Mobilizing Political Will
Trying to Save the World in Helsinki, and saunas too
I normally send out reports about things directly connected to Israel and Israeli-Palestinian relations, but this time I'm reporting about my experience at the pre-UN Global Summit Helsinki Conference, that took place a week ago. Don't worry, there are references to the Middle East as well. one day I'll actually have a blog, but meanwhile this will have to do.
Trying to Mobilize Global Political Will in Helsinki
A week before the world's leaders met in New York for the UN Global Summit, I spent three intense days in the Finnish capital at the Helsinki Conference, together with 700 other delegates from 79 countries. Inspired by the original Helsinki Process in the mid-70s which produced the Helsinki Charter, empowered human rights groups in Eastern Europe, and became a building block towards the end of the Cold War, Helsinki Process 2 focused on globalization and democracy, trying to promote what the organizers called "Mobilizing Political Will."
And just who were the organizers? The Finnish and Tanzanian governments, a joint North-South cooperative effort, though clearly it was the Finnish government, the hosts, who covered the costs and provided the organizational infrastructure.
I was extremely impressed by the Finnish hosts, beginning with the ever-present Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja and the female President Tarja Halonen, both of whom are members of the Social Democratic Party. The FM spoke about the Nordic Welfare State model as an alternative to rampant free-market capitalism and as a potential cure for the world's ills. I was told by Kalevi Suomela, chair of the Finnish peace movement, that he's the only FM who wears a peace badge on his lapel. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, a conservative, was clearly less comfortable at the forum, but he too emphasized the importance of North-South cooperation, reducing the gap between haves and have-nots, and the importance of building a strong and more egalitarian international system. When I wondered out loud whether he was hampered by his weak English, some of the Finns said that he also has a very dry style in Finnish, "and that's part of his charm."
The Tanzanian co-organizers also played a very prominent role, particularly Deputy Foreign Minister Abdulkader Shareef, who made some very wise and pragmatic comments. I had the opportunity to have a serious conversation with Tanzanian activist Jack Steven Gotham, Chairman of the Great Lakes Youth Peace Committee. He was very concerned that the MDGs would be shot down by the Americans, which would cause great anger and frustration in the South. I had to admit that had never heard of MDGs before, which just goes to show that living in Israel, and not regularly participating in UN-connected frameworks, I simply wasn't in the loop. For those like me who aren't in the know, MDGs are the eight Millennium Development Goals that were decided upon at the UN Millennium Summit Conference in 2000, that were later accepted by the World Economic Forum, the World Social Forum and the G8. The MDGs are a "road map" to extract the world from poverty, provide education, gender equality, civil empowerment, etc. And I thought that only we in the Middle East had a "road map."
The inclusive approach of the organizers was very effective. A two year multi-track Helsinki Process led up to the Helsinki Conference, whose goal was to create a "new and bold global vision for promoting global security and development in a way that addresses the root causes of poverty, violence and despair." It also called for the creation of "a new global social compact (that) would recognize the responsibilities of different society actors." The catchphrase for this was "multi-stakeholders." Thus both the process and the conference were composed government officials, parliamentarians, NGO leaders and activists, media people, people from the corporate and faith communities, and also a very vocal youth delegation.
If anyone was missing, it wasthe Americans, particularly representatives of the current administration. Some of the few delegates from the U.S. were actually Asians and Africans who are based in the States. The only American who spoke in a plenary session and who was a member of the process was Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institute in Washington and a former Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration. He said that the current administration had embarked on a five year "experiment" in unilateralism, which broke from the essentially multilateral path of the 11 previous American presidents. He believed that the mess in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina will lead to a reevaluation of this approach. It did not surprise me that the one other American I heard, Ann Florini, also from the Brookings Institute, chose to emphasize two points: the importance of fighting corruption and corporate responsibility.
In general, the problem of corruption and the need for transparency were very prominent at the conference. one of the primary terms in use was the importance of achieving "human security," which includes both the elimination of poverty and all its ills ("Make Poverty History"), and the traditional concept of individual and national security.
No one at the Helsinki Conference was trying to turn back the clock on globalization.
It was a given that globalization is part of our reality, and the emphasis was on ensuring "fair globalization," which will create an international arrangement of checks and balances.
As an Israeli, it was refreshing to attend a conference where the Middle East and Israel were not on the agenda. The only time that Israel was mentioned in a plenary session was when Prince Hassan of Jordan ("I wasn't elected to my position, so I'm trying to make the best use of it for the sake of mankind as possible) mentioned the country in a passing anecdote. He said that "when we talk about identities, I guess I should be called an Asian Arab, my Egyptian colleagues should be called African Arabs, and the Israelis, well, every other day they decide what they want to be called."
That's all. The Deputy Egyptian Foreign Minister did make a comment from the floor about the importance of dealing with the problem of nuclear proliferation a known Egyptian position but he didn't mention Israel by name. The only other time I heard Israel mentioned in any session was when I referred to the Palestine-Israel Journal in the media session, and to the important Israeli and Palestinian documentary films that are being made and are shown both at the three Israeli cinemateques and on Israeli TV.
I did use the conference to try to promote international involvement in the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace. I used an opportunity to speak with Foreign Minister Tuomioja to call for a more active EU involvement in promoting the road map for peace in the Middle East. Now was the time, I said, after the successful disengagement from Gaza opened a window of opportunity, and before the lack of a political horizon will lead the Palestinians towards a renewal of the intifada. This is when the Europeans, as full-partners with the Americans, the Russians and the U.N. in the road map's "Quartet," should take the initiative. His response was that since both the Israelis and the Palestinians were facing elections, it would be very difficult to promote any new international initiatives. However, he promised that next time Finland will have the chairmanship of the rotating European leadership he will act to move things forward.
I also tried my luck with Alexander Kramarenko, Director of the Foreign Policy Planning Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry. I said, Russia is one of the four components of the Quartet. Why don't you try to influence the Americans to become more proactive in trying to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian peace? His response –
"Did you ever meet (new US Ambassador to the UN) John Bolton? He thinks the Americans are the only one's who count." In Kramarenko's view, nothing can move forward while the Bush administration is in power. The partners to the Quartet and the international community in general, have no alternative but to wait till 2008, and to hope that a different American administration is elected.
Here I agree with Poul Nielson, a former Danish minister and European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Affairs, who said at a session on the EU in Global Affairs, that Europeans don't really know how to engage the Americans, how to enter into a constructive dialogue with all of the players in Washington, in Congress, the Administration, etc. It's either wait till 2008, or at least give it a try.
That would be my recommendation to the organizers of the Helsinki Process that they send a post-conference delegation to Washington to try to communicate the concerns and resolutions of the conference to the multi-stakeholder powers that be in Washington, in the hope that they can have an impact.
Every chance encounter at such a conference is a story in itself. Just a few of the many people I met were: Anuradha Mittal, the Indian Executive Director of the new progressive Oakland Institute research center, set up "in the belly of the beast" to try to influence American policy, Naeem Mohaiemen from Bangaladesh (Shobak), a digital activist and artist who sends out regular bulletins about discrimination against Moslems and articulate youth activist Clare Davidson (YouthLinkOrg), who had just completed two years in Brazil.
And as Mary Robinson, the former Irish President and UN Human Rights Commissioner, who was a prominent participant in the process and conference said, "long after we'll forget the speeches, we'll remember the two performances by the youth troupe (calling for the rights of youth) and the wonderful all women Philomela Choir." The Finnish choir sang beautiful a cappella renditions of works by female Finnish composer. In one very melodramatic work, the singers were obviously in mock agony, pulling their hair, etc. When I asked one of the Finns sitting next to me what they were singing about, she said "Women's dilemmas of being hungry when they're on a diet." As Cora Weiss frequently says, you can't have a revolution without having fun.
In general, there was music in the air, and I spent every evening at the Storyville Jazz Club, five minute between my bed and breakfast (they call it a family hotel) and the Finlandia Conference Hall. With photos of Louis Armstrong on the wall, and thoughts of the fate of New Orleans in the background, I saw and listened to some wonderful Finnish jazz and rhythm and blues. And on Friday night even saw some Finns unwind and loosen up from their normal restrained selves - with the help of the music and some good Finnish beer.
And a warm thank you to Kalevi Suomela for a personal political guided tour of Helsinki, replete with descriptions of how Finland historically maneuvered between the Germans, Russians and Swedes, the humming of a Sibelius work at the ultra-modern memorial in honor of the Finnish national composer, and of course the hospitality of a mandatory Finnish sauna, shower, beer and all, at his suburban home before dinner.
Apparently, once when Nikita Kruschev was making a state visit to Finland, he was invited by the then Finnish prime minister to join him in his sauna. The Soviet Premier obliged, and according to local custom, disrobed and joined his host, a fact which created great consternation in KGB circles who were afraid that he might be photographed and become liable to extortion.
To close this report with a musical joke which Mary Robinson said is lovingly popular in Ireland: "What's the difference between Bono and God? God doesn't think he's Bono." She then described with great admiration seeing him (Bono) perform in Brussels, asking the audience to take out their cell-phones to send a message to European leaders, and then projecting their names and numbers on a large screen, creating an immediate sense of activist inclusion. That's digital activism for you.
or as I was listed in the program
Press Consultant, Israeli IPPNW (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War).
[IFLAC]Digest Number 1111, September 20, 2005