Words Matter! – The Commitment from the Conference

Words Matter! – The Commitment from the Conference

The Words Matter! white paper collates key contributions from the recent global conference held in Oslo, Norway. 

The paper explores the problem of hate speech and its ramifications in our society, and makes practical recommendations for the development of shared, and more efficient tools to counter all forms of hate crime.

Download the White Paper here.

 

Democracy at the Center: 2022 – 2023 Annual Report

Democracy at the Center: 2022 – 2023 Annual Report

The report analyzes the key organizational achievement in 2022 – 2023 while assessing the context under which the interventions were implemented. The program approach is anchored on a Three I-Model of Imperative, Innovative, and Impactful and aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 5 on Gender Equality, Goal 16 on Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, and Goal 17 on Partnerships for the Goals.

The report highlights TOC’s programs within each strategic thematic area and outlines a sustainability plan composed of partnerships, research, and policy for continuity. This report narrates TOC’s transformative democratic journey, highlighting stories of impacted individuals and institutions. With a focus on regional, citizen-led democratic integration and inclusion, TOC aims to solidify accountable and transparent governance in a globalized world.

Download the Report here.

Words Matter Conference – Tackling the impact of Hate Speech

Words Matter Conference – Tackling the impact of Hate Speech

The Words Matter! conference will bring together global leaders, researchers, community advocates and youth representatives to discuss and explore ways to combat hate speech, hate crimes, and the exploitation of youth. The conference will include a full-day program featuring 20 international speakers from various countries and cultures.

Words Matter! will take place in Oslo, Norway, at the Oslo Congress Centre, on 30th April 2024.

Why Words Matter!

Hate speech is a growing problem worldwide. Whether online or offline, it threatens democracy and human rights. It leads to dangerous divisions in society, affects the lives of the people being targeted, and can generate extremism, radicalization and violence. Young people are most vulnerable to this form of intolerance.

Atrocity crimes originate from words as drivers of narratives of prejudice, racism and exclusion. These crimes can generate experiences of social isolation, stigma, discrimination and rejection. And they particularly harm young people: they damage their physical and mental well-being and can lead to extremism, radicalization and violence. It is our collective responsibility to address hate speech today to prevent violence tomorrow.

There is no universal definition of what hate speech is. We need to consider a range of national and local circumstances when discussing it. However, the risk is that by using subjective and inconsistent interpretations, we can weaken collective efforts towards a shared intervention protocol. The development of new governance tools around a standard definition calls for strategic collaboration between countries, media regulatory authorities and citizenship – particularly when tackling online hate speech.

This conference acknowledges such complexities. It seeks to improve awareness and knowledge of hate speech and its consequences for young people and to increase the knowledge of ways to prevent and combat hate speech, hate crime and hate violence.

To read more visit: https://wordsmatter.oslocenter.no/

The Democratization Journey – Puntland Federal State, Somalia

The Democratization Journey – Puntland Federal State, Somalia

Somalia a country located in the Horn of Africa has been plagued by decades of prolonged conflicts, political instability, and economic challenges. Despite the challenges, there has been a glim of hope denoted by the steps taken by the Federal states such as Puntland.

Puntland Federal State has undergone notable democratic transitions in history since 1998.  With the establishment of the Puntland Charter, it consequently bequeathed the executive and parliament with the traditional clan-based electoral system remaining predominant. With the establishment of the Puntland Electoral Commission, the country witnessed a momentous shift in the management and conduct of the elections. In 2011, the Puntland electoral process recorded significant strengthening with the enactment of the Puntland Electoral Laws. These laws provided the legal framework that established the regulations for conducting elections and outlined the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders, including the Puntland Electoral Commission, political parties, and candidates.

Despite the milestones that the State had made in its electoral systems, in 2013 Puntland unsuccessfully attempted for the first time to implement the One person One Vote system in the local elections. In the consequent years, in October 2021, Puntland successfully conducted its first One Person One Vote system, marking a revolutionary step towards an inclusive and participatory democracy. Summatively, Puntland State dominated by the clan-system of elections, is steadily on the journey of building and refining its electoral systems to ensure that the voice of every citizen is valued, and their choice is effectively translated into government representation.

Through the interventions by The Oslo Center, Political associations have created platforms for political participation, promoting different ideologies, and influencing policy-making processes. During that time, Puntland’s electoral commission registered nine political associations that participated in the 2021 and 2022 local elections.

The succesful implementation of One Person One Vote system exemplify the great strides made towards participatory democratization process in Somalia as a country.

Youth Assemblies as Springboard to Leadership Ikhwan Omar, Youth and PWD

Youth Assemblies as Springboard to Leadership Ikhwan Omar, Youth and PWD

“Whatever your goal is, create your own path. Don’t allow yourself to be used for someone else’s interest and make sure that your own and your people’s interests come first.”

Coming from the vast county of Lamu, in the coastal region, I have had the advantage of participating as a beneficiary of the Oslo Center program through the Youth Assembly model. The model of the Youth Assembly has had a significant impact in imparting skills and knowledge among the young people in Lamu through training on policy development, and social accountability and creating platforms of engagement where young people take part in dialogue and Barazas to identify and highlight key policy issues affecting the citizens in the respective sub-counties.

By so doing, our leadership skills and capacity to engage with not only the citizens but duty bearers have been sufficiently enhanced. I pride myself as an immediate testimony of what the program was able to achieve, as I successfully offered myself candidature in the concluded elections for the seat of Member of County Assembly, Mkomani Ward, and garnered 866 votes.

Despite not being successful in the general elections, my contributions in articulating policy proposals on issues affecting the community earned me an appointment as Director of Coast Development Authority, a position I hold with utmost diligence and offering service to the people of Lamu and Coast region at large.

The Backsliding of Democracy: A Time for Dread or for Improvement?

The Backsliding of Democracy: A Time for Dread or for Improvement?

The enlightenment era of the 1600s gave rise to ideas such as liberty, equality, and individual rights. In the wake of the scientific revolution, reasoning and logic began to replace dogmatic thinking. Undoubtedly, these ideas have contributed to more just, equal, healthy, and prosperous societies over centuries. Many people worldwide can attest that democracy is closer to enacting these ideas than any other form of governance. Witnessing the successes of democracy in Europe and North America, many societies ruled by dictatorships and colonialism sought to establish democracies consistent with ethnic and individual liberties. However, in recent years the objective to spread democracy worldwide and strengthen it in western countries has come to a halt. With the rise of autocratic leaders and the relapse of conflicts in fragile countries, democracy is in decline, and its ideals are under attack.

Why is this happening?

There are many explanations for these developments and various motives that are context-specific, but we will briefly look into a few dynamics through a global lens that has given rise to more autocratic regimes lately.

1. Rise in economic inequality 

Democracy and capitalism are commonly understood to be complementary. The free market economy is at the heart of democratic liberal thought. Owning property and growing one’s capital is a fundamental right in democratic systems. This right has helped people in industrialized countries improve their citizens’ quality of life and economic well-being. In the United States, for instance, the market economy was the main driver for social upliftment after WWII until the 1960s and early 1970s. However, the market economy was not merely responsible for social upliftment. Several government policies known as the New Deal policies seeking to stimulate economic growth helped Americans move up to the social middle class. However, these policies were controversial in a capitalist country like the US, and many republicans believed they made people dependent on welfare. The “survival of the fittest” and “pulling yourself by the bootstraps” persuasion of capitalist politicians has created an overwhelming disparity in income inequality. It has pushed Americans into the two far ends of the spectrum where a small percentage of Americans became uber-rich while exploiting the working class and causing the middle class to shrink. According to a Pew Research study conducted in 2021, young people today struggle more financially than their parents and grandparents. To move up in society, they are obligated to take on student debt as the tuition fee rises exponentially, and they are less likely to afford to buy a home and start a family. These challenges leave young generations anxious about their current lives and their future.

Moreover, racial inequalities have exacerbated economic inequality and pushed people of color into poverty. Consequently, over the years, people have lost trust in the government as they see it as a vehicle for the rich, and trust between people has eroded. Naturally, this distrust has created the conditions to allow demagogues to appeal to the desires and prejudices of vulnerable people and cause tremendous instability. Fear is a catalyst for de-democratization. Democracy in the US is essential for democracy worldwide. The US emerged as the dominant power after WWII spearheading a democratic world order. It set out agreements and treaties about how global governance should work and has inspired many other countries. Currently, the US is playing the opposite role, inspiring autocrats who see democracy as a threat.

2. Globalization agenda

The globalization era that began in the 1990s aimed at assisting development efforts. It is evident that many people have been lifted out of poverty, and more equality has been achieved worldwide due to development programs such as humanitarian assistance, economic relief, and other government democratization efforts. Though, it is also evident that the capitalist economic model adopted in poorer and fragile countries has led to massive corruption and abuse of public resources. United States-style free-market economies have created a divide between rich and poor worldwide, just like at home. Worldwide, few people have become nauseatingly rich while exploiting the working class, hence, creating immense discontent in many countries, particularly among youth who are more prone to turn to criminal activities when unemployment is low and poverty levels high. Furthermore, the democratization agenda, although well intended has backfired in many instances. Societies that rose against dictatorial regimes had to quickly adapt to western standards of democracy, which were often incompatible with their values. Agendas such as gender equality and LGBTQI rights are often viewed as imposing by local communities and transitional governments. Because of these developments coupled with real geopolitical interestspeople usually associate democracy with the US international military intervention. The Iraq war has made liberal westerners very hostile towards democracy promotion. Economic inequalities and value system differences have handed authoritarian regimes a propaganda tool, and conflicts have increased. It has resulted in violations of human rights and a staggering number of displaced people internally and across borders.

3. Demographic changes and isolationism

The globalization and democratization agenda promotes open societies where ideas such as equal opportunity, non-discrimination, and human rights are central. These ideas support change. Thus, they tend to be in direct conflict with more conservative values that seek to preserve traditional values. In the last two decades, the European Union, a project that promised openness and inclusion, started to display enlargement fatigue. The refugee crisis magnified  this fatigue. According to the International Rescue Committee, “more people have been forced to flee their homes by conflict and crisis than at any time since WWII.” Poland, Hungary, and other newer EU members have turned their backs on the core European principles of democracy and regard for human rights. Increasingly they are trending towards authoritarianism. Brexit dramatized disunity within the EU. These dynamics, coupled with historic nationalist sentiments, have triggered far-right nationalist movements within the EU, redefining European values. Recent surveys indicate a rise in Islamophobia, which may reshape EU policies towards immigration and enlargement. A 2016 report on the State of Islamophobia in Europe reveals that “Islamophobia has become the main challenge to the social peace and coexistence of different cultures, religions, and ethnicities in Europe. “190 Chatham House’s Europe Programme surveyed respondents in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the UK. The report shows that the majorities in all but two of the ten states agreed that all further migration from mainly Muslim countries must be stopped- ranging from 71 percent in Poland, 65 percent in Austria, 53 percent in Germany, and 51 percent in Italy to 41 percent in Spain, and 47 percent in the United Kingdom. In no country did the percentage of those surveyed who disagreed surpass 32%. Furthermore, conservatives in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, North America, or elsewhere tend to reject many values promoted by democratic, open societies. Efforts to advance empowerment and inclusion of women and LGBTQI people typically face tremendous resistance in most countries by varying degrees.

4. Internet and social media 

Technology and the internet have revolutionized the world, led to some groundbreaking innovations, and helped humanity connect in unimaginable ways. Nevertheless, technology and the internet have also been a source of hatred and division among people. We are all witness to the increase of hate speech used on social media, and there are well-documented cases when Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks have served as platforms to mobilize groups to commit acts of terrorism. Events like the Januray 6th attack on the US capitol, the genocidal campaign against Rohingya in Myanmar, or ISIS recruitment of youth through social networks are a few examples of how the use of social media platforms has led to intolerance which is the basic principle of democracy. Propaganda and false information have amplified through social media, making it harder to participate in democracy.

Way Forward

Climate changes, increasing pandemics, extractive capitalism, violent political polarization, and counterrevolutions are currently putting us all at risk. A crisis, however, can also serve as a catalyst for meaningful system changes. New rules and regulations are needed that are in line with evolving multiple demands. Democracy is not an easy task. As a philosophy, it requires people and governments to open up to new ideas and practices. It requires people of different colors, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientations to collaborate. It requires acceptance and openness. Now more than ever, we can see how interconnected countries are. So, isolationism is not the answer to these problems. There is a need for coordinated international responses to these international challenges. In order to address these issues, we need the kind of problem-solving attitude that characterizes democracies. We must support the already robust and growing civil societies, feminist movements, student movements, and worker’s unions. Across borders, we need to collaborate and learn from best practices. There are solutions to our crises, and our role is to identify, actualize, support, and empower them. The need for meaningful action now cannot be overstated.

Russian Disinformation in the Western Balkans during the War in Ukraine

Russian Disinformation in the Western Balkans during the War in Ukraine

The Western Balkans has not been the main focus of the Russian “Information Confrontation” campaign, neither before, nor after the aggression on Ukraine. However, this region plays an important role in the Russian hybrid warfare activities, primarily since it is easily accessible and convenient for undermining the West.

There are many reasons why this region provides fertile ground for Russia’s disinformation including the historical legacy, not least Serbian cultural and religious ties with Russia, internal divisions, and unresolved issues, unhindered spread of information throughout the region, low level of media literacy, poorly regulated and atomized media scene, low standards of journalism, understaffed media outlets, etc. With this, Serbia holds a strategic location in facilitating Russian propaganda efforts which have in a European Parliament study been labeled as “a launchpad for Russian disinformation operations in the Western Balkans“.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s disinformation campaign in the region has been the continuation of an intensive media offensive that followed the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Namely, in the aftermath of the annexation, Russia launched the Sputnik agency news in Serbian, as well as Russia Beyond. Prior to the Ukrainian war, Russian propaganda in the region was a skillful mix of negative and positive elements. The negative campaign focused on demonizing the West and NATO, presenting the EU as weak, disoriented, and divided, on the other hand, the positive aspects included advertising Russian superiority, particularly its military might and the Sputnik vaccine’s superiority and Moscow’s effective response to the pandemic. Additionally, Russian propaganda has been fostering Putin’s cult of personality by continuously promoting his strong, decisive, and “unequivocal” leadership. Lastly, Russia has been portrayed as the protector of Serbia and the Serbian people, especially when it comes to Kosovo and, to a lesser extent, the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The continuation of the disinformation campaign in the Western Balkans during the war in Ukraine has had the features of the long-standing Russian political warfare methods: a multi-layered strategy based on a mixture of official state media sources, anonymous websites, social media accounts, and other instruments for distributing propaganda. The aim of using these “Active Measures“ has been to address different target groups and to distract, create confusion, blur reality and, consequently, provide false justification for its gross violations of human rights and international law. In the Western Balkans specifically, the campaign has primarily focused on instilling the existential insecurity emphasizing the threat of energy and food shortages coming as a result of imposing sanctions on Russia, for which the EU has been mainly blamed.

Besides blaming the EU for potentially causing severe economic hardship to the citizens of the region, not only by offering nothing tangible in return but also by claiming that the European club is not interested in accepting the countries from the region, Russia has further undermined the credibility of the European Union. Due to the paralysis of the European integration process, such a campaign finds fertile ground not only in Serbia and among the Serbs living in the Western Balkans, but recently, also in North Macedonia, which made great sacrifices in order to unblock its European path. The exceptions in the region are still Albania and Kosovo, where the pro-Western sentiments have been continuously strong, partly due to the consequences of the NATO intervention in Serbia. However, if the accession path for these countries remains blocked, their citizens could become an easier target for external actors.

Confronting Russia’s disinformation campaign is a very difficult task when we add to the aforementioned widespread opinion in the region about the hypocrisy of the West, and the mentioned European integration fatigue, which has decreased citizens’ trust in the EU accession process. This task looks even more difficult taking into account that many mainstream media, especially in Serbia, uncritically transmit Russian narratives as theirs. As a consequence, a large number of citizens perceive the presented views as the official government positions. This can only lead to the conclusion that Russian disinformation has not only been tolerated but also supported by government structures, indicating that the influence of Russian propaganda in the region could be significantly mitigated by the Serbian regime.

The Battle of Democracy

The Battle of Democracy

After decades of terrorism and extremism, the Afghan people in the last two decades increasingly engaged in democratic processes, creating the framework to collaborate with the international community to fight terrorism and build a stable state.

Following the Bonn Conference in 2001, the international community invested in the state-building and peacekeeping processes in Afghanistan besides fighting terrorism. Despite the Western roadmap and efforts for democratic transition, the Afghan State progressively collapsed, as corruption and overconcentration of power led to government incapacity and incompetency. Furthermore, the wars waged by the neighboring countries, and the Peace Deal between the US and Taliban contributed to the Taliban taking full control instead of working towards a political settlement. Afghan media and civil society raised these issues and identified them as security and structural risks, however they did not receive a consistent and efficient response from the international community. Although Afghan citizens had been actively taking part in democratic development, especially around elections, many Afghans felt that their vote did not matter as many believed that the U.S. decided who would lead the country. As corruption and impunity massively spread among state officials, the inability of Western powers to act decisively fostered mistrust and deception amongst the Afghan population, resulting in further geopolitical and social fragmentation and fragilization. While the international community could have adopted a governance model based on Afghanistan’s cultural diversity, tradition and ethnicities, it developed a political ethnocentric structure marked by over-centralization, which further weakened the local voice and position.

The power vacuum following President Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 laid down the road for the Taliban to take control over the country. Following the evacuation of Western embassies and Afghan political leaders, the Afghan people found themselves trapped under the Taliban’s ruling, which resulted in the collapse of state institutions and the banking sector, the ban of girls and women from secondary schooling and work systems, and various forms of human rights violations such as torture, abduction and target killing of activists, journalists, civil servants, and former members of National Security Forces. In view of the urgency of these economic and humanitarian crises, key-involved European powers invited Taliban officials to Norway in January 2022 to address these issues, to address the starvation of the Afghan population and girls’ ban from the schooling system. These issues, I would argue however, are to be regarded as the result of an irresponsible exit of the international community and unaccountability of Taliban. President Biden’s Executive Order on February 11, 2022, aimed at supporting the Afghan people while compensating terrorism victims of 9/11 worsened the situation of Afghan economy and led to the fracture of the Afghan Central Bank’s reserve which belong to people of Afghanistan. Was the sacrifice of Afghan democracy worth the current situation?

From a lessons-learned perspective, it seems urgent for the international community to find a balance between humanitarian support to the Afghan people, and dialogue and negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban have previously engaged in multiple peace negotiations, speaking of a more modern approach to women and girls, yet much remains to be seen in action. To provide unlimited humanitarian support, without any questions asked, as requested by the Taliban, creates an uncontrolled funding stream to the Taliban that not only legitimizes their governance approach but also takes over their responsibility to provide services to the population and support the socioeconomic development of the country. Most of the Taliban’s public announcements are to control and eliminate women from public life; very little indicates plans or strategies to address the current humanitarian crises, poverty, and security.

Looking at other countries, such as Syria or Yemen to name a few, the long-standing ideological conflict between terrorism and modernism has challenged the engagement of the international community between the humanitarian emergency action and the long-term democratic development and state-building process in Afghanistan. The approach of Western powers dealing with extremism, terrorism, and humanitarian support in Afghanistan clearly impacts the ideology which will prevail in the outcome of other regional conflicts. How decisions are being made even in the international arena show the democratic standard of the given nations. Was the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan without consent and participation from the Afghan people truly democratic? Or does the West only consider democracy to entail their votes but not that of developing nations?

Ukraine: Democracy under siege

Ukraine: Democracy under siege

In light of the troubling developments and the significant deterioration of the security situation in Eastern Ukraine, The Oslo Center would like to express its deep concerns about the escalating violence. As a democracy assistance foundation, we stand in strong solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

During these circumstances, it is crucial to emphasize that peace and democracy are universal and related values that coexist in harmony and are prerequisites for stronger societies. TOC will continue to support and work towards Ukraine’s right to a free, just, and equitable democratic society. Ukraine has been engaged in its democratic journey for years, and any attack on its stability and progress is a threat to democracy overall. It is important in these trying times to stand together in solidarity.

We urge all parties of the conflict to meet their obligations under the U.N Charter, international humanitarian law, and the Minsk Agreements. Further, we encourage to pursue immediate peaceful resolution of the situation through dialogue and usage of democratic and diplomatic channels. Global peace and security are cross-cutting issues that are critical to achieving all the sustainable development goals and the protection of civilians.

We give our full support to NGOs and other civil actors who, despite the challenging circumstances, work hard to mitigate the threatening consequences of the conflict.

Arendalsuka

Arendalsuka

On the 19th of August, the Oslo Center participated in Norway´s largest political gathering Arendalsuka with our panel debate, “Who owns democracy? Collaboration between private, civic and public sectors”. We invited interesting panelists representing different sectors, discussing how their respective sectors contribute to the protection and strengthening of our democratic values.

The panelists joining this important conversation were Hanne Skartveit, Political Editor in VG; Karolina Olofsson, Executive Director at The Oslo Center; Odd Einar Dørum, former Parliamentary representative; and Kristine Beitland, Executive Director for Corp. Affairs in Microsoft Norway.
Our first panelist Hanne Skartveit provided interesting and insightful perspectives to the conversation. She underlined the significant role and responsibility of a free press in a well-functioning democracy. Additionally, our Executive Director Karolina Olofsson provided meaningful perspectives on the ownership of democracy, accountability, and the responsible actors within a democratic society.
Dørum underlined the role of the citizens as the primary owners of democracy as well as the importance of not taking our democratic values for granted, but rather continuously fighting for them. Beitland emphasized the crucial responsibility of the technology sector to protect democratic institutions and human rights.

To summarize, the panel discussion brought up insightful and meaningful perspectives on the owners of democracy and the importance of cooperation between the private, civic, and public sectors to protect and maintain our democratic values.

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