Global: A future greater than the past?

Global: A future greater than the past?

Date: April 25, 2018
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“Our future is greater than our past.”  With these words, repeated by 500 civil society leaders at the opening of the Commonwealth Peoples Forum, celebrated Nigerian author and poet Ben Okri set the tone for an exciting week of “no holds barred” panels and debates on all the major topics confronting our world – women’s and LGBTI rights; climate change; the digital revolution, media freedom, migration, disability, indigenous persons and many more.

“Inclusion is critical to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals,” noted the activists from 53 countries – mostly former British colonies – that comprise one third of the world’s people. “But exclusion has become accepted across the Commonwealth, through injustice, discrimination and exclusion of rights among marginalised, poor and vulnerable communities and societies. Civic voices call on the Commonwealth to work collectively to: end exclusion, tackle injustice and commit to accountability.”

“The world as we find it is unacceptable,”Okri declared. “It is not how we made it but how we find it; what we allow it to be.”

Declaring that no country is post- colonial – Britain was a colony of Rome, Rome of Egypt, the whole world of Africa (the cradle of human kind) Okri declared that “it is time to reconfigure the perception of ourselves.”  The world he said, “is defined by power but also the abdication of power. It is crying out for new leadership.. power without vision is empty and dangerous.”  It is time he said, for citizens to be “aware of the power we transform our futures and compel ourselves upwards. In the long term we are not weak; we are strong. Only free people can make a free world.”

Britain had hoped that the Heads of State summit that followed the Peoples, Women, Youth and Business Forum in London from 18 to 19 April would cement ties with its English-speaking allies as it pulls out of the European Union. Instead, Britain found itself held to account for ills of the past including the so-called Windrush scandal involving the appalling treatment and deportation of hundreds of Caribbean citizens who settled in the UK several decades ago. Prime Minister Theresa May (formerly minister of home affairs) apologised to Caribbean leaders at the Peoples Forum and by the end of the summit has promised compensation and justice for these UK citizens.

Women’s and LGBT rights, long in the shadows of this mostly boys network, took centre stage at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, known by its acronym, CHOGM. It’s almost three decades since civil society leaders started meeting on the eve of the summit that takes place in different Commonwealth member states every two years, but only the second time that the Women’s Forum has taken place. Symbolically, the Commonwealth is changing. It has its first woman Secretary General, Baroness Patricia Scotland. The Commonwealth will be chaired for the next two years by Britain, which presently has a woman Prime Minister. The Queen (92) has been titular head of the Commonwealth since 1952, a role that will now be taken over by Prince Charles. Rwanda, which has the highest representation of women in parliament in the world, will take over the leadership of the Commonwealth in two years’ time.

A sea change in the Commonwealth is the extent to which women’s rights now forms part of the mainstream discourse and global outlook. Topics included in both the Peoples and Women’s forum included the role of women in politics, local government, peace building, the digital revolution, economic empowerment and many more. Commonwealth leaders adopted a Girls Education Framework #LeaveNoGirlBehind that promises girls twelve years of quality education from now (2018) to the 2030 deadline of the SDGs.

In a rare exchange between NGO leaders and foreign ministers chaired by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at Lancaster House, women’s rights activists called on CHOGM to name and shame Tanzania president John Magufuli for criminalising girls who become pregnant and drop out of school. This runs counter to the charter that states that no girls ambition should be dashed by, among others, “child marriages, pregnancy and female genital mutilation.”

Also named and shamed are the British colonial laws that are largely responsible for the criminalisation of homosexuality in 36 Commonwealth countries. Prime Minister Theresa May broke new ground when she apologised for these laws and called on Commonwealth leaders to reform them, with still a backlash from many countries. But in their communique, civil society leaders called for the reform of all colonial era laws that violate human rights including mental health, consensual same sex relations, and impunity on gender violence.

The majority of Commonwealth countries are small states, mostly islands, for whom the threat of climate change is real. Okri began his speech with a story told by his mother about a frog slowly boiling in a pot, so gently that it boiled to death without even knowing it. This became the metaphor for several panels on climate change – “like the frog, we are boiling to death and we will only know it when we are dead,” one speaker declared.

Paying possibly one of the highest tributes to civil society, Johnson said that it is important for political leaders to listen to these leaders because they are almost always ten years ahead of the times. For example, “civil society voices warned about plastic bags a decade ago, but only now has that become a mainstream issue.”

“We are not just talking truth to power,” declared a woman civil society leader from Pakistan. “We brought you to power. We are the power!”

(Colleen Lowe Morna, CEO of Gender Links, participated in the Commonwealth Peoples Forum. This article is part of the GL News and Blogs)


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