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.

Religion, God and human rights (part 2): It’s complicated

I recently asked the question on my Facebook account whether or not religion should be addressed when talking about human rights. The answers are worth writing here:

  • Well, I see some mainstream religions operating as obstacles to human rights in North America, so I would vote Yes, discuss. Equally, there are other religions that do not have controlling values, so it isn’t a one sided thing either, of course. We certainly live in a judeo-christian society whose ideals are very much bound in the expressions of our laws and legal system, this often being the contact point for people with human rights and constitutional challenges both historically and currently. So much to talk about here…
  • We try not , but it the spot it is very necessary most of the time to give examples and to compare and to show that most religious values are not far from the Human rights values especially in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa].
  • I also think that at times it is necessary/unavoidable [because] people use religion as a reason/excuse to show why human rights can be denied. The challenge would be to find ways to show how ones religion is or can be compatible with HR values. So I vote: YES! Write about it!!
  • The Human Rights are before any religion as they are his rights, as a human being. But there are no contradictions between them.

For the most part in my human rights work, I have tried (deliberately) to avoid the issue of religion. But it was unavoidable in recent years working in Indonesia and the Middle East and North Africa. Especially when I would develop manuals for workshops that dealt with Shari’a and human rights. No circumventing the issue at that point. If anything, that workshop, held in Indonesia in May 2009, was one of the more productive and thought-provoking workshops I’d ever been part of in that country. Granted, the participants were government officials who’d already received training in human rights. But also present were drafters of legislation “influenced by Shari’a” – the laws they were drafting were not strictly Shari’a, but were inspired by the Qur’an and the Hadith.

Our approach was two-fold, trying to strike a balance between laws and values. 

In terms of laws, we tried to provide a balance in presenting international human rights treaties and standards on the one hand and Shari’a on the other, being as critical as possible of both legal frameworks. Doing this simply made sense, but it also helped to diffuse the frequently-cited argument that international human rights law originates entirely from a Western perspective. It is an argument that has certain merit. As Micheline Ishay notes in The History of Human Rights, “our modern conception of rights, wherever in the world it may be voiced, is predominantly European in origin.” But today’s Western-centric conception of rights should not be pushed aside and dismissed as a mechanism through which to maintain the West’s control over the rest of the world. Besides, the inherent character of human rights necessitates that the rights are defined and interpreted over time; they are not static and immutable. 

Examining the international human rights framework alongside Shari’a enabled us to appreciate the commonalities between the two, which clearly outweigh the differences. But the differences were nonetheless significant, and a great deal of them centered around equality between men and women (Shari’a was shortchanging women, in case you were wondering). We were fortunate enough in the preparation of the workshop to get the assistance of some university professors and Ph.D. students who developed a research document for the purposes of the workshop. The publication, Women’s Rights in Muslim Communities: A Resource Guide for Human Rights Educators, highlighted a number of substantive women’s human rights issues, namely:

  • Women’s political leadership rights
  • Women’s reproductive rights
  • Women’s rights in marriage: consent, child marriage and finance
  • Women’s rights to freedom of movement and choice of dress

The second part of our approach was to tackle values. It’s not a novel approach – we do this is most of our programs – but I think it was more delicate in this instance. We threw participants a survey been published in the Jakarta Post on beliefs of Islamic studies teachers. Some of the more disturbing results of the survey were as follows:

  • 73.1 percent of the teachers don’t want followers of other religions to build their houses of worship in their neighborhoods.
  • 85.6 percent of the teachers prohibit their students from celebrating big events perceived as Western traditions, while 87 percent tell their students not to learn about other religions.
  • 75.4 percent of the respondents ask their students to call on non-Muslim teachers to convert to Islam.
  • 58.9 percent of the respondents back rajam (stoning) as a punishment for all kinds of criminal and 47.5 percent said the punishment for theft should be having one hand cut off, while 21.3 percent want the death sentence for those who convert from Islam.

I had a mixture of disbelief and depression as I read the article. One fifth of the 500 teachers surveyed – over 100 teachers – wanted the death sentence for those who commit apostasy. It seemed more than a little harsh. Then again, at the time I was listening to Fox News in Jakarta and an ignorant right-wing moron was screaming that “the Jihadists would be loose on the streets of America!” 

Human rights law doesn’t mean much unless it reflects what people believe in or are at least are willing to believe in. That’s only going to happen if their values are in-line with these laws. I had presented in a workshop last year an assumption that basic human rights values – respect, equality, non-discrimination – had their origins in the great religions of the world. While I believe that the religions of the world have greatly influenced our unique and collective sets of values, I’m reconsidering that values originate from religion. In Victor Stenger’s book God: The Failed Hypothesis, he writes that values (he refers to “principles” and “moral precepts”) predate religion:

“The Judeo-Christian and Islamic scriptures contain many passages that teach noble ideals that the human race has done well to adopt as norms and behaviour and, where appropriate, to codify into law. But without exception, the fact that these principles developed in earlier cultures and history indicates that they were adopted by – rather than learned from – religion. While it is fine that religions preach moral precepts, they have no basis to claim that these precepts were authored by their particular deity or, indeed, any deity at all.”

He goes on to say that, regardless of whether we are theists or atheists, we as humans have an innate sense of what’s “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.”  Having worked in human rights with a great number of people from dozens of different faiths (or none at all), I wholeheartedly ascribe to the notion that we as humans have a natural sense of what’s good and what isn’t. 

The topic of religion and human rights is vast and can be quite thorny. For me, this blog entry is only a small step towards a better understanding of the complexities that are behind addressing religion within a human rights framework. Your comments, and thoughts on other issues that should be addressed, are always welcome.

      On blasphemy, the time for action, symbols, and what you did on your wedding night

      July 26, 5 AM
      The mass of insects outside my room are buzzing as loudly as a machine at the moment. I’m in the clouds once again; perhaps the fog will lift soon so I can see the valley with its undulating hills.

      I’m in a small town called Dhulikhel, about 30 km outside of busy, bustling Kathmandu. We’ve just completed our first day of our South Asian Training of Trainers workshop with almost a dozen participants from 6 nations. The participants are from NGOs working in human rights and are alumni of Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program from the past 5 years. As usual, there are a number of stories worth recounting, but let me focus on only a few for now.

      Kill the Christians
      Conversation at the dinner table focuses on the usual things in these types of settings: our families, our histories, the beauty of the scenery around us, what we’ve discovered in our walks around town, some of the more memorable moments of the workshop, the struggles and successes of our human rights work and the absurdity of the violations around us. One participant from Pakistan told of two Christian brothers who were killed last week after being accused of blasphemy. According to one website: “ The two were arrested less than a month ago after leaflets allegedly bearing their names and featuring derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad were found around town.” Christians in Pakistan are the second-largest minority after Hindus, and while there are almost three million of them, they make up only a fraction of the population and are regularly discriminated against. Good old Wikipedia informs me that there are a number of blasphemy laws, with little room for leniency if found guilty: “Defiling the Quran merits imprisonment for life. Defaming Prophet Mohammed merits death with or without a fine.” Well, at least there’s no fine for the latter offence.

      This is the time
      Earlier in the day, our hosts for the TOT, INSEC, Informal Sector Service Center officially opened the workshop. Bijay Raj Gautam, INSEC’s Executive Director, said a few words before introducing Sudobh Raj Pyakurel, founder and Chairperson of the organization. Soft-spoken but with firm conviction, he welcomed us by succinctly describing the human rights situation in Nepal. Now that the second attempt to elect a new Prime Minister has failed (round 3 is scheduled for August 2), he implored that political parties, now more than ever, must embrace human rights in order to create lasting social change. It’s the time to educate our leaders on the primacy of human rights as a core principle for peace. It is also imperative to educate citizens to know and subsequently assert their rights as well. He mentioned that civil society’s voice is now weaker than before in Nepal, and it brought a hint of familiarity to the situation in Canada. Last year, Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada’s Secretary-General, noted with disappointment that the Canadian government had not consulted civil society in its report to the Universal Periodic Review. Civil society did nonetheless contribute their own reports to the UN; they can be found here. On top of that, a number of Canadian NGOs are suffering from recent funding cuts by the government. (Read this to find out more on the effects of these cuts on women’s organizations in Canada.)


      Before the break, I asked participants to go to the garden and choose something symbolic to them and to come back after the break and to explain why they had chosen such a symbol. Whatever they chose had to symbolize how they felt about their work. It’s an activity I’d done a number of times in the past, but hadn’t thought of it until I looked at a letter my older son wrote to me last week before I took the plane. Fresh from a trip to Vancouver where my children discovered the symbolism of Native art, my son wrote, “I will choose three things that will give you good luck.”

      Rocks, leaves, flowers, grass, drawings of light bulbs and a man in an ever-growing circle, digestive pills and one person saying he saw himself as a gardener were some of the symbols identified and explained with simple and heartfelt clarity. It showed without a doubt the passion these people have towards their work and the creativity that is within each one.

      What exactly did you do on your wedding night?
      At one point during yesterday’s workshop, a participant encouraged a couple of soft-spoken participants to speak up in order to be heard. I picked up on the point and asked that participant to show us how to speak clearly and loudly enough to a large group of participants. He got up and brilliantly improvised a 3-minute discussion; he was clear and everyone heard. Then I asked anyone else who wanted to get up and practice their own speaking skills in front of a group, and another brave soul got up. She asked us how we were, smiled throughout, made us feel comfortable, spoke clearly, then asked us to form groups of two. Then she told us to share with our neighbour what it was like for us during our wedding night. With puzzled looks all around the room, she kept on asking us to describe exactly what took place during that special night. All the details, go on, don’t leave anything out. Bemusement changed to laughter as some of us struggled to share these intimate thoughts, while most, I think, abstained from any description.

      As the laughter died down she then asked us to think of a young girl who’d been raped and had to tell her story in a courtroom. All of a sudden that sobered us up. She went on to tell us that recounting such a traumatic event for a young girl in front of so many people is an extremely difficult thing to do, and in fact most young women in Nepal (where the participant’s from) would not have the ability to express themselves that way. The activity was one she’d facilitated before as a means to raise people’s awareness on the issue. It had the intended effect on us, and we engaged in a longer conversation afterwards, questioning how best to present and facilitate such an activity.

      And now it’s time to get ready for Day 2. More later.