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Americas’ civil society says no more “empty promises”

The much-anticipated 5th Summit of the Americas convenes at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on Friday evening, and a day before that meeting, corruption watchdogs of civil society have come out with a strong rebuke against leaders of the hemisphere, who, they say, have been slow to act on commitments they have made through the last 15 years of summits.
 
At a press briefing held this afternoon at the International Finance Center just beside the summit venue, Irene Klinger, Chilean economist and Director of the Department of International Affairs at the Organization of American States (OAS), informed that 250 to 300 people from civil society organizations across the hemisphere have been participating in two-day forums leading up to the summit.
 
But the stinging indictment came in the form of a bilingual document released to the international media today, which outlines assessments made by the Active Democracy Network for Governmental Compliance with Summits, captioned “The Summits Must Not End Up As Empty Promises.”
 
Simultaneously, the network released data that indicate that most of the 21 countries they have assessed have failed to follow through with commitments they have signed onto at the end of the hemispheric meetings. They now insist that the commitments made by heads of governments need to be translated into real benefits for the peoples of the Americas, especially in light of the lofty promises made by summit organizers that this grand meeting of leaders will mean a better life for them.
 
A Transparency International Release issued at the conference in Port of Spain says that, in regards to the implementation of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption (ICAC), 9 of the 21 countries assessed received a total of 249 recommendations, of which only 59% (148) were acted upon. But only 20% were found to have been sufficiently addressed. 
 
For 57% of countries, the results of the index were below zero, which members of the head table described as “very worrisome results.”
 
Francine Jacome, Active Democracy Network – Hemispheric Coordinator – Venezuelan Institute of Social and Political Studies, told the media that the network has been monitoring and doing follow-up assessments of compliance with the mandates for 12 years, and serious weaknesses were identified in the area of whistleblower protection and consultation with civil society, as well as in translating what is written in law into national policy and practice.
 
Klinger pointed out that a third of the people in the Americas – roughly 200 million – are poor, and 13% of them live in abject poverty.
 
There is the question of whether the happenings at this weekend’s Fifth Summit of the Americas will actually translate into action for those left behind in the trenches of poverty.
 
Despite these overarching concerns, civil society is still happy that some progress has been made in regards to their participation, as they are now able to put their issues directly on the table for governments to address.
 
They are pushing 3 important recommendations: the first is consolidating the participation of civil society in the entire summit process, including the implementation phase; the second is developing a strategy for civil society participation in the Inter-American system of governance, and the third is disseminating the agreements adopted at the summits to the over 600 civil society organizations in the hemisphere, which, they argue, will help improve the monitoring process.
 
Alejandro Salas, Director, Department of the Americas, of Transparency International and his colleague, Ximena Salazar, OAS Liaison Officer, Americas Anticorruption/ Conventions Programme for Transparency International, spoke about the almost endemic problem of corruption facing many countries in the Americas.
 
Salas noted that the least progress has been made in the areas of protection of whistleblowers, establishing oversight, international collaboration, and opening spaces for citizens’ participation.
 
Jacome said that 13 of 21 countries appeared to have made progress in providing access to information, but the reverse was true for fostering and protecting freedom of expression. In regards to the strengthening of civil society, 12 of 21 countries showed progress, and on decentralization of local governments, progress was observed in only 9 of 21. Uruguay showed the most progress, she added.
 
Of note is that of the 34 countries to be represented at this weekend’s summit, only 21 are covered by the assessments, and neither Belize nor the United States are included.
 
Even though it is clear that there are strong concerns on the part of civil society about the actions taken by governments to strengthen the whole democratic process, there is also the fact that there is no “big-stick” policeman to enforce anything or penalize countries for ignoring the commitments to which they fix their signatures. Jacome acknowledges that this is one of the main problems facing the region, but leaders who sign on to mandates are to be held accountable.
 
Salas says that one extremely important point to note is that organizations working at national level feel they have bigger muscle when a country has committed to something on paper. Individuals feel that the commitments that come out of the process are good for them, and give them the muscle they need to demand change.
 
According to Klinger, the financial crisis for sure will have an effect on the capacity of countries to meet the urgent task of reducing poverty, and even though ECLAC figures claim poverty has been reduced from 44% to a third in the Americas, there is still much work to be done, and the financial crisis will not help.
 
She said that extra effort is needed to address the issue, and special programs are needed to target the poor. But she also made the statement that there are people in our region who feel that democracy is not delivering for them.
 
Jacome says that at the national level, people need to start demanding that national governments act to fulfill their requirements and meet their mandates.
 
It’s not over yet. On Friday, civil society reps meet with the Foreign Ministers of OAS member states attending the Port of Spain Summit. The ministers will also be meeting with representatives of youth, the private sector, indigenous peoples, and labor.
 
The big question they now have is whether the pace of progress will speed up with the added push from a more aggressive civil society movement.
 
At the opening of the forum this week, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, praised civil society for its “indispensable role” when he officially opened the summit, which was convened aboard the Carnival Victory cruise ship, where some of the several thousand summit guests flooding Trinidad are also staying.
 
An official Summit release says that according to Manning, “…without civil society’s presence in the hemisphere, many in need of care and compassion may not have been comforted, while others who faced misfortune may have been denied support.”
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