Cohen and Kennedy (2007: 448) define the global civil society as such:
“While the civil society is made up of the networks of groups between the family and the state that try to influence political opinion and policy-making within the confines of nation-states, a global civil society includes all those social agents whose joint concerns and struggles stretch beyond the borders of their nation-states, as they try to shape the actions of a variety of powerful actors such as governments, IGOs and TNCs over issues and problems that cannot be tackled adequately, or at all, at any level other than the regional or global.”
The global civil society is seen as existing in this space not (yet) occupied by transnational corporations, the transnational state or the transnational capitalist class. It is incarnated into a variety of social movements (such as the alter-globalization movement) as well as social movement organizations (from ATTAC to the Muslim Brotherhood).
The global civil society is often seen as the only significant force to oppose globalization as it is shaped by hyper-globalizers of the neoliberal kind. It is often referred to as “globalization from below” (as opposed to the governance “from above” represented by the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO) or “globalization with a human face.” Such role as the last opponent to neoliberal globalization has a lot to do with the decline of trade unions in Western societies and the difficulties in unionizing in the semi-periphery and the periphery.
So, the global civil society relies of cross-border activities outside of the scope of the market or the governments and it is often associated with the crisis of legitimacy that traditional national political parties face and the democratic deficit at the global level.
The Gaza flotilla represents a good case of cross-border activism engaged in by global civil society organizations face the opposition of major political forces from different countries: Israel, the US, Greece, to name the principle ones involved.
“The reports that two of the foreign flagged ships planning to be part of the ten vessel Freedom Flotilla II experienced similar forms of disabling sabotage creates strong circumstantial evidence of Israeli responsibility. It stretches the imagination to suppose that a sophisticated cutting of the propeller shafts of both ships is a coincidence with no involvement by Israel’s Mossad, long infamous for its overseas criminal acts in support of contested Israeli national interests. Recalling the lethal encounter in international waters with Freedom Flotilla I that took place on 31 May 2010, and the frantic diplomatic campaign by Tel Aviv to prevent this second challenge to the Gaza blockade by peace activists and humanitarian aid workers, such conduct by a state against this latest civil society initiative, if further validated by incriminating evidence, should be formally condemned as a form of ‘state terrorism’ or even as an act of war by a state against global civil society.”
There is a precedent to such action, as Falk notes, that many of us remember:
“It is useful to compare the Flotilla II unfolding experience with the Rainbow Warrior incident. At the time, the French nuclear tests in the Pacific were considered legal, although intensely contested, while the blockade of Israel is widely viewed as a prolonged instance of collective punishment in violation of international humanitarian law, specifically Article 33 of the 4th Geneva Convention. Although Israel could argue that it had a right to monitor ships suspected of carrying arms to occupied Gaza, the Freedom Flotilla II ships made themselves available for inspection, and there was no sufficient security justification for the blockade as the investigation by the UN Human Rights Council of the 2010 flotilla incident made clear. The overriding role of the blockade is to inflict punitive damage on the people of Gaza. Even before the blockade was imposed in 2007 all shipments at the Gaza crossing points were painstakingly monitored by Israel for smuggled weapons.
A person was unintentionally killed by the French acts of sabotage, and so far no one has died as a result of these efforts to disable and interfere with Flotilla ships, although the Irish vessel, MV Saoirse (‘freedom’ in Gaelic), was disabled in such a way that if the damage had not been discovered before heading to sea, the ship reportedly would have likely sunk with many passengers put at extreme risk of death. Perhaps, the most important distinction of all, is the failure to claim any right to act violently against peaceful protesters even though the French state was officially engaged in an activity directly associated with its national security (weapons development). In contrast, the Israelis are seeking to avoid having their universally unpopular and criminal Gaza policies further delegitimized, and claim the entitlement as a sovereign state to engage in violent action, even if it endangers nonviolent civilians. In effect, it is a declaration of war by Israel against global civil society as over 50 nationalities are represented among the passengers on the Flotilla ships.”
The flotilla certainly fits the bill of global citizens sharing a concern about a particular issue that gets no resolution through the usual political channels especially when the same discredited actors are over and over put in charge of a dead peace process. As Tony Karon notes,
“In a scathing commentary on the folly of the Obama Administration relying on Dennis Ross to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar notes that Ross has been at the center of just about every failed initiative on that front over the past two decades — and that now, as ever, he is running interference for the Israelis, sustaining what he says is an illusion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to make major concessions while restraining the U.S. from putting any significant pressure on him.
There’s nothing new about those hoping for a game-changing U.S. intervention groaning at the news of Ross — the personification of two decades of “process” without end — being put in charge.”
But I also want to note that there is sometimes a certain romanticism attached to the global civil society, as the great democratic movements of people all over the world as opposed to the undemocratic, unpopular and unaccountable agencies of global governance. True enough but the global civil society is not democratic. It is self-selected and just as unaccountable to anyone except members of the organizations that compose it. Also, religious fundamentalist movements around the world are part of the global civil society. So, we should be careful about these aspects.
Secondly, the Gaza flotilla itself is a good example of the activism and attention that a chosen conflict receives, as opposed to stealth conflicts. Virgil Hawkins has demonstrated in his book that the Israel / Palestine conflict, as chosen, receives a disproportional amount of media, political and activist attention. In this sense, political and activist forces see the world through the same lenses, albeit reaching different conclusions.