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Nurturing the Next Generation of Interfaith Network Leaders

March 5, 2013

With the conclusion of our fifth School of Peace (SOP) in Bangalore, India, in mid-May last year, Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) now has 88 young people in 16 countries who have completed the 14-week program—our main activity that looks at, among other things, issues related to our various identities, including our religious identity; ways that we respond to differences and conflict; the violence of development; and transformation of ourselves and our communities. Naturally, most of our SOP participants are from Asia; but at the 2012 SOP, we also had three women from outside of the region—two Native American women from the United States and Canada and a staff member of a local YMCA in northeast England who had participated in a two-week mini-SOP that we held in Bangladesh in July 2011.

We are now in the midst of what I believe is an important initiative to train a small number of these SOP alumni to be resource people in several areas that are important to us as a way to strengthen and improve the skills of some of our alumni and to develop the leadership of our regional interfaith network for peace with justice, or justpeace. This process began last September with two workshops—one on community organizing in Sri Lanka and the other conducted by myself on human rights in Indonesia. A third workshop was held in December in Cambodia on tools for transformation—the use of art, music and drama for education and advocacy on social, economic and political issues.

Six SOP alumni attended our human rights workshop in Indonesia. They included two Buddhists from Cambodia, three Muslims from Indonesia and a Muslim from the Philippines. People in all of these countries are dealing with a variety of human rights problems, whether it is land-grabbing in Cambodia that affects people’s right to housing and a livelihood or religious intolerance in Indonesia or extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the Philippines. Thus, one criterion for the selection of our participants was their national context as well as their work, their commitment to upholding human rights and their ability to be good resource people in the future.

At the outset of our workshop in Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta, we first sought to define what are human rights, a term that is regularly used in our conversations, the media, etc., but may mean different things to each of us. A definition that I shared with the group is that human rights is about the protection of human equality as the foundation of any human rights system rests on ensuring equality and the major function of actions for human rights is protection.

The major thrust of this workshop though was looking at human rights from a legal perspective as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the other U.N. human rights covenants and conventions covering people’s civil and political rights and their economic, social and cultural rights. We also discussed the U.N. convention covering torture as it is a major problem in most Asian countries, affecting not only those labeled as political and social activists but also ordinary people who most likely are poor and, hence, with little power.

Other workshop topics included examining the obstacles that impede the protection of people’s human rights, such as dysfunctional legal systems, and the role that culture plays in the commission of human rights violations, such as honor killings and acid-throwing cases in parts of South Asia that affect particularly women.

Although a great deal of material was covered during this program, there were many aspects of better understanding human rights and its protection that time did not permit us to explore, and thus, a second workshop was held in February this year in Indonesia again. This time in Solo in Central Java with the same people taking part, plus a Christian SOP alumnus from Sri Lanka where Tamils still struggle as second-class citizens.

At this workshop, we continued our study of human rights from a legal perspective by scrutinizing the U.N. conventions devoted to the rights of women and children as a number of our network members work in these areas; but at this second workshop, our primary attention was on the moral or faith-based perspective of human rights with the participants sharing the teachings of their faiths—Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.

Naturally, these efforts can only make a small dent in the immense human rights problems that Asia’s people face every day, but we hope that these seven SOP alumni can be valuable resource people, not only for our interfaith network, but also for their own organizations and communities. In this way, it is hoped too that their impact will be greater than their numbers as their contributions as resource people can have a ripple effect toward creating a stronger human rights culture in their societies in which human rights violations are not acceptable and are met with greater indignation and resistance.

Bruce Van Voorhis

(Bruce Van Voorhis works in Hong Kong for Interfaith Cooperation Forum [ICF], a regional network of young Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and indigenous activists working for justpeace at the grassroots level in South and Southeast Asia. ICF is a joint program of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs [APAY] in Hong Kong where Bruce is based and the Christian Conference of Asia [CCA] located in Chiang Mai, Thailand.)

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