Democracy dialogue held with representatives of international civil society organisations, CIVICUS Geneva office, 16 November 2017

Participants: around 10 people, mostly from Geneva-based international civil society organisations

1. Vision and concepts of democracy

All practices of democracy should be understood to encompass such principles as: civic voice, space for minority views, the rule of law and accountability. Human rights defenders should be recognised as playing a key role in democracy. The space for and safety of human rights defenders should therefore be seen as essential tests of how democratic a society is. Similarly, another test of the health of a democracy should be the extent to which excluded groups can and do participate. Civil society should also reject and argue against any notion that there may be different levels of democracy that are appropriate for different contexts.

2. Current issues and challenges with democracy

Participants discussed recent trends of political right-wing populism, extremism, the political targeting of minorities and centralised, presidential rule in Europe and North America in particular. One question is the extent to which these should be seen as new developments, or whether they are more an extension of trends that have been happening in the global south for some time now. People in the global south may well complain that challenges they have long encountered are only now being given attention because they are happening in the global north.

What could be said to be new is that these shifts are happening in states that have long been considered to be ‘consolidated democracies’, where constitutionalism, the rule of law and broad consensus on approaches to governance were assumed to have been firmly established. This includes states that are major donors and play prominent roles in international institutions. Such states have long played the role of giving other states advice and guidance on how to develop their democracies and systems of government. Now they could be said to have lost their ability to claim the legitimacy to do this. The challenge now is that such states, under new leaders, could use their positions of global power to propagate regressive norms and attack the global human rights consensus.

Another recent shift is the more confident and assertive international role being played by China. At the same time the USA can be accused of pulling back from its international role, as indicated by recent withdrawals from international agreements and institutions. This could be argued to be heralding the dawn of a new and more regressive international order. The challenge this suggests for international civil society is to find new ways of engaging with the Chinese government, which resists such engagement and which civil society is finding hard to engage with.

Amid these changes, there is also concern that questions of democracy and human rights are being downplayed in current UN reform proposals.

Another new dimension to recent trends is that they are bringing challenges for international civil society organisations (CSOs), because many of them have long received funding from global north governments. Recent political shifts threaten this, as global north states that have shifted rightward are less inclined to support progressive and rights-based civil society.

Geneva-based civil society could be accused of inhabiting a bubble, and assuming that the values and worldviews it shares are more widely supported than is the case. Recent events have challenged this assumption, and the complacency that may have existed around it.

3. Possible solutions and responses

It is important to note that counter narratives to right-wing populism and extremism are already being offered. There is a sense that the corner is being turned and that regressive trends have triggered a fightback. There have, for example, been many counter protests. There is a feminist fightback under way, which has brought welcome exposure of the worst excesses of sexism. The worst-case scenarios that were envisioned have not come to pass: for example, despite the UK referendum result, the European Union (EU) has not collapsed under the domino effect that some had predicted.

The tools of social and mobile media are being used for both good and ill. What can be said is that people have a voice like they have never had before. The fact that almost everyone has a mobile phone, and often a smart phone, has opened up this potential, including for people living in poverty who have always had limited opportunities to have a voice. The question for civil society should be how this potential can be used as an opportunity to promote civic engagement.

There is a need to look at the changing demographics and the role of young people in particular. In some countries age is now a more reliable indicator of voting intentions than class. This could be seen in the UK referendum, where young people were much more pro-EU than older people. The question is how this youth demographic can be worked with and enabled.

There is a need to mount a new argument for human rights, and to link current concerns about democracy to agendas on the reform of UN institutions. Civil society should demand that the UN places greater emphasis on its human rights activities, with a shift in the balance of its resourcing to reflect this.

In a world where the USA is no longer taking the lead, there is a need for other states to take responsibility and come forward not just as leaders, but as champions of democracy and human rights. Civil society needs to work with such states to encourage this, and find new ways of engaging with them.

Participants also highlighted some key anniversaries in 2018 that could be used as opportunities to build awareness about democracy and human rights and hold states to account for their international commitments. These include the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the 25th anniversary of the World Conference on Human Rights and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are also stronger connections that can be made between work on the Sustainable Development Goals and work on human rights.

There is also a need to connect concerns about democracy with the reform of international CSOs. Civil society needs to respond to criticisms that it has become elite and out of touch. CSOs need to get better at outreach, and find ways of rebuilding trust that the public may have lost in them. CSOs need to find new ways of demonstrating accountability. There is a need to develop new narratives and better information to take on current misunderstandings, to demystify the role of CSOs, the UN and international institutions.

Trust is two-way: the question should be how CSOs can demonstrate that they place their trust in people, in order to win trust back from people. In order to do this, CSOs must stop seeing people as passive participants and beneficiaries, as this will not win their trust. Rather CSOs should see people as protagonists who can take action and be trusted.

There is also a need to find spaces and opportunities for face-to-face encounters, to broker unusual conversations and dialogue with sceptical people that otherwise will not happen. More broadly, there is a need to enable the public spaces where interactions can happen. The democracy of the street should be celebrated and nurtured. Protests should be recognised as providing creative opportunities for collaboration.

CSOs also need to consider where they stand on the insider / outsider dilemma: whether to be inside meetings in the UN seeking tentative reform and accepting the compromise this entails, or be protesting outside on the public square, and how to connect the two.

CSOs should also ask how best they can access and make common cause with parliamentarians, who are often also on the frontline of challenges to democracy that come from executive power, and may be expected to share a similar interest in strengthening democracy.