Looking Back on Human Rights College 2013

By Tharani Thirumalairajan, Youth Intern, Amnesty International Canada, in Ottawa

On June 4th, 2013, Amnesty Canada ran a four day Human Rights College for youth from across the country as part of Amnesty Canada’s Annual General Meeting. The goal of the HRC was to empower and support young activists and to facilitate their active leadership within Amnesty International. We spent the three days building our human rights knowledge, developing skills as activists, preparing for the AGM. Sharing an experience with other individuals who are also committed to standing up against injustice was inspiring.

The college started with the participants sitting in on an Amnesty 101 session. The session provided a great background on Amnesty International and an in-depth introduction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Participants also had the opportunity to share “what human rights means” throughout the discussion. This session really built the foundation for the rest of the upcoming sessions and activities.

Amnesty staff led sessions on their areas of focus for the college; Jacqueline Hansen, who does amazing work on women’s rights campaigning, shared with the group the rights that women are entitled to, like sexual and reproductive rights, and the right to decide whether and when to have children. The session also highlighted the “My Body, My rights” campaign, a campaign that focuses on pressuring governments not to backtrack and take away our rights to make choices about our bodies and our lives.

We also had an advocate for art session run by Hilary Holmes, a major campaigner. Participants deconstructed various street art that had a human rights focus and discussed what really is effective protest art. Maria Aman, a participant shared that “the really great thing about art is that it is universal, it’s like a common language between all ages and it’s a great way to get people thinking”. By the end of the session, everyone split into groups to create their own protest art and had to deconstruct each other’s work. Groups picked issues like child soldiers, freedom of expression and gender equality. “It’s really great to have both a knowledge based and skills based sessions, giving us the best of both” participant Monica Petek said.

The college also included some fun activities. We had a human-rights-speed-dating challenge, where we split into groups and had country and campaign coordinators from Amnesty come talk to us. It was really great to get a one-on-one chance to have them share their own stories with us. Johsa Manzanilla, the Philippines country coordinator told about how she gained insight into her culture and identity through her role. Aubrey Harris, the death penalty coordinator, gave us different perspectives on the issue. Jonah Kanter, the newly appointed Syria coordinator, told the story of how his love of music directed him to Amnesty. It was interesting to hear stories from all the diverse backgrounds, both professionally and personally, that members bring to Amnesty.

Another activity that everyone loved was called” Meet the Big Wigs”. We were joined by Sarah Beamish, Amnesty International Canada’s President, Bob Goodfellow, the Executive Director, and Alex Neve, the Secretary General. We talked together about the challenges they faced, their journey through Amnesty and the best advice they ever got and would pass on to us. Something that stuck with most people was Alex Neve mentioning the best piece of advice he got, “in whatever you’re doing, never forget the human part”.

One moment that’s surely stood out for everyone was having human rights defender Nasser El Ras share is powerful story. Nasser is a young Canadian who was detained in Bahrain in March 2011 during a visit to see his family. Over the following year, he spent two periods in jail, was tortured and was sentenced in October 2011 to five years in prison for participating in peaceful protests. Amnesty got wind of this and supported Nasser throughout his suffering. Finally, in February 2012, it was announced that Nasser was free and he returned to Canada. Nasser told us about the abuse he went through, shared openly his emotions, and of his feeling of hope for the future. There was not a person in the room unmoved by his words and courage. He continues to strive for justice in Bahrain. It’s incredible individuals like Nasser that reminded us why we need to keep on fighting for human rights!

We ended the human rights college with what we call the “warm fuzzy moment thing”. All of participants and leaders came together to reflect on their 2013 HRC experience. Everyone joined in a circle and shared what was their favourite moment, what is their commitment to Amnesty, and something they really liked about another individual. This was done all while passing along string, keeping us all connected. A couple of tears and laughs later, we all cut the one long piece of string and made bracelets to remind us of our special time at the HRC. Finally, off we went to the AGM!

It was absolutely great being a part of the HRC this year. Meeting the HRC participants was inspiring and special. They all showed a great passion and commitment for human rights activism and I can’t wait to see what great things they do in the future! The HRC is good reminder that young people have the power to make a big difference in our world.

To find out how you can get involved in Amnesty’s Youth & Student program and other upcoming youth training opportunities contact youth@amnesty.ca.