The United Nations Human Rights Council is a body that seeks to strengthen, promote and protect human rights. A task that is not only important, but seemingly more and more relevant. Anyone living in a democratic nation would almost automatically assume their government would support such a venture. So it would seem at first glance odd that the United States, a country that places freedom and democracy so highly, would withdraw from the Human Rights Council. Yet for anyone watching closely this was no shock at all. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, calling the US departure “disappointing, if not really surprising.”
The US rationale for leaving the Council centres on one topic – the Israel/Palestine conflict. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, firstly accused the Council of a having a “chronic bias” against Israel, and followed up by labelling it a “hypocritical and self-serving organisation that makes a mockery of human rights.” This comes after a vote in May deciding to send war crime investigators to Gaza to investigate violations and abuse of civilian protestors. Since protests began in March of this year, Israel has killed 106 Palestinians, including 15 children. These figures do nothing to sway the American stance – that too much focus is put on Israel by the Human Rights Council.
The withdrawal from the Human Rights Council is a consequence of a larger problem, a persisting, one-sided, and frequently inaccurate narrative that runs through American rhetoric. The US government continuously attributes outbreaks of violence to Hamas, the de facto governing body of Palestine widely considered a terrorist group. Following protests and killings in May, spokeswomen for the US State Department claimed any “misery” faced by the people of Gaza was entirely because of Hamas.
Yet this ignores two vital elements to the reality of this conflict. Firstly, those killed in protests are generally unarmed civilians – videos from cellphones continuingly affirming this. In addition, there is no acknowledgement of the role that Israel has played in the suffering of Palestinians. The occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel is the longest in history, dating back to 1967. The Blockade of Gaza Strip has carried on since 2007, banning both necessities, such as blankets or shoes, and seemingly harmless goods, including crayons, chocolate, and shampoo. Israel has been an active participate in the suffering of Palestinians, regardless of what crimes have been committed by Hamas.
What is most concerning is the underlying idea that the politics of the moment trump human rights. The United States have long supported Israel, but that does not invalidate Palestinians entitlement to basic rights and protection. No matter who is at fault in this conflict, there are innocent men, women and children suffering in Gaza. Instead of addressing this head on, the United States has again reverted inwards and avoided international cooperation. The High Commissioner commenting that, “given the state of human rights in today’s world, the US should be stepping up, not stepping back.”
To celebrate World Refugee Day we spoke to one of New Zealand’s most inspiring former refugees, Rez Gardi. Rez was named Young New Zealander of the Year 2017 for her services to human rights. She was born in a refugee camp and arrived in New Zealand under the refugee quota.
Rez told us that growing up, she was embarrassed of her refugee background. The desire to fit in and be as “Kiwi” as possible was strong. Now, she has learnt to be proud of her background. Her unique refugee journey has instilled her with drive and passion to make a difference. She says she is only one, among many incredible former refugees who make a huge impact locally and globally. However, negative opinions and thoughts about refugees still linger.
Her organisation Empower is trying to change the negative connotations and stigma attached to being a refugee and re-define it as a term that embraces resilience and strength.
We asked Rez in more detail about some of her work, life as a young refugee, and what other young people can do to support people of refugee backgrounds.
What work do you do that lead to you winning the Young New Zealander of the Year Award in 2017?
I foster and support participation, leadership, and empowerment opportunities for young refugees in New Zealand. I founded the Empower Youth Trust, a mentoring and support initiative aimed at addressing the underrepresentation of refugees in higher education.
Our mission is to empower, educate, and enable refugee youth in New Zealand through education, leadership, and capacity-building to pursue meaningful paths of their choice.
This initiative goes in hand with the University of Auckland refugee scholarships I have helped establish. I was one of the original founding members of the Global Refugee Youth Consultations, which led to the establishment of the Global Youth Advisory Council (GYAC) for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Through my work as a global youth advocate, I reinforce youth as connectors and peacebuilders by channeling and reinforcing youths’ abilities to build connections across social, cultural, linguistic, political, and other differences, and support them to contribute meaningfully to peacebuilding processes. I have used this award as a platform to raise awareness about the adversity and challenges that many marginalised groups face in New Zealand, and globally, and to promote a greater tolerance and acceptance for diversity.
How are the challenges that a young refugee faces different from those the average young person in New Zealand faces?
Through the Global Refugee Youth Consultations in 2015/2016, young refugees analysed causes and impacts of the difficulties they face. Although the context of each country is specific, the challenges that refugee youth identified are remarkably consistent. We identified ten challenges:
Difficulties with legal recognition and obtaining personal documents;
Difficulty in accessing quality learning, education, and skills-building opportunities;
Poor access to youth-sensitive healthcare, including psychological support;
Lack of safety, security and freedom of movement;
Discrimination, racism, xenophobia, and “culture clash”;
Few youth employment and livelihood opportunities;
Challenges for unaccompanied youth;
Lack of opportunities to participate, be engaged, or access decision makers;
Lack of information about asylum, refugee rights, and available services; and
Gender inequality, discrimination, exploitation, and violence, including for LGBTI youth.
In addition to all the usual challenges young people face in New Zealand, the situation is exacerbated for those of refugee background who have come to New Zealand with absolutely nothing and are thrown into a completely foreign and new world. They are starting on a back foot for a number of reasons.
Firstly, due to the trauma they may have experienced having fled their homes and being exposed to violence, the culture shock of arriving in New Zealand with no understanding of culture or norms. Coupled with language barriers, assumptions and xenophobia in regard to their experiences and culture many refugee youth experience bullying and discrimination.
Many young refugees experience and interrupted or lack of education so they have to play ‘catch up’. Aside from financial issues, when youth miss years of schooling due to being on the move, some refugee and migrant youth face issues enrolling in the level from where they left off as legally they are too old and have no available options to catch up. This requires us to be innovative in the way we approach education issues. It is common for many refugee youth to encounter a reversal in roles with their parents. At such a young age, they are called
upon to translate for their parents at the doctors, appointment, supermarket and even during their own parent-teacher interviews. There is a sense of responsibility as a refugee youth that is never placed upon mainstream New Zealanders.
What can young New Zealanders do to support refugees within their local communities and globally?
New Zealand is one of the most ethnically diverse nations on earth and we are also one of the most peaceful: it’s up to us, as everyday New Zealanders to ensure this is a legacy we leave for future generations.
Our biggest challenge is how we choose to live our lives and what kind of country we let New Zealand become. I ask all young New Zealanders to welcome and get to know the people in our community. What you do makes all the difference.
Simply accepting new New Zealanders into our country with open arms can contribute to their resettlement in a completely foreign place and shape their integration process and sense of self-worth. Pause a moment in what were once my shoes. How would you want to be treated?
What will you do to help your community? What will you do to help make the world a better place? What role will you play?
We don’t have to wait until we’re older. We can all do something now. Empowered youths transform societies and we can all be champions of change.
Why is it important to have organisations such as empower which support people from refugee backgrounds?
When it comes to the needs of children and young people, education is paramount. However, the reality for refugee children globally is that only 1 out of 2 get primary education. No child should have to pay the cost by missing out on schooling. Yet we see whole generations of refugee children from areas of conflict that have to leave their homes and schools, and other children on the move unable to secure an education. Education is every child’s basic human right. When these young people arrive in New Zealand, we need to provide them with a nurturing environment for the full realisation of their rights and capabilities.
Higher education serves as a powerful driver for change, by maintaining their hopes for the future, fosters inclusion and non-discrimination and acts as a catalyst for the recovery and rebuilding of post-conflict countries.
I believe education is pivotal to changing the future for child refugees and migrants; there is no future unless children learn today, and receive an education that gives them the tools and skills to be empowered to make positive change. Education empowers not only the individual, but their family, and entire community.
My charity, Empower provides a mentoring and support initiative to try to address the underrepresentation of refugees in higher education in New Zealand. We are the only organisation dedicated to refugee youth which focuses on assisting and supporting individuals with both their professional and personal development.
If we empower, educate, and enable refugee youth in New Zealand through education, leadership, and capacity-building to pursue meaningful paths of their choice then they will be empowered to contribute to Aotearoa socially, economically, and environmentally.
It’s not hard to see why Rez was named young New Zealander of the Year. She delivers a great message for all young people wanting to create positive change. “We are all in a position to make a difference to the world we live in – how big or small that may be. Only you can decide that. Champions are people prepared to face difficulty…They’re defined by passion, confidence and the strength from within. We can all be champions but our task it to discover and unlock our greatness.”
Aotearoa Youth Declaration is an annual conference for High School Students which connects young people with government policy. Participants work in Focus Groups to develop policy statements that represent their views and priorities on a range of subjects. The statements below were drafted by the participants of the Economic Development Focus Group, and approved by the participants at the Conference.
We recommend the Government take action to address the root causes of the present levels of inequality, and to ensure that future growth is both inclusive and sustainable.
In order to alleviate poverty we support the Government in:
Investigating the use of a negative income tax to either replace or supplement the current transfer payments system as a simplification measure;
Increasing the minimum wage, but only in proportion to the rate of in inflation so as to avoid unnecessary unemployment as a result of placing an excessive burden on employers.
The income tax rates should be amended by zero-rating the first $10,000 earned, decreasing tax rates on those earning $70,000-100,000 and increasing the rates on those earning greater than $100,000. This should be done by introducing new tax brackets and the changes should be revenue neutral.
We support the Government’s goal to reduce net debt to 20% of GDP, but we believe that the superannuation scheme should be changed to ensure the long-term sustainability of New Zealand’s public finances.
We recommend the Government introduce a land value tax, whereby taxpayers can choose whether they are taxed on accrual or on a realisation basis (plus interest) with an exception for Māori customary land.
We support the Government agreeing to new Free Trade Agreements, and we believe that current intellectual property laws should be retained unless the benefits of the deal exceed the costs to New Zealanders.
We understand the benefits of closed-door negotiations and investor-state dispute settlements with adequate exceptions provided for the interests of public health and security, but we encourage government to provide more time and resources so there can be more meaningful public debate.
An enormous thanks to the Focus Group participants, the Facilitators – James and Cameron, the Conference Organising Committee, and the Event Sponsors.
Aotearoa Youth Declaration is an annual conference for High School Students which connects young people with government policy. Participants work in Focus Groups to develop policy statements that represent their views and priorities on a range of subjects. The statements below were drafted by the participants of the Equity Focus Group, and approved by the participants at the Conference.
We believe it is difficult for those in the LGBTQIA+ community to express their identity and feel self-worth in employment or training. We expect workplaces to actively work with the Rainbow Tick organisation to better promote health and welfare to sustain healthy and emotional well being.
We request that the Health curriculum is updated to reflect the wide spectrum of sexual and gender identities in order to create an inclusive, safe, and positive environment for all students. We think this will help normalise attitudes towards individual and sexual diversity and lead to healthy relationships between young people.
We believe societal expectations of disability can negatively impact the mental wellbeing of those affected. We suggest the creation of educational media and resources to raise awareness about recognition and treatment of learning and physical disabilities.
We are concerned that a high proportion of youth go through the school system suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability (including but not limited to dyslexia, ADHD, and dyspraxia). We call for the Government to subsidise the diagnosis of learning disabilities along with the screening of primary aged children to promote early diagnosis and access to assistance for people from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
We think there is a lack of meaningful discussion and understanding in New Zealand about rape culture. We recommend a greater emphasis on removing damaging societal stigmas and promote discussion around issues such as sexual consent, rape and its impact, and sexual and domestic violence. It is instrumental that victims feel safe and respected in detailing and sharing their experiences.
We think there are issues regarding accessibility and distribution of benefits in the social welfare system. We urge that the criteria are changed to allow greater access to vulnerable people in need of additional resources to attain a healthy living standard.
We believe there is insufficient education on New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) to create an inclusive environment for those with hearing impairments. We call for a greater accessibility to resources for learning NZSL to prevent social exclusion of the hearing impaired.
An enormous thanks to the Focus Group participants, the Facilitators – Akshat and Tracy, the Conference Organising Committee, and the Event Sponsors.
National President Bokyong Mun was invited to give a speech at the International Women’s Day lunch, hosted in Wellington on the 8 March 2018. Read below for the speech that she presented, and the challenge that she leaves us all!:
“International Women’s Day is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the improvements and great lengths that we have achieved all over the world in stride for gender equality and the empowerment of women. However it also serves as a reminder – a reminder of the challenges and issues that women still face everywhere they go.
But I want to ask, what are the different challenges that women face today? What does it really mean for women to be empowered, and what does this mean in the 2018 context of Aotearoa New Zealand? To me my biggest frustration is that the perspective and experiences of being a woman are often overlooked when considering women’s issues in New Zealand.
My parents immigrated from South Korea and I was lucky enough to be born on the North Shore in Auckland here in New Zealand. I however grew up in a small town called Balclutha, about an hour away from Dunedin surrounded by a farming community and a beautiful river for jumping into on summer days.
The reality is that our identity is not only made up of our gender, but also our ethnicity, cultural background, upbringing and experiences that we have had. Being a woman means something different to every single one of us.
Bokyong Mun (UN Youth National President) with President of the United Nations Association of NZ, Joy Dunseath
To me, women empowerment means much more than the need to bridge the gender pay gap, or the right for me to breastfeed in public, although these are all very important things. To me it means not facing discrimination from law firms because I don’t have blonde hair, as well as not having my worth judged on my looks to begin with. It means that I am able to talk to my mother freely in public in Korean without people telling us to go home, and not have people tell me that I am not beautiful because of the size of my eyes. It means people no longer expecting me to behave a certain way, just because that is how Asian women are portrayed to be in popular culture.
New Zealand is my home, however too often people forget how rich and diverse our multicultural country is. People assume that I didn’t feel pride when we won the Rugby World Cup in 2011, or that I didn’t cry because it was my neighbour’s homes that had been devastated by the Canterbury Earthquakes. To me, International Women’s Day is important because it gives me the chance to reflect on what it means to be me – a woman that makes up a part of the multicultural society that is Aotearoa New Zealand today.
Through my role in United Nations Youth, I have met hundreds of young New Zealanders, who all have a different, but equally valuable definition of what it means to be a woman. For many youth today, conflicts and confusion around our identity plays a big part in our daily lives. But it is through hearing these stories of my peers that I have also learnt not to be ashamed of my identity, to strive for my aspirations, and realise that it is the differences among us that make us stronger as a collective.”
In a world first, New Zealand women won the right to vote in parliamentary elections in 1893. Since then, the role women play in society across the world has evolved dramatically, with women entering academia, the workforce and taking control of their own destinies in a way which was previously impossible.
In 2017, New Zealand voted in its third female Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who will inspire a generation of young women. However, the simple fact of having a high-achieving, confident and respected woman in a top leadership position can too easily overshadow the multitude of issues which women face across the globe. The gender pay gap, gender-based violence, discrimination, workplace harassment and child marriage are among a plethora of challenges which women face every day. While these issues remain present in developed countries such as New Zealand, they are often felt more sharply by women with access to fewer resources, limited education, or who live without basic rights and protections. Therefore, on International Women’s Day, it is important to highlight the monumental achievements of some lesser-known women’s rights activists and leaders, who campaign for rights and freedoms for women, just as Kate Sheppard fought for New Zealand women’s right to vote in the 1890s.
Prime Minister Jacinda Adern and suffragette Kate Sheppard- Image from stuff.co.nz
Across Iran, women risk prosecution, fines and imprisonment by violating the state’s gender-based dress codes in protest. In the United States of America and across the world, the #metoo movement has brought to light the extent of sexual violence and harassment which continues to permeate developed societies in the 21st Century, affecting even the most powerful and privileged of women. In 2011, a woman was arrested for doing something which millions of women across the globe do every day without incident. Manal al-Sharif was arrested for driving a car, which violated Saudi Arabia’s strict gender norms. She too began a social media movement, which brought the laws restricting women’s freedoms in Saudi Arabia to the forefront of the world’s minds. It is a reminder that there is still a huge amount of work to be done before gender parity can be achieved.
When women in the 1800s campaigned for the right to vote, it must have seemed like an impossible task. For al-Sharif and many other human rights activists like her, trying to improve women’s rights in Saudi Arabia may have felt futile. However, in 2017, the Saudi King announced that, from mid-2018, Saudi women would be granted driver licences and be able to legally drive, a victory for al-Sharif and others like her, who fought for what they believed in. International Women’s Day provides the opportunity for young people to examine their place in society and the remarkable achievements of their predecessors, who played such a vital role in shaping the societies we live in.