A diverse group of scholars, lawyers, politicians, and members of various academic disciplines gathered last weekend for the Global Conference on Human Rights and Diverse Societies at Centre Mont Royal, steps away from the McGill campus.
Founded by Gordon Echenberg as the Echenberg Family Human Rights Conference, this was the second event of its kind. Its predecessor, the Global Conference on the Prevention of Genocide, took place in 2007. Hosted by the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, the aim of the conference, Echenberg said, was to “have some practical contribution to human rights.”
François Crépeau, a professor of international law at McGill and the conference’s chair, opened the discussion by asking the audience to reflect on societies’ tendency to view issues in black-and-white terms. Societies tend to simplify issues, he said, to “us and them, thereby reducing the individual to a stereotype and thus dehumanizing the human.”
Numerous descriptions of human rights violations followed during the conference, with examples from locations as diverse as Afghanistan and Tibet.
The disregard for human rights due to a lack of respect for diversity exists around the world, and some speakers emphasized that Canada is no exception from this problem.
“Canadians tend to think that human rights [are] an issue dealing with others, those of developing countries,” said Commissioner Marie Wilson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which works on issues of suffering with Canada’s native population.
Through her work, Wilson highlighted the Canadian government’s imposition of rules and laws on First Nations which separated parents, children, and siblings from one another. In addition, she said, First Nations peoples were forced to give up their own laws, religion, and language while they attended residential schools that were administered by Catholic, United, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist Churches on behalf of the government.
Malalai Joya, a member of Parliament in Afghanistan, made a heartfelt speech to the panel about the current situation in her country. She blamed the United States, NATO, and Canada, along with Taliban forces, for leaving Afghanistan in its current state of turmoil.
Since the American invasion, Afghanistan has become progressively worse and a “haven for terrorists,” Joya said. She added that rape, violence, and crimes against women have increased sharply in the country since the U.S.’s war on terror began.
“The donated democracy of the West,” Joya said, “[Has] made Afghanistan what it is today.”
Joya said the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan only brought more terrorists to the country, and called for a total withdrawal of overseas forces.
Adding a perspective from a different part of the world, Thupten Jinpa Langri, a professor in McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies, and the principal English translator to the Dalai Lama, presented a talk about Tibetan Buddhists under Chinese rule. He suggested that there was no religious persecution of any individual Tibetans, but that Tibet’s troubles were instead part of “a greater human rights crisis in China, which is a non-democratic, totalitarian state.”
Languri argued that if a ruling party views itself as the only legitimate voice of the state, then human rights cannot really be upheld in that society.
“Any expression of ethnicity and religiosity is seen as subversive and criminalized,” Jinpa added.
Professor Frances Raday, director of the Concord Research Center for Integration of International Law in Israel, took a more upfront approach to the issues of human rights violations and religious diversity.
“The problem of understanding religion and human rights,” she said, “is that most [violations are] actually racial hatred and not religious disagreement.”
She insinuated that many leaders and governments conveniently refer to these violations as an issue of religious discrepancies, which makes the problem into something it is not. According to Raday, racial hatred is often ignored, so progress is rarely made in dealing with these issues.