People’s General Assembly 2014: A Political Report

Sunday 12 October 2014

Date: 10 October 2014

Type: News


Keywords: Post-2015, Development Justice


9 October 2014 — Last Sept. 24, the Campaign for People’s Goals for Sustainable Development, IBON International, the Asia Pacific Women for Law and Development, the Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-determination and Liberation, and the Women’s Environment and Development Organization successfully held the second People’s General Assembly (PGA) at First Presbyterian Church, New York. The first PGA was initiated last Sept. 21, 2013 at Foley Square Park, New York.

The PGA serves as an alternative space where those most impacted by development policies and routinely ignored by states and negotiators are able to illustrate the real impact of existing development frameworks. It also helps communities and peoples situated in different contexts and histories to establish links with one another for global solidarity against unjust policies and practices of governments pursued in the name of development.

In last year’s PGA, the Campaign for Peoples Goals adopted “Development Justice”: an approach to development that aims to eliminate the structural roots of inequalities in wealth, power and resources between countries, between rich and poor, and between men and women. Development Justice places people – that is the majority poor and the marginalized – at the front and centre of development, as the primary agents and subjects of change.

This year over 110 participants from various civil society organizations, grassroots groups and individuals gathered once more to help build public pressure on governments around the need for a transformative, equitable, sustainable and just development; raise public awareness about the ongoing intergovernmental negotiations for a new UN development agenda; and strengthen global solidarity and collective strategies amongst people’s movements engaged in the struggle for development justice.

Summary of Key Messages

The 2014 PGA brought together a wide array of activists from different parts of the world to share struggles and lend their support for a new development framework under the banner of ‘Development Justice.’

A total of nine activists narrated their respective stories and struggles. From the Philippines, to Nepal, Manipur to Papua New Guinea; from Nigeria to Latin America; from indigenous peoples, women, migrants, peasants and food producers, and many other marginalized sectors, the participants reaffirmed their shared conviction to take justice and reclaim sustainable development as a process defined and set by the people and for the people.

Speakers included Agnes Kanaka, one of the world’s first environmental refugees from the sinking Carteret Islands. The Carteret atolls have been inundated by rising tides as a result of climate change, deep sea mining and the atolls’ topography, forcing them to migrate to Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.

“Our loss is not an accident. We believe our islands have been lost because of climate change and resource extraction. We did not cause the world to warm. We did not over-fish, over-log or try and become rich. But we are paying the price for those in the world who did,” Kanaka said.

A similar demand for justice was echoed by Efleda Kempis-Bautista, head of People Surge, an alliance of survivors of the devastating Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. This massive storm destroyed homes, communities and livelihoods in the country. One year later, 14,500 still live in tent cities and rely on relief goods, as public services and government aid for the rebuilding of homes has been slow to come.

“The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already raised the red flag. Developing countries like the Philippines will remain on the receiving end of Haiyan-like catastrophes over the next century. This is unacceptable,” Bautista warned.

She urged the UN and governments to set strong targets for significant emission cuts and enforce a new mechanism to ensure adequate financial and technological assistance to poor nations as compensation for the loss caused by existing level of greenhouse emissions by rich countries.

“This not an appeal for charity. This is a matter of equity and justice. We typhoon Haiyan survivors are suffering losses and damage from the climate crisis caused by rich industrialized countries,” Bautista said.

From Guatemala, veteran human rights campaigner and founder of Asociación Raxch’och’ Oxlaju Aj (AROAJ) , an organization to advance indigenous people’s rights and welfare, Norma Maldonado highlighted the struggles of indigenous communities against the massive land-grabbing, human rights violations, and the monopolization of seeds and plant life by foreign agro-transnational corporations and the Guatemalan government. She cited the recently rescinded Plant Varieties Protection Bill, also touted as “Monsanto Law” due to the multinational company’s direct hand in promoting the bill in many Latin American countries, as a concrete example of the growing threat posed to food sovereignty, identity, and rights of indigenous communities and peoples all over the world amidst the corporatization of agriculture, privatization of biodiversity through intellectual property rights and land grabbing.

“There is a lot of talk about the need to end poverty and hunger, but we rarely hear solutions to address the wider and structural factors that cause and perpetuate poverty such as unequal land distribution, deep rooted inequalities, racism.

“Instead, solutions being advanced by international multilateral institutions including the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and World Trade Organization propose accelerating biotechnology, more GMOs, more laws for Monsanto to continue dominate the world’s food and agriculture systems. This is not surprising given the influence wielded by corporations in the current post-2015 negotiation,” Maldonado said.

From the occupied territory of Manipur, journalist, environmentalist, indigenous people’s rights activist and Centre for Research and Advocacy Manipur (CRAM) secretary-general Jiten Yumnam discussed the enforcement of mega-dams by the Indian government in indigenous territories in North East India and the state of militarization that is exacerbating the human rights violations of both women and men including the youth and children.

Representing migrants from Central Americas and Mexico, Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano executive coordinator Marta Sanchez Soler situated the rising migration to North America of peoples from the Latin American and the Caribbean regions within the context of pervasive underdevelopment, extreme inequality and violence in their home countries. Elvira Arellano, a Mexican citizen who has become a symbol of undocumented migrants in the US shared her personal struggles in demanding to be reunited with her son with whom she was separated after being deported from the country by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Los Angeles. She now heads the organization La Familia Latina Unida – Sin Fronteras (Latina Family United – Without Borders) which supports families divided by mass deportations in the U.S. and Central American immigrants detained or affected by the violence in Mexico.

“The situation that we, migrants from Latin America, are living in is very difficult. Barrack Obama promised to initiate immigration reforms, but under his presidency deportations have increased and 1,000 migrants are deported every day. When I was deported, they asked me if I was afraid to go back to Mexico. Of course, I wasn’t but things have not changed. We still face increasing violence, poverty and hunger. Current policies violate immigrant parents’ parental rights and compromise our children’s well-being. We will keep fighting until no families are separated,” Elvira said in her speech.

Meanwhile, Alina Sabba, an indigenous woman from Nepal and one of the four civil society representatives selected from more than 500 applications to speak at the UN Climate Summit, raised that climate change is essentially a social justice issue.

“Indigenous women in the remotest parts of Nepal produce close to zero carbon emissions yet they are paying the highest price for other countries consumption. Are their lives to be continually surrendered to fulfill insatiable needs for consumption and profit?” she asked.

Sabba shared her work in Nepal, in partnership with the Asia-Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD), in building indigenous women’s resilience in the face of climate change and promoting inclusive governance at both local and national levels.

Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People’s president Saro Pyagbara spoke about the struggle for justice and indemnification of the Ogoni indigenous peoples in Nigeria affected by Royal Dutch Shell’s operation. The efforts of Ogoni peoples to demand justice for the human rights violations —including the extra-judicial killing of Ogoni leaders, violation of Ogoni peoples’ to self-determination and environmental destruction – continue to fall on deaf ears of the giant oil company and the Nigerian government.

Pyagbara argued that the United Nations and governments must take concrete steps to prevent a future tragedy similar to Ogoni and proposed enhanced corporate monitoring and accountability mechanisms both at the national and international levels.

“Corporate personhood and rights are continuously being expanded in many present free trade agreements. Such rights given to corporations should come with a reciprocal duty to address claims directed at them from victims of human rights abuses, like the Ogoni,” he added.

Wrapping up the program, secretary general Vernie Yocogan-Diano urged the participants to bring back the vibrance created in the assembly to their respective organizations and movements, share and coordinate actions thru the Campaign for People’s Goals for Development Justice and create more spaces in amplifying grassroot voices and others who seek development justice.

“We do not struggle as individuals but we struggle as movements. We struggle not in isolation with each other but we struggle in solidarity and as one broad but solid movement to realize development justice. We ground our struggles in communities and in work places. It is important that we raise our local and national struggles to international level which is why the Campaign for People’s Goals for Development Justice was created by no other than movements. We see and welcome the setting up of other platforms that we can all be part of in fostering and advancing global solidarity of peoples to resist neoliberal globalization, militarization and fundamentalism,” she said.

Civil Society and People’s Movements Solidarity Various civil society organizations and people’s movements have thrown their support behind the People’s General Assembly. In a candle-lighting activity to cap the event, civil society organizations and people’s movements concurred that the People’s General Assembly and similar mass campaigns play an important role in amplifying the people’s voice and strengthening their claims in the post-2015 negotiations.

A representative from New York-based Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) reflected on how change can be most effectively made and the dialogical relationship of inside and outside official engagements.

“Where do we do the most change? How do we effect change? Can we be both inside the official process and outside the process at the same time? As I look around in this space, I think we can be responsible enough to take on the importance of people’s stories, of the real challenges that people are facing to work inside these official process because we need formal seats at the table so we won’t be left out, to make sure anti-people legislations are opposed. But we also need to have informal spaces like the People’s General Assembly to take those tables, turn them upside down and to eject them if we need to. We stand in solidarity with you to continue bringing people to streets to fight for change,” she said.

Marie L’Hostis of Action/2015 said that 2015 will be a big year not only because of the high-level events that will take place in relation to the next global development agenda to be defined in New York and the climate change negotiations to be held in Paris, but also because of the risks that the world will face if people’s demands are not met.

“We have been pushing for our advocacies for many years through our involvement in official processes. But that is not sufficient. We need to build a citizens’ movement. We need to ensure that actions take place in New York or Paris, but also on the streets, with people and citizens movements bringing our voices to the debate to make sure that next year is a big year for all of us,” she expressed.

For the Indigenous Peoples’ Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL), one of the main initiators of the event, the PGA contributes in generating knowledge, understanding and relationships between and among wide sections of people which will be a global common good within the wider development arena.

“The economic governance space is largely dominated by corporations. The UN is essentially a place where states consolidate themselves, and we are on the fringes of the talks on these halls. Indigenous peoples need to build up their organizations from the grassroots, where we draw our strength. The People’s General Assembly plays an important role in defining new issues and acts to transmit messages and ideas to and from the people, especially indigenous peoples’ and other marginalized communities,” IPMSDL’s Beverly Longid commented.

Speakers also elaborated on the concept of “Development Justice” as an alternative development framework to bring about transformative and just change for post-2015.

Mishy Singano from OXFAM International expounded on Development Justice as deeply linked with women’s struggle against patriarchy, understood not simply on the level of culture, but as a form of injustice permeating the levels of the social, economic and political.

“Development Justice cannot be separated from gender justice. This is one and the same thing. And we really have to read Development Justice from the angle of gender justice. Looking at the statistics we see the following picture: women are the most affected by climate change; women comprise the majority of the world’s poor; women make up the majority of people engaged in precarious working conditions. Development Justice is a powerful response to the woman question,” she explained.

Paul Quintos of IBON International, meanwhile, emphasized the universality of Development Justice that brings together people from different parts of the world with their different struggles and advocacies.

“Development Justice as an aspiration for an alternative mode of development is a powerful theme for bringing groups together, whether they are fighting for gender justice, for ecological justice, for economic justice, for social justice, redistribution and accountability to people. Development Justice is not simply a framework for engagement in official UN processes. It is primarily fought on the ground, in the concrete struggles of the oppressed and exploited peoples on the ground,” he said.

The other organizations that gave their solidarity messages were the Asia-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), Comité de América Latina y el Caribe para la Defensa de los Derechos de la Mujer (CLADEM), CIVICUS, People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning, and the Association for Women’s Rights and Development (AWID).

“The call for us is to advance development justice–a transformative development framework that aims to reduce inequalities of wealth, power, and resources between countries, between rich and poor, and between men and women. It is a development framework that places people – that is the majority poor and the marginalized – at the front and center of development. It is a paradigm for development that upholds people as the primary agents and subjects of change. Development justice upholds that development will, and should be designed and adapted in response to the aspirations of the people and their available resources (self-determined sustainable development for indigenous peoples), and not imposed by technocrats and so-called high-level experts for all time and for all peoples,” People’s General Assembly secretary general Vernie Yocogan-Diano concluded.

Intersecting Struggles: From the Local to the Global Today, there is a manifest crisis of inequality operating across all spheres of life, expressed through vast differences in people’s political, economic, social or cultural status, their access to rights, the material outcomes of, for example, their labor, their access to equal opportunities across all spheres, and, indeed the degree to which internationally agreed human rights standards are equitably respected, protected and fulfilled within and between countries.

Amidst the raging economic, political and environmental crises besetting the world today, a glimmer of hope shines through. People are eagerly exploring new ideas and perspectives on how the world and its resources should be managed and allocated. An emerging consensus in these struggles and debates is the need for a world founded on the values of equality, justice, democracy and respect for human rights.

Participants at the PGA are convinced that the post-2015 global development agenda should address the entrenched structural roots that breed and reinforce the control and dominance of a wealthy minority over the poor majority, violence against women, marginalization of indigenous peoples, migrants, the youths, and the disabled, and the wanton destruction of Mother Nature.

While each of the campaigns featured at the PGA have their own specific focus and local dynamics, they all spoke of redistributive justice, economic justice, social and gender justice, environmental justice and accountability to people – the five transformative shifts of development justice. This demonstrates how Development Justice serves as the overarching narrative that links the different stories of communities and peoples across borders. It affirms the universal demand of people for justice and democracy amidst the increasing concentration of wealth, power and resources in the hands of the few.

The PGA also provided a platform for raising international political support for grassroots struggles. INGOs and CSOs expressed solidarity and support for the local campaigns and initiatives of featured groups at the PGA, opening doors for future joint advocacy projects and partnerships. We have also enhanced media coverage for leaders, organizations and their campaigns outside their own countries via online news and social media sites.

At the same time, the PGA links these local initiatives to an international campaign of global import. After all, in our current globalized world, many inter-connected issues need coordinated global action. Global commitments and policies perform a key role in influencing, building and reinforcing change at the national level. Realizing that the problems that each sector faces are part and parcel of the larger problems of inequality and injustice inherent in the global system, it is imperative therefore that citizen movements become more united and proactive in creating a world that works for all.

And this is what the People’s General Assembly has attempted to accomplish in its two-year stint. By providing a vehicle for speakers and organizations engaged in their respective national campaigns, the PGA rendered more palpable and concrete the truth about the current system we are all living in, while at the same time enabling national organizations to contextualize their experiences within the bigger struggle for a just and people-centred global development agenda.

Hence the PGA was timed strategically around the UN Climate Summit, the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples and the Opening of the UN General Assembly Session, allowing the PGA speakers to also participate and interact with officials from various countries and international institutions attending these events.

On 23 Sept. at the UN Climate Summit, Alina Sabba was chosen as one of the four civil society speakers drawn form an open application process that attracted more than 500 applications. As the sole speaker from Asia, she brought to attention to the destructive impact of climate change in the region but particularly to the impact on the most marginalized – indigenous women.

Norma Maldonado, representing the Mayan indigenous peoples of Guatemala also gave an intervention at the UN WCIP. The conference was attended by some 2,200 indigenous peoples from 100 countries.

“It was worth it not because of the UN alone but because of the parallel activities initiated by indigenous peoples themselves,” she said.

Indigenous peoples leaders from IPMSDL helped co-organize various events during the WCIP and the Climate Summit. Dubbed as “Maximizing and Creating Spaces: An Interactive Learning for Indigenous Peoples during the UN WCIP and Climate Summit,” the activities were a series of learning and exchanges, and protest actions held outside the UN that aimed at consolidating and planning ways to advance the indigenous people’s grassroots movement for self-determination and popularize alternatives of equity and development justice. Finally, on September 21, they joined the 400,000-strong People’s Climate March, the biggest climate march in world history.

Bringing the voices of grassroots into the halls of the UN and other official post-2015 processes is crucial in letting them realize that people are actively involved in these processes and are calling for a just and transformative change. Additionally, taking advantage of these high level and high profile events provides opportunities for peoples’ movements to send out their messages to the wider public.

Ways Forward

We have made significant inroads in popularizing Development Justice as an alternative framework for post-2015 both within civil society circles, people’s organizations, governments and UN bodies. The Asia-Pacific Research Network (APRN) recently held the Biennial Asia Pacific Conference on Development Justice: Building a People’s Transformative Post-2015 Development Agenda. The faith-based NGO Churches Witnessing With Migrants has published a book titled “The Intersections of Migration, Human Rights and Development Justice.” Last August, Kate Lappin of APWLD was invited to outline the concept of Development Justice to Asia-Pacific governments at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) during the Commission’s 70th annual session.

Currently, there are discussions on holding PGA annually as the progressive alternative to the UN General Assembly. It will be interesting to see the potential contribution this project holds in helping civil society and people’s movements in expanding public awareness, enlarging our constituency for transformational change, reframing of the terms of the debate, and tilting the balance of power to achieve Development Justice.###

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