Samara Appears Before the UN in Santiago, Chile

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Happening Now Wednesday, June 21, 2017 View Count = 1874

Samara Appears Before the UN in Santiago, Chile

This blog post was written by Jane Hilderman, Samara Canada’s Executive Director, fresh from her first ever trip to the Chilean capital for a United Nations regional consultation on the right to participate in public affairs.

A few weeks ago, the telephone rang in the Samara office with a call from Geneva, Switzerland. It was the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – and their Democracy and Rule of Law section. They wanted to know if Samara Canada would speak at a regional consultation in Santiago, Chile, focused on the right to participate in public affairs, which is a part of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

This came as a bit of a surprise: Samara has never worked with the United Nations before; nor are we experts in human rights law! However, the individual assured us that they had spent considerable time on Samara’s website and that we were who they wanted. Oh – and one other detail – there would be nine other speakers, all from different countries in the Americas. Samara would be the only Canadian voice. Samara Canada, indeed!

When the United Nations politely asks for your help, it seems like the right thing to do is say yes. So, last week, I headed to wintery Santiago for two days of consultation. I was not entirely sure what I would encounter. In this blog, I share some of the insights that I gained.

A commemorative plaque outside the United Nations building in Santiago, inaugurated in August 1966


As I learned, the UN Human Rights Council has never mandated the Office of the High Commissioner to undertake a worldwide consultation before, so this was as new ground for them as it was for Samara.

For an event very much focused on the right to participate, I was puzzled initially by the fact that the only way to participate was to show up in person at a UN office in Santiago, Chile. There was no hashtag, no livestream... at least not yet. But I also learned that some of the hesitancy about openness was due to the fact that participants may be considered at risk of reprisals back home for speaking up about their country’s current record on things like the right to assemble, to associate, or to protest.

After five years of working with Samara, it became clear on this trip that I often take for granted the nature of my job. Yes, Samara exists because we believe Canada can do better when it comes to our democracy. We also exist because no one, such as the government, has stopped Samara from existing. As far as I know, I have never had my phone tapped, been surveilled, or been intimidated by the police for doing this work. This is not the case for some of the speakers from other countries that I met in Santiago.

Jane Hilderman with delegates from Brazil and Jamaica

But I also left Santiago feeling more hopeful about the Americas. I spend a lot of my energy and time thinking about Canadian politics. Any extra time seems to get absorbed by US politics these days. In some ways, I felt like I dived into a graduate seminar, instead of a consultation, given how much I learned as I listened to the perspectives provided by experts from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico and Peru.

Obviously, context differs from country to country, but many of the challenges about voting and citizen participation had a surprising universality in their tone. I take heart. If I travelled back in time twenty or thirty years, and the same countries were around the table, there would be less common ground. Democracies in Latin America are under stress too, but countries like Chile and Brazil are no longer ruled by dictatorships.

This means that Canada and Canadian organizations have more counterparts to talk with on the issue of getting governance right. This is not simply because Canada has expertise to share—there are more places and more people to look to for ideas and advice about public participation. That’s a very good thing.

Perhaps to illustrate my point, I made a list of thematic questions that different speakers raised and addressed throughout the two days of discussion. These are BIG questions, and incredibly relevant to Canada, too.

  • How do you ensure a feedback loop between government and citizens, when citizens participate in a consultation process? How can citizens know what happened to their input?
  • How do you make engagement and consultation initiatives less dependent on the political will of the government of the day?
  • How do you rebuild citizens’ trust in the political and governance process such that they are more motivated to participate in public affairs?
  • How do you remove systemic barriers, such as discrimination, to ensure everyone (especially women and those at greatest risk of marginalization) can participate, and have their voice heard?
  • How do you make elected office more diverse in a way that empowers rather than tokenizes minority perspectives?
  • How should the civil society sector work with government to propose, pass and implement policy without being seen to jeopardize critical independence?
  • How do you move from having information made accessible about government to a standard of user-friendly information?
  • How do you ensure citizens have the knowledge and skills to meaningfully participate – whether running for office, serving in office, getting ready to vote, or participating in a government consultation process?

What’s next?

A lot of suggestions for best and promising practices came forward in the consultations. Samara, for example, was asked specifically to speak about youth participation. As the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights moves on to consultations in other cities, such as Addis Ababa and Bangkok, they then face the challenging task of generating a set of guidelines for States to follow on the universal right to participate – which will be presented in September 2018. We’ll be following along and plan to share out the results.

Imposing over the circular consultation chamber, a remarkable array of flags from across the Americas

One of the images I won’t forget is the chamber we spent most of our time in: Flags from each country in the Americas, including the red and white maple leaf, forming an impressive and colourful backdrop. All flags are of equal size and hung in the same way. It is a powerful reminder of our equality as nations and people. The United Nations holds that space in a way that I have never really experienced before.

This novel experience has allowed Samara to recognize its leadership role internationally and to connect our work with an expanding effort to strengthen democracy worldwide.

On the Samara BlBlog logo representing the letter 'o'g