30 October 2018
Former Prime Ministers, Presidents, human rights activists from The Elders, an independent group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights, and some 50 future leaders, as part of a British Council Connect programme, came together at SOAS University of London to discuss human rights leaderships. The event, which took place at SOAS on 29 October, is available to view on the SOAS Facebook page.
SOAS President Graça Machel urged young leaders to lead now and reshape institutions and reimagine how we relate to one another. Referring to the Future Leaders as “my leaders” she called on them to lead and not wait for the future but to become part of a social movement in order to protect human rights and dignity for everyone.
She said: “Institutional wise we have some kind of inertia – you’ll hardly find the activism and the impatience – [such as] the outreach which we hear about this evening – you won’t find it in institutions, you’ll find it in people. Particularly in young people. So we need that outreach to come up and drive change.
“In my life I always learned that social movements are the ones that make transformation real… Be vocal – don’t allow yourself to be silenced by anyone.”
Acting Chair of the Elders and the former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, said: “When Nelson Mandela founded our group [The Elders] 11 years ago, he charged us with a mandate and one of those important points was ‘speak truth to power’. SOAS is an institution that has a proud history of standing up for human rights.”
Director of SOAS Baroness Valerie Amos CH said on human rights: “We need to stand firm in protecting the gains we have made, and in challenging every attempt to row back on those gains. Civil society organisations are doing their best to play their part in holding Governments to account. And people are out on the streets – making their voices heard. In this room tonight and listening to the debate are leaders and activists who want to see change. A new generation who are challenging us to think differently about our world – with a commitment to upholding fundamental human rights at its heart.”
On speaking about the greatest challenges for human rights, Louise Arbour, UN Special Representative for International Migration and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, spoke on the “assault in norms” describing it as “the beginning of a culture of fear whereby post 9/11 what we saw is this very perverse movement essentially to get democracies in countries that were otherwise very embedded in human rights culture to turn in on themselves – and to a certain extent to start to self-destruct.”
The former President of Ireland Mary Robinson warned on climate change as one of the greatest challenges: “Many of the problems are too big for one country – take for example climate change. The recent report by the IPCC on how we get to the ‘safe world’… we have to reduce by 45% our emissions in less than 12 years. That report got a lot of publicity when it was announced, but are we seeing any real change? And that’s a human rights issue.”
Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged young leader to get involved and act: “It’s a brawl out there and we have to brawl… the stakes are so high. This university [SOAS] needs to be activist – not just in the context of intellectual debate and scholarship – but out there.”
The Future Leaders took to the stage to share their views on human rights leadership. Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi from Nigeria said: “A leader must stay relevant to the needs of the people and ensure there are policies in place to protect their rights. In cases of violations of those rights, such as violence against women and girls, and as a survivor of sexual violence I know that an ethical leader must create systems to protect me, to support me, and to prevent reoccurrence. To you leaders and future I ask – what is ethical leadership – without the political will to invest in education, health and gender equality and equitable representation.”
In the second panel discussion, Future Leader Stellah Bosire, who is rehabilitated sex worker and had overcome drug addiction, said: “I worry about the future because I see no compassion… Where is the future for inclusion and diversity? Where is it when I will be discriminated based on my sexual orientation or my ethnic identity… But then I have hope - because of you.”
Future Leader Joseph Devlin shared his view on the importance of consistency: “We may be saying the same thing for a long time. But as long as we are right - that is immaterial.”
Human rights lawyer and pro-democracy campaigner Hina Jilani, who also spoke at SOAS’s Centenary Lecture Series in 2016, added: “I have been part of a movement against discriminatory laws in Pakistan – it took us 25 years to mitigate the harm of those laws. My children starting mocking me at one stage… for 25 years we have been watching you [they said]. I told them that I have the resilience to stand there for 25 years and that is what is important.”
The event was chaired by BBC broadcaster Kirsty Lang along with SOAS Professor Stephen Hopgood and is available to view on the SOAS Facebook page.