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CHRONICLE 2015

Supporting Thoughtful, Committed Citizens

Several programs in 2014 sought to strengthen civil society

Israa Nuri Abu-Shaala leads a discussion during the session Getting Transition Right

Nearly 70 years after Margaret Mead praised the first Salzburg Seminar in American Studies and its “committed citizens,” Salzburg Global continues to provide a safe space for current and future leaders to tackle burning issues in their homelands. This distance can enable them to listen to and learn from each other, and find solutions across geographic and ideological boundaries.

“Civil society is the society of citizens—but citizens are not just those who have a passport but who actively work to make a country better… The more active citizens we have, the stronger and better the country will be,” said one veteran Russian civil society activist during the Salzburg Global program Russian Civil Society: Building Bridges to the Future. His sentiments echoed Margaret Mead, faculty of the first-ever Salzburg Seminar in American Studies who famously stated: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Ever since that first session, Salzburg Global Seminar has sought to support civil society and strengthen democratic processes and engagement.

While civil society is represented at almost every Salzburg Global program – in addition to building the next generation of “thoughtful, committed citizens” with the year-round Global Citizenship Program – three 2014 programs in particular sought to support Fellows in their struggles toward democracy, stability, and inclusivity in the “post-revolution” Middle East and North Africa, against the increasing restrictions in Putin’s Russia, and for LGBT rights the world over.

Civil society has an important role to play in tackling all these issues. Countries in transition, such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen (the four focus countries of Salzburg Global’s ongoing Reform and Transformation in the Middle East and North Africa [link to mena.salzburgglobal.org] series), face deep-rooted problems, which politicians or “official” representatives alone will not solve; all stakeholders need to be engaged and included. “Ignore who is in charge and address the issues,” advised one Libyan Fellow to her Egyptian counterparts at the March program Strengthening Diversity and Inclusion in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen.

The fluidity and complexity of the situation in the countries facing extreme transitions or increasing restrictions can sometimes thwart the plans made by well-intentioned civil society activists, academics, donors, and policymakers.

Indeed, between the November 2013 program Getting Transition Right: A Rights-based Approach to Diversity and Inclusion and the follow-on program in March 2014, participants spoke of a sense of inertia at best and deterioration at worst.

Following the participation of its founder Belabbès Benkredda in the November session, the Munathara Initiative, a Tunisia-based multimedia public debating platform, was inspired to expand to the four focus countries, launching a series of debates on human rights, inclusion, and diversity. But outside of Tunisia where there had been some progress, Fellows were much less positive. One Egyptian Fellow, who had been outspoken at Salzburg Global programs in 2012 and 2013, asked to have his name withheld from the 2014 program report for fear of reprisals. Two Libyan Fellows had to flee and seek asylum in Europe following attempts on their lives in retaliation for their work. Although progress had been made by March, the outbreak of war in Yemen had led many of those Fellows who could, to leave.

For the Russian Fellows who attended the Russian Civil Society Symposium, the situation could also be bleak and dangerous. Oleg Kozlovsky, a seasoned political activist, was detained at the airport on his return from Salzburg; he was released after officers took his photo and fingerprints.

So if the situation is changing too quickly to formulate long-term plans and Fellows can even face detention for their participation, why come to Salzburg?

“The [November program] was quite significant in two major ways,” explains Egyptian Fellow Sherine El Taraboulsi.

“One, it allowed us to ask questions at a distance. While we are aware of the different dimensions of the problems that face the region, we are too close to it to be able to analyze it. Salzburg brought that distance while providing a platform for us to freely discuss our ideas.

“Two, it managed to bring together academics and practitioners, and that is very unique, because we rarely speak to one another.”

This bringing together of disparate views is a hallmark of Salzburg Global. Even within civil society, there is not necessarily a homogeny of opinion or approach. Within Russia, a great level of distrust exists among various sectors of civil society. The political activists (who want to change or even overhaul the entire system) accuse the direct aid groups (who provide disaster relief or services not offered by the state) of being short-sighted and state collaborators, especially those receiving state funding. But the political activists’ clashes with the state earn them the distrust and ire of direct aid and civic activist groups who blame them for provoking the government crackdowns that affect the whole sector. They are also frequently characterized as foreign-backed, disrupting the development of civil society, and the lives of ordinary Russians.

It thus became clear in Salzburg that bridges need to be built not only between civil society and the state, but also within civil society itself.

After the session, Sarah Lindemann-Komarova, founder of the Siberian Civic Initiatives Support Center, said: “A summary of [the program outcomes] is simple: no easy answers, more questions. But that does not mean it was a failure. It is no small accomplishment to capture an accurate description of the status of civil society in Russia today…

“The identification of questions that need answers and the clarification of internal fault lines provide an essential foundation for a step forward in this 25-year-old work-in-progress. It is not clear if that step will be taken; it is only certain that, if it is not, there is no hope of improved status, increased bargaining power, and self-determination for civil society actors.”

Outside Schloss Leopoldskron, positive bridges were built in Berlin, where members of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum met in May 2014 to examine how LGBT issues are addressed by ministries of foreign affairs and their embassies, and how LGBT rights organizations, embassies, and other actors can build closer networks and more effective relationships.

During the two days of discussions between the Fellows and representatives from agencies including the German and Dutch Foreign Ministries and the European External Action Service, German Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, Christoph Straesser said: “The question before us, as societies, organizations, and persons wishing to protect and promote human rights, is how to halt negative developments and further advance positive developments. There is no simple answer to this question.

“To help us identify answers, we work with the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum in order to establish a global space to reflect upon and advance LGBT and human rights discussions around the world.”

As Klaus Mueller, founder and chair of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, wrote in the session report for Creating Long-Term Global Networks to Sustain LGBT Human Rights Organizations: “There are no easy answers and no ‘short-cuts’ to supporting, enhancing and sustaining LGBT rights. What does make a difference is ongoing networking, engagement, and dialogue between German diplomatic missions and LGBT human rights organizations…

“For a network to truly live and thrive, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. The momentum of Salzburg was sustained in Berlin through the processes of discovery, empathy, and learning. It must now continue.”

 

Continuing the spirit of Margaret Mead, Salzburg Global’s programs on strengthening democracy and civil society will support and expand the networks of thoughtful and committed citizens for generations to come.


Download the Salzburg Global Chronicle 2015 in full (PDF)

25.06.2015 Category: 2015 Features, JUSTICE, MENA, LGBT
Louise Hallman, Alex Jackson and Sudeshan Reddy