personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

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.

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