The Culture of the Civic Space

The Ministers of Culture of the Council of Europe met last April. The Conference of INGOs was also invited and the undersigned had the honour to share some remarks. Here follow the main tenets of that contribution.

The word Culture has countless definitions but it is most commonly used in three basic senses 

  • Excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture;
  • An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning;
  • The set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.

Allow me to continue with the last commonly used sense, the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group. With that in mind let us look at this broad, basic framework of culture, indeed, as the title of today’s deliberations suggest – the area where creativity and cultural heritage belong – that of the Civic Space in our societies. That is what I would like to reflect with you about the Culture of the Civic Space.

Does this Civic Space have Culture – as the above definition suggests – these sets of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices? Or is it only opposing attitudes, conflicting values and no goals worth living for? Or are the choices inherent in attitudes, values and goals challenged to the degree that they are threatened or inexistent? This may sound like rhetoric, but this has been and is part of the reality today.  

A citizen’s petition for Responsible Multinationals is handed over to the Swiss Federal Chancellery.

After the Civil War in Lebanon, a journalist/author from Europe went there wanting to understand what had happened and why. He spent a long time interviewing ex-killers, wanting to know if these things were only possible far away from us, or if on the contrary, these were things inside us and if it could happen here. One of his findings was that every society has some level of culture, which either gets eroded or it can be enhanced. What factors act on the erosion, what factors will enhance this level of culture? 

Here we can make the connection to the Culture of the Civil Space: Is it thriving or is it shrinking? 

To figure this out is not so hard, since we have the Charter for Human Rights. And for instance, we can tell when Journalists get in trouble if they investigate, or if minorities are under pressure, or if Justice loses its impartiality. The list can be prolonged. 
But until now it seems to have been harder to understand the consequences of a shrinking or a threatened Civic Space. With a high level of certainty, we can conclude that the shrinking or a threatened Civic Space is the fore-runner of much worse things to come. So, therefore it is worth implementing strategies to enhance it. 

The Committee of Ministers Meeting in Helsinki on 17 May 2019 has made some decisions, they are even more relevant today: Very briefly, to strengthen the participation of Civil society organizations, strengthen the protection of Human Rights defenders and to invite NGOs to regular exchanges with the various CoE bodies. 

At the level of the Conference of International NGOs we have recently done our own upgrading to be fit for purpose. So, the scene is set, we look forward to working for the common good, to serve those who have entrusted us with the task of building, as today’s title goes, the diverse and democratic Europe. 

Christoph Spreng, CINGO Vice-President

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