At the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, I was in Montreal attending the CIVICUS World Assembly, an annual gathering of more than 900 civil society organizations (CSOs), including NGOs, trade unions, and faith-based organizations. Looking at various U.S. newspapers and my Facebook feed that morning, the reporting centered on the senseless deaths of that tragic day, people discussing where they were at that exact moment, and those that they had lost. All the coverage made me realize that the wounds remain fresh 10 years and two difficult wars later.
At CIVICUS, the discussion was markedly different. Session after session discussed the pre- and post-9/11 world, noting post-9/11 as a dark period for human rights, with Northern governments obsessing over security and cutting back on funding. Many governments also used this time as a way to curtail civil society activity on the ground. “Post 9/11 became a time of tribalism, anti-immigration. Everything became about security, and when progressive societies turned a blind eye to human rights, we saw a precipitous drop (in human rights) in the Global South,” noted CIVICUS’ Secretary General Ingrid Srinath in her opening remarks.
The key message 10 years later for civil society is to not look back, but forward, with an aim to draw the world’s attention to and work together on the most pressing issues of our time: access to clean water, food security, upholding civil and political rights, eradicating poverty, and the growing inequality between the “haves” and “have-nots.”
One session focused on the role of CSOs in political and social transformation. Speakers discussed the Arab Spring in depth, noting the need to channel the energy of unemployed youth toward decent jobs before many of the recent revolutions move into anarchy. Human rights activist Nabeel Rajan discussed the ongoing clamp down of activists in Bahrain and how he and his colleagues feared for their lives. Mozn Hassan, founder and executive director of Nazra for Feminist Studies in Egypt, discussed “the post-revolution trauma, and the hard work ahead for CSOs to rebuild so that this is not about a short-term uprising but long-term solutions.” Ironically, much of this focus on education, job creation, and rebuilding destroyed economies is not dissimilar to the recommendations made in the 9/11 Commission report that governments have failed to deliver on.
So what does this mean for the private sector? Businesses around the globe should use the 10-year anniversary to redouble our focus on the rights of every human being in the global supply chain to have access to food, clean water, health services, and education, and to feel safe as they go about their daily lives. We must use this moment in time to align public policy efforts, supply chain compliance programs, and philanthropic contributions away from a “do-no-harm model” toward upholding human rights locally and globally. This focus is the best possible way to finally find the light in the aftermath of that dark day 10 years ago.