Global Conference on Human Rights, Democracy and the Fragility of Freedom

Photo Credit: Rick Roberts

Photo Credit: Rick Roberts

On 17th – 22nd March 2013, CEO of Grassroot Diplomat Talyn Rahman-Figueroa spoke at the International Young Leaders Forum and the Third Echenberg Family Conference on Human Rights Global Conference on Human Rights, Democracy and the Fragility of Freedom at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Chosen from over 600 applications, Talyn and 23 other Young Leaders from around the world were selected for their leadership in civil society, human rights and democracy, to address the challenges of human rights in today’s world. 

The Young Leaders Forum lasted for 3 days where the leaders were to present a one hour workshop to peers on topics including the Maturity, Decay and Rot of Democracies, Youth Disenfranchisement, New Democracies, and Glocal Democracy in the Information Age. During these sessions, it was learned that Australia holds compulsory elections whereby the failure to vote leads to financial penalties to its citizens. The Canadian authorities are failing to compensate the Canadian aborigines for occupying their land. There are still over 70 countries worldwide that have outlawed any discussion and acknowledgement of homosexuality. 

The biggest lesson that came out of the forum was a general agreement that democracy doesn’t end with an election vote but is a process that requires active participation of its citizens. As Rab Nawaz, a Young Leader from Pakistan had put it, “the idea of free and open communication between all segments and stakeholders, especially the marginal ones, is not something outside the domain of democracy, rather the essence of democracy.” This is one of the reasons why Grassroot Diplomat is so pivotal in today’s society – democracy can only be ensured if communication between citizens and its leaders are open and mutually beneficial. 

Following her presentation on “Online Hate Speech” at the Young Leaders Forum, Talyn had the privilege to speak at a conference panel alongside Colombian activist Oscar Morales and Executive Director of Advancing Human Rights David Keyes to talk further about negative use of online communication. While Oscar and David highlighted the power of social media and internet surveillance, Talyn was more critical about how the internet has created a powerful anti-tool where hate speech can easily spread and poison the minds of ordinary people in any society. Her presentation illustrated racist and offensive tweets about President Obama from ordinary Twitter-users, and demonstrated the lack of moderation of hate speech by Facebook and similar online institutions. Her presentation ended by asking the audience to stand and in unison repeat the sentence “My name is..., I am from..., and I will not hate” in their mother tongue, as a reminder that we are all human and we feel the same. 

While at the forum, the Young Leaders had the privilege of personally engaging with an impressive list of speakers, including Mekdes Mezgebu - Programme Officer with United Nations Development Programme, former Young Leader Dr Alan Huynh from Australia, Professor Abdullahi An-Na’im from Sudan, and Chairman of Quillam, Maajid Nawaz who made a big impact to all of the participants. Maajid retold his story of being detained in Egypt, even as a British citizen, for leading a global Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir. During his time in prison, Maajid noticed that he was turning into a monster whose only wish was to seek vengeance against President Mubarak’s regime. As a prisoner of political conscience, Amnesty International adopted Maajid’s case and helped to free him, but as part of the reconciliation process to heal his wounds, Maajid had to believe in his own humanity and re-humanise before working with others. 

Similar cases of rehumanisation was evident in the stories told by other speakers who experienced dire acts of human rights violation by the government. When discussing the Arab Spring, Palestinian journalist Bassam Eid noted that he saw many cases where the “oppressed became the oppressor” and that the “Arab Spring will never bring changes until culture is changed.” Here, Bassam refers to how governance is formed and who the government is supported by. If a dictatorship ends and is replaced by yet another dictator, nothing in the culture of politics and society changes unless drastic measures in ensuring real democracy is in place.

The changing nature of society is evident when a dictator holds top position in governance. Such was the case of author and Iranian activist Marina Nemat, who at the age of sixteen, was arrested and imprisoned by speaking up against her government for making fun illegal. Coming dangerously close to being executed, Marina shared her experiences of being tortured and forced into temporary marriage with guards for sexual intercourse, stating that “torture is designed not to get information...[it] is designed to break the human soul.” Her torturers were once tortured and they sought revenge by torturing others. Like Marina, Flora Terah (Director of Terah Against Terror) shared multiple cases of where she had witnessed her friends get killed in acts of gendered violence. In 2007, Flora was a Parliamentary Candidate for the Kenyan election, during which she was abducted, beaten, tortured and learned that her only son was murdered by those that wanted her to withdraw. 

If there is anything to be learned from these stories, it is that freedom is taken for granted by the average person and many individuals are still placed in positions where their freedom must be fought for.

The list of speakers at the conference is a long and impressive one that can be found on http://efchr.mcgill.ca/2013/eng/conference_speakers.php.

On behalf of the Director, Grassroot Diplomat would like to thank organisers at McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, the McGill Faculty of Law and particularly Penny and Gordon Echenberg of the Echenberg Family Conference on Human Rights for their kind invitation and participation at this highly successful conference. 

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