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Greetings from the Madrid Summit

10 March 2005

Hello people!

I am sorry it’s taken me so long to reach you. I have been drawn in to working on the Summit’s panel discussions. Je suis la rapporteur. That means I have to condense 90 minute intense conversations onto a page of A4. Anyway, I have stolen a moment and even managed to fire up my embarrassingly chunky lap-top to spread some Summit news.

This is how it all began…

We have our security passes and our safe-democracy bags, we even have our democratic pens. We approach the Summit centre. High up on the roof-tops you can pick out men in black with rifles slung over their shoulders. I do not know whether to feel reassured.

We’re through the x-ray machines and inside. On the way up the huge escalator, I notice someone has written the word ‘love’ in tiny black letters on the wall. The writing is wobbly, you can tell it was done quickly as someone was on the way up. The word, the human touch of it, stands out in all the shining marble. It makes me feel less scared.

Later, we sit in on one of the Civil Society working groups. It is focusing on ‘citizens as actors’ and how best to support people across the world at risk of political violence.

I sit next to a sparky man called ‘Rocamora’ from the Philippines. I tell him the story of ‘love’ and how it has survived on the wall and he chuckles. When his son was 18 or so, he tells me, he would go out with him on grafitti missions around San Francisco. I ask him what he painted. He tuts and tells me he was only ever left to do the colour but that he had hung off numerous bridges. I would get him a pen, I said and he could brighten up the Conference centre. He laughed again, and told me he only worked in spray paints.

Rocamora is full of amazing stories (as is everyone here). His great grandfather was a Spanish highwayman who was stupid enough to get caught. The punishment in those days was to be hanged, or to go to the Philippines, so to the Philippines it was.

Rocamora was a member of the Maoist party in the Philipines for twenty years. When I asked him how that was he summed it up in one word: ‘difficult.’

Between 1992-1994 the party fell apart and Rocamora fled to San Francisco with his American wife, having been imprisoned for three months. He wrote a book about his experiences in the party and his attempts to leave. It is called ‘Break on Through’ and the last chapter is ‘The Other Side.’ Rocamora loves the Doors. He has also quoted Backstreet boys lyrics to me (something about the impossible being possible) but I shall forgive him that error!

The civil society group we sit in on is hatching plans for a global civil society network to support citizens at risk of political violence. Put like this it sounds abstract. It does not sound so abstract when Arzu Ajbdullayeva, President of the Helskinki Citizens’ Assembly in Azerbaijan, recounts the murder, only a few days ago, of her good friend, the journalist Elmar Huseynov. She is being followed and her life is in danger. These are not only academic discussions, at times the room swims with raw grief. Nikki Stern, Executive Director of Families for September 11, speaks of her husband’s death in the twin towers, calm but for a slight wobble to her voice.

Many of the panellists comment that their lives are at risk, particularly because they are participating in the Summit. The civil society group appeals to Club de Madrid to make public the killing of Huseynov and the intimidation of Ajbdullayeva. Whatever you think of the grand outcomes (or lack of) of the Summit, perhaps this may do some good. Perhaps it may save Arzu’s life.

Many members of the civil society group speak of the mixed blessing of being supported by Club de Madrid or other Western organisations. It brings much-needed funds, publicity and access to political tables, but it also fuels the propaganda campaigns of authoritarian governments who can more easily denounce the work of NGO’s and civil rights campaigners as puppets of the West.

How far then should the civil network that is the key recommendation of this group, be linked to Club de Madrid? People agree support could be useful. Lovemore Madhuku, Chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly in Zimbabwe (brave man) says it would help him if high-profile political figures from Club de Madrid could visit his organisation and demonstrate their solidarity. The publicity would make it more difficult for the government to abuse him.

But there are obvious drawbacks too. Being tied to Club de Madrid limits what you can say.

A little example. We had to give questions from the oD online debates to Jonathon Dimbleby who was running a the plenary discussion on Democracy and Terrorism. The questions had to be carefully selected. ‘Nothing too Communist’ the Summit co-ordinator instructed, remarking on the online debates prominent critiques of neo-liberal dominance.

Oh, Kofi Annan wants a word, hold on a second I’ll be back!

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