What is civil society?
Civil society is composed of a variety of elements that total the overall functions of public life in which citizens from all spheres and interests, participate in government and ultimately, debate the rule of law. Civil society includes persons who take part in the electoral process, activists who fight for human rights and freedoms as well as organizations that make-up and represent the general opinion of the country. Civil society is the organ of a nation and without it, there is no stability or direction forward. Civil society is an essential ingredient of democracy and democratic transition because it promotes the voice of citizens, who should (and in many cases do), decide how their country is governed and how it guarantees them security, peace and inclusion.
The Community of Democracies recognizes the importance of civil society in the effective functioning of democracy and supports civil society in many of its initiatives. At the heart of its inter-governmental work, the Community aims to facilitate close dialogue with civil society around the world, even in places where it faces challenges and restrictions.
From the outset, the Community’s work has accounted for the role of civil society in democracy. When the Warsaw Declaration launched the governmental process of the Community in 2000, it also initiated a parallel non-governmental body, called the International Steering Committee (ISC). Composed of 27 leaders of civil society organizations representing all regions of the world, the ISC and its secretariat, the Council for a Community of Democracies, constitute the Community’s civil society pillar. The ISC advises governments on the necessary actions to enable civil society to work freely towards strengthening democracy, rule of law, and protection of the fundamental rights outlined in the Warsaw Declaration.
With the support of the Permanent Secretariat of the Community, the International Steering Committee coordinates various initiatives for civil society, such as the civil society forum that takes place in the biennial Ministerial Conferences of the Community. This forum represents the culmination of the dialogue between the governmental and non-governmental divisions of the Community’s work, where civil society representatives generate a set of recommendations for the Ministerial Declaration.
The Community’s work to support civil society is not limited to the International Steering Committee, as each of the initiatives of the Community contains a civil society perspective. For example, the Community:
The Community listed dialogue with civil society as one of the main priorities for 2015, which reflects in the projects that the Community conducts to engage civil society: Protecting Civic Space and the Right to Access Resources, regional consultations and capacity-building workshops, and CD-UNITED grants.
The Community’s devoted work for the strengthening of civil society has been widely recognized around the world. In a special event for civil society initiated by U.S. President Barack Obama in September 2013, heads of states and international organizations recognized the Community of Democracies as one of the main conduits to promoting civil society work and pledged to cooperate with it in the fulfillment of this goal. In 2014, President Obama reassured his commitment to supporting the Community as a leading instrument to protect civil society.