Viewpoint by Simone Galimberti
Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths living with disabilities. Opinions expressed are personal.
KATHMANDU (IDN) — Amid a constellation of special commemorative days highlighting issues of global concerns, there are three, though officially unrelated to each other, share a common thread.
I am referring to Mandela Day, International Day of Democracy and Martin Luther King Day, each respectively celebrated on July 18, September 15, and the 3rd week of January of every year.
With Mandalay Day and Martin Luther King Day, the latter known as MLK Day, are a tribute to two modern history’s icons, both focused on civil and political rights of those who were then second- or third-class citizens, it is essential to focus democracy, a system, at least theoretically, capable of ensuring dignity and equality to all.
That’s why it was a paramount moment for the United Nations when, under the leadership of President Corazon C. Aquino of the Philippines and inspired by People’s Power Revolution there, a resolution of the General Assembly, back on December 13, 2007, decided to observe a day “to promote and consolidate new or restored democracies”.
This is how International Democracy Day was born.
Yet yearning for democracy is not an end in itself but rather it is part of a broader effort to achieve social justice, the thread that binds these three commemorations. Claimed by many, social justice is often elusive and distant, so out of reach that citizens get disillusioned and frustrated with governments, unable to provide for it.
The state’s incapacity to assure the fulfillment of its duties in terms of equality and empowerment, two key preconditions for people’s ability to develop their agency and claim for their rights, essential for social justice, is at the center of the ongoing discussions on the feeble state of democracy worldwide.
Dr. Martin Luther King, and many of his civil rights peers in the USA, always linked the quest for political and civil rights with the overarching goal of ensuring Afro-Americans could live with dignity and respect.
For sure, it was a political battle, the right to vote, still a very real issue these days in the USA but then as now, it is much more than ensuring equal franchise and equal political rights.
As in the case of Nelson Mandela for black South Africans, Dr. King wanted a system, not only politically but also socio-economically, where Afro-Americans could thrive and live to the fullest of their capacities and abilities.
In an unfair and deeply unjust context with unequal power relations, Dr. King claimed for special measures, “special, compensatory measures” in jobs, education and other realms” as he wrote in “Why Can’t We Wait”, one of his magisterial writings published in 1963. Yet talking about compensation or affirmative legislation is becoming more and more divisive and polarizing.
It is surely so in the United States of America, but similar patterns are to be found in any conversation about exploitation and abuses committed by the powerful towards the oppressed, peoples, their cultures, and their smashed civilizations.
Both in the case of colonialism and with it, one of the most dehumanizing “commercial” byproducts, slavery, we are nowhere near a general consensus about the moral urgency to do something to acknowledge and reverse past injustices and crimes.
Perhaps the only ray of hope is the settlement, still very controversial and disputed, that Germany decided to pay to Namibia for the atrocities, committed between the 1904 and 1908, a human carnage classified as genocide.
Yet also in this case, we are talking about a ridiculously low amount, a pure symbolic 1.1 billion euro over 30 years.
Yet as important readdressing past injustices could have been and still can be, the focus of Dr. King and Nelson Mandela was not just the pursuit of tools that would have guaranteed a role as equal for their own people. It was a much deeper struggle to transform the system, not just the accommodation of millions of dispossessed and disenfranchised into a system deeply flawed at its roots.
The end goal was to create a new order, a new social contract.
Social justice was at the base of this vision, and it was at the centre of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela’ civil strife and interestingly, in both cases, their attention on their domestic issues, did not preclude them from embracing it beyond their nations’ borders.
In the case of the former, his contest focused on uplifting black Americans was tied to the resistance to unequal power relations and injustices outside the USA.
Dr. King, rejecting the status quo within the USA, was at the same time striving for a battle for civil and political rights aimed at creating a better and more just world.
“We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu,” Dr. King writes in a chapter of Where Do We go From Here: Chaos or Community.
“Equality with whites will not solve the problems of either whites or Negroes if it means equality in a world society stricken by poverty and in a universe doomed to extinction by war.”
Human rights, people’s empowerment, income equality and fair opportunities, these are all pillars of the just society everywhere.
It is a society that puts a premium on the pursuit of a common good that shines because it is underpinned by social justice, and it is powered by people’s desire to be part of the change.
It is hard to find, even in the so-called liberal democracies, political systems that are truly centred on the people’s rights to participate.
This is one of the most overlooked aspects of the global human rights blueprint.
Yet achieving and implementing citizens’ rights, of political, economic and societal nature, the same rights that we normally associate to Dr. King and Nelson Mandela’s life journeys, cannot really happen unless the citizens reclaim their space to participate and their right to be involved.
We are wrong if we think there is only few ways to get in the “arena” and just few can enter it.
Instead, there are many ways to involve as many persons as possible, including volunteering your time, energies, and skills on the ground to help those most in need.
Very close to it and aligned in purpose and aims, in what it is a continuum it is activism, an effort to bring systematic change through better policies.
These are some of the starting points of a journey towards higher and better forms of people’s participation.
Citizens of the world need to step up.
Better and more inclusive decision making, enabling progressive public policies must come through people’s realization that participation is a goal but at the same time, a means to achieve social justice.
A true democratic system is one able to realize people’s aspirations, especially those of the left behind, not as a gift from above but as a common quest involving everyone.
As Dr. King said “now is the time to make real the promises of democracy”.
Only a new framework where everyone is encouraged and inspired to participate will enable the changes Dr. King and Nelson Mandela demanded.
These are still the changes we are all still desperately in need of. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 January 2022]
Photo credit: The King Centre
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