In our Peace and Security workshop for the UN75 festival in October 2020, we used the UN Culture of Peace Initiative as our platform. I presented questions relating to democratic participation, one of the eight essential elements in the UN Culture of Peace Initiative. Like other presenters, I was charged to pose the audience an ‘impossible choice’ with both options being unequivocally desirable. So how might they vote?
Firstly, I recalled that the UN Secretary-General wants better public engagement and communication with communities. So, let us make that a priority, globally and within our communities, learning from each other. But how do we ensure it actually happens?
In 2011, the Open Government Partnership was set up by governments and civil society advocates seeking to create a unique partnership—one that combines these powerful forces to promote accountable, responsive and inclusive governance. Today, seventy-eight countries including the UK and a growing number of local governments—more than two billion people—along with thousands of civil society organisations are members of the Partnership.
Its Implementation Plan showcases successful case studies and identifies ‘bright lights’, those communities which are exemplars of reform. These can be in stable democracies, even in those experiencing civic tension as in the United States. On our page on the UN75 festival website, we showed how the Police Department in Camden, New Jersey, can be as an exemplar to all US police departments, especially those being stressed by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests.
And this begs the question: who initiates these reforms, giving breath back to minority groups, those whose voice is unheard? In such developed states, the rise of the BLM movement makes us ask why these issues are too often seen through the white man’s lens only. Last month, a revealing survey run by the UK journal Peace News showed the impact BLM has had on the British peace movement, prompting self-identified white readers to unlearn a lot and to listen to other voices.
Facing quite different challenges, following inter-faith warfare in the Central African Republic, the NGO Search for Common Ground is now launching a 24-month project with funding from the UN Democracy Fund to promote permanent and collaborative dialogue between citizens, civil society, and local authorities across eight districts in the capital Bangui. A brave initiative but even if it falters, we must watch it and we must learn from failure. Peace really is a dynamic.
So, my first proposal was this. We should urge that evidence of the representation of the interests of minorities be a pre-requisite for any national or civic review, and it must be clear at all times.
Then again, in all these programmes, youth is in danger of being excluded from proposed solutions. Recognising this, the well-received report Stepping Stones for a Better Future published by Together First, the network of people and organisations co-led by UNA-UK, supports the view that “When it comes to the future, younger participants and those in many developing countries tend to be more optimistic than those who are older or living in developed countries.” Optimistic, yes, but is that enough? This week’s news that young people in the USA, UK and Australia are questioning the value of democracy demands action, in both developed and developing countries. Let us harness this tremendous energy and commit to creating a UN youth council. Just do it! Create a high-level champion for civil society itself.
So, my second proposal was to ensure youth be represented even in the highest fora, starting with a UN Youth Council, despite local and national cultural obstructionism.
How did the audience vote? They preferred the first proposal, 51% to 49%.