University of Winnipeg – Commencement Address

On June 1, 2012, Jonathan Fanton addressed the 2011 graduates at the University of Winnipeg, encouraging students to take an active interest in the leading human rights issues of the day. 

Good morning.  It is a privilege to address the 2011 graduates of the University of Winnipeg and I thank the University Community for this honor.  It is a special pleasure to be here with Lloyd Axworthy from whom I have learned so much in our work together at the MacArthur Foundation and Human Rights Watch.  The world is a more just and humane place for his effective advocacy for international conventions like the treaty to ban land mines, for new institutions like the International Criminal Court and for new norms like the Responsibility to Protect.  In times past, when my own country failed to lead in the fight for human rights, I have been inspired by Canada’s clarion call for human rights and international justice.

The University of Winnipeg stands tall among universities around the world as a beacon for scholarship, teaching, and principled action in the human rights field.  The University’s undergraduate program in human rights, the Global College, The Department of Indigenous Studies, all demonstrate a powerful commitment to diversity and respect for the rights of all individuals.

Our vision of a better world is challenged by daily events, civil war in Libya, violence in Syria, suppression of dissent in China, repression in North Korea and Zimbabwe, growing inequality in rich nations like the United States and more.

The temptation to give in to the forces of fatalism and despair is real, but I urge you to resist those impulses and to engage with public issues, not withdraw into private space.  We are at one of those pivotal points in history, with choices to make and opportunities to seize.  How your generation approaches the world will make a difference, but you have to work at it.  I am an optimist about the future, and I want to tell you why.

If you ask me how the world today differs from when I was graduating from Yale I would say this: the role of non-governmental organizations and direct citizen action is much more important now.  All over the world, people like us are joining together to influence governments and confront problems, from the environment to human rights violations, directly through the power of civil society.

By “civil society,” I mean non-governmental groups that do careful research and monitoring to expose problems, propose specific remedies rooted in law and reality, and pioneer models of direct service: Amnesty International, the Population Council, Save the Children, the Global Fund for Women  and World Wildlife Fund.  The honor roll is long.

These groups play an indispensable role in the policy process and, at the same time, advance the prospects of creating and sustaining healthy democracies around the world.  They give voice to ordinary citizens, check governmental excesses, fill in service gaps, and prod international agencies to establish norms that express humankind’s highest aspirations for justice and fairness.

And so here is my bottom-line message to you:  Get involved – you can make a difference.  Financial contributions are important and absolutely essential, but they are only the beginning.  Your time, expertise, emotional commitment – that’s where the real action is.

Let me illustrate my point with a few vignettes, taking you around the world to introduce you to some of the groups the MacArthur Foundation supports; examples of organizations which could use your help.

We start in northern Uganda where a civil war has raged for over twenty years between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and government forces.  The LRA is especially known for kidnapping, torturing and killing children.  A local non-governmental organization, Human Rights Focus in Gulu, working with Human Rights Watch has carefully documented the atrocities: some 20,000 children abducted and tens of thousands more killed, wounded, or disabled.  This evidence convinced the New International Criminal Court in The Hague to open an investigation into the situation in northern Uganda and led to the very first cases now underway.

The International Criminal Court, or ICC, is the most important new institution since the founding of the United Nations.  It aims to bring justice to the Milosevics, the Pinochets, and the Saddam Husseins of the future.  One hundred and fourteen countries – though not, alas, the United States – have become members of the Court.  That is more, and much more quickly, than anyone supposed possible because of a group called the Coalition for the International criminal Court, an alliance of 2,000 local NGO’s working around the world for ratification.  It is a stunning example of civil society’s power to make a difference.

Come with me now across the world to Papua New Guinea, to the island of West New Britain, to look at the work of Mahonia Na Dari, a local environmental organization whose name means “Guardians of the Sea.”

Destructive fishing practices by both outside and local agents are killing the coral and with it marine life.  Some 400 species of coral and 900 species of fish found nowhere else on earth are endangered because those catching fish for aquariums in Europe and the United States stun them with cyanide and dynamite blasts – both of which kill the coral.

Land and coastal environments in that part of the world are held in common by communities, so effective reform requires local engagement.  Mahonia Na Dari established the first protected marine area in Kimbe Bay.  They have since convinced other communities to establish ten more covering 50% of the coral reefs in the area.

Now let’s transit to Russia.  You have probably been reading about the uncertain progress of democratic reform there, but that’s a Moscow story.  In the provinces, human rights groups are gaining; some 3,000 by one count.  Local people are coming together to tackle police abuse, protect freedom of expression, promote tolerance and respect for minorities, advance women’s rights and insist on the rule of law.

Here is an offbeat example of how Russians are using the courts to defend their rights.  In the summer of 2001, one of the world’s worst dictators, North Korean leader Kim Jong II, traveled across Russia by train.  The overbearing security arrangements for this trip created massive disruptions across the Russian rail system.   The Perm Regional Human Rights Center, on behalf of local citizens, sued the Russian government for violations of consumers’ rights in their handling of the Kim fiasco – and won.  Imagine a Russia in which ordinary people can sue their government and win.

The final international example takes us back to Africa, to northern Nigeria, which is largely Muslim.  You may have read about state efforts to impose Sharia, or Muslim law, and the infamous case of Amina Lawaal, 30 years old, convicted of adultery, and sentenced to death by stoning.  A local group, Women Living Under Muslim Law, took up her case, using their local expertise and cultural sensitivity to help craft a defense based on aspects of both Sharia and Nigerian law.  By holding the justice system accountable to its own rules, Women Living Under Muslim Law not only saved Amina’s life but also demonstrated that there are legal options for women living under Sharia law.

I chose my examples of NGO’s that make a difference from around the world on purpose.  While there are many important organizations here at home that are worthy of your time and money, I urge you to learn about other countries and cultures.  I was a provincial American until my early 40’s when I joined the Board of Human Rights Watch and chaired the Europe and Central Asia Division.

I have to say that of all the things I have done in life – jobs, volunteer work, serving on boards, — my association with Human Rights Watch has meant the most to me and contributed the most to my personal development.

So I end where I began.  Being engaged in community organizations and issue advocacy groups, as well as religious and service institutions will add value to your lives and make a difference at home and beyond as we search for a more just and humane world at peace.  And as you feel the difference you are making, you will take heart that the deadly forces of fatalism and despair can be turned back by the power of individuals coming together directly, unmediated by governments.

That is the way of the future in our race against global warming; against the ravages of AIDS; against the growth of terrorist networks; and against the potential of social explosion, as rising expectations clash with the stubborn persistence of poverty.

The most powerful force for good in our time is the worldwide mobilization of citizens to act directly, sometimes to supplement government action, sometimes to resist it; most often to bring compassion and competence, hope and determination, when formal mechanisms fail.  So my advice to you is to choose an issue and an organization with which to work.  And do it now.

You will make a difference and be rewarded with a more interesting and satisfying life.