By Gina Romero
Civil society has very broad and diverse agendas: each organisation seeks a particular objective with different populations, lines of action or territorial emphases. Nevertheless, a few decades ago, it was easy to engage in dialogue among different civil society stakeholders and find consensus for collective action. This has been progressively changing, however, while the world of stakeholders and interests in the public and political sphere of Latin American countries is becoming more complex.
For several years now, civil society organisations participating in the Organization for American States (our continental international organisation) have not been able to agree on common line and speak with one voice in addressing the governments of the Americas. The greatest difficulty in reaching agreement is in the field of sexual and reproductive rights (especially abortion) and the rights of same-sex couples (especially adoption) (1). These two very specific issues have hindered spaces for dialogue for years, in large part because each party wants to force the other to change its way of thinking. It has become a power struggle that has impaired the safe space that we had previously and which facilitated dialogue.
Besides discursive and symbolic confrontation, some physical violence and a great deal of hate speech have occurred. For example, some of the CS stakeholders who participate in OAS official activities reject the presence of transgender persons. They do not want them to use the toilets associated with the gender they choose, and in several instances have used violence to prevent these individuals from using the toilet of their choice. To avoid this, we have advocated the use of gender-neutral toilets in all OAS activities. Of course, some host governments (the OAS Assembly is held in different host cities in the Americas, which also attend to logistics for each activity) deny this, which regularly leads to conflicts.
The weirdest part of all this is that, even when we are not trying to reach agreement on these controversial issues but about some more general matters such as public participation, civil society inclusion, justice, and even climate change, the division is still visible, and there are now conflicting sides that prevent agreements from being reached and coordinated action on any other topic from being taken. Neither of these two controversial topics has been part of the agenda specific to OAS in recent decades, and, nevertheless, most of the official occasions at which civil society has the opportunity to interact with the OAS and with government representatives are frustrated due to deep divisions, and even fighting among CSO. What is more, many government officials doubtlessly benefit from such divisions.
In light of this situation, in 2019, in close cooperation with the OAS and on the margins of the OAS General Assembly, I was involved in promoting an exercise called “unlikely dialogue”, in the course of which representatives of opposing organisations sat down to engage in dialogue to try to find common ground. We partnered with a Colombian platform that has extensive experience in leading unlikely dialogues in the context of Colombia’s more recent peace process. This group had facilitated encounters between victims and perpetrators, achieving amazing results in the process.
The objective for the exercise at the OAS meeting mentioned above was to explore the frustrations that the organisations had in order to identify the natural tensions between their positions, and thus build common ground on which, despite these differences, they could come to an understanding. The methodology was rather simple: small groups from a larger audience sit to talk about three main questions: i) Which things frustrate you about dialogue processes in the OAS? ii) What are your main collective concerns? iii) Was there any agreement about what was shared? Only people sitting in the centre of the room were able to speak, and every person decided how long s/he stays in the centre and for how long s/he speaks.
At the end of the day, all participants reached an agreement in what was an unprecedented and historic moment: to demand that the Secretary General of the OAS and the representatives of the governments remain throughout all exchange sessions with civil society and engage in a genuine dialogue with their representatives. This was very important as, for several years now (the OAS General Assemblies take place annually), the Secretary General only inaugurated the event with civil society and then left, and the government representatives took a similar approach. This has been considered by most people to show a lack of respect for the civil society organisations present, which, in the end, can also be interpreted as a lack of respect for the citizens of the continent.
In this link, you can see the video of the systematisation of the exercise. For me, it was very moving to see people critically reflecting on their personal positions after the exchange in the dialogue. One of the strongest stakeholders against abortion told me the following after the meeting: “The truth is that it is a mistake that we call women who abort ‘murderers’. I have heard many of their stories, and there is much pain; and, instead of alleviating it, we are increasing it with our speeches.” This seems to me a leap forward in understanding between opposing parties and between worsening conflicts with open wounds. This is the power of dialogue.
(1) Another issue that has led to division, conflict and even violence is the participation of citizens from governments with autocracies, but that is another story that I may discuss in another post.
About the author:
Gina Romero is the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for democracy and part of the founding groups regarding different civil society organisations of every level (Ocasa (Colombia), Redlad (Americas), the World Youth Movement for Democracy, the Global Youth network for Democracy (global)). She has therefore much experience and knwo-how in topics such as public diplomacy, integrity and networking and many more.
Published on May 25, 2022.
Photo Credits: Gina Romero