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19 Lessons learned from the Revolutions

Speakers: Joao Scarpelini, Youth and Community Empowerment Consultant, and Netsanet Belay, Policy and Research Director CIVICUS.

The short answer according to today’s Youth Conference dialogue “Lessons from the Revolutions: Can young people radically transform their societies?” which you can watch here is: Yes. However, before delving into the lessons, a few challenges should be borne in mind so as to make sure we are being realistic in our endeavor:

1. Repression and closing down on citizen participation happens worldwide.

2. People are apathetic and uninterested in global issues, so how can we have global justice? A serious question to ask ourselves is how can we build global governance.

3. Superpowers play a major role in controlling which revolutions are crushed and which are not.

4. Selective media coverage could result in a legitimate fight for freedom and justice being labeled as an act of terrorism.

5. The majority of people in Africa don’t have the means to apply any of the lessons learned today.

Egyptian Revolution Got Real by Eng Sam

Egyptian Revolution Got Real by Eng Sam

According to the speakers and delegates, these are the lessons learned from the ‘Arab Spring’:

1. Being connected to the government is what brings results.
2. Masses are needed to effect change. The people united will never be defeated!
3. Solidarity between movements and across countries– even if you don’t agree with each other–is essential when it comes to objecting the government’s crushing of freedom of expression.
4. Boycotting: Holding politicians accountable through cultural and economic boycott of regimes which violate human rights.
5. Media: let them hear you loud and clear.
6. Bring youth who started the revolution to the table to make decisions.
7. Powerful stories trigger powerful reactions. (ex. Bouzizi setting himself on fire in Tunisia).
8. Technology made organizing and mobilizing much easier and efficient, and allowed us to tell powerful stories more effectively.
9. Don’t give all credt to social media: some countries don’t have it and masses play a major role.
10. Multiplicity: It’s OK to fight for multiple specific causes instead of the banal ‘Us’ vs. ‘The System’.
11. Reinforce the role of micro-revolutions: These are more pragmatic and easier to organize, and once added up will result in a real movement.
12. Interconnectivity: Broadcast things in your language but also in English so that the world knows your struggle and demands.
13. Innovation: Be creative in organizing and challenging the law without putting yourself at risk.
14. Beware of big powers trigerring revolutions because of their own economic and political interests.
15. Have courage: Can we go as far as Bouzizi to get our freedom?
16. Democracy cannot be imposed, as is the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. Citizens decide how and when to get democracy.
17. Beware of media bias and selectivity: It took Youtube to show how Muslim women have always been involved in Arab societies.
18. Believe in the power of peaceful protesting and civil disobedience.
19. Be hopeful! There’s evidence now that it is something worth working for!

Category : Civil Society and Democratic Space, Connecting People Through Technology, Economic Justice
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Where Is the Hope?

Life is no Hollywood movie and activists know all about it. Love and care do not always make everything all better. Help does not always come on time, if it comes at all. Truth does not always prevail and heroes of today are often not the best people when tomorrow comes. In a democratic narrative our worries are relatively small but turn on TV and you’ll realize that if this world doesn’t run on hope, it doesn’t run at all.

Just recently I saw that an exhibition has been opened featuring the original 21 postulates of the Solidarity movement. It reminds me of conversation about my childhood with my mother and her saying that back in the days of the regime they hadn’t thought the fall of communism is at all possible. From the inside, on an everyday basis it seemed that the oppression would last forever. Clearly, the postulates were a work of several dreamers fueled with ‘what if’ thinking. Had it not been for them, we wouldn’t be where we are now – free to complain there is not enough democracy and participation and empowered to demand it.

But how do you find hope in Haiti struggling with the post-earthquake problems? How do you keep it in Congo or the Horn of Africa? Where to look for it when your house is torn down, your family members are threatened, your old job and any prospect for the future ones gone?

I am interested in it, because activists are prone to burnout and withdrawal because of all the difficulties they experience and see. Yet, everywhere you turn there are people not only hoping things can get better (or, at least believing that they should get better) and acting on it. I believe hope is the key factor here. When constructing any sort of support to those who do the difficult job on the ground, some kind of hope-assistance should be in place too.

Apart from any input from the lectures and workshops, my main private task for the CIVICUS World Assembly is to find out how you keep your hope going. I am happy to see there is a slot in the program on assisted networking because this a good occasion to see who else is there and what is their work all about.

So if you have any thoughts on this or want to share your experience with losing hope and finding it back again in any corner of the world feel free to tap my shoulder at the GA. I will be very happy to get inspired with whatever you have on your mind.

Category : Civil Society and Democratic Space, Programme Work Sessions
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Are we happy with freedom?

On June 4th in Poland we celebrate the anniversary of the first free Parliamentary elections that took place after the fall of communism. Interestingly, only for the last 3 years or so, this date has been used as a joyous occasion to remind us all what we have achieved through peaceful transformation to a democratic system.

This year it was also special, because the President Bronislaw Komorowski organized a celebration in the gardens of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw and invited representatives of civil society, awarding many of them with medals for their input into society. We were welcomed by the President and by Lech Walesa, the legend of the opposition movement. Lech Walesa said that since we hadn’t had many victories like that throughout history, perhaps this is why we have trouble being joyous on such occasions.

In a strange way, it appeals especially to civil society activists. For starters, we are of course very happy with freedom and democracy, making full use of it exercising our freedom of association and free speech. We are the practitioners of freedom but at the same time, we do it because often enough, we are not happy with the way it works. Or rather, that sometimes it does not.

We are aware that there are many people that did not get on the train of successful transformation and live in deprivation. We see that many of our fellow citizens lack enough information and courage to exercise their rights, fairly access the justice system, speak in their communities and be heard by the officials. So some of us share what they have with others and other try to make the system work better for the benefit of us all. Day by day.

I think this is us, the activists, that need the June 4th celebration the most. We need one day out of our daily work of questioning if we are democratic enough to be reminded that the mere fact that we can do our job makes us more fortunate than many other activists around the globe. And this was all made possible 22 years ago through a democratic procedure of election, without a single gunshot to go with it. Hopefully, in a year there will be more activists from elsewhere able to join the joyous toast and to say they are finally happy to be free.

CIVICUS World Assembly Montreal, September 9-12, 2011 focuses on the ‘role of civil society in global decision-making’.

My primary interest is the Civil Society and Democratic Space. This track will focus on reclaiming the space for civil society from the local to the global level and deepening democracy across these spheres. It will explore how we can ‘do it better’ including building more connections across local, regional and global civil society, improved monitoring of threats, establishing democratic institutions and the use of new methods and tools for advocacy.

Category : Civil Society and Democratic Space
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Tactics and Solutions – What about Civil Disobedience?

“If you’re a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration,”
Al Gore to the Clinton Global Initiative gathering, 2008.

I wrote previously,  broadly,  about Economic Justice -  but the themes of 2010 Civicus Assembly are also about advocating for, and implementing, solutions. Some solutions are positive,  they build on our successes, and try and create the conditions for, and models of, the world that we would like to see – a more equitable and just world.  Examples abound, and I could have chosen many others,  in CIVICUS member groups,  and around the world -  including such projects as:  increasing all aspects of the “Solidarity Economy”, working on building housing and improving access to food and markets, finding sustainable ways of living – by creating sustainable agricultural, forestry and fishing practices, or in a myriad of ways available to build community, civil society participation,  and sustainability.

But,  sometimes we have to stop the attacks, the damage, the inequality, the injustice,  and we are forced into a defensive or aggressive (but non-violent)  posture – we cannot wait for a chance to join with others, globally or locally,  to build the world that we want to see eventually – sometimes we have to act now and we have to STOP actions: be it, whaling, bulldozing homes in the West Bank and Gaza, ripping up the land and polluting the water like in the Canadian Tar Sands, or stealing land from peasant and/or indigenous peoples.  And for that, we have a limited number of options – letter writing, protesting in the street, PR through social networks or earned media, lobbying governments, and internationally agencies,  and working in elections . . . and, also, civil disobedience.

Kumi Naidoo – Executive Director of Greenpeace and author of a new book - Boiling Point : Can Citizen Action Save the World? - has a video posted on his blog, on the Greenpeace site.

In the video (see video below) Kumi says, in part, “At a time, when civil disobedience appears to be the only way we can actually push our governments, Greenpeace’s methodology [of non-violent direct action] offers us the most promise.  Because, right now, the only possibility that we have to get our governments to listen to us and to act with the urgency that the situation calls for is to ensure that they are constantly being pushed.”


The Canadian Environmental law Centre at the University of Victoria, has a handbook for Canadians particularly for struggles in the forest industry, called: Civil Disobedience: a Legal Handbook for Activists.  In it they define and contextualize civil disobedience:

Civil disobedience can be defined as deliberate disobedience of the law out of obedience to a higher authority such as religion, morality or an environmentalist ethic. Civil disobedience has existed in various forms for as long as people have lived in organized societies governed by the rule of law. Its primary purpose is usually to change the law or society’s views on a particular issue. It is a public action intended to have a political effect. Civil disobedience can be defined by certain criteria:

  • it is employed only after other means have failed
  • it is non-violent
  • it is undertaken openly
  • its participants are willing to submit to prosecution and punishment for breaking the law
  • it is aimed at publicizing and challenging injustice
  • it is not employed for coercive or intimidating reasons

Civil disobedience is seen as morally justifiable if it contributes to the social good and is performed by someone who is well intentioned and well informed. Reasoned and thoughtful resistance through civil disobedience can often serve as a check on the political system and prevent serious departures from justice. The fact that one can engage in principled disobedience of the law is generally a sign of a nearly just society, for in an unjust society, dissenting voices may be simply crushed. In a relatively just society, the use of civil disobedience can be an effective and morally justifiable way to change laws or government policies.

So, do we need to agree with this definition?  Do we need to have a debate about how and when civil disobedience is a useful and productive tactic?   Lots of people being arrested and jailed (as in the G20 in Toronto June, 2010 – although they were not for the most part practicing civil disobedience but were legally protesting) is not much use,  if all of the activists are simply imprisoned, and  for many years.  And, yet, being willing to accept the punishment that goes with the disobedience,  was traditionally part of civil disobedience (as it demonstrates one’s agreement with the rule of law, in general, just not the one you are protesting!) along with non-violence.

If we are using civil disobedience, what principles are important, and what – if you use it in a country which has no functioning “rule of law” or where inequality and or discrimination against certain groups is rampant – is the role of civil disobedience?   Is it still a valid choice?

Some of these issues, and the increasing criminalization of any kind of dissent, will be explored in a workshop on Day 3 of the Assembly called W25: Activism is Not a Crime.

What do you think about Civil Disobedience?  Have you used it?  Are you willing to be arrested or jailed for your beliefs?  To save the planet?  To save a people?  To save yourself and your family?

Category : Civil Society and Democratic Space
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