Speech – Role of Civil Society

Speech by the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum CEO, Rev Akuila Yabaki
At the Colonial Training House, Davey Street, Suva on 16/10/10

Role of Civil Society in Law & Order

Good afternoon and thank you for the invitation to speak today on the Role of Civil Society in Law & Order.  Before I get into the detail of the topic, let me briefly tell you a little bit about myself and the organization which I head.  As a leader I have been engaged as the CEO of the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF) since 1999, and prior to that held positions of leadership in Peace & Justice with the World Church Office of the Methodist Church in United Kingdom based in London, and Peace and Justice Desk, Pacific Conference of Churches in Suva, and Methodist Church in Fiji.  Described as ‘the man they love to hate’ by the Pacific Islands Business Magazine I have always been a strong advocate for peace, justice, human rights and a multiracial Fiji; to the point of  being described as ‘a thorn on the side of those who do not believe in equal rights and justice or are plain racists’.

Beginning my advocacy path in 1975 as one of the founders of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) Movement, a dominant regional voice over two decades campaigning  against injustice across the Pacific, especially nuclear testing and colonial control, I have carried through my strong belief in the principles of peace and justice as the CEO of CCF.  CCF is an NGO which strives as its goal “to build a nation in which Fiji’s people live together in equality, justice and peace, respecting the rule of law, under a Constitution that guarantees democracy and human rights.”  Leadership within such a mandate therefore extends beyond 9-5 within the confines of the office, but to being a leader in the community, provoking critical self-reflection, respectfully challenging perceived norms, and influencing at all opportunities those around you to share in CCF’s vision.  It also involves putting oneself in the firing line, taking a stance for what one believes in and at time making critical and hard hitting statements against leaders who try to ignore or defy the rule of law.

On that note, let us know turn to the topic at hand – ‘the role of Civil Society in maintaining the Rule of Law’.   Before discussing this role it is important to be able to define these two very important terms.  Let us start with a basic definition of civil society.

Definition of Civil Society“

Civil Society refers to the range of institutions and associations of people, families and communities, outside the formal state apparatus, which represent diverse interests and provides a counterweight to the government. These are independent and autonomous of government and economic enterprise.  A Civil Society is composed of the totality of voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society as opposed to the force-backed structures of a state (regardless of that state’s political system) and commercial institutions of the market.

Definition of Law & Order

What is Law & Order? This is defined as being a State of society where vast majority of population respects the rule of law, and where the law enforcement agencies observe laws that limit their powers.  Maintaining law and order implies firm dealing with occurrences of theft, violence, and disturbance of peace, and rapid enforcement of penalties imposed under criminal law; as well as any other breaches of the law of the land.

Role of Civil Society in Law & Order

With these basic concepts in mind, we can now move on to looking at what role Civil Society plays in the Law & Order of a Nation.

In essence civil society plays four keys roles – as an observer, as an advocate, as an innovator and as a service provider.

  • As an observer civil society must monitor activities and cases such as human rights violations, and domestic violence for example, which plays a part in the Law & Order of a nation. They must collect information and ensure reporting of such cases but must not stop there. They must go ahead and take an active role as an advocate for addressing such cases and finding solutions or a way forward.
  • As an advocate civil society must actively lobby and raise awareness of the problems at hand, and work to engage all stakeholders towards the maintenance of Law & Order.  Civil Society has also traditionally played a key role in holding those with authority accountable for upholding the Rule of Law and Justice.
  • As an innovator civil society must also provide training, demonstrating new ways of resolving conflict, and engaging in dialogue to find ways forward where Law & Order is threatened.
  • As a service provider civil society may establish shelters, legal assistance and economic aid where others do not.

Acting in these four roles, Civil Society works to support the State in maintaining Law & Order.  The role of Civil Society is therefore not to work against or in competition to the State, but in a shadow role, supporting and ensuring connectivity both bottom-up and top-down between the State and the society it represents.

It is no doubt a fact that when people do not understand their rights and the laws pertaining to their rights and responsibilities, there can be chaos.  Citizen education is therefore a further core function of civil society, to ensure that all members of a community are aware not only of the laws by which they have to abide, but their responsibilities as equal citizens to one another, and the avenues for redress if laws or rights are violated in their communities.  Civil Society can also play a role in legal assistance to ensure that the rights of individuals are upheld and protected; and mediating in cases of redress.

Such activities primarily revolve around developing understanding of the importance of, and maintaining, law and order.  However Civil Societies role and responsibilities are not restricted to maintenance alone.  A further important role Civil Society can play is by advocating for the development of new legislation, public policies and international treaties, and promoting their adoption by the State.  In doing so civil society actors can help to bolster national and international norms, and the legal protection of human rights.

Civil Society ideally should be a vibrant advocate, ensuring accountability and transparency in law and order and in constructively mobilizing the populace to participate in and demand for a legal framework that adequately protects the fabric of our society.  In doing this, civil society can raise public awareness about a State’s obligations, and if law and order in a country is not at its best, work constructively with all stakeholders to address shortfalls.

The role of civil society in maintaining law and order is thus diverse, as is the role of a leader of a civil society organization.  Leadership challenges are ever present, however with patience, passion and vision much can be achieved.  I would like to close with a quote from Wangari Maathai, the first woman from Africa to be honored with the Nobel Peace prize who stood up courageously against former oppressive regime in Kenya and mobilized poor women to plant 30 million trees:

  • ‘People are different and so are their cultures
  • ‘People speak in a variety of languages
  • ‘People are guided by different religions, dress differently, eat different foods, adapt to their environment in different ways.
  • ‘People express themselves in different styles of art and music

Yet all people have one, single common attribute – they are all human beings, nothing more, nothing less’

I therefore see civil societies ultimate responsibility in assisting to maintain the rule of law, as reminding all citizens of their common humanity, and fostering greater respect and protection for the equal rights and responsibilities of all members of the community.

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