Bringing Civil Society In - The Advances of the Americas Democracy Summit in Quebec
by John Kirton, University of Toronto
Quebec City, April 21, 2001


One of the more remarkable advances made by the Democracy Summit of the Americas in Quebec City is in pioneering new ways of bringing civil society in meaningful ways into the process of constructing a new hemispheric community. Three significant steps stand out - as a solid foundation on which to build in the years to come.

The first step was the decision, taken by the trade ministers at their meeting in Buenos Aires in the immediate leadup to the Summit, to release the draft of the prospective Free Trade Agreement of the Americas currently being negotiated, and to do so at full four years before its scheduled implementation date of 2005. Never before in major trade negotiations history has so much been made available so soon to so many. All citizens of the emerging hemispheric community will have a chance to see for themselves what their democratically elected ministers are doing, learn about the difficult complex process of crafting comprehensive trade agreements, and offer valuable suggestions about how to guild a better open trade regime that benefits all. One can hope that those currently negotiating freer trade agreements elsewhere, notably in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and World Trade Organization will follow the example set by the Americas and release their own trade texts in full, four years before their negotiations are slated to end. But, realistically, it is probable that only in forums such as the Americas, where all members are democracies, that just innovations in transparency, accountability and inclusiveness can and will take place. Democracy really matters, in trade negotiations as everywhere else.

The second step was making Quebec City a genuine summit of the people, rather than a summit for politicians and professionals alone. The host government of Canada gave generous funding to those mounting the People's Summit and the Indigenous People's Summit, to help them make their important voices heard better. It similarly financed and contributed to many pre-Summit consultations that educated the Summit of the Americas teams about Canadian views and educated Canadians about the Americas.

The third step was mounting the first ever Civil Society Forum during the summit itself. Under the able co-chairmanship of Bill Graham, the pioneer of the new Inter-Parliamentary Forum of the Americas, the forum brought 60 individuals from a wide array of institutions from throughout the hemisphere to come together, learn from each other and combine their expertise and views. Importantly, it allowed senior figures from outside the secure zone to bring the perspectives and priorities of the People's Summit to those inside. And it enabled civil society actors to deliver their views directly to, and to cross-examine, democratically elected ministers from throughout the hemisphere and the heads of the major international organizations whose resources will be required to implement the Quebec City commitments. It thus offered a rare opportunity for civil society to question the two dozen ministers, including new United States trade representative Robert Zoellick, from over a dozen countries in the hemisphere. They listened intently. They learned. They took on board some of the recommendations. And there is already evidence that they will follow them up.

As promising a start as this was, what remains to be done in the years ahead? It could be useful for the leaders themselves, starting with the host, to meet with the civil society representatives, as the G8 did at Okinawa last summer. It would help to find a formula to broaden participation, so that important civil society figures who chose to remain outside the fence, or who simply could not afford to fly here, could participate next time. And it would be good to involve democratically elected legislators, at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, and give them a role in the design and delivery of the Summit next time.

The ministers in the meeting seemed open to such possibilities. It is now up to those civil society representatives at the table to be at least as active in the post-Summit follow-up as they were in the pre-Summit preparation, to ensure that such opportunities are seized.

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