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24 January, 2018

On a cold December evening over forty people gathered together at Greencoat Place to celebrate World Human Rights day, and the four pillars of the International Declaration of Human Rights: Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want and Freedom of Expression. Four panelists, chaired by Amina Khalid of IofC’s Sustainable Communities Programme, spoke about the bridges that are being built amidst challenges facing our world, and the ways that each one of us can further the cause of human rights.

As Talia Smith, Project Manager at IofC, said in her introduction, Human Rights Day is not just a day to reiterate a statement of purpose, but is about action. Initiatives of Change call to action is about building bridges and connecting with those around it. Starting with personal transformation and individual moral responsibility, every day is an opportunity to bring about change. Every day is human rights day.

Shimaa Elsayed, runs WAVE, Women's Action Against Violent Extremism. She took us back to late 2010, the start of the Arab Spring, and the protests and uprisings that have taken place across Arab countries. In tandem with the call for human rights and social justice has been violent extremism, all forms of which target women, threaten community and stunt development. We need to take measures to challenge this, but she says that counter extremism is not always effective. Shimaa stressed the importance of defeated not just terrorist groups, but the ideology behind their actions. Rather than waves of anger, Shimaa has created her own WAVE, a wave of peace. In community groups women become part of the solution on the front line – mothers, sisters, and community leaders all supporting one another. She describes the way that they tackle extremism as taking a human rights approach, empowering everyone to reach their potential. The recent London Bridge attacks are just one place where WAVE have worked. The ‘Bounce Back’ initiative aimed to support people not to feel scared and limited by fear. ‘These kind of attacks divide us,’ says Shimaa. ‘The best response is to get more united.’

Adeel Younasis a 22 year old police officer from Nottingham. He has a passion for justice, and wants his city to a better place to be. Fiercely proud to be a Muslim, he has faced discrimination both within the police force and communities, but remains committed to the cause of bringing about change. He says that it is important to have a more diverse police force, as it offers the opportunity to understand and connect with the people in the community. His Muslim background has helped him reach people who have felt disenfranchised with the establishment in his Nottingham. But he treats all people fairly – a tenet shared by both the police and Islam - and believes that even if he can help just one person, it’s worthwhile. He quotes Hadith 34, ‘Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart.’ We can all take action, in many different ways, is the message that Adeel leaves us with.

In 1984 five people were killed in an IRA bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Jo Berry’s father, Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry, was one of them. Yet in 2000 she chose to meet with the instigator of the bomb, Patrick Magee. Reports and media had led to him being demonized and labelled, but she was intent on seeing him as a human being. The initial conversation saw Magee stressing his political justification for his actions, with righteousness on his side. But when Jo went to leave, something shifted. She saw humanity in his eyes, and he later said that he had been ‘disarmed by Jo’s empathy.’ Behind the political mask was a human being. This healed something in Jo, and changed the story she had been telling herself. They became friends, and have spoken together nearly two hundred times. ‘If we open our hearts and minds to empathise; when we see someone in human dignity; then we will uphold human rights,’ says Jo. ‘Empathy is the tool through which we change.’

Simon Israel is Senior Home Affairs Correspondent at Channel 4. Freedom of expression is central to his work. He sees his job as giving people the right to speak and challenge. Covering home affairs at Channel 4 news for nearly 25 years, he has seen ‘grim’ things. ‘But when grim things happen, people can be utterly remarkable.’ But they can also be scared, and often seek an explanation and an opportunity to be heard. His work is about forcing the system to hear people and communicate with them in a dignified and respectful way. Freedom of expression is a phrase that we hear often, but it shouldn’t be an empty one. Simon tries to get people to use it as their right. ‘If no one hears you, we’re in trouble.’

After a lively question and answer session and further discussion, the evening came to a close. But not before our panel shared some words of wisdom. Simon stressed that whilst we live in a world of challenges, and acknowledged the role that the media plays in creating fear surrounding those challenges, ‘there are always solutions.’ The idea of empowerment rung through in Shimaa’s words that we are ‘all people who can bring about change.’ Adeel referred to a phrase that he heard at Caux 2017 – ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ He went on to say that ‘We have to stick together, build bridges and break down barriers. That is how each one of us can uphold human rights.’ Jo agrees. ‘We can all do something, every minute.’ It all starts with the individual. 

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