Human Rights Forum Inspires Activists

Danny Reinan, Staff Writer


The first annual Human Rights Forum took place at Augsburg University on Oct. 28 and 29, replacing the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, an event that was held on campus for thirty years. The event gave students the chance to learn from and engage with activists all across the globe, who came to share their work, host workshops and inspire those in attendance to pursue their own passions in the realms of activism. 

The first day of the Human Rights Forum centered around the efforts of activists trying to create change within authoritarian states. This portion of the workshop was a collaboration between Augsburg and the Human Rights Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to secure human rights for people across the globe, with a particular emphasis on places where rights such as the freedom of speech and protection from slavery and torture are not guaranteed. The day’s programming was kicked off at the opening plenary by a trio of activists who integrate creative pursuits into their activist work. 

Leyla Hussein, a Somali activist who currently lives in the United Kingdom, centers her work around fighting female genital mutilation (FGM). Her fight against the horrific practice has led her to work as a psychotherapist working with survivors of FGM and to produce a documentary called “The Cruel Cut,” which was screened on the first day of the Human Rights Forum. “It’s not a cultural practice, it’s not a medicinal practice, it’s not a religious practice, it’s solely a way of controlling female bodies and sexuality,” she said at the opening plenary. “Protecting children from harm is seen as a campaign. It should be an everyday behavior.” 

Jerry Sesanga, a Ugandan filmmaker, novelist, and journalist, also spoke at the opening plenary. His main battle is against child marriage, which is a fight that is very personal to him, since his mother was a child bride and her early marriage impacted his entire family. He channels his experiences into his novels and films, many of which explore child marriage as a major theme, in hopes of bringing the harm it causes to a mainstream audience. “Many people are growing up in a situation like this,” he said. “Child marriage robs families of opportunity and limits their true potential.” He declared at the opening plenary his intent to end the “chain of misery, inequality and injustice” created by child marriage. 

The final speaker at the opening plenary was Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, a publisher, editor and writer from Bangladesh. Chowdhury attributes reading the newspaper in his youth to how he learned not to fall down the rabbit hole of radicalization. “To me, the newspaper seemed like a school, through which I learned to look at things from different angles,” he said. He wanted to share writings from diverse perspectives with others in Bangladesh, so he began publishing a magazine called Shuddhashar, which featured works from many writers from unseen perspectives, such as secular writers or writers who denounced nationalism. Chowdhury published over 1,000 books in eleven years until, in 2015, he fell victim to a violent attack from a fundamentalist who attacked publishers that published works by secular authors. Chowdhury survived, but was forced to move to Norway. Even after his near-death experience, Chowdhury remains dedicated to his work, and has moved Shuddhashar online. 

The second day of the human rights forum saw more speakers lend their wisdom, with many focusing on providing hands-on-training to aspiring activists. Among these speakers were Kåre Aas, the Norwegian ambassador to the US; Namira Islam, the co-founder of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and Reverend Mitri Raheb, who founded Dar-al Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem. After students learned all throughout the day about how to best pursue their causes as activists, the closing plenary of day two saw three speakers give the student body calls to action to put their skills and passion into action. 

The first of these speakers was Danny Noonan, an Australian lawyer currently working for Our Children’s Trust. Our Children’s Trust is currently involved in a very prominent case – the case of Juliana v. United States, a case filed by 21 young plaintiffs against the US government, which is arguing that the US must make a government-prepared climate recovery plan. In his time as a lawyer working for Our Children’s Trust, Noonan has worked with many young people whose lives have been impacted by the climate crisis. He urged the audience to consider and act on the intersectional impacts the climate crisis has on indigenous populations. “The right to a sustainable climate is not only the constitutional question of the century, but also the human rights question of the century,” he said.

The second speaker was Roger Reeves, a poet, activist and English professor at the University of Texas-Austin. He works with immigrant children and helps them put together bilingual literary journals in order to share their work, experiences and art with one another. At the plenary, Reeves shared four poems about heavy and vitally important topics, such as the tear gassing of immigrants and the abuse of slaves by the founding fathers. The last poem he shared, “Children Listen”, contained his call to action in its final three lines: “Children, you were never meant to be human. You are the grass. You must grow wildly over the graves.”

The closing plenary featured Miriam Miranda, a Garifuna activist in Honduras who leads the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras. Much of her work has centered around defending indigenous land rights and combating the climate crisis. In Honduras, she has had to fight hard under an oppressive and violent regime, but she continues to be dedicated to her work as an activist. She called the audience to fight complacency and remember that there is always work to do where they are. “People think that the struggle is far away from them, but the climate is right here,” she said. “We only have one planet. It is very important to put together the voices of the South and the North to protect the planet.” After the plenary ended, the Peace Scholars from the Nobel Peace Prize Forum consortium stepped on stage and had their efforts recognized, while holding up a banner calling for the end of the violence against Garifuna people. At the end of the forum, the air was charged with energy, excitement and the hope that students intend to carry their new knowledge forward.

This article was originally published in the November 1, 2019 issue.