to feel uncomfortable once in a while about these things – after all, it’s the poverty and injustice of the livelihoods we see around us that motivates many of us to fight for human rights. But if it’s meant to shock us into action, then it’s a formula that doesn’t work with me. I don’t think the numbers themselves bother me so much – they are essential to getting our point across –  I think it’s more the way some statistics are presented: someone telling me that a few thousand children have died since I’ve sat down to listen to them doesn’t motivate me through anger or shame, it just depresses the hell out of me.

Onto today’s activities, the first of which was a plenary session on economic justice that was ably facilitated by Nuala McGovern of the BBC’s World Have Your Say. The panel had a range of speakers, from the World Bank, FrontLine, Global Call to Action against Poverty, the UN Representative for International Trade Union Confederation (the ITUC is here: http://www.ituc-csi.org/), and iScale. They were asked to share their thoughts on what they believed were the top economic challenges. Regrettably, the focus of the discussion swayed at times too frequently towards the World Bank and other big institutions that implement sweeping policies and practices that don’t take into consideration the voices of the most vulnerable. This was at least the opinion of a number of participants who spoke up and also caused a lively debate between two speakers, one of whom (the World Bank representative) was reluctantly the target of people’s (gentle) ire. It didn’t help that the two speakers exchanging viewpoints at this time were sitting next to each other on a “blue cube,” while the other speakers were left out on their yellow and green cubes (the inspiration of the stage layout is meant to represent CIVICUS’s design for the World Assembly, but it comes off as somewhat impractical).

The moderator regained a balance between exchanges from the floor and the speakers. With so much having been said, there were a few choice nuggets of wisdom from the speakers worth noting:
  • First words from one of the speakers: “Talk to women, talk to women, talk to women, TALK TO WOMEN.” Concise and to the point.
  • Mary Lawlor from FrontLine: over 2000 human rights defenders around the world are at risk in over 100 countries. While many of them are in danger for speaking out on civil and political rights, there are an increasing number of them at risk for denouncing violations of economic, social, and cultural human rights. As she wryly pointed out, if they’re being threatened and tortured and imprisoned, it’s because they’re doing their job.
  • We need to have a global social media platform, a space in which people from around the world talk about the impact of the economic crisis on their livelihoods.
  • A revolution is already happening among youth, they are mobilizing people from around the world in different ways.
  • Have governments look at education and health not as current expenditures, but as investments for the future.
  • We (as in civil society) missed the boat with the global financial crisis. (It certainly did sail away without us. Meanwhile American car companies get bailed out by their government to the tune of billions of dollars? Having owned a number of American cars, I can honestly say that was a BAD MOVE.)
  • We are groomed to be competitive. The problems facing us at any level, including economic justice, demand cooperation instead. (At this point, people who’ve been in development a long time have a tendency to say “What’s required is a paradigm shift,” a phrasing I try to avoid. It’s just another way of saying, This isn’t working, time for Plan B.)

Following the plenary, participants divided themselves into workshops based on their interests. For me, I found myself attending a workshop on “Making the Case for Dialogue and Deliberation: Tapping into Uncommon Wisdom for Participatory and Inclusive Governance.” From the presentations I took away a renewed sense of importance of evaluating our work – in human rights, that’s a particularly fuzzy thing to do, particularly when you try to attribute long-term social changes to human rights education activities. The examples from the four Canadian presenters were brief and to the point: dialogue between citizens and other stakeholders like government officials works. They pointed out a number of useful websites, one of which is the Canadian Community for Dialogue and Deliberation. And as luck would have it, I sat next to a young woman working on children’s rights in New Brunswick, so I took a moment to tell her of my organization’s work on promoting children’s rights through play with a toolkit called Play It Fair! 

Meeting new people – kindred spirits in many senses – is a valuable experience and one of this assembly’s many strengths. Sharing of experiences and, just as importantly, ideas, was the focus of the afternoon session I attended. It was an “open space” activity with the overarching question: What can civil society and its organizations do to contribute to reaching the Millennium Development Goals? Passing the microphone around the group, you got a sense that we were at once both demoralized at the MDGs unfulfilled promises and hopeful that we can still do our part to make a difference. As one small group of participants highlighted, it’s not the time to complain or whine about the MDGs lacklustre results so far (a report is here). The upcoming UN meeting on the MDGs will be an opportunity for us – civil society – to input on what we should be doing to move forward, and it looks like we’re going to come up with some great ideas.

That’s all for now, more tomorrow.  

"Consolidate the collective outrage of citizens from around the world"

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.

Streamed video of the assembly can be found here, blogs are here.