Citizens' Assemblies (CAs) are advanced as an institutional solution to tackle some of the challenges facing representative democracies. On 10 October, a debate co-organized by the Département du territoire (DT) de la République et Canton de Genève and the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy in the context of Democracy Week focused on the practice of Citizens' Assemblies in the light of several concrete experiences, namely Geneva (local), France (national) and Belgium (systemic, as in the original model of East Belgium in which CAs are permanent). The event, which took place in Pavilion Sicli, gathered some of the actors who set them up and researchers who followed the processes.
Moderator Yanina Welp, Research Fellow, AHCD, opened the event by noting that, as Citizens Assemblies spread in Western democracies and beyond, these trigger ambivalent reactions ranging from hope to criticism. Speakers then elaborated on why, how, and to what effect were the initiatives launched.
Frédéric Josselin, Head of Department of Citizen Participation, Office of Urbanism at Département du territoire, Canton of Geneva, spoke, among others, of his experience with the 2020 Forum Citoyen de Genève, which gathered 360 volunteers out of a randomly selected pool of 3000 to discuss how Genevans could improve its collective response to climate and nature-based challenges. He noted that the theme of territorial planning had become contested in the city, with several initiatives being refused by the local population. Bernard Reber, Director of Researchs at CNRS, Paris, and Researcher at CEVIPOF, Sciences Po Paris, elaborated on the French Assemblée citoyenne pour le climat and Convention citoyenne sur la fin de vie, highlighting challenges related to conducting these at a national scale. Ann-Mireille Sautter, Doctoral Researcher, UCLouvain and KU Leuven, focused specifically focus on the East Belgian model of Citizen Assembly, which is institutionalized and ruling as a new public body (as opposed to exceptional as in the other cases under discussion). She noted it has two chambers, a Citizens Assembly and Citizens’ Council, with the latter ensuring the follow-up of the former as well as deciding on key themes it should focus on.
To conclude, Yanina Welp warned about Eurocentric approaches to the topic by noting two caveats: first, the concern in the global South that Citizens Assemblies can be seen as having been invented in Western democracies while they have existed in one form or another in history elsewhere in the world. Second, she pointed to the risk that such tools could contribute to democratic backsliding should they be deployed by undemocratic governments an ideal example of deliberative democracy that is in fact easily manipulated.
The event was simultaneous translated in French/English. It was part of AHCD’s yearly programme for Democracy Week.