From 8 to 12 of April, in Belgrade, more than 850 civil society leaders, human rights activists and citizens from all over the world were brought together for the annual International Civil Society Week- a gathering co-hosted by CIVICUS the global civil society alliance based in Johannesburg and the Serbian Association Civic Initiatives with the support of Balkans Civil Society Development Network as regional partner-to debate solutions to some of the most pressing challenges of Civil Societies in the world today! The ICSW 2019 Program focused on three tracks:
Guided by this year’s theme “The Power of Togetherness” set out to explore how people and CSO’s from everywhere around the globe can work together to defend spaces for civic actions. Discussions and interactive sessions opened debates on some of the most important issues of Civil Societies today, the shrinking the shrinking space for civil society, the closing down of press freedom, the growing architecture around IT and data surveillance, human right defenders and the rise of national populism, most recently in Eastern Europe.
At the opening ceremony, Lysa John, the recently appointed Secretary-General of CIVICUS powerfully stated “Our job is to find ways to ensure that attacks on civil society and independent media do not become the ‘new normal’. We are facing a global civic space emergency and we cannot be the generation that lost the fight to protect civic freedoms and democratic values”.
In the morning plenary of the Bridges track, speaking about the state of civic space in the Western Balkans, BCSDN’s Policy and Advocacy Officer Anja Bosilkova Antovska stated “Although there is progress in reforms in the countries of the region, we are still facing violations of basic human rights. Negative narratives, populist attacks and smear campaigns targeting civil society and anyone critical of the government has become the new normal in the region.”
After a week of discussions, to celebrate the “Power of Togetherness” more than 200 civil society leaders and human right activists from over 100 countries took the streets of Belgrade in solidarity with those whose basic freedoms are at risk under the closing action “Freedom runner”.
As a pre-ICSW event, on April 8th, the Global Civil Society Summit, which BCSDN co-hosted together with the Civil Society Partnership for Effective Development (CPDE), CIVICUS and Action for Sustainable Development, brought together around 150 civil society leaders and representatives to unite in the fight for democratic participation and civic freedoms. The event opened with the welcome remarks of Serbia’s Office of Civil Society Cooperation Director Zarko Stepanovic, and an introduction to the summit presented by CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE) Co-Chair Justin Kilcullen, CIVICUS Chair Anabel Cruz, and Civic Initiatives Programme Director Bojana Selakovic.
“We are gathered here to call on development actors to address the issue of closing civic space, the repression of civil society workers and human rights defenders (HRDs), and the attacks on the democratisation of development” said Kilcullen. “We are here to put a stop to the crackdown against HRDs, and measures of States to constrain civic spaces. Today, 111 countries are suffering serious civic space restrictions,” Cruz added. Attendees also paused for a solemn remembrance of CSO leaders, rights defenders, environmentalists, and journalists who were killed because of their fight for people’s rights and social justice! The summit convoked global civil society leaders and organizations to launch the Belgrade Call to Action. More than 125 international, regional and national CSOs from 50 countries around the world have endorsed this Call to Action. The Call is addressed to Governments and Member States of the United Nations to take urgent action to reverse deteriorating conditions for civil society and attacks on social leaders, human rights and environmental defenders around the world, in the context of the 2030 Agenda.
As part of ICSW 2019 main programme, BCSDN organized the workshop “Protecting Civic Freedoms – Our Stories of Resilience”, together with FOND Romania (organizer of the Black Sea NGO Forum) and European Civic Forum, with the support of the Balkan Trust for Democracy and . and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, through the CSO Partnership for Development effectiveness. Following the Bridges track, the aim of the workshop – that took place on the 9th of April in Belgrade Youth Center – was to inspire and learn from each other; to reaffirm the collective voice in the joint struggles and encourage coalition building across regions. Moderated by BCSDN’s Biljana Spasovska, with the participation of Dren Puka (KCSF), Ion Manole (Promo-LEX), Juraj Rizman (Via Iuris), Ana Novakovic (CRNVO), Serlinda Vigara (Novact) and Vera Turcanu Spatari (Ce-Re) as speakers, the workshop shared stories of CSOs actions in times of shrinking civic space in the Balkans and the wider Europe. It tackled how CSOs counteract the negative trends, gauge where actions of resilience come from, and offered joint paths to explore in the future. Messages of hope, instead of fear in this crisis of trust and truth were shared alongside stories of resilience. The workshop concluded with a joint action with delegates writing messages with spray-ons on a big blank canvases for messages to CSOs, and to decision-makers.
In the lead up to the International Civil Society Week, ICSW/local partner held community events in different sub-national, regional and international locations between January and March, for the people in under-represented or marginalized regions, who due to financial and logistical constraints, were not able to host events in Belgrade, Serbia, Among the over 30 ICSW/local partners, BCSDN members CRNVO, CPCD and Partners Albania organized a local event in their countries, and in Belgrade had the chance to present their organizations work along with a short video outlining the Local events they organized in their home countries. With the support of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, 9 CSOs from the region took part in the ICSW/local activities, and more than 30 people from the region were actively involved throughout the whole event.