Written by Bisan Mitri (OPGAI) and Manar Makhoul (BADIL)
The World Social Forum is an annual meeting “[...] where social movements, networks, NGOs and other civil society organizations opposed to neo-liberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism come together to pursue their thinking, to debate ideas democratically, [to] formulate proposals, share their experiences freely and network for effective action.” Usually the World Social Forum meets at the same time as its ‘great capitalist rival’, the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. This date is consciously picked to promote alternatives to the World Economic Forum’s answers to world economic problems.
BADIL and the Occupied Palestine and Syrian Golan Heights Advocacy Initiative (OPGAI) are regular participants in the World Social Forum. The gathering is an opportunity for organizations to advocate for the rights of Palestinian refugees – primarily their right to return to their homes and villages. Moreover, it presents an opportunity to expand our relationships and deepen alliances with supporting communities from around the globe.
The 2013 World Social Forum took place between 26 and 30 March at Tunis Al-Manar University, aiming to:
[...] forge common struggles and a collective agenda to fight against capitalism, patriarchy, racism and all forms of discrimination and oppression. [...] Together, the peoples of all the continents are fighting to oppose the domination of capital, hidden behind illusory promises of economic progress and the illusion of political stability.
The 2013 World Social Forum has been organized at a critical moment for social movements concerned with justice, freedom and solidarity. Its chosen objectives and directions, which take into account the great changes related to the Arab Revolutions and the economic and ecological crises, are but one avenue to better tackle the crucial issues facing the world, promote joint efforts and elaborate on the alternatives. Exceeding 30,000 participants and 4,000 nongovernmental organizations, the 2013 World Social Forum is said to be one of the biggest since its launch in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001. Palestinian representation at the Forum was composed of grass root movements, civil society actors, non-governmental organizations, individuals and representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the offices of some of the Palestinian political parties.
Palestine: A central theme in the Forum
The opening and closing days of the 2013 World Social Forum gave special attention to the issue of Palestine. The first day, 26 March, featured the Opening March, which progressed along the main streets of Tunis, the capital city. This March aimed to bring the Palestinian struggle to the centre of attention within the larger focus of this year’s Forum - on the revolutions in the Arab World. The issue of Palestine was again given central attention at the Closing March, which took place on 30 March, marking International Solidarity with Palestine’s Land Day. Similar to the Opening March, the Closing was marked by wide participation of the attendees, drawing thousands of people to the streets of Tunis.
In addition to dedicating two of the five days to Palestine, the organizers of the Forum allocated a large Palestine Tent, for the three days of Forum assembly. The Palestine Tent was the focal point of activities and displays of the various participating Palestinian organizations. There was a photo exhibition as well as an array of publications and products. The tent was also intended to be a meeting space for networking between organizations.
In addition to the Palestine Tent, various international solidarity organizations offered numerous other Palestine related events. According to the Forum program there were at least 37 such activities, lectures and so on.
All’s good, apart from...
The 2013 World Social Forum did not go without problems. We need to acknowledge and address these issues if we want to prepare better for future Forums. One of the main shortcomings of the Forum this year was a direct result of its success. The massive participation of Arab and Middle Eastern organizations, stretching from the Maghrib (Arab countries in the west of North Africa) to the Mashriq (Arab countries from Egypt to the Persian Gulf), in the wake of Arab revolutions, have clearly put a lot of strain on the organizing committee. Although there was a clear system of zones within the vast Al-Manar University Campus, navigating between tents, classes and lecture-halls was not sufficiently intuitive and most of the times confusing. The lack of details on the provided maps, as well as the absence of clear directional signs, contributed to this issue.
Similar logistical difficulties were present in the Palestine Tent. Due to inadequate coordination, the Palestine Tent was lacking basic resources, such as electricity as well as sound and digital presentation equipment. As a result of this, Palestinian organizations were unable to present their digital materials. The multi-purpose function of the Palestine Tent, for exhibitions and networking, has thus become an obstacle for those who planned to deliver lectures - due to the loud noise from inside and outside the tent. It was only at the last day of assembly that a sound system was brought into the tent.
In addition to the logistical aspects, there were drawbacks in terms of Palestinian representation and participation in the Forum. One of the most important sessions at the Palestinian Tent was one designated for discussing and evaluating the World Social Forum - Free Palestine which took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil in November 2012. The Forum in Brazil was a first of its kind, dedicated to “effective mobilization enriched by the global encounter between popular networks and those committed to promote justice and equality”. However, the implementation of this idea was met with controversy, one which the evaluation meeting in the Palestine Tent in Tunis was supposed to address. Nonetheless, those who attended the meeting were disabled from effectively evaluating what occurred in Brazil as they were presented with only superficial information without space for discussion or in-depth analysis.
Moreover, the panel of speakers in the evaluation session presented a document (see copy of the document on page 11) on behalf of all Palestinians without consulting the participating Palestinian organizations, to the dismay of many of us present in the evaluation panel. More importantly, and surprisingly, during the meeting the Palestine Convergence Assembly, a body that is supposed to represent Palestinians in the Forum, announced that its head is Fatah senior member Nabil Shaath. Not only was the process of such an appointment not transparent, such a position goes against the principle of “non-governmental and non-party context” of the Forum. Moreover, the final statement of the Palestine Convergence Assembly conforms to a very particular political stance, imposing an ideological-political line that allows little space for pluralism.
Moreover, the 9th article of the World Social Forum charter clearly states that no individual representing a political party may participate:
The World Social Forum will always be a forum open to pluralism and to the diversity of activities and ways of engaging of the organizations and movements that decide to participate in it, as well as the diversity of genders, ethnicities, cultures, generations and physical capacities, providing they abide by this Charter of Principles. Neither party representations nor military organizations shall participate in the Forum. Government leaders and members of legislatures who accept the commitments of this Charter may be invited to participate in a personal capacity.
Seen in this light, one would wonder how we the Palestinians had representatives of political parties, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and some of whom embody Palestinian Authority offices as well? Why are Palestinians being treated favorably through such exceptions? And how does it encourage our own corruption and division?
These questions were especially evident with regards to the “State of Palestine” motto and the call to adopt this name in representation of the Palestinian cause in future World Social Forums. Based, as the term is in practice, on only West Bank Area A and the nucleus of the Gaza Strip, imposing such terminology runs the risk of excluding the Palestinian refugees (the majority of Palestinians worldwide), as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel, very much in the same way these groups have been excluded from any decision-making process since the start of the Oslo peace process. Adopting the “State of Palestine” as the frame of representation of Palestinians in future World Social Forums creates more problems, rather than solving existing ones.
Looking towards the future, a meaningful preparation to an event with the size and importance of the World Social Forum should start with proper follow up, review and feedback of the last Forum. Therefore this year’s Forum has to be evaluated accordingly and in particular due to the Palestinian reality of facing Israeli policies of isolation toward the Palestinians. Palestinian organizations and actors have to make the best of opportunities such as the World Social Forum to educate the world about the situation in Palestine and to convince others in supporting the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence by advocating for specific actions and goals.
OPGAI and BADIL at the World Social Forum
Notwithstanding these problems, this year’s World Social Forum was a healthy boost to Arab civil society, particularly in light of the current political climate in the region. Moreover, this was an opportunity for OPGAI and BADIL to meet and discuss with other organizations from the region and the rest of the world, and learn about the most recent trends and activities. In addition to taking part in, and attending, various events in the Forum, BADIL held a two-hour workshop on “The Palestinian Refugees and Their Right of Return” outlining its holistic approach to the ongoing displacement and the political fragmentations imposed on the Palestinians. The discussion gathered great attention from participants who were interested in ways to raise awareness in their countries regarding BADIL’s rights-based approach.
BADIL. “One People United: A Deterritorialized Palestinian Identity.” BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights, 2013. http://www.badil.org/en/press-releases/144-2013/3654-press-eng-1.
Social Movements Assembly. “Declaration of the Social Movements Assembly – World Social Forum 2013,” March 29, 2013. http://www.fsm2013.org/en/node/12972.
“The World Social Forum Free Palestine: A Platform for Solidarity with Palestinians.” Accessed May 23, 2013. http://www.fsm2013.org/en/node/167.
“What the World Social Forum Is.” Forum Social Mundial, August 22, 2002. http://www.forumsocialmundial.org.br/main.php?id_menu=19&cd_language=2.
“World Social Forum Charter of Principles,” June 8, 2002. http://www.forumsocialmundial.org.br/main.php?id_menu=4&cd_language=2.
Bisan Mitri is Program Officer at Occupied Palestine and Syrian Golan Heights Advocacy Initiative (OPGAI) and a lecturer at Bethlehem University.
Manar Makhoul is Networking and Advocacy Officer at BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.
“What the World Social Forum Is,” Forum Social Mundial, August 22, 2002, http://www.forumsocialmundial.org.br/main.php?id_menu=19&cd_language=2.
Social Movements Assembly, “Declaration of the Social Movements Assembly – World Social Forum 2013,” March 29, 2013, http://www.fsm2013.org/en/node/12972.
“The World Social Forum Free Palestine: A Platform for Solidarity with Palestinians,” accessed May 23, 2013, http://www.fsm2013.org/en/node/167.
“World Social Forum Charter of Principles,” June 8, 2002, http://www.forumsocialmundial.org.br/main.php?id_menu=4&cd_language=2.