Human Rights Day 2012: Are you more Paul McCartney or John Lennon?

When I was about twelve years old I saw a documentary on The Beatles that had an interview with their producer George Martin. When it came explaining the way the song “Getting Better” came to be, he said that McCartney was always the one who saw the positive in anything, hence the title. Lennon, on the other hand, had a sardonic wit about him that took the notion of “getting better” and turned it on its head. That’s why in the song you hear McCartney saying “It’s getting better all the time,” followed by Lennon’s “It can’t get no worse.”

The end of the year is always a ripe time to take stock on anything, from personal goals to the state of the world. Today also happens to be International Human Rights Day, and as much as I’d like to think things are more McCartney-like “getting better” in terms of the respect, protection and fulfillment of human rights across the globe, I have to lean Lennon-wise and wonder if it “cant’ get no worse.”

I took a look at a post I wrote last year at this time, Dear Santa, here’s my human rights Xmas wish list and not much on the list was granted. To sum up: 
  • I wanted the Canadian government to at least be smarter, and I have seen no evidence to support this. If anything, the Harper government has gone out of its way to ignore the rights of First Nations people, minorities, and women (feel free to add “etc.”), while dismissing any organization brave enough to stand up for environmental rights. They basically said screw off to the United Nations when the Special Rapporteur on the right to food knocked on our door earlier this year, and their bombastic language of “retaliation” against Palestinians for asking for non-member observer status at the UN is disgracefully un-Canadian.
  • I wanted Bashar al-Assad to be removed from Syria. Santa didn’t do good on that. My Xmas note pointed out that 5,000 people had been killed by December 21 2011; now we’re up to 40,000 and possibly the use of chemical weapons sometime soon. I really don’t want to write “get rid of al-Assad” on my Xmas list next year.
  • While on the subject of nutty leaders, I asked Santa to do something about President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe (he didn’t) and President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen (Santa did listen; the guy’s gone).
  • I asked for reforms in the political system in Bahrain, where a friend of mine has been jailed since April 2011 and sentenced to life in prison. He’s still there, and dammit Santa, another friend is now in the slammer for tweeting. For tweeting. I mean, come on.
  • I wanted police in Egypt to be a little nicer with peaceful protesters. The police were nice for a while, but then again there were fewer protests. Now they’ve flared up because the new president, Mohamed Morsi wanted to add sweeping powers to his authority. Dude, this is why the country cried foul in the first place.
  • The Occupy movement needed a bit of leadership. Which movement?

I had 12 requests for Santa on my list, and apart from getting rid of Yemen’s president, the only other thing Santa delivered on was a white Christmas. I’d have reason to be pissed off if I were a kid wishing for these things.
So this year I won’t draw up a list of things-I’d-Like-Santa-to-do-but-I-know-he-won’t. But I need to hear it’s getting better. After a law was pushed in Uganda urging the death penalty for gays (can’t get no worse), the death penalty clause was dropped (it’s getting better), but the damn law is still there (not good). As Palestinians gain observer non-member status at the UN (getting better), the Israelis announce new settlements in violation of international human rights law (can’t get no worse). As the Rohingya people continue to suffer human rights violations in Myanmar (can’t get no worse), Aung San Suu Kyi needs to respond more forcefully about what’s happening (still waiting for it to get better). As journalists, activists, scientists and just about anybody find themselves unlawfully detained in countries like Iran (can’t get no worse), there needs to be more people ready to speak up and voice their anger at states that disregard human rights obligations (getting better). A young girl gets shot in the head in Pakistan by the Taliban for promoting girls’ right to education (can’t get no worse), but she survived and sparked an even stronger worldwide movement to make her dream a reality (getting better). As individuals, groups and states perpetuate hatred, ignorance and inequality to justify their human rights violations and abuses through misinterpretation and distortion of religion and culture (can’t get no worse), there needs to be a growing presence of people on a global scale –from all cultures, ages, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientation, and plenty of other things that make us human – who fight against them and take a stand to say, “This isn’t right” (getting better).  In an era when anyone with a good internet connection can learn about human rights violations taking place in their own backyard or in a land they’ve never visited, there should not be an excuse not to act, whether you choose to be part of Amnesty’s letter writing campaign, sign any one of Avaaz’s petitions, or those from CIVICUS or FrontLine Defenders.  Those are small steps, and most take no more time than checking your latest Facebook feed or playing a round or two of Angry Birds.

Celebrating human rights and ensuring their enjoyment is a lot more than signing a petition to free a prisoner in a repressive country. It’s about recognizing how deeply human rights are part of our lives and how their realization help shape the lives of individuals, groups, communities, and entire societies.  The theme for this year’s celebration of Human Rights Day is “My Voice Counts.” As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stated in remarks to celebrate the occasion: “Millions of people have gone on to the streets over the past few years, some demanding civil and political rights, others demanding economic, social and cultural rights. This groundswell is not simply a question of people demanding freedom to say what they think. They have been asking for much more than that. They have been asking for their right to participate fully in the important decisions and policies affecting their daily lives. That means not only the democratic processes, but also the key economic decisions that can have such a huge impact on individuals, families, and even entire groups and nations.”
Happy Human Rights Day to you all. Maybe things are getting better.
P.S. Santa: Don’t forget what I said about al-Assad. 

CIVICUS Day 4: We don’t have a plan B because we don’t have a planet B.

The CIVICUS 9th World Assembly came to a close yesterday here in Montreal. The focus of the day was on climate change, and the morning plenary welcomed speakers who had the gravitas to engage the audience on the complexity of the issues at hand. Among the speakers was Tom Athanasiou of EcoEquity, an activist think tank focusing on international climate justice. Also on the panel was Judith Pasimio of the Asian Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, and finally Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace. Steven Guilbeault from Quebec’s own Equiterre rounded off the panel. Athena Ballesteros of the World Resources Institute was the moderator.

The moderator began her remarks by stating that moving forward on climate change meant a discussion on equity. In particular, she highlighted four points:
  1. Equity in terms of historical responsibility: The majority of greenhouse gases are being emitted by industrial countries of the north. These countries have consistently avoided their share of taking responsibility for concrete action to reduce their emissions.
  2. Equity in terms of the poor and most vulnerable: The poorest and most vulnerable populations are being disproportionably affected by climate change. They are also often the first to be hit by climate change, as is evidenced by the millions of people affected by the floods in Pakistan.
  3. Equity in terms of the funding gap: There remains a huge funding gap to address climate change. The International Energy Agency estimates that $26 trillion (2008 USD) in capital will be needed to meet the projected energy demand worldwide by 2030. Compare that commitment in Copenhagen for developing countries to receive only $30 billion over three years. Compare that to the $700 billion bailout for the US banks.
  4. Equity in terms of fundamentally confronting the gigaton gap of greenhouse gases. The “gap” is the amount in gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions that differs between a “business as usual” pathway that we’re now on and a projected pathway of 450 ppm of CO2 by 2030. So far, it hardly looks like we will make it. Reducing these emissions will play a role in slowing down the increase in the average global temperature, which currently looks to be a jump of 2 degrees by the end of the century, and perhaps more.
Mr. Athanasiou  began by reassuring us that “We are not DOOMED!” We still have time, we have plenty of money (or at least somebody does), we have the technology to save ourselves. The only thing holding us back is that we have a little political problem, something Al Gore said on that same stage a few months back. Framing Copenhagen as disaster is too negative, said Mr. Athanasiou: it was the coming out of the global climate movement.

The first view of a full Earth
He went on to say that the environmental movement is an important one, but is not nearly strong enough to engage the climate issue effectively. “We have to become much more than we have been,” he added. “If we were looking to environmental movement to solve the crisis, we might as well head for the bar.” Echoing what the moderator said a few minutes earlier, he labelled the crisis as an equity problem. Understanding it as such opens up the opportunity to address it as an equity issue. He proposed that the right to development is a good framework for organizing our thoughts. Citing the example of the carbon debt, he brought up the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. The principle draws attention to responsibilities of states rather than capabilities of actors. Capabilities draw attention to class and infrastructure, but examples such as the floods in Pakistan – openly being attributed to climate change – are clear indicators that states have common responsibilities to address climate change disasters.

Judith Pasimio pointed out that the Philippines contributes to less than 1 percent of climate change gases, yet is one of the most vulnerable countries affected by climate change. Speaking as a woman activist, she highlighted how climate change has had an adverse impact on women in rural and indigenous communities. They are more vulnerable, have less access to productive resources, the lands on which they work are destroyed or taken away by development projects, they are more economically marginalized, and they face increased pressure to find ways to get food.

Steven Gilbault, a man whose passion and commitment to the environment is apparent through the energy and conviction with which he speaks, brought the Canadian government to task on its inability to recognize the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. He pointed out that civil society in Canada should have taken a more active role in making sure Canada respected the Kyoto Protocol.

Having governments renege or fail to live to up commitments for climate justice was the starting point of Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace. He said, “We wanted a FAB treaty at the end of Copenhagen. Not fab in the sense of fabulous, but FAB in the sense of Fair, Ambitious, and Binding.”
  • Fair speaks to climate justice – those least responsible pay the greatest price. Ensure that poor countries are able to adapt. Money should be additional, predictable and flexible. Money to the poor is usually regurgitated money.
  • Ambitious is not simply taking steps in the right direction, but it’s also doing what the science informs us about climate change and helps us with actions.
  • Binding: We simply just cannot trust our governments to implement that which is not legally binding.
Disappointingly, Naidoo said we ended up with “FLAB”: “Full of Loopholes And Bullshit.” After this he tellingly told the audience, “We don’t have a plan B because we don’t have a planet B.”

Disappearing Lake Chad.
The climate justice issue is, simply put, a human rights issue. The crisis in Darfur has been perceived as an ethnic conflict, but mired within the ethnic and political tensions are about 2.7 million internally displaced people who have had to fight over scarce water sources. People around Lake Chad are no different: the near-disappearance of the lake over the past decades has devastated countless communities: not only is it a lack of water, but also diminishing health, little or no income for fisherfolks and their families, increasingly decrepit sanitation conditions, insufficient water for cooking food…the list goes on. Climate justice and human rights are inextricably linked to each other.

The struggle for climate justice offers a powerful opportunity crisis or opportunity, depending on our actions.  One of the many aspects which resonated with me during the assembly was the necessity – the urgency – for civil society to share expertise, to find common ground, to creative build alliances and to act decisively and passionately to engage those in power who have the obligations to respect, protect and fulfill rights as much as we engage those whose rights are being violated. Civil society plays a significant but so far fractured conglomeration of like-minded and willing individuals who do want to change the world. Leaving the assembly last night, I had a positive sense that we were moving in that direction.
Banner to be brought to the UN meeting on the MDGs in September 2010

There was a great deal more that went on that day. I’d attended an informative workshop on climate change and human rights presented by Béatrice Vaugrante of the French section of Amnesty International here in Montreal and Karel Mayrand of the David Suzuki Foundation and The Climate Project. There was also a parallel event hosted by Citizenshift on new technologies and the media which I attended (but will blog about another time!). More info on that can be found here. The new Secretary General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, also gave a few words to bring the Assembly to a close (in an interview here in Montreal, he said “Canada worries us,” in reference to the government’s actions to restrict or fail to protect the rights of Canadian citizens).

My contribution to the banner
Now that it’s over, there’s a lot to reflect on, are a lot of people to keep in touch with, a lot of opportunities for exchange, and nothing that’s stopping us from moving ahead and making a change.

On development effectiveness: "We need a new aid architecture"

The third day of the CIVICUS World Assembly is over. Initially reluctant to get out of bed ridiculously early in order to be there on time, I left the house groggy and in desperate need of a coffee. The day’s events began as they did yesterday, with a plenary session. The topic this morning was on development effectiveness, and the moderator, David Bonbright of Keystone Accountability got us going by gauging our opinion on three scenarios of the future:

  1. Business as usual: won’t see many improvements in human welfare.
  2. Reform scenario: we do make some improvements in aid practice, but those don’t translate through to significant improvements.
  3.  Transformation scenario: bold, concerted new actions in which we begin to see important improvements in democratization and respect for human rights.
When he asked us to choose which scenario was the likeliest, the majority of the audience (myself included) chose the second option. What we were hoping for, he correctly added, was for us to believe in the third scenario. 

Listening to the first speaker, Antonio Tujan of the Asia Pacific Research Network, was more energizing than the coffee I’d bought at the Tim Horton’s downstairs. Convincing, concise, and eloquent, Mr. Tujan pointed out that to improve development effectiveness, we have to agree upon what we mean by results: what they are, and just as importantly, who defines them. Currently there is no common understanding of what development results are, which is why its a contentious agenda. Should these types of results focus on the poor, achieving economic results, or something else? Having an effective development agenda is not only about governments and donors, but also about the involvement of CSOs, which can be instrumental in ensuring citizen participation.

Development effectiveness according to Mr. Tujan is about the delivery and management of aid. He made frequent mention of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action. The former outlines five key principles for improving development effectiveness, namely reforming partnerships premised on ownership (where governments have control over their development process), alignment (donors align their work to country systems), harmonization (there are mechanisms in place to work together), mutual accountability in achieving results, and managing for development results. In making sure this happens with CSO involvement, the Accra Agenda specifically recognizes CSOs as development actors. In particular, par. 20 states:

“We will deepen our engagement with CSOs as independent development actors in their own right whose efforts complement those of governments and the private sector. We share an interest in ensuring that CSO contributions to development reach their full potential.”

He went on to say that empowerment is the main strategy for poor to claim their rights. Again, CSOs play a central role in bringing not only the voices of the poor to the development table, but to also, in the process, empower those who are poor, vulnerable and marginalized in order for them to understand and claim their rights, thereby empowering them.

Development effectiveness is based on human rights and democracy, and in mentioning this he referred us to the over-half-century old Bandung Principles for International Cooperation (on a side note, when I visited Bandung a few years ago my friend was very pleased to point out the building in which the principles were written, a small but significant testament to their importance). The principles include equality, respect for sovereignty, and solidarity. Taking a cue from these principles, he noted that we have a big problem today in development effectiveness, namely the difference of approaches between the OECD and south-south agendas.

OECD countries define their own agenda for development, which places ownership with the government. On the other hand, increasingly rich countries in the south which are in stronger positions to assert their ability to provide development assistance to other countries in the global south are pushing their own agendas based on cooperation and solidarity, not on imposing conditionalities. What was needed, he suggested, as a “new aid architecture” for development, one which goes beyond development effectiveness (which is an inherently broad term) and moves us towards effectiveness of development cooperation. 

A great deal more was discussed during the panel from two other speakers, Marta Cumbi from Foundation for Community Development in Mozambique and Tomas Brundin of the Swedish Foreign Ministry, both able speakers who complemented what Mr. Tujan said. I attended a workshop on assessing complex systems change which basically forced me to put into question all my evaluation practices (which I guess is a good thing, but my head is hurting now), and later in the afternoon we “open spaced” discussions on the Millennium Development Goals. I volunteered to write the report for the group and some of the choice things mentioned are worth noting here:

  • There is no government accountability in the MDGs, and CSOs need to push for that until 2015 and make sure the next type of goals include accountability. If governments balk, at least CSOs can hold up the MDG report card and say: “See? Last time we didn’t take human rights into consideration and look what happened.”
  • Suggestion to go beyond traditional “1 $ a day” interpretation of poverty and to explore new approach of a “rights-based poverty line.” A new publication explores this idea.
  • While ensuring human rights from UN standards are included more fully in the MDGs, think of creative ways for the reverse as well: for example, making sure that UN treaty bodies (such as the CESCR or the CEDAW Committee) make mention and create links to the MDGs in their reporting mechanisms.

It was not all hard thinking on development effectiveness, all the time, however. A participant from Scotland educated me on some of the finer points of whiskey as well as vultures in South Asia, and I got to meet in person a couple of people at the assembly who had been “tweeting” but I had not had the chance to meet until today. All together a thought-provoking day well spent.

And now I’m quite spent myself. One day to go.