Politics, War, Peace, Associations…

In honour of our renewed Newsletter, UIA now presents to you the keynote address of our President, Cyril Ritchie, from the recent UIA Round Table in Rotterdam


I am only too well aware that in addressing this topic – I should say, these topics – I am opening the door to potential misunderstandings, to potential challenges, and to potentially upsetting some persons. I can only underline the right of each of us to the fundamental freedoms of opinion and of expression, enshrined in relevant regional and international Conventions and Covenants. I will welcome open reactions and debate, which are indeed the hallmark of associations.

It must be recognized that ‘Politics’ are ineluctably central to the existence of associations. Of course, not partisan politics or political-party politics. Whether associations are academic, professional, humanitarian, environmental, sports-oriented, or advocates of gender and racial equity, their fundamental purposes cover striving for a better world, a world of social justice, a world of human rights, a world where peace and mutual understanding are the norm, a world where people and the planet are healthily preserved for future generations, a world where professional and scientific standards lead to best practices for humans and communities. All of those are democratic objectives, humanitarian objectives, rule-of-law objectives, ethical objectives, and – explicitly and implicitly – political objectives. Associations cannot fully attain their goals without ongoing or occasional interactions with parliamentarians, with government ministries and officials, with local authorities. And of course with international governmental organizations – first and foremost the United Nations System in its worldwide scope and implantation. These interactions influence all parties involved, to the benefit of human progress.

I wish to be even clearer in regard to these background considerations. Engagement with ‘politics’ cannot be identified as an honourable activity only when conducted by politicians, but a dishonourable one when engaged in by ordinary citizens and associations. Citizens have a right and a duty to engage in national politics, to bring ideas and proposals to parliament and government, and to hold public institutions accountable for their actions and inactions. Associations are essentially no more – and certainly no less – than groupings of citizens who have come together to advance a good cause or combat a bad practice. It is therefore equally a right and a duty for associations of citizens to engage, for example, in social policy-making, in striving for justice and equity, in preventing environmental degradation, in exposing and combatting corruption, in denouncing war and advancing peace, in exposing both the sale and the purchase of weapons of mass destruction. These actions are all illustrative features of policy advocacy, that is, of political advocacy. Free and fair expression of public opinion – or rather public opinions, in the plural – by associations is fundamental to maintaining democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Upholding and advancing these values is a precondition for genuine peace and for the lasting wellbeing of the eight billion inhabitants of our planet.

But – and it’s an enormous BUT – what about a situation of war? The world has sadly known dozens of wars in the lifetime of most of us. What a litany of tragedy it is to recall Korea, Vietnam, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Armenia, and more. Several African and Asian countries and the former Yugoslavia have known civil wars. And now there is the atrocious Russian Federation war against Ukraine, an even more extraordinary event in that a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council – whose Charter duty is to preserve international peace – has violated the United Nations Charter and many other legal obligations. Refugees have been generated by the million, uncountable human lives have been broken, history and culture have been destroyed and/or rewritten. Inconceivably, threats of the use of nuclear weapons have been made. Trust within and between countries and peoples has been traduced. As we know only too well, trust can disappear rapidly but take years, indeed generations, to restore.

What have been the roles of associations and of NGOs in such death-dealing and immensely miserable circumstances? The answer is credible and creditable. Side by side with UN entities, humanitarian and professional associations have been on the front lines – and behind the front lines – in providing irreplaceable medical services, feeding displaced populations, reuniting families, rescuing orphans, gathering evidence of war crimes, protecting cultural artefacts, finding placement opportunities for academics and students, providing legal protection and psychological counselling to those who have lost all and see no future. These activities – often at risk to life and limb – deserve universal commendation and support. Support needs to include both moral and financial backing, both from ordinary citizens and from governmental institutions. In all these vital actions of NGOs and associations in war zones, in countries around the world where political or religious or community conflicts are destroying human lives, the pressures that confront on-the-ground workers are immense and call for collective measures of relief and recuperation.

There is however another heavy burden on the shoulders of associations and NGOs in performing their essential work: this is what is known as the shrinking space for civil society. Too many governments have for years openly or surreptitiously infringed the basic rights of civil society organizations and consciously hampered their functioning. Early on, the malevolent inventiveness of the Russian Federation conjured up supposedly legal terminology applicable to NGOs such as ‘Foreign Agents’. And even more absurdly, creating a category of NGOs as ‘undesirable organizations’. Government officials have also imposed stifling bureaucratic impediments such as controlling movements of NGO funds and personnel, or conducting repetitious audits of associations. This ‘inventiveness’ has spawned imitators elsewhere from Azerbaijan to Egypt, from Türkiye to India. It is doubly troubling that such governmental actions to shrink civil space have in too many cases spread well beyond the association community to also subvert the rights and the livelihoods of journalists and the media in general, of judges and the legal profession in general, of teachers and the education system in general. We are faced with a cancer eating into the Rule of Law. Together we have to Stand Up today, and Speak Up today, against such aberrations and violations: tomorrow may be too late.

The preceding sad litany has not even mentioned some of the existential threats facing humanity.

First example: Climate Change, also known as Climate Chaos. The very reliable Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been increasingly clear on the issue: the scientific evidence is overwhelming that we are approaching calamity. Why do politicians not act resolutely on this evidence? Well, for one reason, politicians are more often focused on the short term, or are responding to populist rhetoric. Winning next year’s election takes political priority over ensuring the survival of future generations. That’s one more reason to step up citizen advocacy, scientific advocacy, association advocacy – to endeavour to wake up politicians to their fundamental responsibility of preparing a healthy and sustainable future for the populations which elected them, and for the children and grandchildren of today’s voters. Associations of all hues and constituencies have a central role in holding politicians and governments accountable: such advocacy roles are irreplaceable, and themselves undergird democracy.

Second example of existential threats and of the need for political advocacy: nuclear proliferation. What is the world to do in the face of advanced missile launches by North Korea, particularly given that the citizens of that country have little or no opportunity to influence those who govern them. In such circumstances, citizens and associations elsewhere must exert pressure on their governments to judiciously limit North Korea’s ability to obtain the equipment and technology it seeks, and its ability to export its enhanced technology. The same considerations apply to Iran’s movement towards acquiring nuclear weapon capacity, probably followed in due course by Saudi Arabia. Associations worldwide, notably NGOs associated with the United Nations Organization, have been active for decades in calling for the abolition of existing nuclear weapons, notably by the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council plus India and Pakistan. Lack of success is never a reason to abandon a good cause!

The title of this Keynote was ‘Politics, War, Peace, Associations…’. The dots at the end were intended to indicate that the subject is interminable, inexhaustible, and also perhaps to some extent indecipherable. Please now draw your own conclusions, advance your own convictions, and above all Stand Together to work for the better world we all want and need.

Cyril Ritchie – President of UIA

This text is part of UIA's World of Associations
Issue #1 – February 2023