HomeCIVICUSWhat does Barack Obama’s re-election mean for Global Civil Society?

The news of US President Barack Obama’s re-election is greeted by Global Civil Society. Photo: Guardian

Progressive civil society across the globe breathed a collective sigh of relief on the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama. This was not because of the colour of Obama’s skin or the eloquence of his speeches. It is because the Republican proposition was outright dangerous: giving free rein to the narrow interests of mammoth corporations and pursuing an aggressive foreign policy bordering on war mongering.

The world is still reeling from a financial crisis precipitated by corporate excess and a lack of accountability. Unsustainable development and the pursuit of economic growth to serve the interests of the rich and powerful are fuelling climate change. Despite the hopefulness generated by last year’s people’s revolutions, intolerance and extremism are rising. Democratic governments are continuing to selectively invoke and manipulate the language of human rights to serve their own ends.

The solution is not more but less war. Obama has done some to address the multiple integrated global crises but clearly he has not done enough. This time the expectations are much higher.
What the world needs is hope and “change we can believe in”. The kind promised by candidate Obama prior to his first presidential election. With a strong mandate from the people of the United States, the leader of the world’s most powerful country has a great opportunity to shape global events for the better while also enhancing U.S.’ adherence to the international human rights framework.

From Civil Society’s perspective there are key issues that President Obama touched upon in his acceptance speech which will have a critical impact on the world as we know it.

First, he alludes to the fact that people in distant nations are risking their lives for a chance to argue for the issues that matter, for the chance to cast their ballot just like the people of the United States did. Around the globe, mounting evidence indicates that the international community is failing in its responsibility to ensure the conditions necessary for civil society activists to conduct their work freely, without fear of retaliation from the government or other actors. These conditions include the basic freedoms of expression, association and assembly, which are enshrined in international human rights covenants and the constitutions of almost every country.

Second, he spoke about the weakening power of inequality and the destructive power of a warming planet. Civil society around the globe – whether it has been through the Occupy movement, the pro-democracy movements that led to the Arab Spring or the widespread anti-corruption protests – has been consistent in saying that governments are deliberately ignoring their basic social contract with citizens and increasingly outsourcing basic services such as health, education, transport, policing and others to serve narrow private interests over the larger public interest. The Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development was a missed opportunity to begin work on concrete recommendations to put in place a new paradigm of development in harmony with the fragile ecosystems of the Earth and one which ensures that the benefits of economic development are shared by all.

Third, President Obama highlighted the need to shape a peace that is built on the promise of dignity and freedom for every human being. Currently, discussions are underway on a framework beyond 2015 when the term of the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expires. Civil Society is engaged in hectic deliberations to ensure that the fundamental values expressed in the Millennium Declaration are incorporated in any new formulation of the MDGs. These are: (i) freedom, (ii) equality, (iii) solidarity, (iv)tolerance, (v) respect for nature and (vi) shared responsibility. Notably, world leaders agreed that these values were “essential to international relations in the twenty first century”.

Finally, he emphasized the notion that diversity is the bond that makes the United States exceptional. In a polarized world driven by conflicts over cultural exceptionalism and anger over immigration there is a great need to open a global debate on what unites humanity rather than what divides it. Will Obama lead such a debate and ensure that the United States as a permanent member of UN Security Council faithfully fulfills its mandate to ensure global peace and security through principled adherence to the UN Charter and the international human rights framework?

Millions of civil society activists who could not vote in the election but watched its outcome closely have high expectations. Will he live up to their aspirations? Only time will tell.

• CIVICUS