If I have learned one thing out of this crisis, it is that the economy is far too important to be granted to economists and democracy is far too precious to be bestowed to politicians.
We must reclaim democracy by reinventing it. Legitimacy in public policy making cannot depend solely on the process by which the authority becomes such. That is not enough anymore. Democracy must be attached to active participation. Post-crisis democratic societies will need transparent processes, open consultations and frank discussions. Different tools will be necessary depending on the level of power: local, national, regional or global. A new approach to governance is required. In other words, apart from making different decisions, we must definitely change the way in which we make decisions.
In order to make this possible, we ought to become active citizens. We all must assume responsibility, sharing information, following politics closely. This work will have to be done on a day-to-day basis, not every four years.
There is a paradox in human rights activism. We research, we denounce publicly, we advocate. Yet, we also insist that governments are the ones who have the legal obligation to protect human rights. (True: Sometimes we also target non-state actors, such as transnational companies or armed opposition groups, or intergovernmental organisations, like international financial institutions.) It is as if we were saying to the government: “We care about what’s going on, but technically it is your responsibility, not ours”.
In this process of reinventing democracy, active citizenship can be a useful tool to overcome this advocacy paradox. Governments are obliged to protect, respect and fulfil human rights, but they must also make sure that the organised civil society can do its job, which is not other than holding them tightly… to account. This duty will not be cleared by just giving money to NGOs, because civil society also has to grow in economic independence (which is a big challenge in itself, particularly in a time of economic crisis and austerity). Civil society can provide valuable expertise to public officials and the society as a whole can benefit out of it. Among other things, the obligation to ensure active participation requires growing in transparency, open data and open government, limiting bureaucracy by adopting the highest standards in freedom of association, and protecting the right to demonstrate in public spaces as a tool to improve democracy.
Active citizenship would change policies and politics, but it would also change civil society. Putting active participation at the core of human rights advocacy would have an impact over the strategies and the identity of human rights groups. Defending human rights cannot be the exclusive task of a polyglot and overeducated world-class elite. Defending human rights can be the most democratic experience of all. Human rights groups must aim to reach everywhere, making human rights language and tools available for all. Believing in active participation is the way to foster human rights and give power to the people.
Photo: Amnesty International Ireland, “Start a school group” site.