On June 20th, we celebrate World Refugee Day with this year´s theme “Every Action Counts” which might raise three questions that will be discussed in this article: 1) Why do we celebrate international days and what is the idea behind it? 2) What exactly is a refugee and what related terminology do we need to know? 3) What does it practically mean that every action counts? Let´s address each of those important questions individually.
First of all, international days are important as they are critical tools to raise global and public awareness about certain issues that affect all of humanity. Whether those days are directly related to historic achievements, to the death or life of significant figures or strategically chosen to amplify their impact – the importance of such special days can´t be underestimated! They function as both advocacy tools as well as days of celebration to cherish the progress we have made on certain issues so far while recommitting to more action and dedication for the future. Therefore, international days contain some sort of tension that allows anyone who hears about or celebrates them, to engage on a deeper level with the particular issue raised on that very day.
Now that we have established the nature and significance of international days,
let´s take the example of today´s World Refugee Day – what are we celebrating today? In our polarized world, refugee has become a loaded term and often confused with related terms like asylum seekers, internally displaced people, stateless persons, and returnees. Therefore, here is a list with a short definition for each one of those terms by the United Nations (https://www.un.org/en/observances/refugee-day):
“A refugee is someone who fled his or her home and country owing to “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”, according to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. Many refugees are in exile to escape the effects of natural or human-made disasters.”
“Asylum seekers say they are refugees and have fled their homes as refugees do, but their claim to refugee status is not yet definitively evaluated in the country to which they fled.”
“Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are people who have not crossed an international border but have moved to a different region than the one they call home within their own country.”
“Stateless persons do not have a recognized nationality and do not belong to any country.” “Statelessness situations are usually caused by discrimination against certain groups. Their lack of identification — a citizenship certificate — can exclude them from access to important government services, including health care, education or employment.”
“Returnees are former refugees who return to their own countries or regions of origin after time in exile. Returnees need continuous support and reintegration assistance to ensure that they can rebuild their lives at home.”
It is critical to be aware of those distinctions, not only to be politically correct, but most of all to be able to address people individually by not throwing them into a vague pool of “foreigners” which tends to be very disrespectful as it usually neglects the past and emotions of a human being and dignity. We celebrate the World Refugee Day because rather sooner than later this world should be striving for/achieving societies where there are no refugees because of inclusive and respectful treatment of each other. Regardless of how far away we as current society might be though, this year´s theme shows us the right approach: “Every Action Counts”!
“Every minute 20 people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror”, according to a recent statistic by the United Nations (https://www.un.org/en/observances/refugee-day). This fact cries out for people from all over the world to take bold steps in this regard as it matters! Sometimes our individual influence and impact might seem trivial in this humongous world.
However, looking at the COVID-19 pandemic and the current anti-racism protests all around the world, we can clearly see that they only way to move forward sustainably into a more inclusive and equal society is if, and only if, we do it together. Educate, talk to, encourage and listen to each other so that each voice is heard and brought to the table. Change is driven by all of us and not only the political authorities which the current protests and the quarantine regulations have clearly exemplified. One step at a time to ensure that no one is left behind! It won´t happen over night but by collective and repeated interaction with each and every part and person of society! Refugees are as much part of the society as you are, so let´s make sure that their voices are heard, amplified and acted upon!
“Everyone can make a difference. This is at the heart of UNHCR’s World Refugee Day campaign. This year, we aim to remind the world that everyone, including refugees, can contribute to society and Every Action Counts in the effort to create a more just, inclusive, and equal world.” (https://www.un.org/en/observances/refugee-day)
The World Environment Day has been celebrated on June 5th since 1974 (https://www.un.org/en/observances/environment-day). It has been an effective tool for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and part of its strategy to engage all stakeholders – governments, businesses, civil society, etc. – to achieve this overarching goal: raise awareness and create action to protect the environment. This year´s theme is biodiversity which is critical for all life on land and below water. It is a highly sensitive and interconnected system that, if affected, could have negative effects on all its members.
The International Day of Living Together in Peace has been celebrated on May 16th since the resolution 72/130 got adopted at the end of 2017. It makes the 2020 celebration the third ever, but arguably the most important one so far. Due to the Coronavirus, this world is experiencing an unparalleled crisis that is often compared to the Second World War in terms of its impact on the global society. If this world needs to live together in peace, now almost more than ever is the time.
The importance of this claim shouldn´t be understated at all but repeated over and over again. Multilateralism is a fleeting reality and global governance a distant idea that current political leaders refuse to focus on because of their own national problems. Nationalism is on the rise and with-it discrimination against anything that we started cherishing in recent years. Diversity, culture, and creativity are increasingly viewed as threats to the individualistic and narrow-minded approach of only caring about myself and like-minded people.
This crisis is deeply intertwined with the fear that politicians use globally to make their citizens behave in a way that they want them to. This rederick is shockingly popular and reveals even deeper problems in our society. Leaders all across the world rather use fear and force than the solid reasoning and empathy to cope with this crisis. Therefore, the biggest wars moved within national boundaries. All the progress on multilateralism and global governance seems to be dismissed, due to COVID-19.
However, as dramatic, painful and horrible this pandemic is – again, this shouldn´t and can´t be mentioned often enough – it is vital to lift our heads up and use this time to the best of our abilities. At the end of the day, the whole world is in this crisis together which is an unprecedented case. It allows the world to see its essence in the rawest and most transparent way which reveals some ugly truths about us as society as indicated before. Nevertheless, in light of the day we are celebrating today, it is a strong reminder and opportunity to reorient ourselves to true peace.
“Living together in peace is all about accepting differences and
having the ability to listen to, recognize, respect and appreciate others, as
well as living in a peaceful and united way.”
(https://www.un.org/en/observances/living-in-peace-day, May 15th 2020)
The Coronavirus allows us to see ourselves, our identities, strengths, and weaknesses on several levels including personal, relational, local, national, and international ones. There seems to be no way around it but examining our entire life. This exceptional opportunity should not be wasted or ignored. Obviously, the crisis has a different impact on each and every one. While many people lost their jobs, others are incredibly busy organizing businesses in a sustainable way so that future jobs are secured. Many people have lost dear ones and are afflicted by severe physical, psychological, and spiritual pain. Still, there are some people who aren´t affected tremendously by this pandemic due to their job, lifestyle or at times ignorance.
It is crucial to acknowledge all of us in this situation to think about how to create true peace. There will always be differences in ideologies, beliefs, opinions, etc. However, contrary to the common assumption peace doesn´t aim at unifying all those differences to one correct option. Rather, it encourages differences to exist since humanity is far too diverse, creative, and unique to be limited to one particular form of life. True peace is found in listening, recognizing, respecting, and appreciating each other in our differences. This is only possible if we – each and every one of us – express who we really are and how we view our life.
Obviously, there is a lot more to discuss and to go deeper into in this matter. However, the International Day of Living Together in Peace, especially this year in this pandemic, should be seen as an invitation to “further promote reconciliation to help to ensure peace and sustainable development, including by working with communities, faith leaders and other relevant actors, through reconciliatory measures and acts of service and by encouraging forgiveness and compassion among individuals” (https://www.un.org/en/observances/living-in-peace-day, May 15th 2020). It is rather the start of a process than the proclamation of a conclusion. True peace isn´t a result but a continuous process in all of society.
Therefore, true peace can never exist nor last if it is forced upon each other. It must come from each one of us and eventually will move an entire society closer towards each other. Even though we seem very divided at the moment with many things in an uncertain condition for a longer period of time, let´s encourage one another to make good use of this time to be there for each other. Change towards true peace is a daily commitment, but it starts with one to galvanize others. Why shouldn´t you be the one who brings about that change in your life and community? On this note, happy International Day of Living Together in Peace!
The International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims
The International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims – a special day that has been celebrated annually on March 24th for the past 9 years. Human rights defenders have always been in risky positions. Speaking up on behalf of people who have been marginalized has historically never been something that was accepted with immediate overwhelming support. However, it is those bold individuals who personify the need for the right to the truth for everybody. Especially in our current society that faces more information than it could ever process in a single lifetime, truth is more than ever the single most relevant aspect and challenge that we face.
As we commemorate today, speaking out truth doesn´t always come without consequences. Gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law are mostly covered up by different authorities and rarely addressed on big political platforms. At times, it takes decades to address such violations adequately. Nonetheless, the pain of victims, their relatives and friends can´t be pushed back at all. Furthermore, it is those who address their suffering who are in danger to endure the same fate as other victims. It is not enough if one single person stands up but it takes all of us as society, as humanity, as people of this earth to come together and jointly stand strong with those who cannot stand right now; who lost their voice in their human rights battle; who gave their lives so that future generations might have a better life.
“As we recognize the courage of human rights defenders
everywhere, let us commit to protect those who seek truth
and justice, and provide victims with effective remedies and restore their dignity.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres
This quote by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres is a clear message about the purpose of this day. As much as it is about honoring and paying tribute to human rights defenders, it is a call for action to all of us. It is our responsibility as society to make sure that their efforts weren´t in vain. We are charged with the task to protect current human rights defenders more than ever. It is our shared mission to turn this international day into a celebration because of the fulfillment of the right to the truth throughout this world.
Therefore, it is crucial to know the way and the progress that has been made so far. It is impossible to commemorate human rights defenders on this day without recognizing the important work and values of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador. His day of death – March 24, 1980 – was chosen by the United Nations General Assembly to specifically honor and pay tribute to human rights defenders like him that were willing to die so that others may hear the truth.
Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated by a death squad after he repeatedly denounced human rights violations against the most vulnerable people in El Salvador. He strived for the fulfillment of the right to the truth in his work and was shot while celebrating mass on March 24th, 1980. His legacy is a clear message to all of us that we need to value truth and the access to it much, much more. It certainly has been changing lives and sheds light onto those areas and aspects of our society where the most vulnerable have been repeatedly violated without any public notice.
This day, the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims, is a reminder that it is our task – yours and mine – to use all the resources we have to spread the truth into every corner and part of society. Truth is a privilege, but, moreover, it is a call for action. We can´t hear the truth and pretend like we haven´t heard of it. We can´t neglect the fact that millions all over the world like Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero have died so that others might have a better chance to live their life with dignity and enjoyment of all human rights.
Now, it is up to you. It is up to me. Do you accept the task of promoting truth so that all those human rights defenders, all their families and friends did not die in vain?
On February 20th, we celebrated the World Day of Social Justice. Social Justice – not only is it a key aspect to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, but much more than that, it is what millions of people are hoping for to experience one day. Let´s take a look at some statistics of the International Labour Organization (ILO): Over 60 % of all workers lack any kind of employment contract and thus, are subject to the individual rules and commitment of their employer. Furthermore, over 600 million jobs need to be created by 2030 only to keep pace with the growth of the working age population. Lastly, one in five workers still live in extreme or moderate poverty (Source: ILO). One week after celebrating this day, the numbers haven´t changed dramatically. Well, what is actually next for us to achieve social justice?
In order to answer that question, we need to understand what social justice is. There are many different definitions on what this term means, but it essentially refers to impartial, fair and equal treatment of humans due to their inherent and equal human dignity. Consequently, there ought to be fundamental principles in any workplace like equal pay for equal job, right to education, equal opportunity, etc. As nice as all of those principles sound, they are not a reality all across the world for several reasons. The event “Closing the Inequalities Gap to Achieve Social Justice" organized by the Permanent Mission of the Kyrgyz Republic to the United Nations and the International Labour Organization Office for the United Nations was both very helpful and eye-opening to hear experts, government officials and ambassadors share the challenges they face in their particular country.
Before going into any example, it is crucial to mention that most if not all the challenges addressed in this event are highly interconnected and thus, not able to be focused on individually without touching on another issue. Throughout this event, it became very apparent that the case of the SDGs is very similar. It is almost impossible to look at eradicating poverty (SDG #1) without sustainable cities and communities (SDG #11), to achieve gender equality (SDG #5) without global partnerships (SDG #17). As much as we make of our personal heritage and country, the most serious challenges we face are global ones that require the unfiltered attention by all world leaders in order to be properly addressed. We will only achieve the 2030 Agenda if we take a holistic and systemic approach, acknowledging that we are all in this together and need each other to make significant progress.
However, in terms of social justice, the issue of gender equality was a very prevalent topic. Whether it be patriarchy, climate change or migration – whatever root cause it is, women experience disadvantageous treatment in terms of wage but also concerning job opportunity. The shocking lack of women studying or working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is a great example of how our society is clearly behind in closing the gender gap. Those are areas of work that will impact our future greatly and if they are dominated by men, then we are missing out on the perspective of more than 50 % of the world´s population. The trickle-down effect could be enormous and not only keep us from closing the gender gap by 2030, but also widen it once again. Unequal pay and treatment of women are all in violation of the foundational principle of social justice and the human rights agenda in general, namely equal human dignity for all. Due to its size, gender equality has been viewed as crucial part to close the inequalities gap significantly.
Lastly, the inequalities gap is a lot bigger than we think. In order to close this gap, we need to reconsider our approach. “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. It is justice!” – Bryan Stevenson. Especially in the Western world, we are tempted to confuse our basic needs with our own desires. The quote from Bryan Stevenson is actually groundbreaking. As important money and wealth are to kick-start projects, initiatives and overall change, they are neither the solution nor the goal. It hit me hard to realize that I have been confusing wealth with justice. We live in impressive cities and aspire to turn our lifestyle into a sustainable one so that no one is left behind. However, if we don´t understand such a foundational concept, can we even reach a goal like closing the inequalities gap to ensure social justice for all?
Nonetheless, we must not give up! As unjust and unequal our society has been treating women, the environment or any marginalized group, we have come a long way to have such a meeting at the UN to hear truth and exchange valuable ideas on how we can seriously close this gap. As mentioned before, our world is highly interconnected which is why the problem we face is extremely comprehensive. Let´s listen to the voices of those who have been marginalized so that we gain a better understanding of who we are as humanity and also, to understand better what we are actually striving for.
I am convinced that there is a lot more to learn about what a sustainable lifestyle looks like, what a socially just society looks like. Since nobody of us has ever lived in such a place, it remains a distant future for now. That is why we need to keep exchanging our ideas, maintain close relationships across the globe so that we can encourage each other in our defeats as well as our victories because, at the end of the day, we are all in this together.
What do people think of the United Nations? It is unnecessary! It saves many lives! If I walked around and asked random people on the streets, I might get very controversial answers. Even though this supranational organization has existed for the past 74 years, there are still opposite viewpoints, mostly depending on the country of origin. Nevertheless, even within the same country you might get very different responses on the UN, its importance and impact on this world. However, it seems that this organization and its advocating NGOs are based on a very fundamental truth that humanity often forgets about. Let me share my limited insight from my brief, but intense experience with this matter so far.
My name is Lukas Wenninger and I started interning here at the Congregation of the Mission at the United Nations in New York a little bit over a month ago. I was born and raised in Austria but went to Niagara University for my undergraduate in International Studies and Spanish for different reasons. I also studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain for one semester which enhanced my cultural awareness and appreciation of diversity. However, when I started this internship in mid-September, I had to face reality in a way I haven´t done before. It is one thing to study and experience international relations in school, but – as important as it is – it is just a very small piece of practically working in this field. Given that I am just a fresh intern, my experience so far is very limited, but mostly overwhelming, due to the work we do here at the Congregation of the Mission. At this point, it is fair to mention that my boss, Guillermo Campuzano – or Memo as he wants to be called – is not treating me like a regular intern but with his great leadership style and support, he kind of threw me into the cold water. What do I mean by that?
Immediately, I got familiarized with the core project of our organization as part of the Working Group to End Homelessness (WGEH) and got assigned various tasks to participate, investigate and work in a very meaningful way. Memo took me to almost every meeting he had where I not only met very knowledgeable and experienced people, but also had to face the issues that this world is encountering daily. It is a normal part of a human being to filter information and remember only the things that are pressing or important to us in some way. By nature, we receive too much information daily and have to ignore or forget a big portion of it in order to function properly. However, besides this fact, there is another type of information that we as human beings neglect or often even oppress. It is the reality that we are living in. We live in a self-centered society that is predominantly focused on me, myself and I. Even if we do charitable things, it is mostly to feel better about ourselves because we want to see positive change in our immediate environment. As great and important as those charitable actions are, they are just the top of the iceberg that our minds are trying to marginalize as much as we can.
Every day 15,000 children die of treatable causes across the globe.
Every year one billion children – half of the world´s children – experience violence. Right now, 1.8 billion people are inadequately housed or homeless, most of them being women, children and indigenous people.
Let those facts from experts sink for a moment. That is horrifying news for a huge portion of humanity and it influences them in this very moment while I am writing this article, while you are reading this article. As I dwelt on these facts, I became downcast and almost depressed since there doesn´t seem to be a quick and easy solution. Those failures and violations are the result of systemic exploitation over centuries. It is engrained in our daily lifestyle if we want it or not. There is no quick fix nor single action that can stop this misery. The complexity of the UN is partially due to this reality. There are billions of people with different experiences, needs and opinions that deserve to be addressed in a supranational organization that tries to work for the good of all people all around the globe. I don´t want to justify its complexity because I truly believe that it can be reformed, made simpler and more effective. However, now that I am practically starting to experience UN meetings and to face really pressing issues daily, it became crucial to me to find meaning in the work that God has blessed me with.
It seems foolish to me to ignore the reality billions of people are suffering under every day as foolish as it is to solely brand the UN and NGOs as idealistic, but complex. Even though latter two descriptions definitely contain some truth, they don´t tell the whole story. Given my limited experience and insight, there is one aspect that might be the most important one when it comes to practical implications for you and me dealing with the UN. It is this: The UN starts with you!
As weird and platonic as it sounds, it contains profound truth. The United Nations tries to uphold human rights, advocate and work on the behalf of the good for the entire world. You and me – we are part of this. Your life, your voice, your actions matter not only on a local, but global scale. Obviously, that is easy to say as part of Civil Society. More importantly though, you don´t need to be engaged in Civil Society, because you – with all your gifts, friends and influence – can be a driver of change that has global consequences. Let´s take the example of Fridays for Future. Some people are describing it as idealistic approach to have a minor impact on today´s society and future generations. However, it is so much more than that. Fridays for Future is a great example of people all around the world, mostly younger generations, realizing that their voice matters on both a local and global scale.
Humanity is often tempted to solely think on a big scale, meaning only big changes are significant. We need to realize though that big changes consist of little steps in our local community. As I have learned in my internship so far, we have the resources to change the status quo into a sustainable home for all human beings. The world´s problems are not a quick fix which makes global organizations like the UN seem so abstract because it tries to work on behalf of billions of people, especially those that are easily forgotten about. However, in order to make the UN simpler, in order for you and me to see big changes and find meaning in the daily work we do, we have to start with little steps in our daily life.
As much as globalization fostered the gap between rich and poor, powerful and marginalized people groups, it allows one big advantage: each action even in the smallest community on this earth has global significance. Sometimes we might not see it. However, if I have learnt one thing at my internship at the Congregation of the Mission so far, it is that little steps matter and have great impact. There are countless stories of communities that have been impacted by little steps which are now gaining global importance. Events like the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty or expert reports at UN committee meetings like Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF Ms. Charlotte Petri Gornitzka clearly show that even though a lot more needs to be done, each action matters on the global scale.
I am very grateful to have experienced this challenge of facing reality so far throughout my internship. There are many little steps undertaken at this very moment and I encourage you to contribute your part because together we can have a great impact. As much as politics and bureaucracy might often prevent rather than foster sustainable progress, each little step in a local community can culminate to an even great impact that saves and improves lives all across the globe. No matter how limited your insight or experience is, the internship here at the United Nations proved to me that you and I matter for so much more than our only life. We are together in this world to bless others with each action we undertake.