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The World Social Forum: Is Another World Possible?

2 February 2004

For one week in early January over 100,000 people gathered on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, with the modest aim of building another world. The event was the World Social Forum (slogan: Another World is Possible). For the first time MRG sent a delegate to determine whether the WSF was just another talking shop or could be a real force for the implementation of the rights of minorities.

The WSF began in 2001 as a civil society alternative to the World Economic Forum (a meeting of bankers and government officials that takes place in Davos, Switzerland every January). In three years, the WSF has grown into a massive undertaking with over 100 000 delegates taking part in hundreds of events. This year, the WSF took place in Asia for the first time.

Superficially it might be easy to dismiss the WSF as a waste of time. The world was not changed in one week; some might believe that those who make the most important decisions in the world were not there, and inevitably there were many speeches from self-important people producing enough hot air to power a flotilla of balloons. Certainly, the WSF still has some steps to go to before it can claim to be inclusive of every major marginalized group (the disabled were one vocal group demanding more access).

But in reality, the WSF’s strength lies in what it claims to stand for, its diversity. The very fact that it is not a meeting where delegates are running around trying to influence diplomats or find the lowest common denominator for a final communiqué, means that there were hundreds of formal and informal gatherings where delegates could concentrate on common problems and finding common solutions. One of these events was a very productive discussion on minority issues around the world, organised by the Human Development Organisation (an MRG partner organisation in Sri Lanka). In this, MRG and minority representatives from every continent showed how many of the major problems faced by minorities stem from violations of the same rights – the right to identity, language, non-discrimination and land. This meeting also stressed the need for further development of a global network of minorities.

Notable by their prominence throughout the week were the marginalized groups of India, such as the Adivasis. The acknowledged stars of the WSF were the Dalit community. Led by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights a 40-day Dalit rally marched into the WSF on its opening day. Thereafter, the Dalit events were numerous and productive, not only highlighting the issue of the ongoing discrimination against this community, but, perhaps more than any other group, showing just how national and international advocacy for rights can be linked. The events highlighted the situation of the Dalits in India and in other countries in the region, but also brought in representatives of communities suffering descent-based discrimination in other parts of the world, including Senegal, Moldova and Japan. Furthermore, through the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) the linking of the national and the international (the latter in the form of developments in law and in the mechanisms to secure rights) was made clear.

Another minority-related issue that was addressed in many events in Mumbai was the aftermath of the February 2002 genocide of Muslims in Gujarat state, India. MRG participated in the first panel set up on this issue, which led to many further discussions, again on how international, national and local work can be linked to ensure that those responsible for this genocide are brought to justice and it does not happen again. One of the first issues that became clear was that the evidence is now overwhelming that what took place in Gujarat was genocide under the international legal definition. Every state in the world that has ratified the Genocide Convention is under a duty to prevent and punish genocide (Article 1, GC). Given the lack of action by any state since the genocide in 2002, the WSF was an unparalleled opportunity for international and national organisations to develop their work together and put pressure on all their government and legal authorities to take action.

The WSF, as befitted its very essence, did not end with one message, but with thousands. But throughout, one overriding theme came through, in that the diversity that exists in the world needs to be respected and cherished. The task now is to ensure that those who found out in Mumbai how much they have in common are able to work together.

Clive Baldwin, Head of International Advocacy

Notes for editors

  1. N. Paul Divakar, MRG Council Member, is the National Convenor
  2. MRG is part of this network.
  3. ‘Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group’ [Article 1, UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 1948]
  4. 135 states are state parties, including India, China, the USA and all EU members.

For more information, contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].