Interview with Kumi Naidoo
Kumi Naidoo possesses a unique perspective on what it means to work internationally from the South. And from the North. Born in South Africa in 1965, Naidoo has been Greenpeace’s executive director since 2009, being the first African to head the international environmental giant. Prior to joining Greenpeace, he has been an activist against apartheid in his home country, headed an international organization based in the South – Civicus – and led global initiatives such as the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Call for Climate Action.
Never one to be content working from behind a desk, Naidoo has been arrested, imprisoned and deported several times while fighting for human rights and environmental justice, most recently for occupying an oil platform in the Artic in 2011. Perhaps surprisingly, he has also always had much transit in the highest circles of those who he combats, having been invited many times to participate in meetings such as the UN and the World Economic Forum. But he has not been awed by this. In the interview below, which he has granted Conectas last May, Naidoo calls on human rights defenders to engage in civil disobedience and questions civil society participation in high profile meetings and even challenges consecrated concepts such as the rule of law.
“The rule of law consolidated all the injustices in the world that existed before the rule of law”, he says. “We need a new, nuanced, more critical reading of exactly what the rule of law means in a context of extreme injustice, in which the powerful in society are literally able to get away with murder, with regard to ensuring that the majority of people aren’t denied justice.”
But how to achieve change? For him, strategies such as high profile advocacy have limited chances of success. A regular in high profile gatherings in New York, Geneva and even Davos, Naidoo warns against organizations “confusing access for influence” – that is, being used solely to grant legitimacy to these meetings. “Some official is ticking off some box that says ‘civil society consulted’, ‘civil society input achieved’ because some of us were at the meeting. But too often, we might have the right to speak, but we don’t have the right to be listened to properly.”
His solution is combining advocacy and direct action. “If you put all your eggs on the advocacy basket, and you do not have a constituency and you cannot engage in civil disobedience, politicians will continue to do what they have been doing for decades and decades, which is: they make nice speeches, they listen to us, and then they ignore us.”
For him, the answer is civil disobedience. “Whenever humanity was confronted with great injustice or challenges – women’s right to vote, slavery, colonialism, civil rights in the United States, apartheid in South Africa –, these issues only moved forward when decent men and women stood up and said ‘Enough is enough, and no more!’. People were prepared to go to prison if necessary; they were prepared to put their lives on the line if necessary.”
Read below the complete interview with Naidoo, where he also speaks about issues such as the right to peaceful protest, the corporate capture of democracy and Greenpeace’s member participation strategies.
Conectas Human Rights • You were born in South Africa, you worked for a long time for Civicus, which is a southern-based international organization, and then worked for Greenpeace – which is a Northern international organization. What would you say were the main challenges that you faced while working internationally from the South, and what’s the difference now that you are working from the North?
Kumi Naidoo • Good question. I think the big challenge is that we still live in a world where a lot of the key intellectual developments in our fields – the cutting-edge in human rights, in environmental science and so on – is still fairly dominated by the North, by developed countries. When you have civil society organizations located in southern locations like Conectas in Brazil and Civicus in South Africa, it turns things on their head, and it sort of says that, actually, the majority of the people live in the Global South anyway, and in fact that’s where the engine of thinking, ideas, conceptual understandings and so on need to be coming from. So while I think there are huge benefits of working from the Global South. I think that still there is a perception that actually excellence only comes from the North, and we still need to break that.
Working now in the North, I would say that there are really some excellent skills here, but those skills are not necessarily contextually relevant. People might have a conceptual understanding of a particular issue, and might be very, very good in the analysis at a theoretical level, but actually how that plays out in a country where the governance is different… Certain notions of democratic space are taken for granted in some places, but actually don’t play out like that in many countries. This is extremely challenging and different. One of the things that international organizations, including NGOs, sometimes do is that they underestimate the importance of contextual knowledge. Take Brazil: You can be a theoretical expert on forests, but if you have not lived in the Amazon, if you do not breathe the Amazon, if you don’t really engage with the indigenous communities in the Amazon, to understand how to organize things, you can have theoretical knowledge, but not in practice. So we need folks from the Global South to be more assertive about the power and the importance of contextual knowledge. What I’m saying is that I think – yes, there are some good technical skills that we have in large international NGOs, but they are not necessarily the ones that are rooted in the contextual understanding, in a clear and strong manner for successful campaigns sometimes.
Conectas • Do you find any difference in terms of your ability to influence the agenda internationally, or access places like the UN, or a big international fora now that you work from the North?
K.N. • Historically, I think that the UN was more accessible to folks that were located where the UN is located, in New York, in Geneva, in Vienna; and previously, the UN and other international organizations like the World Bank were pretty comfortable to have representatives of Oxfam and Save the Children and Action Aid, and CARE, and so on, to be their major interlocutors. What is changing is that, increasingly, also because some of us from the South have argued for it, those institutions are recognizing the need to have much more diverse voices represented in those fora. I am seeing a great effort by people organizing various UN conferences to bring the Southern perspective into them. And increasingly even international NGOs, if they are going to do a big push at the UN General Assembly, they’re bringing more Southern leaders to it, whereas in the past the thinking was “well, we have five people here in New York – they can just do it.” They are recognizing a little bit more the symbolic importance, as well as the content importance, of having people who are most affected by the issues that we are talking about to be able to have the ability to express those opinions.
Conectas • About representation: Greenpeace is one of the main member-based civil society organizations in the world, but at the same time I understand you do receive donations not only from individuals but also from foundations…
K.N. • The majority of our resources comes from individual citizens. And we don’t take any money from government or business. We do take some money from foundations and trusts, but only from those that meet certain ethical criteria. For example, we probably wouldn’t take money from the Gates Foundation, even though it is a foundation, because they support GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) and all of that. If a foundation got its money from fossil fuels, for example, or from ocean destruction, or forest destruction, then we wouldn’t accept it. So, for us, foundation money is a bit more difficult.
Conectas • And how do you communicate with your members? Can members influence Greenpeace’s plans or agenda? And how does that work?
K.N. • Yes, they can influence it, but I will be honest with you: not as much as I would like them to, and that is one of the changes that we are facing as part of our new strategy. We are trying to give more voice to our members, volunteers and supporters.
It varies from country to country, so in Spain and in France the supporters have a big role, formally voting for the board and so on. In Germany, supporters and volunteers are consulted on key elements of the program. But if I’m brutally honest, I’d like to see a much more systematic way of getting supporter input.
The difficulty is that it is a lot of people. If you just take financial contributors, there are more than 3 million of them. If you take all the cyber volunteers, we are talking about 20 million people. So it is a little bit hard. We do a lot of surveying members on specific issues. Sometimes, if I want to get input on something, we do a sample. We send a survey on an issue to 10,000 people, and then I get their feedback on it. If I send it out to everybody, it would take about three months to process the feedback.
But it is really not as good as I think it needs to be and could be. As part of our new strategy, we are working to improve that.
Conectas • How do you combine direct action and long-term goals? Is it possible? Using long-term goals and strategies to work in agenda setting – what is the place of direct action and what the place of advocacy?
K.N. • Excellent question. I think both are important and both are necessary, but the issue is that action speaks louder than words.
Quite often, civil society organizations make the mistake of confusing access for influence. Just because we get access to the UN or to the Human Rights Council etcetera, does that really mean we have influence?
Quite often, we are going to these gatherings and providing legitimacy to them but we are not necessarily getting the outcomes that we want. Some official, either some intergovernmental official or some national governmental official, is ticking off some box that says “civil society consulted”, “civil society input achieved” because some of us were at the meeting. But too often, we might have the right to speak, but we don’t have the right to be listened to properly and we don’t have the right to be heard properly.
I have spoken at so many high-level advocacy things at the UN – where, if there are heads of State involved, they come, they give their speech and they leave. And usually their speech is written by some official, and they just read it. We, on the other hand, sometimes get really orgasmic about it – “oh, wow! We are with the heads of State, and blah, blah, blah” – when in fact it’s just a theater, it’s just a game.
I’m not saying that we should not be talking, that we should not be engaging in dialogue. I believe that when we bring both those strategies together it is when in fact, advocacy works best.
Say, at Rio+20, if I were in a meeting with Ban Ki-moon, where I raise the issue of the need to give more voice to indigenous peoples in these conversations, because indigenous peoples actually have had more wisdom about how to take care of the environment than the so-called civilized parts of the world. (If you and I were the last two people on this planet, and if we were to write the history of the planet, we would probably say that, actually, the most civilized people on this planet were indigenous peoples, and those who have tried to so-call civilize them, were actually the uncivilized ones). So, on an issue like that, on trying to encourage the UN to do the right thing with regards to the indigenous peoples, for example, the best scenario is when there are also people outside demonstrating, who are organized. This is what is called insider-outsider strategy. We are stronger in the inside when we are more visible and stronger on the outside. Because they can easily ignore us, if they think like “these two, three people are just intellectuals who have good ideas, and are well-meaning, but we can ignore them, because they don’t really have a constituency”.
On direct action itself and the need to engage on civil disobedience: if you look at history, whenever humanity was confronted with great injustice or challenges – women’s right to vote, slavery, colonialism, civil rights in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, – these issues only moved forward when decent men and women stood up and said “Enough is enough, and no more!”. People were prepared to go to prison if necessary; they were prepared to put their lives on the line if necessary.
Now, in this moment of history, we have seen a convergence of crises – ongoing poverty crisis, deepening climate crisis, financial crisis, gender equality crisis, crisis around basic services – in a very short time span. Some have called this “the perfect storm”. In a book that I wrote in 2010 I called it “the boiling point”. If you look at any of the other crises or injustices that I mentioned, slavery affected people from countries that were conquests of slavery, colonialism affected countries that were colonized, apartheid affected the people in my country, lack of civil rights affected the people in the United States. But when we look at the current threats, particularly when you add the climate threat, the challenges that we now face are more important than all the previous ones because, yes, it is true that it is a terrible injustice that the people that are facing the first and most brutal impacts of the climate are from the developing world, and often are from very low consumptive and low-carbon-emission realities, but the reality is we have to get it right, as rich and poor countries acting together, to secure the future of all our children and grandchildren.
We have that reality, and who are the people we celebrate today as historical figures that we should be inspired by? Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King. They are people who went to prison for long times, people who got assassinated in the course of their work. As an American grandmother once said: “If you want to make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs”.
By the way, it’s not about saving the planet, because actually the planet doesn’t need any saving. If humanity runs up to the point where it can no longer exist on the planet, the planet will still be here. It will be scarred and battered by the human crimes against it, but it would actually be in better shape, because the forests would grow back, the oceans will replenish and so on. The struggle is not about saving the planet, the struggle is about ensuring that humanity can coexist with nature in a mutually interdependent way for centuries and centuries to come. Put differently, the struggle is about securing our children and grandchildren’s futures.
One thing with which human rights communities do help with a little bit more is strengthening this whole body of knowledge around what I would call intergenerational solidarity and intergenerational rights. Our current generation of [herald] leaders is leading as if we did not have other generations coming after us, our consumption patterns are already one and a half times what this planet can currently endure.
In that sense, just to go back to where we started. I am not saying that advocacy is not important, and that only actions are important. Both are important, in different ways. However, if you put all your eggs in the advocacy basket, and you do not have a constituency and you cannot engage in civil disobedience, politicians will continue to do what they have been doing for decades and decades, which is: they make nice speeches, they listen to us, and then they ignore us.
The only changes that we are seeing, whether it was the overthrow of Mubarak or the overthrow of the Yemeni government and so on, is when citizens said “Enough! We are prepared to occupy the squares, and shoot us if you want, but we are not leaving”. That’s the spirit we need to see in all the areas of social endeavor, whether it be gender equality, indigenous rights or certainly climate.
Conectas • Last year we had many street protests in Brazil, and the problem is that if human rights organizations are engaged in direct action, the government says “you are vandals, you are criminals, you are breaking the law – how do you want us to respect the law if you yourselves are not respecting it?” It doesn’t make it illegitimate, but it is a lot harder to justify to the general public why you are doing that.
K.N. • We in the human rights community have a dilemma about the rule of law and how we engage with the rule of law. To a large extent, we are slaves to the rule of law, but the rule of law is not a thousand-year old concept. The rule of law was introduced by the powerful. Some of us fought for certain things – in South Africa, we fought for the Constitution, to be progressive etcetera -, but governments must know that we are not going to accept that the right to peaceful protest is illegitimate.
It is critically important that these protests remain peaceful. Governments tend to paint everybody with the same brush. This is totally unacceptable. In many, many cases, even in so-called democratic countries like Canada, I can provide you with evidence which shows that when there have been demonstrations of violence, such as in Quebec, a couple of years ago, when the Three Amigos meeting* took place, it was proven beyond doubt that the person that was instigating the violence was an employee of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He got discovered because he had police shoes. You can see it on a video. He is the one saying: “Let’s throw stones!”. People then were saying: “No, no, no! This is a peaceful protest, please put those stones away”. And some said: “Hey! Look! He’s wearing police boots!” He then runs, and the police just opens up a corridor and take him. They denied it for a few days, but eventually they had to concede it.
So, let us say to governments: “We believe that the right to peaceful protest is a right that we will not give up”. Let us say to president Dilma and everybody else: “Don’t go celebrating Mandela, Martin Luther King and Gandhi and so on, and then deny the very thing that they fought for, which was democracy”. Democracy is not about casting a ballot once every four or five years. It is about the right to be able to participate actively in public life, including in between election periods, in a way that allows us to show our support or our opposition to policies being pursued by our governments.
Coming back to the rule of law: basically, the rule of law consolidated all the injustices in the world that existed before the rule of law. The rule of law has become the darling of the powerful, and almost a threat to the powerless. Because, if you take the O.J. Simpson trial, it is an example of how, if you are wealthy, you can use the legal system and get away with murder. My best example: HSBC was engaged in massive money laundering for the drug cartels in Mexico. All the evidence was found, and the U.S. government could have taken them to court and convicted the managers and directors who were engaged in it. But they just made it into a US $1 billion fine, which is not even like one week’s worth of profit for HSBC. But then, a young African-American or a Latino kid in California gets caught three times with a joint in his pocket and he spends years in prison. For years, if anybody asked me if I supported the rule of law, I would say: “Of course I do.” But I’m not saying that we have to throw out the rule of law lock, stock and barrel. I think we need a new, nuanced, more critical reading of exactly what the rule of law means in a context of extreme injustice, in a context where the powerful in society are literally able to get away with murder, with regard to ensuring that the majority of people aren’t denied justice.
Conectas • My last question was going to be exactly about that: whether human rights are still an effective language to deal with injustices and promote social change. For example, if the main violators are not State actors, but big business, human rights are directed at States, how do we address this kind of injustice and promote social change? We have this in common with the environmental movement, no?
K.N. • This is a complicated answer.
Firstly, what is democracy? Democracy was supposed to balance the wallets of wealthy people by the ballots. The ballots were supposed to balance the wallets, to equalize the voice of ordinary people with those who have power. Today, to be brutally honest, our democracies have been captured by the powerful economic interests in society.
The United States can best be described today, in my judgment, as the best democracy money can buy. There are three types of people that can run successfully for national political office in the U.S.: the rich, the extremely rich, and the obscenely rich. Our electoral systems have been captured. The money of the corporate sector has polluted American democracy to the point that, if we look at it from a climate perspective, even though we are seeing serious climate impacts in the United States, what you see is… For every member of Congress in the United States, there are between three to eight full-time lobbyists paid for by the oil, coal, and gas industries to make sure no progressive climate legislation goes through. They are basically buying off the politicians who need that money to run for political office.
In too many countries around the world today our elected political officials are completely powerless. They are dependent on the power of corporations to exist. We have to get big money out of democracy, out of our democratic politics. We have to go back to some of the basic tenets of democracy, one of which is the equality of voice, which certainly does not exist in most political systems across the world today. In many countries, we have the form of democracy without the substance of democracy. Many things that we call today democracies are really not democracies, but liberal oligarchies – that means that they have the form of elections. Yet, elections, I believe, don’t equal democracy anymore. When women couldn’t participate fairly, when working class perspectives are not listened to, when indigenous are marginalized, you cannot call that an effective working democracy that listen to various voices – and today I would say that elections have become a preordained elite-legitimation exercise. Think about it, today, when people go to vote, they are not going to vote for the best candidate, they are going to vote for the least bad candidate. That’s the situation in many, many countries. What does that mean for activism? For activism and for civil society, it means that we do not have luxury of saying: we just focus on corporations, or we just focus on some governments. We have to focus on both, and if we fail to focus on the role of corporations, I think that we will not be fulfilling our full potential and mission as civil society.