My 2015 Human Rights Wish List to Santa

Dear Santa,

Let me get this out from the start so I can move on: you were 1 for 12 in making my 2011 wish list come true. Even then, the one wish that came true was a little snow, and I’m not even sure you can take credit for that one. But getting rid of all the human rights violations stuff – numbers 1 to 11 on the list – well that continued, and in some cases got a lot worse.
I was waiting, Santa.

But enough about unfulfilled wishes of past lists and the inevitable sorrow on Christmas morning! We all know things got worse in Syria (#3 on my 2011 list was to remove president al-Assad) and I never did get that Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center (somewhere in the middle of my list, circa 1978). On with this year’s list. With today, December 10, being International Human Rights Day, I thought I’d write my list based on a few goals that are rights-related.

First, a little background to bring you up to speed: The UN chose its annual Human Rights Day theme in honour of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the adoption of two main covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. I know what you’re thinking – laudable but astoundingly boring. They tried to spice things up with the slogan “Our rights. Our freedoms. Always.” I think Coca-Cola might have a gripe against them because they used “Always” in an ad campaign a while back. But enough about slogans and on to substance. The two covenants do set out a number of rights that people ought to have by simple virtue of being human (right to a nationality, education, a fair trial, innocent until proven guilty, health, freedom to practice religion, freedom of expression, and so on). Along with the enjoyment of those rights you’ve got obligations that states have to help realize them. Peachy. Problem is – and I know you know where I’m going here, because if you watch children sleeping I’m sure you have a rather sophisticated/creepy surveillance system – this doesn’t happen everywhere. Sure there are some countries where rights are respected; my country is pretty good though far from perfect, but there are plenty of other places where people struggle to achieve a modicum of human dignity, like pooping in a clean toilet, having enough food so as not to starve, and being able to walk around town without fear of being shot. If I were in any of those situations, I’d wish for a few basic things that would make me feel more…human, I guess. I wouldn’t even bother setting my expectations to “Our rights. Our freedoms. Always.” but probably aim for something like “A few rights. Some freedoms. At least sometimes.”
So let me get on with my list:
  • At the national level, make sure our new Prime Minister continues to govern properly and respects our rights (a site like TrudeauMetre can help guide you). So far, he’s off to a pretty good start: the government is moving ahead with a plan to welcome 25000 Syrian refugees, there will be a long-awaited national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, the government’s serious about climate change, scientists in Canada can speak up once again, and the long form census has been restored. If there’s one thing that bugs me about him, it’s that he keeps saying “Canada’s back.” Honestly, I never left, neither did my neighbours and pretty much the rest of Canada. We’re not back; we were just governed by someone for 10 years who, in opposition to most intelligent Canadians, did not value inclusiveness, acceptance, diversity, equality, openness, transparency, and international cooperation. 
  • At the provincial level, knock some sense into Premier Couillard with respect to demands from public sector workers, in particular the education sector. To be completely selfish about this – and let’s be honest, most kids writing to you want stuff for themselves so why should I be any different – I’m sick of the teachers’ strikes from the past few months. And for that I don’t blame the teachers, but the government. My wife’s a teacher – a damn good one – and has given her all to hundreds of children for over thirty years. Nearly a week of strikes has left us with a lot less money at the end of this year, and if we’re hurting financially, so are thousands of other families with parents who are teachers. Her profession has continuously been marginalized and undervalued by every government we’ve had since she’s been teaching. Like many teachers, she spends long days with young children – a number of them with special needs – and time during evenings and weekends correcting kids’ work and planning new lessons. Some kids have driven her bonkers over the years (I won’t name names, but you probably have a nice-naughty database you can cross-reference with class lists), but she still cared for all of them. The ill-informed, ignorant and dumb among the masses scoff at teachers’ demands for salary increases and reasonable class sizes, citing pensions and summers off as perks that outweigh any hardships, but such scorn makes no sense when you consider the work teachers do with the resources they have. And again speaking selfishly, my kids – now spending another strike day at home – are missing out on their education, like thousands of other kids across the province. By the end of this week, they will have lost six days of school. While I’m all for having my children improve their high scores on Super Smash Bros. on the Wii during those days off, I’d much rather they attend school. I know what you’re thinking at this point: Getting the Premier to agree to a deal is beyond the scope of your mandate! Well, technically, yes. However, it’s in your best interests to move things forward. The more kids stay at home, the more video games they’ll want for Christmas (this entails a greater expense for you, more work for your elves, and added weight on your sleigh). So send them back to school!

Let me get to a few other points:

  • On a global scale, make sure kids in certain places get a few more hugs than usual from their parents and loved ones. I know hugs aren’t included in international human rights law, and I also know not everyone around the world believes in you, but there’s no point in excluding anyone, so go ahead and make this an all-inclusive wish. Top of the list are children who are living through war, conflict, and situations of violence on a daily basis. Think of the children living in war zones like Syria or living in refugee camps, or who have lost family members to violence, or who are forced to become child soldiers, or who are kidnapped, exploited and sold. They’ve suffered as no one should. And I have to add more to the list as well: children living in poverty, who are gravely ill, living on the streets, forced into early marriage, unable to attend school, discriminated against because of their sex or race or sexual orientation – unfortunately the list goes on. Feel free to consult Benedict Cumberbatch’s letter to you for further guidance. 
  • Get rid of ISIS. Not part of your mandate, I get it. But you can’t blame me for asking. I fear another “Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center” letdown, so I’m bracing myself for the worst on Xmas morning. In the event of a letdown, could I at least ask you to whack some sense into convincing anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to be part of a violent group intent on killing innocent people to instead consider a life directed towards peace, non-violence, and kindness towards others (as in, all others, everywhere, and let me say it, “Always.”).
  • Down south in the US, give Donald Trump a brain and a heart. Once again I realize this is likely beyond your mandate, but I am also betting you have a wide-ranging list of famous people in your Rolodex, so maybe you can drop a line to the Wizard of Oz and see if he can work his magic on the Donald the way he did with the Scarecrow and the Lion. I’m tempted to say the guy’s not worth it, but everyone is entitled to the full realization of all their rights and freedoms (remember the UN slogan, “Always.”) and Trump is jeopardizing that by fomenting distrust, racism, xenophobia, and intolerance on a massive scale. My friends to the south deserve better than him.

Crap this list has degenerated into a depressing set of unrealistic aspirations. I might as well wish for stricter gun laws in the US. I’m feeling the need to watch a TEDTalk to cheer me up and restore my faith in humanity.

OK we’re a few minutes later and I did watch a TED Talk and it did give me an idea. So let me wrap it up with something I know you can do:

  • Give children the ability to believe they’ll make this world a better place than the one plenty of adults are screwing up now. To take but one example on how to achieve this, Sweden plans to provide each 16-year old student a copy of the book We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Sweden is arguably not the weakest country in terms of achieving gender equality – there are worse places – and yet they want every 16 year-old to read that book. So pack a few extra copies in your sleigh and pass them around the planet (try to get your hands on different translations. Again, you have contacts, so I’m not worried.). The book probably weighs about the same as a video game (it’s under 70 pages) and would likely have a longer lasting effect on its readers than playing a video game. As we wrap up a global 16-daycampaign to end violence against women, it’s pretty clear that we still have a long way to go, so please help out.

Thanks Santa.

Peace (always),
Paul

Let’s get it right: teaching Palestine children about rights

I’m enjoying a beer in a dimly-lit bar next sitting next to three guys who splashed themselves with revolting amounts of cologne before walking in this place. They’re yelling at each other, the way guys yell at each other around here and it looks like they’re pissed off at each other but they aren’t. My beer is cold, I’m tired from working too much but still feel damn good.

Participants during a training workshop in Jordan. Photo © UNRWA. 
The past eleven days have been relentless. With some friends at the UN here in Jordan and Lebanon, I’ve facilitated five workshops, four of them identical and the last one awfully similar to the other four, only longer. The participants attending the workshops were head teachers, education specialists, and other education staff working for UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestine refugees).
The content of the workshops was straightforward: to present a new human rights toolkit to be used by all 19,000 UNRWA teachers in the five fields of operation: Jordan, Syria, West Bank, Lebanon and Gaza. The agency’s been including human rights in its teaching practices for the past dozen years, but not in a consistent way. The time was right to have an agency-wide approach, and to this end a teacher’s toolkit was developed in English and Arabic and ready to be launched.
The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, for which I’m grateful. The toolkit doesn’t provide anything radically new, at least in terms of human rights education methods that have been used in other places, but a lot of it is new for teachers of Palestine refugees.
During the workshops, participants got the chance to practice some of the toolkit’s 40 activities meant for use in the classroom. All the activities emphasize children’s participation and focus on one or more themes that shape the toolkit’s structure, including diversity, conflict resolution and strengthening community links. Participation isn’t enough, though. There’s also an emphasis on critical thinking, and that means children grapple with potentially heavy issues: gender inequality, various forms of discrimination, the right to a nationality and to return to their homeland, among others. But as one head teacher lamented, “Why should we teach children about human rights when we don’t even have them? We can’t go back home, we don’t have our nationality, most of us can’t work, we don’t have enough money and we live in poverty. We have almost nothing.” My answer, coming from an inescapable position of privilege, sounded hollow: “Think of what their education would be like if you didn’t educate them about their rights. Not having rights is no excuse not to learn about them.”
The starkness of children’s lives in the refugee camps was acknowledged – it’s been a way of life for over 60 years; it’s regrettable and for the moment inevitable. Despite this, the participants kept up an encouraging level of positivity throughout the workshops. I honestly thought I’d lose interest in facilitating the same thing five times in 11 days, but the workshops remained fresh and I tried to learn from my mistakes and improve from one workshop to the next. Now I sit content and assured that, for the most part, the toolkit was accepted by those trained and its future in UNRWA looks promising. When addressing an issue as potentially explosive as human rights for refugees whose rights are not fully enjoyed, I’m grateful for the delicate work undertaken by UNRWA staff in the past to encourage the acceptance of human rights education among reluctant teachers, angry or uninformed parents with staunch views, and a host of political parties that easily dismiss the notion of rights.
Of course not everyone was convinced. There was one participant in nearly every workshop who dismissed the toolkit by saying it was nothing new. Another participant told me much the same thing and added that “Perhaps there are human rights violations in countries like America, but we don’t have such things in my community.” Citing a specific example of rights violations, he went on to say that there was plenty of domestic violence in the US, but such was not the case where he lived. “I’ve never seen any.”
I quelled my initial reaction to dismiss his assertions and prepared myself to belt out a polemic that would put him in his place, but I kept my mouth shut and saw through the corner of my eye a growing number of hands raised throughout the room. The indignant stares of other participants – both women and men – were all I needed to rest assured that my thoughts would be reflected in their words. And indeed they were. As one woman said, echoing my earlier words, “You don’t have to teach about human rights only when your rights are violated. Everyone needs to learn about human rights.” Besides, another participant noted, there is domestic violence everywhere, only it isn’t always talked about. Their reactions were a relief to me, but his comments were a sad reminder that, even among those who are charged with the responsibility to educate children about tolerance, equality, and dignity, there’s still a lot of educating that needs to take place. But nothing’s going to stop the spread of a “culture of human rights” – it’s alive and well where Palestine refugees live, and it’s time for for the rest of the world to know about it.
The guys have left the bar, my beer glass is empty and this techno music sucks. Time for bed.

What the hell is wrong

I watched CNN late this morning and saw the news of yet another shooting at a school in the US. But to be honest, when I heard the reports that two people had been killed at that point, apparently the principal and the school psychologist, I thought, At least it’s not too bad.

I know, what the hell is wrong with me. What the hell is wrong with me when I see news and dismiss it as just another tragedy. There have been enough this year anyway, and two people are nothing compared to Aurora. What the hell is wrong with me when I see footage of a school taken from a helicopter with dozens of police officers running around and I switch the channel to see what the weather will be like here in Montreal. What the hell is wrong.
I’m pissed at myself for being completely desensitized towards the deaths of those two people. When the news reports switched instantly from two dead to 27, my mind switched off my heart sank my hands trembled my eyes closed and I was every parent who feared the worst as they approached that school and didn’t know the fate of their child. Images of young children ripped to shreds by a crazed, utterly fucked up gunman flooded my mind and just couldn’t go away. I watched the news and thought what the hell why are you interviewing children you sick bastards. On NBC at 12:30 they were still playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and thought you stupid idiots isn’t there something else you should be reporting on now. I just wanted to push away the images forming in my head, the screams, the blood, the wretched feeling of bottomless pain the parents of the dead children will feel tonight, tomorrow, Christmas morning when the presents go unopened and every single miserable and hollow day for the rest of their lives and yes make no mistake every parent who lost a child will think about this day forever. Push those images, purge them, they’re replaced with images of me running into my children’s school to make sure they’re all right; now I’m a child again, the same age as so many of the victims, and I’m sitting in front of my TV at home and it’s 1975 and I’m watching Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood and Captain Kangaroo and The Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup and I am happy, so happy.
Everyone keeps saying there are no words to express what has happened, to say how we feel. It’s true, there are none. We’re just not meant to handle this devastation, this horror, this pain. You feel empty, you feel part of you is gone, you feel you need to help those who’ve lost the most precious part of their lives. You cry.