As he stood in line in the drizzle that had been soaking through his coat and cloths for about an hour, an activist from Brazil wondered in a mixed of English and Portuguese how there could be such chaos. “I’ve missed my meeting,” he said. “They are going home,” he added pointing to a group of Palestinians who were headed back towards the entrance, apparently unwilling to stand in long lines like they are forced to do almost everyday that they travel by the Israeli authorities who have been occupying their land since before 1948.
This was one’s first impressions entering the 14th edition of the World Social Forum (WSF2015) being hosted for the second time in succession in Tunisia from 24 to 28 March 2015 at the sprawling campus of El Manar University in Tunis. Indeed, it’s easy to criticize the chaotic WSF2015, but despite the criticisms there is much to commend the invaluable purpose is serves of keeping alive the hope for a better world among a few tens of thousands of people who still care.
There were was little of the high profile media coverage that frequents glamorous international conferences organized by governments or corporations. Even quite a few of the rather known personalities who had attended in the past stayed away this year. The turn out of an estimated 35,000 persons was about half the pre-forum estimate. And despite having hosted the Forum just a few years earlier in 2013, the friendly Tunisian organizers seemed even more unorganized than last time.
But to be fair to the organizers this year posed an even bigger challenge then in the past. Not only had there been the Bardo Museum attacks apparently targeting foreigners just days earlier in the host city, but even the weather did not seem to cooperate. Intermittent glimpses of sunshine were washed away by rain and sleet or blown apart by the winds that uprooted the most sturdy tents and torn two-story banners from their moorings. By the third day of WSF2015 most of the tents had been destroyed and events were being canceled because as one event organizer put it, “the venue had been blown down.”
But even the confluence of man-made and natural disasters, did not prevent thousands of mainly young people from holding hundreds of meetings, discussions, dialogues, conferences, debates, workshops, marches, stands … just about every activity one could imagine. The topics ranged from sustaining the State, predominately the struggling Tunisian government, to alternatives to the State all together. And many events combined both themes.
One of the most active organizers, which put together dozens of events, were the people behind Alternatiba. In an apparent contradiction of its namesake, ‘alternative’, this group called for alternative protests to the UN’s annual global summit on climate change or COP21 that appeared primed to weaken the civil society pressure on the governmental negotiators. These negotiators must make hard decisions about our planet’s future in December in Paris, France, after they put off such decisions for years. Developed countries feel uncomfortable with the pressure being applied by effected people and have tried to keep civil society demonstrators at arms distance from their talks. One Alternatiba organizer explained to me how they don’t want anything to do with COP21. The young activist appeared oblivious to the fact that the Alternatiba civil society forum being planned a grat distance from the sit of COP21 and during COP21 and which is funded by the climate justice unfriendly French government hosts, will inevitably draw activists away from the COP21 venue. To be honest the young French activists did not even appear understand the issue, although the activist did demonstrate an understanding of climate justice that is rare, especially among the governmental negotiators.
Such youthful idealism was prominent at WSF2015, with only a sprinkle of more experienced counsel to help shape it. It seemed like more than two thirds of the activists were in their thirties or younger. This is what gives the World Social Forum it vitality. At WSF2015 there were mainly young energetic people trying to change the world through music, through art, through prayer, through politics, and though action. What binds these varied personalities together is a common perception that all is not right and it can be made better. Many don’t have the answer, but are searching for it. Some work completely outside the systems of global governance that exist to day, while others work within them.
The International Student Union Movement for the United Nations was an example of the latter. ISMUN as they are know works with in the United Nations. At WSF2015 they hosted several events aimed at sensitizing and activating people to make their governments respond to racism and colonialism, especially through action at the United Nations. Suggested actions ranged from grassroots education by partners such as UNEGRO to a call for reparations for the crime against humanity of colonization, which is just starting to take hold in the United Nations.
The goal of UNEGRO and its 5,000 members is to sensitize people about the racism taking place in Brazil against the 53% of the Brazilians who are black, but hardly represented in the official institutions of government. They base much of their action on the Durban Declaration and Programme for Action that emerged from the Third World Conference against Racism held in 2001 in Durban South Africa.
The goal of the calls for reparations for racist slavery, the slave trade, and colonialism varies. American descendants of Africans taken across the Atlantic by force to be made slaves are claiming individual monetary damages from the US government and descendants of families that owned slaves. At the same time African, Caribbean, and some South American countries are claiming damages in kind, such as through development projects, for the damage they suffered due to many years of colonization.
It is this variety of views that characterized almost every issue at WSF2015. There were pro and anti-government demonstrators. There were anti-Capitalists activists mixed with capitalists struggling for a living by selling their wares. There were religious motivated activists and activists opposing religion. Each had a concept of justice and not unusually they sometimes clashed.
In a short walk through the crowded souk of tents one could witness heated arguments about the legitimacy of the actions taken by the Syrian government; high pitched claims about which authority is legitimate in Libya; or singing contests about how to ensure justice for the people of Western Sahara. The colourfulness and musical rhythm with which the Sahwari people expressed their cause was surely more attention grabbing than the usually dull and polite UN wrangling. The Sahwari certainly drew bigger crowds than decision of the International Court of Justice, the United Nations principle judicial body, that upheld the right to self-determination of the Sahwari people and even their independence from Morocco more than thirty years ago.
Being held in an Arab country it was hardly surprising that the most prevalent issue at WSF2015 was the self-determination of Palestine people. There were multiple tents hosting informational meetings and public debates. There were events on specific aspects of the longest unresolved serious human rights matter on the United Nations’ agenda: the denial of self-determination of the Palestinian people. And even many broader discussions came back to this topic.
During a panel discussion organized by the National Lawyers Guild, a group of alternative lawyers in the United States, looking at the United States war on terror and the Arab uprisings, both Palestinian and American speakers agreed that resolving the claims of the Palestinian people was the key to bringing peace and development to the Middle East. A representative of the Palestinian prisoners group Addameer described the daily persecution that even the most elderly and frail Palestinians suffer. And at the same meeting, prominent American lawyer Abdeen Jabara concluded his recollections about the uprisings in the Arab world, by questioning what the international community could have been thinking when it “created Israel as a thorn right in the center of the Arab world” and against the wishes of the Arab countries.
For technocrats who contribute to worthy causes by employing their expert technical skills there were workshops and discussions about topics ranging from hacking to setting up online radio stations and tuning an online radio station to professional standards. Even those not so technically inclined could follow some the technical media workshops that discussed the media’s role in transforming society to a more sustainable and cooperative future.
Mimicking the UN that is engaged in trying to arrive at the set Sustainable Development Goals by September of this year, there was much said about sustainability. Often the WSF2015 discussions on sustainability were more concrete and practical for ordinary people, then are the complicated politics of UN diplomats. Nevertheless, the WSF2015 activists seemed far away from achieving the global political will that has led to UN diplomats celebrating minor tweaks of sustainable development agenda that are unlikely to have a major impact on equity and equality around the world.
It is hard to disagree, however, that the WSF2015 alternatives, especially for global climate action and development are not more rational responses to threats to the well-being of our planet and billions of human beings than the politically correct but inadequate diplomatic efforts. As one veteran activists put it, “it makes one wonder if the right people are negotiating these issues for us.”
Although the WSF2015 participants were predominately young and from the Arab world, mainly Tunisia, there was a significant mix of foreigners from Africa, North America, Europe, and Latin America, where the World Social Forum originated. Together with the full-time activists there were also artists, musicians, students, academics, politicians, lawyers, doctors, religious followers and scholars, and unemployed people. The only common characteristic often being the their common concern for what one activists’ T-shirt aptly noted as ‘hope’.
The World Social Forum has consolidated its structure over almost decade and half of meetings starting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001. This time, however, its loose organic governance structure and its lack of any real administrative organization seemed to be taking its toll on the event. Most of the hundreds of blue-vested volunteers scattered around WSF2015 to help visitors find their way had no idea where events were taking place on the sprawling suburban El Manar University campus. Even when one found a knowledgeable volunteer all they could do is vaguely point one in a distant direction for which no consistent maps were available.
More troubling was perhaps the appearance of government interference. During the WSF2015 the Tunisian government sought to emphasize the international solidarity with its decision to wage war on terror. This decision did not escape the irony and often criticism of activists. Even the youngest people at WSF2015 had lived through the United States’ ongoing war on terror and understood it has done more harm than good for the world. Nevertheless, newly elected Tunisian President Ben Caid Essebsi called for the Forum to show solidarity with the people of Tunisia, and by implication, with his militaristic policies, in a march on the final Saturday of WSF2015.
Despite these efforts at politicization, the real spirit of the WSF2015—its solidarity with the victims of oppression and its engagement with the ordinary people—seemed to have the last word in a subtle manner. This reflected in the course of fifteen taxi rides in which every Tunisian taxi driver, with one exception, expressed support for the former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki as a man of peace and cooperation, but there was little support evident for the current Tunisian President as he was busy visiting Egypt to gain support for another interminable war on terror. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but an fool everyone all the time. WSF2015 showed that more and more people are realizing that something is drastically wrong in the world and needs changing, sooner rather than later.
Dr. Curtis Doebbler is an international lawyer and professor of international law who has been attending the World Social Forum meetings for over a decade.