Birthday wishes: world peace and all that crap

Yay, 42nd birthday coming up soon. The day means more for my kids than it does for me, primarily because they hide my gifts around the house and write clues to help me find them. I don’t really want anything, but I will probably get a bookstore gift card and some beer. Perhaps a Star Trek novelty toy. I don’t wish for things anymore, at least not like I used to when I was younger. Back then:
  • By the ages of four, five, and probably six, I wished that my father would come back to life, but deep down I sort of knew that wasn’t going to happen.
  • By 10 or so I wished for an X-Wing fighter, I got it and it’s still somewhere in the basement. But I don’t play with it anymore (please, I’m a Star Trek fan).
  • By 16 or so I wished for a role in a Star Trek movie. Hasn’t happened yet but I’m enthused by my chances thanks to the reboot. Also wished for innumerable chance encounters with plenty of girls I had crushes on. As best I recall, nothing panned out, but I don’t really care about that now.
  •  By 20 I wished I’d never opted to study applied mathematics and physics in university. Anyone sane would wish for that too.
  • By 24 I wished for Kraft Dinner, a Dunkin Donuts doughnut, and a Molson Dry. Those were days when I lived in Africa and my food and drink options were quite limited.
  •  I used to wish for world peace.

Ha! World peace. As if. Nowadays let me be more practical:

  1.  I wish for the immediate release of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, human rights defender who was arrested, beaten, jailed, and sentenced to life in Bahrain for defending the rights of others. Plenty of other innocent people are being held in prisons in Bahrain and also deserve to be released. Abdulhadi has been on a hunger strike now for over forty days.
  2. I wish the Syrian government would stop the bloodshed. One life lost is one too many. Ten thousand deaths in one year are unfathomable.
  3. I wish the Canadian government would do a better job of fulfilling its human rights obligations to the poorest of our nation, including the First Nations.
  4.  I wish the Canadian government and other rich nations would do their part and commit to the 0.7% pledge, whereby this small percentage of a state’s gross national income goes towards overseas development assistance. Canada’s percentage is hovering around 0.33%.
  5.  I wish that local non-governmental organizations working to protect the rights of others get the support they need to continue their work. This applies just as much in Canada as it does for small NGOs helping in rehabilitation and reintegration efforts of former child soldiers in Africa and elsewhere. These organizations are doing great work without all the fanfare.
  6.  I wish that all the nasty guys on the International Criminal Court’s list are caught and put on trial the way Thomas Lubanga was.
  7.  I wish governments, businesses, and average folks in a position question human rights abuses and violations do so more adamantly than ever before. I wish they could realize that there are solutions to nearly 10 million children under the age of five dying yearly from preventable diseases, there are ways to prevent the hundreds of thousands of women and girls who die yearly from pregnancy-related complications, and there should be more public outrage against millions of people dying in conflicts around the world.
  8.  I wish some people would stop arguing about rights that aren’t worth arguing about, like gay rights. They’re just rights, please accept them and do your best to “get it.” There is no ambiguity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights.” Please find something better to do – plant some flowers or go ride a bike, but stop getting riled up over nothing.
  9. I wish people would stop thinking that poverty, disease, and climate change aren’t “their problems” – they’re everyone’s problems, and they will be our children’s problems too. Only they’re bound to get worse by the time our kids are as old as us.
  10. I wish people would care more and hate less.

Oh boy. I might wish for a beer while I’m at it. Make your life better, make someone else’s life better.

2012 – Suck it up and survive, or: reasons to be hopeful

I have never been one to make (and subsequently fail to live up to) any New Year’s resolutions. Although I would like to go to the gym often enough so that the cost of an average workout does not exceed the cost of a case of beer.
With a new year upon us I can best sum up my outlook as: The planet’s screwed but that shouldn’t prevent us from trying to save it, and thankfully some people are still trying to do this but more of us should get out there and do something. I know it isn’t catchy but it’ll have to do. As I reflect on the title of this blog, A Change Is Coming, I’m reminded that change (for the better) won’t happen on its own; people have to make it happen.
The end of the year is always an opportune time to reflect on the past and hope for a better future. This should happen every day, not only now, but I guess most of us are too busy. Plus if all we did was reflect on the past and hope for the future, we wouldn’t be doing anything in the present. So as the year comes to a close I’d like to take stock of things. I have every intention of making this a top 10, but we’ll see if I can manage at least five things.
Here’s what I want for 2012:

  1. As an ordinary person, I know can make a difference in this world on my own and with others, including huge numbers of strangers who are just as pissed off at how things are as I am. I should try harder to make a difference.

How this can happen: On my own, I could try to be an Internet sensation and make a YouTube video of me dancing with a penguin that would go viral and make me (or at least the penguin) popular for a week. This would make 1 million people feel good for about 30 seconds or the length of the video, but I can’t make a career out of it. So for the moment, and over the next year, I’ll try to make a difference on my own by blogging more about things related to human rights that bug me or interest me, that discourage me and enrage me or that give me hope for a better future. My Christmas wish list to Santa covered many of these issues: a Canadian government that selectively shuns human rights violations internationally while ignoring its own actions here, including its discrimination of First Nations communities; killings, detentions and arbitrary arrests in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt; African despots who have clung on to power for too long; discrimination and violence against the LGBTIQ community; and Obama reneging on campaign promises such as the closure of Guantanamo Bay. I’d add to that increasing sectarian violence worldwide, violence against women, trafficking and exploitation of children, internal conflicts around the world that kill thousands every year, violations against migrant workers and their families, human rights abuses by transnational corporations, and the shameful reality that we know we are destroying our planet but those in power are unwilling to make the right decisions for our own sake and for the lives of generations to come.

OK so I didn’t quite get to five things, only one, but I like to think of it as all inclusive.

Believing in human rights education
I believe we (collective “we” of planet Earth) can make our lives and the lives of others better by learning about human rights, so I am a firm believer in human rights education. For many people who lead a nice life and don’t need to worry about having their rights egregiously violated (like me), learning about rights is a destabilizing reality. You realize that so many others in this world do not have the same liberties and freedoms and ability to live a full life of dignity. Learning about human rights violations elsewhere leaves you feeling privileged/guilty/blessed with what you’ve got, and can also push you to act out of empathy and respect for others to help them live a life as full as yours. I specifically say empathy and respect rather than sympathy because the latter term relegates the dynamic of those who have and have not to one of pity and charity. Rights are not about charity; rights are basic obligations that states have for all of us to live equal in dignity and rights. I don’t want to help someone living in poverty because I feel sorry for them. I want to help them because it’s their right to live a better life, and we (collective “we” of planet Earth, but also “we” as in governments) have the ability to eradicate poverty and improve the lives of millions within our lifetimes.
Human rights education is just as essential, just as vital for those who live a life of dignity and equality as for those whose rights are violated. Everyone needs to know about human rights; human rights are not just a trendy topic in university classes, human rights education is not boring (at least it shouldn’t be); human rights education is unavoidable, it cannot be ignored. The events of the past year, in particular with the Arab Spring and worldwide Occupy Movement – are a clear indication that average citizens can rise up and demand their most basic rights – freedom, life, security, equality, and are ready to sacrifice their own freedom in order to achieve these rights for others. The courage of ordinary people defying guns, bullets and tanks in the streets of their hometowns to defy the oppressive despots leading their countries should be incentive enough for the rest of us to get off our collective asses and express our indignation at the failure of our political leaders.

The most impoverished are the strong ones
Worldwide, human rights violations affect those living in poverty the hardest. An estimated 1.7 billion people around the world are living in poverty – it’s an unavoidable statistic that affects everyone. I have seen, though never experienced, conditions of poverty in many parts of the world. However, the crap I see that shapes and defines people living in poverty is only a partial reality of their lives. Living in Africa for four years, I saw enough poverty to leave me incapable of facing it for the first two years in Malawi and give me a fair share of nightmares upon my return to Canada. But I also left wondering how so many people kept going with a strength I found remarkable. If there’s anything I want to learn from others less fortunate, it’s how they keep going with a strength of character to suck it up and survive. Whether through faith or will or courage or love or instinct or a mix of all that and more, the most awe-inspiring part of the human condition is found in places where living conditions are the most deplorable and those oppressed are being violated by others embodying the worst of human nature.

As I look forward to a new year, I remain conflicted as I was last year at this time: hopeful for a better future, but discouraged by the violence, poverty, human suffering and willful degradation of the planet. But the resolve of so many to stand up for their rights, to suck it up and survive and strive for a more hopeful future where their rights are respected, pushes me a little further towards the hopeful end of the scale. That’s enough to keep me going for another year. To all of you, a happy and prosperous New Year. A change is indeed coming.

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.