Blog: A few takeaways from visiting the International Civil Society Week 2019

"The power of togetherness in a situation of global civil society emergency"

agenda April 17, 2019

In response to the attacks on civil society from anti-rights elements in government, politics and within civil society, we need to be adaptive, quick thinkers and have to find ways to go around restrictions and find new venues for joint action. With the growing polarization within our societies, we need to bring positive messages of hope, that are values-based and can create synergies across our communities as well as build broad progressive coalitions. Passion is what leads people.

This was the message at the International Civil Society Week that took place in Belgrade from 8 to 12 April (#ICSW2019) and was organised by CIVICUS, the global alliance of civil society organizations and activists, in cooperation with Civic Initiatives. More than 850 civil society activists and supporters gathered to discuss effective strategies and cooperation in times characterized by smear campaigns and populist attacks on civil society and independent media. These attacks often take place in an environment created by governments, and attacks can also come from within civil society.

This year, the conference was organized in Belgrade, as to draw the international community’s attention to the strengths and challenges of civil society in the Balkans and the wider Eastern European region. Powerful activists and journalists from Serbia, Poland, Kazakhstan and Azerbajdzhan joined their colleagues from other parts of the world testifying about the pressure they are subject to in their home countries.

“Our job is to find ways to ensure that attacks on civil society and independent media do not become the ‘new normal’”, said the recently appointed Secretary-General of CIVICUS Lysa John at the opening of what is also known as the Civil Society Summit. “We are facing a global civic space emergency and we cannot be the generation that lost the fight to protect civic freedoms and democratic values”.

We need to build strong partnerships between civil society organizations and independent media, to protect our civic freedoms and the journalists that are under attack. “Stay safe. There’s no story worth dying for”, was the message to journalists from Nada Josimovic of Free Press Unlimited.

What is the kind of external support that you are looking for, asked Nico Plooijer of Pax, to a panel of activists working in countries with restricted civic space? “Provide support to independent media, organize parallel vote counts during elections and provide training and tools to the activists.”

Also present as an active participant during the conference and its workshops, was UN Rapporteur for Human Rights, Michel Forst, who expressed his concern about state-led campaigns to defame civil society groups and discredit human rights activists. It’s this role of the state in countries as Russia and the US that leads to an atmosphere in which populists and anti-rights groups feel free to go even a step in their attacks.

Building a movement for change
Messages of hope, instead of fear in this crisis of trust and truth, should be our answer – concluded a panel consisting of civil society activists and supporters in the Balkan region. We tell our stories too often only for an audience of supporters. We should do more to bridge the gap to people and communities we would normally not talk to. We should be visible out in the streets, with messages that relate to their concerns and in the language of human beings. Envision the change you want to see. Be credible: walk the talk and get others involved, with little steps. Passion is what leads people. But the numbers are not enough. Build courage, lower the risk. Only in combination with courage and supported by strategy, passion will lead to change.

Anyone can be a Pussy Riot
To celebrate the power of togetherness, a party was organized on the final evening of the conference. There, Pussy Riot, the fearless Russian activist rock band, gave an empowering performance about the judicial proceedings they faced in their country. Their message to the audience was: “Freedoms doesn’t exist unless you fight for it every day” and “You too can be a Pussy Riot”.

-This blog was written by Anne-Marie van Heemskerk, Co-ordinator of The Spindle

The Spindle and Civic Power
Worldwide the space for civic action is shrinking. Whilst civic countervailing, convening and co-creative power is key for a healthy society. Join The Spindle in highlighting inspiring civic initiatives and to develop approaches to circumvent restrictions.

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