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.

‘Gay Lesbian Moral Terrorist’ is not my idea of dialogue

Last month in Surabaya, Indonesia, participants were gathered at a hotel for the Fourth International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) Asia Conference. The meeting didn’t go as planned. According to the ILGA, the conference had to be cancelled because participants were being threatened by some fundamentalist and hard-line Islamic groups. A report from their website says that “The leaders of the fundamentalist groups entered [the hotel] and sat around a table in front of the entrance of the hotel next to the elevators, talking to one another, while other demonstrators grew into a threatening crowd in front of windows of the entrance. According to local sources, the men were from the Unity Front of the Community of Islam (FPUI), an ad-hoc coalition of 7 conservative and hard-line Islamic groups including the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, the Islamic Defender Front (FPI), a local extremist group that is known for violent tactics, and the Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), a local chapter of a worldwide network by the same name […]. At the same time moderate and progressive Muslim groups criticized the actions of the above mentioned groups.”


There was a standoff at the hotel where, and according to the ILGA and the host organization GAYa Nunsantara, police did little to protect the participants. (As one blogger wrote about the ordeal: “It was clear to us. We were not safe, we didn’t feel safe, and we didn’t know whether we could ever trust the police.”) They eventually assured the participants of their safety and helped mediate an agreement between the fundamentalist groups, the conference organizers, and the hotel management.


After the singing of the agreement in front of media, the fundamentalists “refused to go and denied the pact,” says to Maria Mustika, head of the advocacy section at GAYa, and also a participant during the workshop I am currently facilitating. The fundamentalist groups eventually left the hotel after they were handed the guest list.


Upon returning to GAYa’s office, Maria says that the ordeal did not end there. “They [members of the fundamentalist groups] also locked our office with a big cable and lock, so we cannot get in. They put the words, ‘Gay Lesbian Moral Terrorist’ on our office wall. This is horrible, I was there to see them scream using religion as their righteous [justification] to do violence, they were using little children to put those dirty words and tell them to stone the wall and demand our neighbours to stay there and do the same when they meet us.” To be fair, I tried to find websites from the above-mentioned fundamentalist groups, and I found little information. I did however come across a number of websites and Facebook pages with comments on the incident, and many such comments are not worth reprinting here.


From a human rights standpoint, their freedom of expression was effectively squashed by the fundamentalist groups – and this right is enshrined in Indonesian law. As human rights defenders, their right to express themselves and to promote and protect LGBT rights was also compromised, and their security was not fully assured by the police (acting as an agent of the State). You would think that there would be more support in a country where the Yogyakarta Principles were agreed upon in 2006. Shame on the police for failing to protect, shame on the hotel (the Mercure, part of the Accor group) for not standing up for the participants and for handing the guest list to the fundamentalist groups, and shame on those groups for protesting without listening, intimidating without understanding, and desecrating the front of an office with an absurd and cruel designation instead of walking through its doors in peace and having at least a willingness to dialogue with those they so strongly revile.