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Friday, April 25, 2014

Youth In Action: on the edge – inclusion across borders

by Karin Sternäng

Earlier this month, GHRD’s Human Rights Intern, Karin Sternäng visited Azerbaijan to learn more about social inclusion as part of a Youth in Action Project.

The training programme, 'on the edge - inclusion across borders' was organized by the European Intercultural Forum in cooperation with a local organization from Azerbaijan called Bridge to the Future. 30 participants representing 24 youth and human rights organisations attended the event and came from a diverse range of countries including The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Latvia, Spain, Italy, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia and Moldova. The aim of the training was to raise the issue and awareness level of the social exclusion of young people. This was done through non-formal methodology consisting of discussions, workshops and role-plays. With so many different organizations present, the training also served as an excellent platform to learn from each other’s experiences and to form new partnerships.

The subjects discussed during the training course included the definition of exclusion, solutions to exclusion, identity issues, youth participation and identifying the specific problems that youth in Europe experience in relation to exclusion. An exciting aspect of the training was to see how the group developed throughout the week. Due to the fact that participants were from so many different countries and backgrounds, it took us a while to reach a common ground where we could understand each other, our common issues and interests and feel comfortable as a group. By the end of the week however, we had developed a strong group dynamic.

On one of the training days we went on an excursion to the nearby city of Ganja, which has been awarded the European Youth Capital 2016. It was there we met with representatives from the European Youth Capital Committee and the Municipality who informed us about the application process of becoming a European Youth Capital and what Ganja can expect over the next few years in regards to this award. The training itself was set in the beautiful surroundings of  the national park of Togana, which is located in the north west of Azerbaijan. This peaceful venue was great for the training but unfortunately it was too disconnected from reality; if it hadn’t have been for the great Azeri food they cooked us, we would not have known we were in Azerbaijan! However, as I had never been to the Caucasus before nor to a country where the limitation of freedoms is so evident. My travel partner and I had booked our flight so that we would have an extra 4 days to explore Azerbaijan on our own. Azeri people are extremely friendly; they were all very helpful in situations where we were a bit lost or in need of help. Although Azerbaijan is a wealthy, resource-rich country, this is not something you can understand from walking through the streets as corruption is ever present in daily life. The reality of the political and social situation in Azerbaijan serves as a bitter truth to its people and judging from the friends we made in Baku, sadly none of them feel hope that change will come or that they could play a part in starting a social or political movement in the near future.

İçəri Şəhər. The "inner city"/old city of Baku
Overall, the training was successful in bringing awareness to the problem of social exclusion. We were made aware of the many different situations of exclusion that youth in our countries face on a daily basis and what this in turn can lead to for the individuals and groups affected. Having said that, the other participants and I felt that the discussion had stayed at a very a-political level and that we still lacked a deeper level of analysis of the problems.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the European Intercultural Forum and Bridge to the Future for the invitation, organizing the training and for a great week in Azerbaijan.

For more information on GHRD’s upcoming projects and training events check our website ( or contact our education department (

Disclaimer: Blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Human Rights Defence.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Human Rights in Istanbul: how does civil society in Turkey compare with The Netherlands?

Earlier this month, GHRD's Communications Intern, Jess Bailey, visited Istanbul to learn more about human rights and minority rights issues affecting Turkey. She attended this trip as part of Northwestern University’s student group ‘Northwestern Conference on Human Rights’.

Turkey: a transcontinental border country between exotic and chaotic confusion and a democratic and organised Europe.

Founded in 1923, Turkey was born out of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s idea of a secular nation, now ruled by the AKP for over 12 years, Turkey can be seen to be regressing from this .

Shortly before our arrival to Istanbul, Erdogan blocked twitter and whilst we were there also banned access to YouTube. During our trip we visited TOG - Community Volunteers Organisation and spoke with the founder, Ibrahim Betil, who earlier in the week quite eloquently tweeted ‘when the rules of nature and technology combine, no one can turn off the tweet of the birds’.

During the trip we also attended a day of lectures at Koc University to learn more about Turkish civil society, migration patterns and the human rights issues that affect the country. We specifically learnt about post-war emigration to Europe, the Kurdish Issue and the current Syrian crisis. We also spoke to students who participated in last year's protests.

We also visited ‘Helsinki Citizens Assembly’ where we learnt about Turkey's geographical limitation to the 1951 Geneva Convention, which means that Turkey only accepts asylum seekers from Europe and asylum seekers from other countries must apply via UNHCR and are then resettled elsewhere if successful. HCA also spoke to us about the free legal assistance they provide to failed asylum seekers who are stuck in limbo as well as the work they do with in regards to furthering the integration of the Kurdish community.

Additionally, we visited a newly established civil society organisation called Hamisch and learnt more about the Syrian conflict and their work which aims to connect Syrian intellectuals in exile. This provided an interesting contrast to our current knowledge obtained from western media about Syria which is mostly related to the refugee crisis and not other parts of Syrian culture.

Walking down the main street of Istanbul, Istiklal Cadessi, the street seems hauntingly different today as photos of last year’s protests remind passers-by of the Gezi Park protests and the struggles for freedom of speech and democracy.

LGBT protesters were highly visible during the Gezi Park protests which coincided with the 2013 Istanbul Gay Pride, making it the largest Gay Pride ever held in Turkey and Eastern Europe. LGBT issues were also pushed forward politically through the Gezi protests and although the government made attempts to cover-up all their artistic efforts, these stairs remain a symbol of the underground LGBT community. 

A year on,  small protests continue to erupt on a frequent basis as the city remains concerned with rights to freedom of expression, culture and access to the arts. This peaceful protest was concerned with the closure of art institutions was conducted peacefully using chants, music and dance.

Our visit coincided with local elections and the city’s infrastructure was a blank canvas for the masses of banners and posters. Several small rallys were also set up to disseminate party information and encourage people to vote. Many students from Koc University were flying back to their hometowns in order to participate in the voting process as this year, voting was assumed to be more important than ever.

It became more and more clear as the week continued that the Turkish state is putting a lot of money and attention into advancing the economy and this has often come at the expense of minority communities and civil society.

It also became clear that there are many differences between Turkish civil society and Dutch civil society. For example, Turkish civil society is less developed than Dutch civil society and receives much less governmental support and funding, yet there are a higher number of minority and human rights abuses in Turkey.

Reflecting upon my week of NGO visits, it has become clear that the main human rights issues in Turkey relate historically to minority rights abuses. However, what seems to be an important issue in the current climate is that human rights abuses in Turkey are no longer just associated with minorities as the main human rights abuse of the moment, the lack of freedom of expression, affects the entire population. Although this is negative for all 74 million inhabitants of Turkey, it can only be seen to worsen the situation for minorities.
Photo credits to Jess and other members of NUCHR.

Disclaimer: Blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Human Rights Defence.

Friday, April 4, 2014

MASTERMINDS OF A BETTER FUTURE: How can we trust 'Gross National Happiness' if it doesn't work where it was founded?

 by Rachel Dixon (University of Sussex, UK)




The Gross National Happiness index (GNH), conceived in Bhutan, is cited as an innovative and more ‘human’ alternative to the Eurocentric school of poverty measures, which includes the more well-known and more frequently cited Human Development Index, Multidimensional Poverty Index, Dollar a Day etc and on first glance it is remarkable. The GNH aims to measure 9 domains that are said to take a holistic approach to progress, development and policy making: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. This is what the development world dreams of, surely? A welcome divergence from unrelenting reports of inequality, environmental destruction and questionable governance, this approach has nevertheless fallen into a familiar trap: the exclusion of a significant minority.

A quick Google search will find that Bhutan is chiefly categorised as a Buddhist nation with Dzongkha recognised as the official national language. This of course, veils the true demography of a nation composed of an estimated 25% Lhotshampa (Nepalese speaking Bhutanese Hindus) as well as the 70% Mahayana Buddhists, which are the two largest ethnic groups in Bhutan, the remaining population consisting of indigenous or migrant tribes. This contradiction typifies the two approaches generally taken to the analysis of the GNH: 1) the image of Bhutan - generally endorsed by government officials as a nationalist, homogenous and culturally united Buddhist state; and 2) a diverse, exclusionary and centralised state.

Under the GNH index, policies have been implemented with the aim of promoting both cultural diversity and resilience. However, although GNH comes with the idyllic promise of a thriving and accepting cultural and religious environment, in reality the tangible actions taken by Bhutan have almost solely upheld the Buddhist majority. Buddhist sites of worship have been renovated (undoubtedly a positive step for a large proportion of Bhutanese citizens) and the government has issued a decree requiring all citizens to observe ‘driglam namzha’, the traditional dress, values and etiquette of Bhutan. Certainly in the global context of an increasingly homogenised, ‘western’ cultural outlook, the focus on the resilience of tradition is attractive, almost enviable. The abolition of the teaching of Nepali in schools and the denial of their freedom to practice their own cultural customs thus begins the marginalization of the Lhotshampa community.

Bhutanese people wearing the traditional clothes of Driglam Namzha
The Bhutanese government’s “one nation, one people” policy based on the traditions of the Northern, Buddhist Bhutanese, arguably the product of its escape from colonisation and its status as a small, isolated state surrounded by two powerful giants, India and China, has seen the denial of the ability of vast segments of the population to enjoy their human rights. A report by Amnesty International identified the arbitrary arrest, torture and rape of the Lhotshampa Bhutanese, which spurred the flight of thousands to the Nepalese border where many still reside in refugee camps. Discriminatory land rights, marriage acts and limits on the freedom of assembly were just some elements of legislation enacted in the light of the GNH index that led to this migration.

Over the past half century Bhutan has been transformed into a thriving, unique society with much to be admired and emulated by the rest of the world. The focus on happiness, wellbeing, environmental awareness and health is an undeniably positive approach which one could say needs to be adapted by European countries. However, if a similar scheme were to be implemented elsewhere, the necessity to follow through on the acceptance and encouragement of diversity and equality would be paramount and inescapable. Although today, the Lhotshampa still largely reside in Nepalese refugee camps and tensions continue to exist between the Lhotshampa and the Bhutanese government, the new Prime Minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay, may be taking the first positive steps in a positive and inclusive direction. He is quoted stating that “rather than talking about happiness, we want to work on reducing the obstacles to happiness”. 

Disclaimer: Blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Human Rights Defence.