Over 400 Democrats United in Senegal—World Movement’s Dakar Assembly

May 16, 2018

The Ninth Global Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy was held from May 6-9 in Dakar, Senegal under the theme, “Building Strategic Partnerships for Democratic Renewal.” Each day featured discussions on how to enhance or defend different facets of democracy, from combatting disinformation through digital innovation to encouraging alternative ideas through art activism. Below, find the highlights of discussions held throughout the Assembly. Make sure to check out #DakarAssembly on Twitter to learn more about the Assembly experience.

Building Democratic Institutions

Recently, democrats have expressed concern about increased apathy towards democratic institutions and representatives, the product of a growing sense of disconnect with democratic processes. Rachid Ghannouchi, co-founder of Tunisia’s Ennahdha Party, emphasized in his keynote address that: “for state institutions to be strong, they must enjoy legitimacy, which means they must reflect the society they serve… [with] constant dialogue between all parties-NGOs, religious leaders, and institutions.”

Parliamentarians echoed this sentiment in our “Role of Parliamentarians for Democratic Renewal” plenary session, noting that if government representatives make the effort to build a relationship with constituents, this effort will in turn strengthen institutions and improve public confidence. In her keynote address, Isatou Touray, Minister of Trade, Regional Integration, and Employment of The Gambia, noted that only when opposition party members included civil society members in efforts to build a coalition against the longstanding, repressive president of 22 years were they able to unseat him through democratic processes.

While many fear for the state of democracy today, Karen Bass, a member of the US House of Representatives, reminded participants: “democracy is a journey, not a destination…[and] you cannot take democratic progress for granted.”

Strengthening Democratic Unity

Throughout the Assembly, participants and speakers definitively agreed on one matter: democrats must extend the olive branch to groups that have largely been excluded from democratic dialogues. As authoritarian governments increasingly attempt to polarize “traditional values” and ideals of democracy, panelists from the “Integrating Democratic Values with Traditional Culture and National Identity” plenary session noted that democrats should make concerted efforts to include religious communities in conversations about democracy. Religious leaders are effective communicators with high levels of trust, and by initiating this dialogue, democrats will be able to bring more stakeholders to the table.

In the “Art+Activism=Artivism,” workshop, speakers implored organizations to recognize the transformative potential of art as a form of protest for those who don’t engage in traditional democratic processes. To this effect, the World Movement hosted a concert of West African musicians who have used their platform to encourage awareness of and engagement on social issues. Additionally, in one of the highly-anticipated “Lightning Talks,” Daniel Milo of GLOBSEC discussed his organization’s initial failures to engage youth in discussions about online disinformation. Seeing that usual methods would not work, Milo turned to two famous YouTubers to reach youth in Slovakia with his message—successfully. In order to reach these nontraditional groups, he said, “you must look for unorthodox communicators—YouTubers, online celebrities, pop stars, actors. Whatever works for you in your context and target group.” Watch his Lightning Talk here, beginning at 51:38.

Protecting the Information Space

In the final plenary session of the Ninth Global Assembly, a panel of digital media and journalism experts discussed how activists can take back the Internet as a forum for democratic engagement, rather than allowing the space to be overtaken by censorship and government control. While all panelists presented grim realities about the state of the Internet and the control authoritarians exert over the space in many regions, the speakers also provided a sense of hope as they discussed their institutional and personal initiatives to take back the Internet.

One speaker stressed that “human rights should be the foundation of cyber security, not an afterthought.” The international community must take a more active role in demanding access to the Internet for all, rather than choosing to ignore situations where countries restrict accessibility of online spaces. Watch the final plenary here.

Celebrating Courage and Expressing Solidarity

The Democracy Courage Tributes are a highlight of each Global Assembly and give special recognition to movements around the world working on behalf of democracy and human rights under particularly difficult circumstances. The Ninth Assembly honored:

Advocates for the Rule of Law in Africa

Thuli Madonsela, the former Public Protector of South Africa (2009-2016), accepted the Democracy Courage Tribute on behalf of democrats committed to holding government leaders accountable in Africa. She highlighted the hardship those who choose to fight against entrenched leaders face, saying, “my team and I felt that death threats were regular. People I once called my comrades joined the bandwagon.”

Human Rights Lawyers in China

The second Courage Tribute was awarded to Human Rights Lawyers in China, accepted by Jin Bianling, the wife of political prisoner Jiang Tianyong, who defended religious minorities, people with HIV/AIDS, and other vulnerable groups. Since the 2015 “709” crackdown, in which hundreds of human rights lawyers were arrested, these individuals have increasingly faced harassment, imprisonment, and physical harm by the government.

Nightcrawlers-Photojournalists in the Philippines

The Democracy Courage Tribute was accepted by Ezra Acayan and Raffy Lerma, two Manila-based photojournalists who have dedicated their careers to documenting extrajudicial killings in President Duterte’s war on drugs. “Some of us quit our full-time jobs to take this on. We receive death threats daily. However, we are committed to exposing the effect of the war on drugs on the poorest and most vulnerable people of the Philippines,” remarked Acayan.