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. 

A Letter to My Sons: On Love and Hate

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,


This is my first Valentine’s Day away from you. The second away from Mommy – the first time was way back in 1998. I was living in Ghana at the time, and your mother sent me a Valentine’s Day package from home. The package wasn’t delivered to my apartment, so I had to pick it up at the central post office. People receiving packages had to open them for inspection in front of a postal worker. There was a lineup of people behind me, peeking over my shoulder to see what I got. I opened the box and showed the postal worker a CD, a letter, and a pair of red boxer shorts with little red and white hearts on it.


However embarrassing that situation was at the time (but everyone smiled), I knew I was a lucky man, and I am even luckier today. Prior to meeting your Mommy, Valentine’s Day, to put it simply, sucked. I never had a girlfriend on that day (reassuringly, most of my guy friends didn’t either), and any potential for having a girlfriend on or around that day was always promptly extinguished. I can freely provide you details in about 5 years.
All you need.
I am lucky because I have love from the two of you and Mommy that defines me, that strengthens me, supports me, gets me out of bed and brings me comfort even though I’m 9511 km away from you (more or less). It makes Valentine’s Day just another day as I sit here alone in my hotel room, happy.


There’s a saying that goes, “So much of what we know of love we learn at home.” I learned a lot from your grandmother and, in a very different way, from your Uncle John, and continue to learn from the two of you and Mommy. As I left you on Saturday, your emotions were bare, your silence painful, and your tears seared right through my heart. My trips away from you are much shorter than they were ten years ago, but somehow the goodbyes are sadder. I can only attribute that to a growing love.


Sitting here in my hotel room in Amman, it’s hard for me not to think of this day without remembering the struggles that so many people here in the Middle East and North Africa have faced over the past year. You know of the sweeping changes that took pace in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Libya. But one year ago today, February 14, protests began in the streets of Bahrain, where my friend Abdulhadi was jailed and sentenced to life in prison. He recently wrote a letter from jail talking about his situation. He is a strong man, someone who fights hard for the rights of others and has paid a high price for this. But he is loved, and that love manifests itself in the support that thousands of people from around the world have shown in pushing for his release, and the release of other prisoners.


Bahrain is not the only place where innocent people are being hurt because they are standing up for their rights. The situation in Syria is getting worse every day, with the president unwilling to give up power as his forces kill dozens of civilians every day. Tonight I spoke to my friend Amouri who lives in Syria and he says that all six of the UN schools that operate in the city of Homs have been closed now for three weeks because of the violence in the streets. It’s one thing for you to have a snow day and not go to school. Can you imagine not attending school because people are being killed in the streets?


If you think this makes no sense, you are right. I want you to always keep in mind that this is not right. Hatred will never be right. You might be confused right now about this kind of stupid behaviour, and as you get older, I’m sorry to say you might find out even stupider and more hurtful things that people do. If you’re like me, this will anger you. What I’ve learned over time is that anger is often unavoidable, but needs to be transformed. Without changing that anger, you won’t change anything. Your anger at other people’s stupidity needs to be channeled into passion and love that is tempered by reason, into a fierce enthusiasm to stop those who do wrong to others. Be a Superman, be a Batman – even SpongeBob stands up for what’s right. I want you to be yourself and to share, as much as you possibly can, what you know of love and learned from home. The world needs it.


Je t’aime Sam, je t’aime Alexandre.
Daddy

 

Dear Santa, here’s my human rights Xmas wish list

Dear Santa,
I know you’re busy this time of year. I’ll spare you the usual “peace around the world” stuff I used to wish for as a kid before reality set in. Let me be brief. Here’s what I’d like from you this Christmas:

  1. Now that Harper has a majority, I realize that completely removing the Conservatives from Ottawa is an unreasonable wish. Instead, could you at least make them smarter? Let them rethink adoption of the new crime bill, scrapping the gun registry, abandoning Kyoto, and please, pretty please with sugar on top, let them respect, protect, and fulfill all human rights of the First Nation people of this land.
  2. You might as well give the opposition NDP members of parliament a little more teeth since you’ll be in the neighbourhood. Kinda went downhill after Jack left us.
  3. Do me a big favour and get rid of president Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Government forces have killed about 5000 demonstrators this year alone, and it doesn’t look as though he will have a change of heart anytime soon.
  4. While you’re in the region, could you make sure the Kingdom of Bahrain has elections for a new Prime Minister? He’s been kicking around the kingdom since 1971. It seems rather excessive. I left my job after nearly ten years – you know, I liked my job, but it felt good to move on. See if he can too.
  5. Since you’ll be in Bahrain, why not release all those prisoners who have been detained since the uprisings in February? My friend Abdulhadi Alkhawaja was sentenced to life in prison – could you spring him out of jail? 
  6. I’ve noticed on YouTube that police officers in Egypt are getting quite good at beating the crap out of unarmed protestors. Why not give them all a training course in maintaining order without all the violence? Everyone can play nice if they try hard enough.
  7. The Occupy movement has fizzled over the past few weeks. I’m not sure it’ll go very far over the winter months, at least in places where it can get pretty cold (I know, I know: not as cold as your place). Nonetheless, could you find us (as in we the 99%) a suitably inspiring figure who will reinvigorate us and decisively and confidently lead us to action that will bring about real change? That elf of yours who wanted to be a dentist had a lot of gumption, is he free?
  8. It’s easy to forget about Mugabe down in Zimbabwe, but let’s face it: he’s way past his expiry date. Go ahead and cast a magic spell on him or something so he decides to fess up to the violence he caused over all these years and step down. Let democratically-elected leaders get on with the business of rebuilding that beautiful country.
  9. Getting rid of Mugabe would also give an opportunity to bring in an era where gay rights are fully recognized as human rights. You may only be able to do so much in Zimbabwe, so if you had to focus your attention somewhere, may I suggest you go to Cameroon and Uganda for a start and have those in power change legislation criminalizing homosexuality with harsh sentences.
  10. Now that I think of it, Yemen doesn’t get as much airtime as other hotspots in the Middle East, but listen: I’ve got some friends there, they do good stuff to help promote girls’ rights. The current climate there is not favourable to their work. President Saleh promised he’d step down. He’s apparently taken leave now, so can you make sure there is a transition to a better system of governance? Maybe give all prospective leaders an Xbox or something to make them happy; it’s a price worth paying.
  11. President Obama has been a bit of a letdown lately. I don’t expect him to live up to all the things he said he’d do upon entering office, but let him at least close Guantanamo Bay and give the “enemy combatants” fair trials.
  12. There’s still no snow in Montreal. It’d be nice to have a white Christmas for the kids.
Thanks Santa. Keep up the good work.