"Human rights means you respect each other. That’s it, isn’t it?"

My brother and his family came over last night for Christmas dinner. He’s a business man, I’m not. He’s a salesman, I teach people about human rights. Our views on many things are as opposing as they come, our outlooks on life equally different. I showed him a human rights handbook I worked on. He flipped through it, liked the look, but wondered how the hell you could write so much about human rights (the book was about 200 pages). He looked up from the book and stared at me, saying simply, “I don’t know why you need to write so much about something that’s common sense. Human rights means you respect each other. That’s it, isn’t it?”

Yes. A simple question deserves a simple answer. A cursory glance at some of the headlines over the past year is enough evidence to show you that the common sense approach to human rights is not evident. The world’s poor reaction to the humanitarian crises following the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan, China’s reaction to Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize, the continued violence in Darfur or the Congo or [insert country/region of choice here, no shortage of options], election violence in Côte d’Ivoire…the list goes on. Granted, there have been advances in human rights this year, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi being among the most notable. But looking at the global picture of human rights can leave you wondering why we’re doing this to ourselves.

As a human rights educator, thinking about the advances and the setbacks we’ve faced in respecting human rights leaves me filled with (almost) equal amounts of hope and despair – hope does win out, as it does, I suspect, for most people who call themselves human rights defenders. I think what keeps the spirits up for those defenders is that they can effect change within their immediate spheres of influence – their neighbours, their friends and families, their colleagues, and the people in their communities.

When I think of the work I’ve done over the past year, I’m most grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to facilitate workshops for human rights defenders who are making a difference in the lives of others around them. In other words, to use overly dramatic make-me-gag-sappy lingo you’d see on sites like CNN, they’re heroes. The first workshop I facilitated this year was in Jordan in February, and the group consisted of everyday phys ed teachers in Palestinian refugee camps and people working for NGOs. They came to the workshop to learn about children’s rights and how to use games to promote human rights values. The work they do as teachers or NGO workers is unrecognized hero-stuff. They teach others to respect each one another – in other words, they ascribe to my brother’s definition of human rights. Take Thawrat, for example: a kind man with a gentle face making sure Coptic orphans in Egypt live their lives to their fullest potential.

Every workshop I’ve been part of this year has had its share of Thawrats: from Vancouver to Winnipeg, from Jakarta (twice) to Colombo to Kathmandu, everyone trying their best to make a difference in the lives of others. And for me, now in my ninth year doing this type of work, I have asked myself the following question more often that usual: Am I really needed – do I really need to do this job? Don’t think this is a cheap attempt to elicit sympathy from readers, it’s not. It’s a question anyone in “international development” should ask. A related statement would be: I should work my way out of a job. On my last trip this year to steamy Jakarta, I got the answer. My last meeting was with a group of people who have been undertaking their own annual human rights training program for the last three years. Now getting ready for their fourth year, they are well-prepared, aware of the work they must do, conscious of their fundraising needs, and fully capable of having a successful fourth annual program. The group consists of people who are part of my organization’s alumni and who needed my help and the help of my colleagues for the first three years. My role was specifically in assisting the group on the curriculum content of the program. I sat through the meeting doing absolutely nothing other than listen. I had nothing to contribute. They had everything covered. I felt unneeded. I had found my answer – at least on that rooftop in Jakarta, and I couldn’t be happier.

More end of year posts coming in the next few days…

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