When the Crowds Go Home, Ideas Keep Traveling

The crowds have left; the reviewing stands, disassembled. The reflecting pool is frozen with sea gulls light-footing across it. Washington, DC has held its grand party. For three days, everyone was on foot, bundled in coats, scarves, gloves and walking everywhere–to the Mall, to the Capitol, to the White House (or as close as one could get), peering over barricades, hundreds of thousands of people.

Most of those who came to town have returned to all the states in the union from which they came. Those from the more than 100 foreign countries here to watch the Inauguration have also returned. As the full working week commenced in Washington, snow flakes were falling; the sky was cloudy, and the Potomac River, crusted with ice at the edges, waited for spring.

But the spirit remained. And the consequences of this global gathering were only beginning. Among those visiting Washington were women from the world’s conflict regions, women engaged in peace building, who were gathered to share experiences and also to study and watch the U.S. electoral process, particularly as it might apply to their circumstances and lives.

At a conference, sponsored by the Initiative for Inclusive Security, women from Afghanistan, Bolivia, Israel, Kashmir, Lebanon, Liberia, Palestine, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda and other areas came together for training, exchanging experiences, and working on peace initiatives around the globe. After the main conference, a dozen women met in a side room around a table with tea and coffee and strawberries, women from Uganda, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Iran and the U.S. to consider how to get more women in the electoral process in these countries.

The focus quickly turned to the upcoming July elections in the Sudan, where 25% of the seats have been set aside for women. At the table were Josephine Akulang Abalang from the Southern Sudan and Lina Zedriga Waru Abuku from Northern Uganda. These two women live in neighboring countries and regions, both of which have been devastated by years of conflict, separated by a few hundred miles and bad roads, both regions in a fragile state of peace.

Both women have considered running for office in their countries. However, Lina’s husband, who had been an opposition politician, “disappeared” eight years ago, and her children begged her not to take the same risk so for the moment she will stay out of the electoral process, but she is helping others. A lawyer, she manages the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 Project which seeks to empower women for peace and reconciliation.

“We are not victims; we are the stakeholders,” she says and repeats her mantra, “Nothing about us without us.”

She and the other women around the table focused their experience and contacts on Josephine, who may well embark on an electoral bid. At the height of the civil war in 1992, Josephine fled the Sudan on foot, along with 500 students; she was one of only six females in the group trying to get to Uganda. Instead she was captured by the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army and forced into military training, but eventually was released. She made her way to Kenya, where she was awarded a scholarship in Canada and earned a bachelor’s and then a masters degree in international relations. Currently working for the UN and for the government in the Southern Sudan on disarmament, she is the first from her village to graduate from school and would be the first woman from there to run for office.

She and Lina and the women from Sri Lanka and Iran said the impediments for women to seek election were psychological and systemic. “Women are 60 % of the population in the Southern Sudan, but women lack confidence,” Josephine said. “Women think they need certification to run.”

The women around the table representing civil society and experience in their communities began to strategize on how to get the Sudanese women the training, skills, credentials, and the solidarity of a community behind them to run for office.

There are immense challenges facing the Sudanese 2009 elections—gaps in voter education, logistical support for elections during the July rainy season, special difficulties for free and fair elections in Darfur, where rebel commanders didn’t allow the census and large areas continue to be plagued by armed opposition. Aid offered for election procedures has often been held up by the national government. But there are women starting to organize with the hope that at least on the ballot and then in the meeting rooms and around the tables where decisions are made, women will sit and bring to the issues and problems their voices and ideas.

Back in Washington, the women are seeking support –both financial and technical—for their efforts for gender parity in the Sudanese government and in the peace process. The call will also begin to go out to women around the globe who left the Sudan in the wider diaspora to return and run for office.

There is not much time until July, notes Josephine. But the work has begun.

Charter 08: Decade of the Citizen

Grandstands are rising around Washington, DC. The U.S. is preparing for the Inauguration of a new President whose campaign mobilized a record number of citizens and focused on themes of hope and change.

Half way around the globe in the world’s most populous country, a relatively small group of citizens are proposing radical change for their nation, change which reflects in large part the ideals upon which the United States was founded. However, the proponents of this change have been interrogated and arrested.

On December 10, the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 300 leading mainland Chinese citizens—writers, economists, political scientists, retired party officials, former newspaper editors, members of the legal profession and human rights defenders–issued Charter 08. Charter 08 sets out a vision for a democratic China based on the citizen not the party, with a government founded on human rights, democracy, and rule of law. Charter 08 doesn’t offer reform of the current political system so much as an end to features like one-party rule. Since its release, more than 5000 citizens across China have added their names to Charter 08.

Before the document was even published, the Chinese authorities detained two of the leading authors Liu Xiaobo and Zhang Zuhua and have since interrogated dozens of others who signed. Most have been released though they continue to be watched. However, Liu Xiaobo, a major writer and former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, remains in custody with no word of his whereabouts and fears that he will be charged with “serious crimes against the basic principles of the Republic.” The Chinese government has also blocked or deleted websites and blogs that carry Charter 08.

Charter 08 was inspired by a similar action during the height of the Soviet Union when writers and intellectuals in Czechoslovakia issued Charter 77 in January, 1977. Charter 77 called for protection of basic civil and political rights by the state. Among the signatories was Vaclav Havel, who was imprisoned for his involvement but went on to become the President of the Czech Republic after the Soviet Union ended.

Citizens around the globe, including Vaclav Havel, Nobel laureates, human rights defenders, writers, economists, lawyers, academics, have rallied in support of those who signed Charter 08. The European Union has expressed grave concern at the arrest of Liu Xiaobo and others. Petitions in support of Charter 08 and in protest over the detention of Liu Xiaobo are circulating around the world.

The arrest of Liu Xiaobo happened on the eve of Human Rights Day and the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The year 2008 is also the 110th Anniversary of China’s Wuxu Political Reform, the 100th Anniversary of China’s first Constitution and the 10th Anniversary of China’s signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the soon-to-be 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown against students.

Charter ’08 is well worth reading. It sets out the political history of China in its forward, then proposes fundamental principles–freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy and constitutional law—upon which the government should be based. The document advocates specific steps–a new constitution, separation of powers, legislative democracy, independent judiciary, public control of public servants, guarantee of human rights, election of public officials, rural-urban equality, freedom to form groups, freedom to assemble, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, civic education, protection of private property, finance and tax reform, social security, protection of the environment, a federated republic, truth and reconciliation.

Charter 08 lays forth an ambitious agenda, one that would revolutionize the political climate and governing structures of China, but it advocates for change not through violence, but through citizen participation. Is this naive? Foolhardy? Or is this vision for China one that will inspire and empower its citizenry?

“We dare to put civic spirit into practice by announcing Charter 08,” declare the signatories. “We hope that our fellow citizens who feel a similar sense of crisis, responsibility, and mission, whether they are inside the government or not, and regardless of their social status, will set aside small differences to embrace the broad goals of this citizens’ movement. Together we can work for major changes in Chinese society and for the rapid establishment of a free and constitutional country.”

As citizens in the U.S. prepare to inaugurate a new President, the first African American President, the country is not so much realizing change as realizing in its electoral process the ideals set forth over 200 years ago.

Ideas may be repressed for a time and their authors may be persecuted, but ideas and words matter. Eventually they are the fuel for the engine of change. Those who have the courage to set them down and publish them may turn out to be the founding fathers on whose shoulders generations will stand.