A vibrant civil society is essential to the foundations of democracy—a lesson especially important when those seem under siege.
On May 25th, 2020, a 17-year-old girl filmed a disturbing video, which subsequently went viral, of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota kneeling on the neck of a black man, handcuffed and lying face down on the pavement, for nine minutes and 29 seconds. The man, George Floyd, died that day.
For millions of people worldwide, Floyd’s death was a wake-up call regarding the pervasiveness of systemic racism and police violence. The Black Lives Matter movement capitalised on this growing awareness, organising protests on the streets of cities across the United States, which inspired demonstrations from France to Colombia to South Africa. And, in a testament to the power of organisation, the protests effected real change.
The police officer who killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin, has been convicted of murder and sentenced to more than 22 years in prison. But the BLM protests achieved something more consequential—the creation of an international commission, on which I served, to examine police racism in the US. We found that the persistent systemic racism against African-Americans in the US constituted a crime against humanity and merited an investigation by the International Criminal Court.
This is the power and essence of civil society. As the world attempts to ‘build back better’ from the Covid-19 pandemic, it must be harnessed to make progress on a broad array of pressing issues, from economic inequality and educational inequities to racial justice and climate change.
To those who were not paying attention to systemic racism or police violence before Floyd’s death, it might seem that BLM had an impact relatively quickly. But the fight has been long and difficult—and it is far from over. The same is true for other civil-rights movements, which often demand a deep and enduring resilience from their participants.
Consider the women’s movement in my home country, Pakistan. For decades, Pakistani women have fought against repressive norms, discriminatory attitudes and legislation that limited women’s status or rights. Progress has been slow and inconsistent, but we have stood our ground. And the gains we have made instil the hope that continues to motivate and inform our work today.
The importance of such efforts should not be underestimated. As Nelson Mandela, that global icon of freedom, explained in 2001, ‘a vibrant network and range of civil society activities and organs’ is essential to ‘cement the foundations’ of democracy.
Today, those foundations seem to be under siege. Many countries are experiencing an alarming drift toward authoritarianism. Even the most consolidated democracies are facing the erosion of citizens’ trust in the institutions that underpin them. Just as the pandemic has underscored the fragility of human life, it has also highlighted the vulnerability of our democracies to a different class of ailment, including political polarisation and disagreement on basic facts.
Like a human body, a democracy needs proper care to remain in good health. Akin to a health screening, civil society reveals a democracy’s afflictions before it is too late to treat them.
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When international human-rights principles and democratic values are not being reflected in people’s lives, it is civil society—organised in groups such as BLM—which sounds the alarm. This includes ensuring that authorities do not illegitimately expand or extend the emergency powers they have exercised during the pandemic.
Governments have a responsibility to listen to and embrace the voices and values of civil society. Rather than fearing, dismissing or repressing their critics, leaders must engage with them, especially the most vulnerable. But where governments shirk this responsibility, human-rights defenders must continue to fight.
Courage and determination
Many wonder whether civil society can survive democratic erosion and the slide toward authoritarianism in many countries. But this question is impossible to answer today; and trying to do so might even prove detrimental. Human-rights defenders can afford neither fatalism nor apathy.
Instead, we must continue to show courage and determination, like our brothers and sisters in such places as Hong Kong, Harare, Minsk and Yangon. We must harness the energy, eloquence and anger of the young on issues ranging from inequality and racism to climate change and advance clear, achievable roadmaps for change.
And, above all, we must not despair. As Mandela reminded us, ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done.’
Republication forbidden—copyright Project Syndicate 2021, ‘The power of civil society in a post-pandemic world’