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.

The UK Riots: What’s Worth Remembering

There are fewer sirens tonight. Since my arrival in London earlier this week, the howl of police cars pierced the night intermittently for hours. There’s been much said of the damage done and plenty said about how citizens not involved in the violence and lootings were appalled. The time now is for bringing back a sense of normalcy and security to those who’s livelihoods were affected; it’s time to bring those responsible to justice, however muddy that path may be when handing out justice to an 11 year-old. It’s time to reflect on the causes of the riots. Divisions are already apparent among politicians in the UK. Prime Minister Cameron said that a lack of responsibility is to blame. “Young people smashing windows and stealing televisions is not about inequality,” Cameron said. “When you have a deep moral failure you don’t hit it with a wall of money.” Some of Labour’s politicians are blaming the riots on deep inequality between Britain’s rich and poor.
Whatever the causes, it’s worth the time for politicians and average citizens to find inspiration and learn from acts of kindness and love in the face of the violence. Londoners taking to the streets with their brooms is a remarkable gesture, a citizen-led movement of such simplicity and pureness in its goal that you cannot but help but think to yourself that there is hope for this dismal human race after all.
Then there is Tariq Jahan, a man whose 21-year-old son Haroon was killed in Birmingham along with two other men defending local shops from looters. He spoke in the streets of the city and called for peace: “Today we stand here to plead with all the youth to remain calm, for our community to stand united.”
I cannot imagine the pain he is going through, losing a son from a senseless, mindless act of violence. If I were in a similar situation, I honestly don’t know if I would have been so forgiving.
The broom-toting cleaners and Mr. Jahan’s composure in the face of his son’s death reflect the deepest, strongest values that move us to lead kinder, gentler, and more peaceful lives. They show us that we can be strong and united in our repression against violence. The citizen-street-cleaners show us we can act together with a sense of purpose to do what’s right. Mr Jahan shows us that, even in light of a heinous an act committed against someone he loved dearly, violence is not an option as a form of retaliation; peace is.
When I remember my time in London during these events, I will remember these acts, I will remember these people. Their lessons are worth passing on to others. 

Do Something

I normally don’t post something in the middle of a work day…but I am on my lunch break. And there were two events worth writing about before I go on with my usual work. The first is a surprising (and encouraging) response of actions that make a difference in the world that is led by high school students, and the second is the detention of family members of a friend of mine in Iraq. Let’s start with the students.

I have a neighbour of mine who’s a secondary school teacher at a nearby school. She invited me to speak to her students, something I did last year as well. I spoke a bit about the work I do, in particular some of the impact stories that reflect the work of the human rights educators my organization train around the world. In talking about these stories, two fundamental aspects of our work is highlighted. On the one hand, the education we and our participants undertake is rooted in international human rights standards, and that’s a given in all our trainings. The second is the importance our personal, cultural, communal, and societal values have on reflecting the principles behind international human rights standards. I think the first part is easy, the second one, not so much.

I’ve written about values in human rights education before and this post is a good time to renew that discussion. My friend Nathalie told me that students in a leadership course had recently undertaken a project to raise awareness about safe sex. In particular, they created posters focusing on the use of condoms. One poster had a hockey goalie with the caption …I can’t quite remember it precisely, but it was about not letting anything get between his crease (you’d have to know hockey lingo at this point). Another showed a poker hand, another one an infant. In my opinion, none of them were offensive. If anything, they were humourous and showed a hint of whimsical fancy that gets the message across without being in your face. The message I got from the posters was “protect yourself.”

Apparently others (or at least one other person) did not see the posters as a good idea and tore some of them down. I was told that it was a teacher who did this. To the credit of the teacher who asked students to do this project, he informed all other teachers that the students would produce these posters. Some of the students who created the posters were in Nathalie’s class, and when I asked them what the message was behind the posters, they said simply, “protect yourself,” not “have sex.” They seemed somewhat dismayed, a bit perplexed, and as one student said, “I don’t think it’s right for a teacher to use their power to pull the posters down.”

I don’t think it’s right. No, it isn’t. There’s an obvious disjunct of values at hand here; it’s not a new debate. As a teacher in Malawi in 1993, I discovered in the stockroom a mass of UNICEF pamphlets educating students about HIV/AIDS: what it is, how you contract the disease, what you should do to prevent it. There were boxes filled with the pamphlets, never opened. I taught at a girls’ boarding school run by nuns. WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THOSE THINGS HERE, was the response I got when I wondered why the pamphlets were gathering dust. As far as I know, the pamphlets were never distributed.

When I asked the students what they were going to do about the situation, one student remarked, “Put up more posters.” That’s one way to get the message across, and I hope they can find other ways as well. This is a story about rights (and values). And if that’s not apparent, read Article 12 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child : “States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” In plain English: listen to them, what they have to say is important. They are raising awareness about STDs, HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies. I’ll keep you posted on what happens.

Another part of the discussion led us to how much we help others, in an individual capacity and as a country. I asked what percentage of their disposable income they could give to others less fortunate. After a few moments of silence, one student said “Five to ten percent.” My first thought was, That’s nuts. Then he told me how much he donated to the Terry Fox Foundation and I felt that my own contributions to help others was, proportionally, much less significant. I’m still not as bad as the Canadian government, which has never surpassed 0.3% of its gross national income on aid to developing countries. Our own Lester B. Pearson advocated for a modest 0.7% of GNI for richer nations to help poorer ones. Won’t happen for a while.

I learned from two other students that they will be putting on a concert next week and all proceeds from ticket sales (a modest 10$) will go to the Old Brewery Mission here in Montreal, which helps homeless people. We need more people to do what these students are doing.

When I got home later this morning I read the unfortunate news that one of our participants from our workshops with Iraqi human rights defenders, Ayad Salih, had his house in Mosul (northern Iraq) broken into by the Iraqi Army. His father and brother were taken and detained, and Ayad is currently in hiding. Front Line Defenders has issued a statement on the situation and is pleading the Iraqi government to release Ayad’s father and brother. Here’s how part of the statement reads: “The army squad searched both the residence of Mr Salih, and that of his brother located in a different area of Mosul city. The army then arrested Mr Salih’s father, Mr Muayyad Salih Ahmed (60 years), and his younger brother, Mr Ra’ed Muayyad Salih (28 years), and has been detaining them in an unknown location since then to put Ayad Muayyad Salih under pressure to surrender himself for undisclosed reasons, which Front Line believes are linked to his human rights work.” You can take action by going here.