The exclusion of non-governmental representatives from the UN High-Level Meeting on AIDS is not an isolated incident, but part of a global crackdown on civil society. To fight back, we need to understand the crucial role of NGOs in policy development.
Imagine a conference on domestic violence excluding the representatives of women’s organisations, or a youth conference without involving young people. This is exactly what happened at the UN high level meeting on AIDS. Those most affected by the epidemic – that is, sex workers, drug users, LGBT+ people etc. – were systematically blocked from entering the meeting by the unholy alliance of the Russian Empire and the Organisation of Islamic Countries. Excluded groups belong to the so called “key populations”, a term often used in professional jargon to signify their importance in stopping the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Governments made a committment last year to end the epidemic by 2030, an unachievable goal without listening to the voices of the people in need of help.
This is not an isolated incident. This year, the same governments tried to exclude civil society from the process leading to the UNGASS on drugs in April, so the outcome document was negotiated behind closed doors and adopted on the first day of the meeting, even before the discussion with civil society participation could have started. The rules of the meeting were constantly changed to make attendance more difficult for NGO representatives, who often had to wait hours in long lines to get into the building. During the round-table discussion, there was an unsuccessful attempt to block an Indonesian human rights advocate from speaking up against the death penalty.
The growing effort at UN meetings to exclude dissenting voices on the international stage is coming from the same governments which try to silence them at home. This is all part of a well-documented global crackdown on civil society. Over the past couple of years, more than 60 countries have prepared or passed legislation designed to curtail the activity of non-governmental organisations. We are not only talking about dictatorships in the classical sense, but countries with parliamentary democracies, where civil society had, in previous decades, been able to work relatively undisturbed.
The rationale given for excluding or repressing civil society is always the same: to protect the sovereignty of the state from foreign influences, and to protect national cultural/religious values from the harms of globalisation. Who the hell elected these groups and whom do they represent, the argument goes, to challenge elected officials who represent the people? Look at their funding, they receive money from international donors, so they are in the service of foreign powers or financial circles. We must defend representative democracy and national sovereignty from these groups!
The only problem with this argument is that democracy is not real democracy if it fails to tolerate – and indeed encourage – the self-organisation of citizens for non-violent causes. As Vaclav Havel, a dissident who later became president of the Czech Republic, explained, “While a totalitarian system of the Communist type could now and then coexist with private ownership, and sometimes even with private enterprise, it could, as a matter of principle, never coexist with a developed civil society … At the root of the argument that the advancement of civil society is an attack on the standard political system, we thus again find the well-known unwillingness to share power with anyone else. It is as if the parties were telling us: ‘Governing the country is our business, so choose between us, but don’t do anything beyond that’.”
Ernest Gellner, a great civil society theoretician, pointed out that this self-organising civil society is the only way to prevent the state and the market from seizing total control over society. The enemies of civil society always allude to the people – but their concept of the people is not one of self-organising citizens, but of isolated and atomised subjects or consumers, easy targets for manipulation and fear-mongering. The simple tyranny of the majority, the rule of the people as a manipulated, atomised mass without ensuring the freedom of dissent and self-organising, is no real democracy.
The other argument about the protection of cultural values and the relativity of “Western-type democracy” is just another thin excuse to gain more power over society. Human rights are universal and international – but so are the arguments against them. Bigotry knows no borders – it forges unlikely alliances, such as that between Russia and Islamic countries. Tyrants and oppressors all speak the same language, regardless of their varied cultural, religous or ideological background.
Civil society is not a superfluous toy at the mercy of the almighty Leviathan state. There are a number of public services which can be managed and operated more effectively by non-governmental organisations. NGOs can help the voices of vulnerable and marginalised goups of society to be heard – voices often ignored by the state when making decisions which affect them. Without civil society, there is no social innovation and creative altruism – what is more, there is no transparent and accountable governance.
Freedom of association is a human right protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But can you exercise this right, when you are systematically excluded from the public discourse? When governments block our funding, try to hide their decisions behind rules of secrecy, and exclude us from social consultation, they violate this right. When we demand meaningful involvement in decision-making forums, whether it is part of the UN, the EU or national/local level processes, we should remember that we are not beggars asking for alms. We are fighting for genuine causes, we are defending the rights of real people; and even if these people may be unpopular in the eyes of the majority, we protect democracy by doing so.