Signs of progress in transparency and participation in foreign policy

In 2013, the Foreign Ministry announced two important measures that could break the culture of opacity and isolationism of society. Conectas is active and paying close attention to ensure these promises are kept in 2014 In 2013, the Foreign Ministry announced two important measures that could break the culture of opacity and isolationism of society. Conectas is active and paying close attention to ensure these promises are kept in 2014

In May of last year, Brazil’s then foreign minister Antônio Patriota made an assertive statement about one frequently obscure aspect of Brazilian foreign policy: transparency and social participation – “I would like to reconfirm our commitment to ongoing contact with civil society, with NGOs.” The minister was not in a private meeting, nor a hallway conversation. He was participating at the time in a Senate hearing that was broadcast live on television.

Confronted with more than 30 questions from Brazilian citizens, collected by Conectas during a four-day campaign on the internet and sent to all the senators on the Foreign Relations Commission, the minister found an ideal opportunity to address an issue that has long been pushed to the backburner in Brazil. Patriota’s statement revealed that, despite the difficulties involved, there are good prospects for Brazilian foreign policy to be viewed increasingly more like public policy. The experience of citizen participation in the Senate hearing – named by Conectas “Minister #IWantToKnow” – would be repeated nine months later, in February this year, with the current foreign minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo.

“The #IWantToKnow campaign also illustrates something larger: society does not want to be a mere spectator in the definition of foreign policy in its country. This is especially true when it involves serious human rights issues on which the government is either remiss or pressured by interests that conflict with the values defended by society,” said Camila Asano, coordinator of Foreign Policy at Conectas.

Transparency: White Paper

One of the pillars of this transparency is the drafting of the so-called “Brazilian Foreign Policy White Paper”. In an article published this February in Le Monde Diplomatique, Camila Asano and Laura Waisbich, both from the Foreign Policy and Human Rights Program at Conectas, wrote that the White Paper could be “one of the boldest steps towards the transparency of Brazilian foreign policy”.

But it is not enough. “The idea has been launched. Now comes the hard part, which is working with civil society and preparing a document that makes real sense,” said Asano.

On February 17, the Brazilian Human Rights and Foreign Policy Committee (CBDHPE), of which Conectas is a founding member and on which it serves as executive secretary, sent a series of clear proposals to Minister Figueiredo on how the process of drafting the White Paper should be conducted, stating clearly which points must not be left out of this important document.

Holding public hearings in Congress is considered key for an effective transparency in the process of preparing the White Paper. Additionally, the organizations that make up the CBDHPE defend holding “thematic sectoral debates organized by the departments and divisions” of the Foreign Ministry. Finally, they request the “creation of a mechanism for receiving written contributions” from civil society for the preliminary version of the White Paper, similar to the initiatives that the Brazilian government has already headed up in processes such as the preparation of the national report to the UN Universal Periodic Review.

A first step has already been taken by the Foreign Ministry: the organization of so-called Foreign Policy Dialogues. According to the ministry’s concept note, this series of debates from February 26 to April 2 will be part of the preparation process for the White Paper. Conectas has been invited to be a speaker on the panel Perspectives of New International Governance. “This is a first step. It must not by any means be the last,” said Asano.

Concerning the contents of the White Paper on the subject of human rights, the CBDHPE has requested in particular more clarity on the topics that tend to appear with vague or ambiguous formulations, such as “national and international guidelines, principles and regulations that govern the definition of the international positions of Brazil on matters of human rights” and the use of “multilateral coercive measures that do not involve the use of force in cases of serious violations of human rights and of International Humanitarian Law”.

See here the proposals of the CBDHPE in full.

Participation: National Foreign Policy Council

Both Patriota and Figueiredo in their hearings shed light on another proposal that is beginning to take shape: the creation of a formal and permanent mechanism for social participation in foreign policy, formed by representatives from various different sectors of civil society.

In his Senate hearing, Patriota said that this idea was under discussion at the Foreign Ministry: “We are looking into creating a council for contact with civil society, where we would discuss the objectives and general course of Brazilian foreign policy. Conectas can rest assured that our contact with civil society organizations will only increase from now on.” The current foreign minister, meanwhile, in his hearing, confirmed the commitment to create, in his words, “an advisory council on foreign policy with the participation of civil society”. Figueiredo was emphatic, stating that “there is no doubt that this [the creation of the mechanism] will be done”.

Conectas has been participating in dialogue with other civil society organizations and the government to create this council. The demand for a formal and permanent mechanism to serve as a place for dialogue between civil society and the government is an old one for Conectas. In it, the Brazilian government would publicly report on its actions and receive insight for future foreign policy decisions. “The nature, scope and workings of this mechanism must be defined together with society, since there is no point creating something that will end up being ineffectual,” said Asano. As far as Conectas is concerned, it is essential for its composition to be plural, embracing different sectors of society, including NGOs, social movements, academia, unions and even the business community.

Another concern is for the council, in its advisory capacity, to be able to require the government, if it does not accept the council’s recommendations, to present its justifications. Without this ability, there will be no accountability, which defeats the object of the participation.

Conectas is also concerned with how the members of this future body will be publicly accountable for the way they exercise their mandates, on behalf of the public interest involved. In order for a genuine public scrutiny to be possible, for example, the sessions of the advisory council should be recorded and registered in public minutes, and monitored by the interested public. Conectas also emphatically defends that the council should guarantee the inclusion of the topic of human rights in its debates and deliberations.

Foreign policy as public policy

“Straying from this path is no longer an option in the world we live in. The only choice now for the Foreign Ministry concerns the pace and the form that this transparency and growing public participation will take in the months and years ahead. We have been engaged and active in this process for a long time, identifying the paths that, from our point of view, make this inevitable transformation more fluid and participatory,” concluded Asano.

Watch Camila Asano statement about the meetings promoted by Itamaraty:

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