Friday, November 14, 2008

POLITICS: Civil Society Demands Voice at Americas Summit

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Nov 4 (IPS) - Caribbean civil society groups say they want to have direct input at the Fifth Summit of the Americas to be held in Trinidad and Tobago next April, and are urging hemispheric governments to begin implementing some of the 600 recommendations that have been agreed upon at previous summits dating back to 1994.

"We are happy that Trinidad and Tobago is focusing on implementation at the Apr. 17-19 summit, and we are lending our expertise to that process," said Dr. Kris Rampersad, director of Lobby, Advocacy, Research and Public Relations of the Network of NGOS of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women.

She told IPS that at a two-day Caribbean Sub Regional Civil Society Forum held here over the weekend, delegates also agreed on the need for including civil society representatives in government delegations -- one of the commitments made at the Quebec Summit five years ago and reiterated at the last summit in Mar de Plata, but never implemented.

"It is time to deliver. Since Trinidad and Tobago, as host, is leading this call for implementation, it is an ideal opportunity that our government leads by example and start implementation from the home front, beginning at national level," Rampersad said.

"The Caribbean has in the past had relatively low-keyed involvement in the summit process. Now that it is being staged in the Caribbean, it gives the region an opportunity to redefine its roles and responsibilities within the hemisphere," she added.

The Summit of the Americas is held every three to four years, and brings together the region's 34 heads of state to discuss political, economic, social, and security issues.

Hazel Brown, coordinator of the Trinidad-based Network of NGOs, reminded delegates that "nothing will be handed to us -- we have to take it," and that the purpose of the forum was to allow for the establishment of a strong citizens' movement in this hemisphere of which the Caribbean is a vibrant part.

The forum here was organised by the Trinidad-based NGO, the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Canadian-based Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) and held under the theme "Building Civil Society Capacity for Participation in the Summit Process and Follow-Up".

More than 100 NGOs and civil society groups were represented at the forum, which discussed issues such as human prosperity, environmental sustainability, energy security, democratic governance, and strengthening the summit process.

OAS Assistant Secretary General Albert Ramdin said that the participation of civil society in next year's summit "cannot be a one-off activity".

"This engagement should be a continuous one, structured and well defined, and even beyond the Fifth Summit of the Americas. Civil society engagement is not a gesture, it is an obligation," he said.

But the forum here also noted the failure of the 34 hemispheric governments to implement many of the recommendations that had emerged from previous summits and recalled, for example, the 2003 Quebec summit, which produced at least 43 pages of recommendations.

"We, as part of a hemispheric group of civil society organisations -- the Active Democracy Network -- monitoring implementation of the summit mandates will launch an index of government compliance that will rank the governments based on analyses carried out by experts throughout in terms of implementation," Rampersad said.

"From preliminary data, it is clear that there has been regression in some of the areas. In others, governments have made some progress," she said, noting that in some cases "there has been no movement at all".

The Active Democracy Network's initial focus is on recommendations involving local government reform, freedom of expression, access to information and involvement by civil society in decision making.

For example, regional leaders committed in the Quebec Plan of Action to strengthen local government systems by making them more autonomous and active agents of political and administrative decentralisation.

"Instead, even despite the national consultations, in Trinidad and Tobago, for example, we are seeing evidence of reducing the powers of local government and increasing control by central government," Rampersad said.

At the summit in Quebec, the participating governments had also agreed to promote mechanisms to facilitate citizen participation in political life, and provide the resources to do so, including information, training and technical support and financial resources.

Rampersad believes that with the summit being held in the Caribbean for the first time ever, regional countries, and more specifically the Trinidad and Tobago government, should use the opportunity to set an example.

"Here is a very good place to start. We have measurable data of where implementation can be improved. We must go beyond the rhetoric and act on it," she added.

Arthur Gray, advisor to the National Coordinator of the Fifth Summit Secretariat, said that the summit, apart from the historic significance of being held in a small island developing state, provides an opportunity for the Caribbean to shape a hemispheric agenda "that addresses the issues and themes that are of direct relevance to our region even as it lays the foundations of a new structure of Inter-American relations that is in consonance with the urgent realities of our time."

The delegates at the just concluded Caribbean Civil Society Forum say they want it to become the core of a network of Caribbean civil society organisations (CSO) that will work to advance CSO involvement in the summit process, sharing expertise and experiences.

In addition, they have also pledged to form national umbrella CSOs to lobby their governments to hold national consultations that would feed into the regional compilation of civil society recommendations.

Rampersad said that the forum also agreed that "there be meaningful and effective spaces for civil society interface with Government at the summit and to dialogue on recommendations for the Summit plan of action".

Author: Peter Richards
Article Source: IPS News

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