Last week was (on some accounts) a good week: Joshua Wong of the Umbrella Movement was released on bail in Hong Kong and Özlem Dalkıran, part of the so-called #Istanbul10, was released from prison. These two of the most active Civic Charter supporters had been unjustly imprisoned for their respective work to defend civic freedoms, and we rallied the Civic Charter community to push for their release.
Their imprisonment, and now subsequent release, caused me to think a lot about what it means to be imprisoned. In my very privileged position as a CSO professional and activist living in Germany, where my safety is—for the time being—almost 100% guaranteed if I criticise the government or other powerful actors, I can think about prisons from a theoretical perspective. I don’t want to get too Foucauldian here, but while physical prisons are surely the ultimate and most brutal manifestation of a separation between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ we should also think about the metaphorical prisons we might be in without even realising it. Thinking in silos, putting up walls of words. Populist rhetoric builds very effective imaginary walls along ideological or racial lines, which is sadly becoming an increasingly popular political stance in even democratic countries. But lately, it is only when the imaginary walls become physical ones that we find ourselves questioning the humanity of such distinctions—a paradigm which has landed us in a crisis of democracy around the world.
It’s time that we call ‘shrinking civic space’ for what it is. Restrictions on civil society, whether by state actors or others, are the physical or legal manifestations of siloed thought. Whether it’s the horrific murder of a brave investigative journalist, such as the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, or intimidation of CSOs in Uganda who are fighting to defend the checks and balances in their constitution, attempts to question the way that power operates in society is being met with excruciating anti-democratic force.
The only way forward is to challenge the very mechanics of our own oppression, by breaking down imaginary walls of siloed thought that are being used to divide and conquer us. This process begins by assuming responsibility for the walls that we, as professional civil society, have created between ourselves and that more often than not prevent us from coming together and speaking with one powerful voice. Too often we still think of ourselves as either an environmental or a human rights group, as an informal movement or professionalised CSO, as an international or national actor. And while understanding and respecting local contexts is critical for effective action, we can no longer afford to only think and act within our siloed categories. We need to speak out loudly when democracy is threatened, and we need to strengthen our own accountability to truly serve our communities and restore trust in progressive thought. We must speak, in many languages, to the hearts and minds of our neighbours through a narrative that is more compelling than the one of walls and more accessible than the professional lingo we have developed in each of our sub-sectors.
The Civic Charter is a starting point for building this narrative and actively breaking down the walls that we’ve created, as well as the ones that have been forced upon us. The Charter itself is a 2-page document which synthesises the rights of people to participate in shaping their societies as enshrined in various international human rights documents which governments have committed themselves to upholding. As the global framework for people’s participation, the Civic Charter is the starting point for bringing together people from different backgrounds, with different ideologies and causes, who stand for the rights of everyone to have a voice in society.
Activists around the world are leveraging the simplicity and objectivity of the Civic Charter to speak truth to power and stand up in defense of a society in which we all have the right to fight for what we believe in. The community that has developed around the Civic Charter is one which quite literally challenges the notion of walls, using the Internet to communicate across continents and borders to share information, express solidarity and organise for joint action. We are forming a movement which challenges the rhetoric of building walls and stands in defense of civic freedoms, because just and peaceful societies can only thrive if everyone has the right to participate.
Join us today by signing the Civic Charter, and find out how you can get more involved in our movement at civiccharter.org.