CIVIL SOCIETY FORUM
Combining diversity and freedom in 21st-century Europe
13 and 14 November 2011
Council of Europe
In proposing that the four pillars of the Council of Europe reflect on the theme of Living Together, Mr Thorbjørn Jagland, the organisation’s Secretary General, was displaying enlightened governance. The subject is of vital importance today as we move forward with building Europe. It may be the key pan-European project of the coming decades.
The Secretary General, in his political message this morning, and the rapporteur both clearly underlined:
- the need to mobilise against parallel societies in Europe and elsewhere;
- the need to combat hate speech, recognise plural identity and strengthen the values which unite people.
AIM OF THE FORUM
As the President of the Conference of INGOs, Jean-Marie Heydt, said this morning, the aim of this Civil Society Forum held by the Conference of INGOs is to create a space for civil society’s contribution to the Council of Europe’s activities. Your participation over the two days has offered a convincing illustration here.
ROLE AND PLACE OF CIVIL SOCIETY
The Council of Europe can be proud of being the only intergovernmental international organisation that provides such a forum for co-operation between governments, elected representatives and organised civil society through a quadrilogue. This confirms the trailblazing nature of the activities of the organisation, which is both a pioneer and a model in the field of participation and which fully deserves its description as the “Home of Democracy”.
The issue of living together has been part of the founding design or DNA of the Council of Europe from the outset. It should be noted that, immediately after the Council of Europe was set up on 5 May 1949 by ten countries with very different cultures and political histories (Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom), two more countries, which were probably the most symbolic on account of their respective cultural significance in the West and the East, and also of the past conflicts between them, namely Greece and Turkey, came together in joining the organisation.
This historical reminder gives an indication of the founding fathers’ desire to bring about dialogue between cultures from the outset. Today, more than ever before, that is what is needed for peace in Europe and worldwide.
In their most recent book, “Le chemin de l’espérance”, two French humanists, Stéphane Hessel and Edgar Morin, wrote that civil society has a duty, alongside elected representatives and governments, to seek to give Europe substance in what is now a multipolar world by giving it unity, autonomy and political will. That is our role here today. It is our responsibility.
THE WHITE PAPER: The contributions of civil society – Istanbul
Various useful instruments which we have for exercising that responsibility have been presented here today: the White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, “Living together as equals in dignity”, the report by the Group of Eminent Persons withing the contexte of the paneuropean project, “Living Together in the 21st century” and the Conference of INGOs’ toolkit for the practice of intercultural dialogue.
The White Paper and the accompanying methodological guide serve as a reference tool.
While it is impossible to summarise it given the importance of each part, some elements can be highlighted which form a common thread reasserting and updating the foundations of the Council of Europe.
The objective is set out from the introduction: “The Council of Europe is deeply convinced that it is our common responsibility to achieve a society where we can live together as equals in dignity.” These efforts to achieve equality in dignity are a means of combating and preventing conflict.
The White Paper is therefore particularly topical.
In today’s Europe with all its geographical, political, societal and cultural diversity, it seeks to indicate the elements which we have at our disposal for advancing towards the goal of “living together”. The concept of identity put forward in the text is no longer that of belonging to a nation but a dynamic concept of the identity of individuals enriched by their contacts with other people, the paths taken by their lives, their cultural choices and the choices they make in terms of where they live and on a personal and professional level, whether voluntarily or otherwise, in a fragmented, complex society haunted by new fears, which is in turn torn apart and bound closer together by conflicts and risks of all kinds, a society which itself is changing constantly as it seeks equilibrium and cohesion.
The White Paper should be seen as a tool for managing diversity so that it does not cause the explosion of society or the exclusion of individuals. To this end, it reaffirms and builds on Europe’s body of civil, civic, economic, social and cultural rights, all based on respect for individuals as human beings.
It recommends approaches imbued with the fundamental principles of what should be our humanity. It makes recommendations not only to states but to all stakeholders and all of us here so that dialogue between individuals is possible.
IT IS A CALL TO ACTION!
This call was heard by the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe which, with the support of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe and the Turkish chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers and presidency of the Parliamentary Assembly, held a forum in Istanbul in March on NGOs’ part in addressing new multicultural challenges. And I should like to take this opportunity to thank Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni and all the senior Council of Europe officials for supporting us with their professionalism and demonstrating their interest in the initiative with their presence. Also and above all, however, I should like to thank the Secretariat of the Conference of INGOs headed by Jutta Gützkow for its outstanding support.
On the Conference of INGOs’ website, you will find the report on the activities of the Istanbul Forum, which was dominated by three issues that prepared the ground for our discussions here.
They were as follows:
- the role of civil society in multicultural societies in relation to freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
- the role of intercultural education in the recognition of identity;
- the social integration of young people from immigrant backgrounds, an area where NGOs contributed much useful experience from the ground.
However, the most practical outcome of the meeting in Istanbul was the launch of the work on the toolkit for the practice of intercultural dialogue, which was presented yesterday at the start of our discussions.
LIVING TOGETHER, THE REPORT BY THE GROUP OF EMINENT PERSONS
This report will stand out in history – and we believe that even more strongly after hearing the views of the rapporteur, Edward Mortimer. However, as Latchezar Toshev urged us, we must also draw our own conclusions from it.
The report takes stock of the seriousness of the risks, identifies their sources and makes a series of proposals for “living together” in open European societies.
The report is important because it was drafted by a group of persons from different cultures and different religions and is an attempt – the second following the White Paper – to build a common foundation for establishing intercultural, intereconomic, interfaith and interbelief relations.
Its assessment is totally clear regarding the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights, especially individual freedom and equality before the law. In addition, we heard Edouard Mortimer call on us this morning to ensure that gender equality is also included in the provisions of the European Convention, as it is in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The group found that discrimination and intolerance are widespread in Europe today, particularly against Roma and immigrants, as well as people of recent migrant background, who are often treated as foreigners even in countries where they are both natives and citizens.
What is new is the formulation of the new concept of “a hyphenated European”.
The report holds firmly that identities are a voluntary matter for the individual concerned, and that no one should be forced to choose or accept one primary identity to the exclusion of others. It argues that European societies need to embrace diversity, and accept that one can be a “hyphenated European” – for instance a Turkish-German, a North African-Frenchwoman or an Asian-Brit – just as one can be an African- or Italian-American.
And, as stated in the executive summary, “this can work only if all long-term residents are accepted as citizens and if all, whatever their faith, culture or ethnicity, are treated equally by the law, the authorities and their fellow citizens. Like all other citizens in a democracy they should have a say in making the law, but neither religion nor culture can be accepted as an excuse for breaking it.”
The report sets out the crucial points on which the staircase leading to “living together” must be based. The threats are identified clearly, if not exhaustively, and practical responses are offered.
The link and the continuity between the Istanbul Forum and the one now coming to an end here in Strasbourg are reflected in the desire to identify in practice the various steps, stages and actions for moving towards achieving the goal of living together today.
LIVING TOGETHER: the contributions of civil society
We have seen these steps outlined very clearly during the most instructive workshops yesterday and the statements by the other three pillars of the Council of Europe today.
On the basis of the participants’ experience from the ground, the workshops confirmed the challenges listed in the “Living together” report: economic and social insecurity, growing intolerance and increasingly widespread support for xenophobic parties, as well as low participation and inadequate legal frameworks.
DIVERSITY AND EDUCATION WORKSHOP
Wishes expressed by participants
· Work based on synergy, involvement in decision-making, throughout the process on an equal footing with all the stakeholders, not only in the political field, but also in the economic, social and cultural fields. In a fully participatory partnership!
· The provision by decision-makers of means for publicising the experience of NGOs, their knowledge of developments on the ground (and many of us have innovative experience to offer…); all this experience must be disseminated beyond the local level;
· Use by the Council of Europe of the NGOs’ specific features and diversity. The Council has equipped itself for this with its political recognition of the Conference of INGOs and the holding of forums like this one;
· Mobilisation of the media;
· As also underlined by Ambassador Arif Mammadov, Chair of the Committee of Ministers’ Rapporteur Group on Education, Culture, Sport, Youth and Environment, ensure openness towards the image of the other in both schools and universities;
· Publicise and develop intercultural skills by using lifelong non-formal education methods.
· Make NGOs eligible for the Council of Europe prize currently awarded solely to educational establishments;
· Enable NGOs to propose the use of non-formal education curricula to schools and teachers;
· Draw up a code of good practice to allow monitoring;
· Set aside a special time slot in the media for promoting cultural diversity
DIVERSITY AND SOCIAL COHESION WORKSHOP
Wishes expressed by participants
· Positive discourse concerning diversity, at all levels, based on best practice;
· Stronger commitment by political leaders;
· Priority integration of people from different backgrounds. Ensure integration in both directions, while avoiding assimilation.
· Development of criteria and indicators for measuring social cohesion;
· Development by NGOs of positive discourse as a soft-power tool for influencing governments;
· Establishment of formal structures. NGOs must be able to be active in participatory bodies and at all levels!
· Improve the flow of information, including on the web, in particular through social networks;
· Develop databases to establish “communities of practice”;
· Ensure the representation of different members of cultural and religious communities in the public sector, including the justice system and the police.
The two workshops made use of the Council of Europe’s legal instruments, including the Social Charter.
In conclusion, I would like to quote some strong and telling comments, which speak for themselves:
“We believe that the voice of civil society must be heard in this organisation” (Ambassador Eleanor Fuller, Chair of the Ministers’ Deputies)
“Whatever they do, don’t wait for other people; go your own way!” (Edward Mortimer, Rapporteur of the Group of Eminent Persons)
“Telling people the truth is our shared responsibility! We must be truthful and courageous!” (Latchezar Toshev, Former rapporteur on “Living together in 21st- century Europe”, Member of the Political Affairs Committee and the Committee on Culture, Science and Education of the Parliamentary Assembly)
“Everyone has a voice and a story to tell; give them a microphone!” (NGO in the room)
“We should go beyond tolerance and carefully listen to people’s views!” (Michael Connarty, Member of the Committee on Culture, Science and Education of the Parliamentary Assembly)
“We should stay in contact with countries of origin and transit countries” (Emer Costello, Councillor, Dublin City Council, Clip Network)
THE BIG QUESTION IS: “WHAT DO WE HUMAN BEINGS WANT TO DO TOGETHER?”
Today many people are afraid of Islam. And many people are afraid of other peoples and cultures, too. This fear must not be ignored. But it cannot be overcome without dialogue. We are here to give that dialogue substance and to move ahead. To quote Mr Jagland in an address to the Parliamentary Assembly on 24 January 2011:
“All great projects in history combine vision with pragmatism. Believing in something even very enthusiastically is not enough; it is what we do that makes the difference between great ideas and great illusions.”
Our NGOs are already doing innovative work: we must publicise it and keep up the struggle!
By Israel Mensah
Vice-Chair of the Democracy,
Social Cohesion and Global Challenges Committee
of the Conference of INGOs