Civil society at a time of global uncertainty

Democracy, freedom and nation-building by free citizens: these appear to be under threat by the actions of some of our oldest democracies. Civil society’s space is being squeezed and must be restored. What can be done?
Since late last year we have watched the steady march towards war in Iraq with a mounting sense of horror and disbelief. This has stemmed in part from deep concern about the immediate destructive consequences of war upon the Iraqi population and the further inflammation of the Middle East, but also from a belief that the situation in Iraq is symptomatic of a larger global crisis that has immense implications for human rights, civil liberties, and social and economic development.
The context in which we are operating is dominated by the growing militarisation of geopolitics: certain powerful states are willing to resort to aggressive means to promote their interests, effectively bypassing and undermining established mechanisms for the multilateral resolution of conflicts. We are also seeing the mobilisation of violent actions in the form of terrorist attacks, such as those undertaken on 11 September 2001, the intensification of military conflict, and the merging of fundamentalist and secularnationalist causes. These powerful forces have already demonstrated their willingness to engage one another in destructive brinkmanship.Taken together, these trends threaten to squeeze the space for civil society and to fundamentally undermine the robustness of democracy and civil participation worldwide. This is particularly alarming against the post- Cold War backdrop, when a mere 10 years ago, the promise of a “peace dividend” was realised through a series of citizen revolutions that occurred in countries around the world, from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to my own South Africa. A decade later, this peace dividend has all but disappeared.What are the implications of the present conflict for civil society? And where is global civil society heading?It has become something of a truism that the attacks of 11 September changed the face of the world as we know it. Terrorism is, of course, a threat to democracy and must be resisted by all nations and peoples. All countries have a duty not to imitate such violence or institute measures that undermine democracy. If indeed we do, how can those struggling to build free and democratic societies believe in democratic models?With this in mind, I would argue that the 18 months that followed those September attacks were more consequential. In a remarkably short period of time, we have witnessed a clear shift towards unilateral action and militarisation, as well as the undermining of human rights and civil liberties by some of our oldest democracies. Taken collectively, these threaten the ability of citizens’ voices to be heard in decision-making processes, and erode global stability and human security.For me, the war in Iraq highlights three main threats to civil society. The first threat is to civil society’s agenda. War has diverted both attention and resources away from the key issues that civil society organisations worldwide are working to address. Long-term campaigns and efforts aimed at gender equality, social and economic justice, poverty reduction, environmental protection and the defence of human rights have been overshadowed by the Iraq crisis.The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) present an excellent case in point: many in civil society were heartened by the declaration issued by world leaders following the Millennium Summit in September 2000, and believe that the pursuit of the MDGs sows the seeds of long-term security. The MDGs set forth concrete and relevant goals that citizens around the world embrace, yet progress towards the targets is already behind schedule in many countries. The conflict in Iraq threatens additional setbacks to efforts at attaining the MDGs. Resources for development and for social and economic justice will be diverted at a time when the global economic downturn has already limited the resources available for supporting civil society’s work.The second threat is to democracy and civic participation in a broader sense. Even in the United States, where attitudes to the war are arguably more ambivalent, citizen voices organising in opposition to the war far exceeded those urging an invasion of Iraq, though American support for the war appears to have increased since the invasion began.But in Iraq, where citizen participation in decision-making has been severely curtailed for decades, Iraqi civilians have had little or no opportunity to shape their own lives and destinies. Now, we need to ensure that the will of the Iraqi people can prevail. It is vitally important that a post-war Iraq is built on sound foundations of social, economic and political justice and democracy. This can only be achieved multilaterally and with the full involvement of the UN and civil society. Many in civil society are alarmed that the voices of average citizens have either been ignored or insufficiently engaged as the conflict has unfolded. On the other hand, powerful interests from within the military and the larger military-industrial complex seem to exercise enormous influence, while helping to shape long-term strategic visions. This trend will only exacerbate existing feelings of cynicism and alienation among average citizens who feel their views are not represented in existing political systems.Finally, the notion that democracy can be imposed upon a country demands reflection. Surely, democracy can only be sustained through the active involvement and support of citizens who are engaged in their communities and helping to determine their own future. In an age where many societies in transition are struggling to sustain viable democracies, it is highly worrying to witness such a high-profile global conflict premised on what must surely be a flawed notion of democracy.The third threat is to global multilateralism – a framework for addressing and resolving conflicts that is supported by many in civil society. Military action against Iraq without the endorsement of the United Nations has set a dangerous precedent that may well undermine this long-standing cornerstone of global security. In the months leading up to war, citizens’ voices from around the world called for a strengthening of the UN’s role in moderating conflicts. Unfortunately, the decision to invade Iraq despite the opposition of most members of the Security Council has effectively opened the door to an era of greater instability.This is especially troubling given recent precedents of the emergence of unilateralism, at Kyoto, at trade talks, and at two major UN conferences (World Summit on Sustainable Development and the World Conference Against Racism). Now more than ever, there is need for unity and respect among nations, and for the democratisation and strengthening of global governance institutions.But there are also strong grounds for hope. Never before has there been such widespread, sustained and truly global citizen mobilisation around an issue. The anti-war protests on 15 February 2003 were the largest issue-based global movement the world has ever seen.In the face of this conflict, global civil society has proven itself to be robust, diverse, responsive and highly creative. The physical and electronic networks of civil society activists – and average citizens who may not consider themselves activists – that have been built over the past decade have sprung to life in dramatic form. As governments made clear their intention to choose war over discourse and consensual approaches, millions upon millions of citizens made clear their willingness to protest this course of action and its possible consequences.While it is natural that many in civil society come together in opposition to the conflict in Iraq, there is a vital need to look beyond the present war and to think critically about the long-term viability of civil society. How can we ensure that we continue to develop, to mature, and to learn important lessons from the turbulent events that surround us? There will always be threats to the space occupied by civil society. One of the greatest challenges civil society faces is to remain responsive to the events around us while working towards a long-term vision of a world where people and their voices are at the centre of public life.© OECD Observer No. 237, May 2003

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