World Forum for Democracy — Strasbourg 2016

The following lines represent author’s reflections of the World Forum for Democracy organised by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on 7th — 9th November 2016. Topic of the 2016 session was ‘Democracy & equality: does education matter?’

The World Forum for Democracy 2016 was launched by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe (CoE), Thorbjørn Jagland, who together with Roland Ries, Mayor of the City of Strasbourg, welcomed the participants of the Forum by their opening speeches. The warm welcome was followed by key note speeches given by the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Minister of Education of France, who presented many of the issues the world is facing today. Among others, Erna Solberg claimed that one of the biggest challenges is to put more than 400,000 children who have currently no access to education to schools. According to her optimistic opinion, it should be accomplished over the span of one generation.

After the initial talks given by the high-rank figures, more plenary panels followed showing more specific problems in selected areas of democracy, equality and education. The main concern of the year 2016: “Does Education Matter?” was approached and answered from many different perspectives. Among them, the first day focused on human rights, rights of women and equality and their implications for world democracy. An important question risen during the discussion in regards to the Republic of Ireland was:

“Could countries that suppress rights of minorities be considered democratic?”

Participants of the Forum, many of them young leaders and representatives of the Association of School of Political Studies, such as the Visegrad School of Political Studies (VSPS), which I was associated with myself, also asked: “If there are any preconditions for democracy, such as security or socio-economic development and equality?” These questions and a variety of others were discussed among the representatives of the CoE member states, including the EU, Wider Europe, North America or the MENA region. The wide range of participants allowed us to approach the topics from different angles and reflect the national specifics of issues related to democracy, equality and education.

At the same time, the World Forum for Democracy clearly illustrated how important is to have the CoE today. The concepts of democracy, equality or education are now challenged every day by populism, demagogy, xenophobia or fundamentalism not only in Europe, but all over the world. Therefore, it is essential to have such an institution that is able to Think Big in its efforts to promote democracy, equality and accessible education for everyone around the globe.

What is more, the CoE now represents a very important forum for dialog among the nations of the West, Eurasia and the MENA region as well. Therefore, the World Forum for Democracy standing for the values and principles of the CoE served as a platform for discussions among countries having disputes. Through the people-to-people contacts, the CoE strived to overcome tensions between countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia and Ukraine or the V4 and the MENA region (represented by the Moroccan, Tunisian and Turkish schools of political studies). At the Forum, a number of open-minded people from different areas of the public life (e.g. business, NGO sector, public administration or politics) participated that certainly helped to have rational discussions with arguments, rather than emotional talks. For this reason, I consider the World Forum for Democracy as an especially important meeting that is able to facilitate the contacts and mutual understanding of both sides, including national positions or specific arguments.

Day 2

In comparison to the first day, the second one was much more individual and gave opportunity to discuss more specific issues on national agenda of the CoE member states.

One of the morning sessions was dedicated to the issue of corruption at the Ukrainian universities and empowerment of the young people in fighting it. Among the panel members, there were representatives of the Ukrainian NGO sector, e.g. youth activist Artem Marchuk, but also panellists from other European states (Italy, Serbia) that brought examples of good practice from their own countries. In the end, interesting mixture of ideas and concrete proposals was put together, including transparency measures, collective actions or personal examples. The initial talks were followed by remarks and comments from the audience bringing more examples of personal experience with the struggle against corruption, but also some comments illustrating how difficult is the situation in Ukraine nowadays. For example a question:

“How is it possible to fight corruption at the Ukrainian universities, if more than 40 per cent of the overall income in Ukraine is pay in envelopes and stay in the grey economy?”

However, eventually we agreed that the situation in Ukraine is not as bad as it is often presented that gave hope for improvement in future.

In the afternoon, the VSPS program brought us to the European Court of Human Rights, where we met the Czech lawyer with more than 20 years of experience with work for the institution. During the information session, we got to know the basic information on the organisation of the Court and its work, but also practical examples of ECHR rulings. For example, we got to know that the highest number of pending verdicts (18,000) are in regards to Ukraine and it is due to its non-fulfilment of the ECHR executions. These issues are mostly related to the financial problems that Ukraine has with provision of basic welfare transfers (e.g. pensions, social benefits) based on the overall bad economic situation in the country. Moreover, there is a number of cases associated with the current military conflict in the East of Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Second most represented country in this sense is Russia with 8,000 verdicts that are to large degree connected to the conflict in Chechnya and human-right-violations. Finally, during the last couple of years, the ECHR was able to decrease the total number of pending verdicts by half to 74,000, but it is still very overcrowded by applications.

Later in the afternoon, I attended a lecture dedicated to the topic of migration and refugees in the EU that was later followed by a story-telling with the award-winning blogger from Somalia/Malta, Farah Abdi. Farah Abdi was able to pass a message from the refugees fleeing their home countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and speak about the problems of LGBTQ community as well. The fascinating talk full of courage and passion was followed by a big applause. The audience really appreciated the openness and bravery that she had to show to survive the journey from Somalia to Malta, but also to cope with discrimination and xenophobia among the Maltese population. Even though she was put in prison six times, she did not lose any of the devotion to journalism and enthusiasm to live! At the Forum, she also presented her book ‘Never Arrive’ on the subject that was quickly sold out.

Day 3

On the closing day, the atmosphere was not sad, but rather enthusiastic and full of energy. The Forum helped to create many new friendships and contacts among the people from different CoE member states. The World Forum for Democracy also brought and spread many interesting ideas and provoked a lot of new thoughts that are going to be implemented afterwards. To mention just one, some of the participants, attracted by the idea of Democratic Education, promised to establish a new Democratic School in the V4 region, until nowadays untouched by the idea. Therefore, the Forum had also direct impact on lives in the CoE member states and their educational systems. Furthermore, the discussions showed that education is now more important than ever before and that hard work must be done to develop a modern educational systems that would prepare the young generation for the life in 21st century, developing skills such as critical thinking, fact-checking, effective networking or working in teams.

Very important part of the VSPS Migration Program in Strasbourg was the common session with schools of political studies from Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey allowing us as participant to exchange ideas with our counterparts from the MENA schools. The session was moderated by the directors of the schools who also decisively shaped its content. During the two-hour-long common session, many ideas and thoughts on the topic of migration were brought up from the participants as well as the directors. However, as the topic of migration is very broad and the problem sometimes not that easily grasped, the discussion flowed in different directions with no particular focus on one important issue. Nevertheless, the VSPS participants could hear many interesting ideas coming from the region struggling with migration much more than Europe. We could get to know the examples of good practice proposed by Morocco in its strategic plan how to integrate migrants. Morocco was also the country that got the furthest in terms of integration and acceptance of both migrants and refugees. Therefore, the V4 region could get inspired by its rather successful example. In addition to that, the common session was also very useful in order to get familiar with the different realities of the V4 and the MENA region today. After all, the participants from the MENA region were invited to Kraków in January 2017 to attend the conference dedicated to the topic of migration together with the VSPS. Positive reflections prevailed and the spirit of friendship continued even after this difficult topic was discussed.

At the closing ceremony, the heads of schools of political studies were given certificates for members of their delegations and the European anthem was played. In its second part, the closing ceremony allowed participants to take pictures and have a common memory with the Council of Europe Family. Afterwards, people had time to reflect their thoughts and ideas discussed during the Forum and further elaborate them individually.