A prominent human rights activist challenged local high school students to stand up against oppression during a conference at Laurier Brantford on Tuesday.
“Human rights are at the centre of all the challenges we face as a global family,” Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.
About 75 students from Brantford and Woodstock took part in the “Human Rights in Africa” conference organized by Laurier Brantford human rights and diversity professor Andrew Robinson.
Just returned from an emergency trip to gauge the deteriorating situation in Ivory Coast, and about to embark for strife-ridden South Sudan, Neve is well aware of the human rights problems that plague many areas of the continent.
But he wants to change the conversation that depicts Africa as a land of victimization and instead focus on the many Africans working, often at great risk, to promote human rights.
“There is not just promise, but great stuff happening now,” he said.
Neve told stories of a Sudanese girl who walked six days from her village to a refugee camp to pursue an education, and of a village chief in Ivory Coast who kept handwritten lists of the people and animals killed and displaced by violence, waiting for the day the outside world took notice.
Clueing the world into human rights abuses is a challenge, Neve said.
“That’s been one of the biggest shortcomings on the human rights front for decades,” he said of the need for accountability for violators and those who finance them.
The International Criminal Court has made strides toward greater international justice, but there is much work to be done, he said.
Better arms control is badly needed to stop the “scandalous, outrageous and nauseating” flow of weapons from highly industrialized countries like Russia, China and the United States into the hands of soldiers in armies like the Sudanese Janjaweed, whose fellow citizens live in abject poverty, Neve said.
“It’s absurd, it’s unacceptable and it has to stop,” Neve said of the currently unregulated arms trade, which would be put under tighter control if an arms trade treaty currently before the United Nations is approved.
Neve encouraged the students to “wake up a discussion about Africa,” especially in a society seemingly inundated with negative coverage of wars, natural disasters and AIDS. Grassroots human rights movements are the most effective, he said, and in countries where rights are trampled, empowering women is critical.
“So much of the future, the solutions, the better world, in small villages and big towns, lies in greater power, great involvement in decision-making and greater leadership for women and girls across the continent,” he said.
Many of Neve’s observations struck a chord with Grade 12 student Monica Pierce from Brantford Collegiate Institute.
Pierce belongs to a student group that works with non-profit organization Free the Children to provide tangible aid such as a goat or school supplies to communities in need.
“It’s been shown that sending money directly to the country doesn’t seem to be the best way to do things,” Pierce said. “Knowing that we’re actually feeding a specific need makes you feel really good.”
Calling the idea that newspaper readers were tired of hearing about Africa “ridiculous,” Pierce pledged to continue spreading the word about international human rights abuses.
“I think it’s terrible that some of these things happen around the world, and there has to be a bigger awareness of it,” she said.
The conference, part of the CIDA-funded Students for Development Project, also featured presentations from Ghanaian professor Nana Apt and four Laurier Brantford interns who spent last summer working on human rights projects in Ghana.