Ignite the Mandela in us all

Celebrating International Human Rights Day 

My younger son has been fuelling a recent obsession of creating elastic bracelets using a loom. “Everyone’s doing it at school,” he tells me. A couple of weekends ago his teacher encouraged the students in his class to disconnect from all electronic devices – TVs, tablets, computers, iPods. My son managed to stay disconnected the whole time and indulge his new passion of bracelet-making.

Late last week he came up to me after school. “Daddy, I want to make bracelets and sell them at school for a dollar each. I want to raise money for the people who are victims of the typhoon in the Philippines.”

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “Uh, well OK. Did somebody ask you to do this?”

He shook his head. “No,” he replied. It’s my own idea.” He told me he’d ask a good friend to see if he could help too. His friend agreed, and my son wrote a letter to his principal asking permission to sell the bracelets.

His principal has yet to get back to him, but after telling his story to a couple of my friends, the friends have already pledged to purchase a few bracelets. Each bracelet he makes takes anywhere upwards of 15 minutes depending on its complexity. His enthusiasm at getting up well before sunrise or staying up late to create these bracelets is admirable, and I’m not just saying that because I’m his father. I didn’t give him this idea of raising funds, neither did his mother, and I’ll be the first to admit that an act like this was never an idea I would have thought of at his age. Like, ever.

The Mandela bracelet.

So whatever amount raised by December 23 will be donated to UNICEF Canada, with the Canadian government matching the donation. With the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing last week, and having learned a little more about his life over the past few days, my son’s been working on “The Mandela,” a bracelet with the six colours of South Africa’s flag. As we mourn such a tremendous loss, the impact of Mandela’s legacy for generations to follow will only be strengthened if we demonstrate a selfless kindness and willingness to help others, commit to treat everyone with the respect and dignity they deserve, and unhesitatingly attempt to brighten anyone’s day. As we celebrate International Human Rights Day December 10, I can’t think of any better way to hope that our collective future holds much promise if we all put a little Mandela in our words, our actions, and our hearts.

Happy International Human Rights Day to one and all.

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. 

Screw Ken, Barbie wants same-sex marriage

I say good for Archie comics. In the recent Life with Archie #16, a soldier, Kevin Keller, serving in Iraq gets injured. While recovering at a hospital, he meets and falls in love with an African-American male doctor. The two tie the knot and grace the cover of the comic. This is not the same Archie I grew up with. Jughead was a moron, Veronica was nasty, and Archie always got into trouble for being generally quite stupid. All those silly Republican candidates down in the US seem to take every opportunity to promote marriage as being “only between a man and a woman” – I say give them a copy of Life with Archie to read between debates. I doubt it’ll change their minds but it’s worth it to see how offended they’d be.

While the acceptance of same-sex marriage is beyond what many politicians’ and plenty of average dull normals would deem as morally OK, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this stuff can be addressed with young children. Leave it to a ten year-old to take the moral high ground and see same-sex marriage as simply a matter of respecting human rights. Period.

Hit the road, Ken.

Back in December, the local Amnesty International group held an essay and art context to celebrate International Human Rights Day. I helped judge the entries from Greendale Elementary. After picking winners in each category, my Amnesty colleague showed me an entry from a fifth grade girl. It was a large maquette filled with Barbies holding signs advocating for equal rights. There was the right not to be discriminated against because of colour (that was a Black Barbie holding up the sign, and she basically looked a lot like the white Barbie, including the ridiculously impossible measurements that defy reason), the right to be treated equally as a woman, and – my favourite – two Barbies expressing their right to marry each other. “We have absolute right to marry each other!” read the sign between the lovestruck dolls, a heart with an arrow drawn just below the words. They certainly looked happy. I say good for the youth of today, who seem to have no trouble understanding that when two people love each other and want to marry, they can. It’s a simple as that.

The artist of the Barbie maquette won in the newly-created Outstanding Art category.

Update: The Pope says that gay marriage undermines “the future of humanity itself.” As if I needed another reason not to believe in religion.