A Presentation to UNESCO Ambassadors
University of Connecticut
Joseph Kaifala, Esq.
March 25, 2015
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you very much for your invitation. It is an honour and pleasure to be here with you tonight. Unlike many lawyers, I believe in brevity. However, in all my concision, I am not as succinct as Mahatma Gandhi who once stood up to address a crowd but could not speak. He became so nervous that all he could get himself to say was: I conceive, I conceive, I conceive. To which a troublemaker in the audience stood up and said, ladies and gentlemen, our learned gentleman has conceived thrice but produced no offspring. In my case, I shall endeavour to leave you at least one wayward child.
In thinking about you as UNESCO Human Rights Ambassadors, I am reminded of a story I heard when I was a little Sunday school boy. It was a story of two villages located on the left and right bank of a river, one upstream and the other downstream. Every now and then the village on the left bank downstream discovered a dead body on their shore. The local constable investigated the matter and when no murderers were found, he closed the case. The kind villagers built a coffin for the body and gave it a respectful burial. This occurred regularly and no killer was ever found.
One day, after another body washed ashore downstream, the constable decided to walk a little further upstream. After walking for miles he discovered a broken bridge that previously linked the village on the right bank to the left bank. The villagers on the other side could not afford to reconstruct the bridge, so they decided to keep crossing the river by improvised means. In the process, someone drowned from time to time and floated downstream. The constable returned and told his village the mystery behind the floating dead bodies arriving to their shore every now and then. The kind villagers mobilized, went upstream and constructed a new bridge for their neighbours upriver, and no dead body arrived from that day onwards. There was no more GoFundMe or IndieGoGo for coffins and no more John Doe funeral to attend.
I tell you this story because I believe that the action of the people downstream for their neighbours upstream captures the essence of your roles as UNESCO Human Rights Ambassadors. In this capacity, you have accepted the role of drum majors for human rights and justice everywhere, because as that relentless Freedom Fighter of the American Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” so that “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” You stand committed to the principle that when people are denied the fundamental rights guaranteed by membership to a United Nations family, their brothers and sisters everywhere aught to fight on their behalf. The pact of collective security enshrined in the United Nations Charter also comes with a call to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. Perhaps by doing a better job at respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms we shall have less need for collective security.
As advocates and activists, you must necessarily scream for those who cannot at the moment speak, fight for those who cannot at the moment wage their own battles, or whose battles are larger than the strength of their outrage. As Human Rights Ambassadors, our duty is the same whether we speak against the gaseous battlefields of Syria, the savage decapitations of Islamic State, the satanic tactics of Boko Haram kaffirs, the suffering of the refugees of Lampedusa, Child Soldiers in South Sudan, Female Circumcision, or the mindboggling gun violence and police brutality in this United States. In addition to these heinous violations, we also stand against the subtle kinds such as the incomprehensible number of out-of school children around the world, gender discrimination or disparity, unwarranted maternal mortality, and the absence of consolidated efforts to curb environmental pollution.
However, our role is not only to stand against the wrongs of society, but to also celebrate the rights. Our societies are more connected now than they have ever been and the positive rewards of that connectivity are far greater than the disadvantages. I grew up in two civil wars in West Africa and in 2002 I suddenly found myself at the Red Cross Nordic United World College in a provincial Norwegian village called Flekke. The year I got to Norway was the same year that the United Nations Human Development Index ranked Sierra Leone the worst country on earth and Norway the best. Some people receive get out of jail cards; my lot was the get out of hell card. Instead of waking up to the sound of Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and other such weapons, I was waking up to an alarm clock for the first time in my life. The mantra in Norway was that we had no problems but challenges. Since United World College students come from all over the world, it was there that I saw Palestinians and Israelis share warmth at a wintry smokers’ corner, Ethiopians and Eritreans break bread, Tibetans and Chinese discuss the confines of their future coexistence, Danes and Greenlanders forget their welfare politicking, and Swedes forgive Norwegians for how freaking expensive their neighbours made everything. But most importantly, we all learned that world peace is achievable.
I am of the conviction that war is not inevitable as some philosophers have argued and human rights need not be something to fight about. As that visionary American President John F. Kennedy once said, “world peace, like community peace, does not require that each man loves his neighbor—it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.” What we advocate is democratic societies in which all live together in harmony under the rubrics of fundamental rights and justice. For these, most of the world does not need new constitutions or treaties; what it needs is full adherence to existing principles outlined in universal documents such as the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Rome Statute for the untamable, and the balanced scale of national tribunals. Towards these ends, some are better than others, and it is our duty to inconvenience those who trample human rights and justice.
When I was just a little lad I was arrested with my father and thrown into prison, incarcerated in a conflict I was not even old enough to comprehend. For a decade of my life I was caught in two civil wars that were characterized by brutal killings, rape, torture, maiming, and the destruction of property. Whether by luck or divine protection, why, I don’t know, I survived and found myself at the Red Cross Nordic United World College. In Norway, I became the Amnesty International Letter Writing Coordinator for my school’s Human Rights Club. In those days, as I wrote protest letters to presidents and prime ministers on behalf of Prisoners of Conscience locked-up in the darkest corners of tyrannical dungeons, I wondered whether some student in Norway or elsewhere ever protested for me and wrote letters on my behalf. As Human Rights Ambassadors in a democratic and peaceful society, sometimes you are the only hope for marginalized people in some of the narrowest corners of the globe. In this regard, your individuality should never become an infirmity to your enormous potential to make the world a better place, and as that minimally cloaked Mahatma said, to be the change you wish to see in the world.
But if you cannot champion the greatest Human Rights causes of your time, at least avoid the false solace of indifference and cynicism. Take it from that enduring symbol of a courageous human spirit, Elie Wiesel, that “indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.” “For the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbors are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless.” As for those who entertain cynicism about the state of the world, you have no right to surrender yourself so early to that defeatist comfort until you have at least been sullied on the battlefield of the fight for fundamental rights. When you fight in the frontline of human rights, you would come to realize that we fight not merely because things are wrong, but because we know they aught to be, and could be better.
Sometimes the issues are so grande, so apparently insurmountable, that some of us would rather do nothing. But history has taught us that a few determined individuals can create ripples that could lead to a ferment of change. We are inspired by that Indian Mahatma who Sir Winston Churchill dismissed as a ‘half naked fakir,’ but who nevertheless ignited some of the biggest rumbles in the British Empire, from Johannesburg to Delhi. What about that Commander of Spear of the Nation, Madiba Mandela, who pledged to remain in prison until all of South Africa was free, because as he framed it, “my freedom is linked to the freedom of my people.” Let’s not forget Raphael Lemkin, the man who fought so hard for the Genocide Convention that he later fell sick and when doctors could not determine what was wrong with him, he diagnosed himself with genociditis—exhaustion from the work on the Genocide Convention. As Human Rights Ambassadors, we are forever indebted to Eleanor Roosevelt, Rene Cassin, and others for mapping out the universality of human rights, for standing firm that people everywhere have some common rights and aspirations.
When I left to study in Norway in 2002 my country laid in ruin. It was in Norway that I introduced various projects to ameliorate the suffering of my people, especially children whose limbs were chopped off by rebels. We provided clothing, scholarships, school supplies, and medical assistance to vulnerable families. Those projects eventually grew into the Jeneba Project Inc., through which we now focus on building schools, libraries, and granting scholarships to girls in order to encourage them to stay in school. We have recently launched the Sierra Leone Memory Project, an oral history project that is taking testimonies from survivors of the civil war in order to facilitate collective dialogues surrounding the causes and consequences of that conflict. Ultimately, our hope is that by learning from the past, we can avert violent conflicts in the future. Recently, we have endeavoured to make active contributions to the fight against ebola. Since we are not a public health organization, our efforts have been geared towards providing as much information as possible on the social and cultural implication of ebola for those on the forefront of the fight against the disease. It has recently been projected that the disease could be entirely eliminated by August. It has already lasted too long!
In final analysis, then, we are all trustees of the future of our world. In our efforts, let us do as that self-diagnosed victim of genociditis said, “to shorten the distance between the heart and the deed. To live an idea, not just to talk about it.” As I always say, your duty is not to save the world; it is to do your share in straightening this rough garment. You have the privilege of living in one of the most privileged nation on earth; you can use this privilege to improve the lives of your fellow men and women wherever they may be.
Thank You, Gracias, Tusen Takk!
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