Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Civil society: Alive and kicking behind bars

Organized civil society groups play an important role in the ongoing macro-discussion with business, government and labor about expectations, roles, and responsibilities vis-a-vis sustainable development. They often help expose previously unknown issues, bring voices to the voiceless, and represent the interests of 'common good' in discussions around how to change our world towards a more sustainable future - and who needs to play what role in order to get us there.

In the 1980's it was common to see civil society organizations grabbing newspaper headlines with brave and splashy interventions - people were spotted scaling industrial chimneys and chaining themselves to trees - in order to bring awareness and action on important issues. But we don't see these sorts of actions in the headines so much any longer. Is it because the media and the general public have tired of these 'antics' - or is because these groups have changed strategies and are working behind the scenes or in cooperation with business and government?

Unfortunately, I think its the former. Here are two points of evidence to support this position:

Quite by accident I met a real crew member of Greenpeace's famed Rainbow Warrior just last week. It sailed into Amsterdam so the crew could have a few days off before their next mission. Although she swore me to secrecy about their upcoming campaign, I can tell you that they are still as active as ever.

First thing this morning a piece of news arrived in my inbox. Last week was one of the most important gatherings of civil society organizations worldwide - the CIVICUS General Assembly. CIVICUS Secretary-General (and GRI Board member) Kumi Naidoo was leading a campaign to bring a voice to the voiceless - in this case civil society campaigners worldwide who have been imprisioned for speaking out. I can say that I was not even aware that there were so many activists silenced by jail terms in this day and age. See Kumi's column entry (below) for more details about how he got a taste for what his peer's must be experiencing.

Call for civil society watchdogs
By Kumi Naidoo, CIVICUS Secretary-General
I was put behind bars yesterday my friends, and I can tell you that even for those few minutes while photographers snapped, it didn't feel very pleasant. I sat in my 'cell' with youth delegates, Socialist International President and former foreign minister of Greece, George Papandreou. In our hands, placards depicting the images of our friends, imprisoned civil society activists from around the world. As I mentioned yesterday in my column, this was part of a wider campaign to remind the Assembly and the wider world of the plight faced by our colleagues and calling for their immediate release. I was released minutes later to my great relief. Warm regards, Kumi Naidoo.

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