If you dare to turn on the news these days, you may find it hard to refute we live in an age of increasing xenophobia, intolerance and nationalism. That’s because these stories usually dominate the airwaves and our social media feeds. This is why, it was a privilege to attend the Global Centre For Pluralism’s award ceremony earlier this month, where award winners from all corners of the world showed that pluralism—which is the concept of recognizing, valuing, respecting and celebrating our differences—is alive well.
The prestigious Global Pluralism Award recognizes individuals and organizations in all sectors working to promote diversity and inclusivity. The award is presented by the Global Centre of Pluralism, a not-for-profit institution headquartered in Ottawa, which was established through an endowment jointly created by the Government of Canada and His Highness the Aga Khan in 2007, with the Aga Khan acting as founder and Chairman of the Board of the Global Centre For Pluralism. The Centre’s aim is to advance respect for diversity and enable meaningful dialogue and research surrounding the benefits of pluralism.
The three award winners (who were picked by an award jury consisting of independent experts from around the world and a two-year nomination process) were chosen for their ability to respond creatively to the challenges of pluralism by changing the negative mindsets and narratives that often accompany diversity, as well as demonstrating how differences can be a major asset rather than a burden for communities. Through their sacrifice and hardships, each honoree was able to promote pluralism in truly revolutionary ways and ultimately set the precedence for the future of pluralism and its ability to transform communities into inclusive, diverse and peaceful societies.
The inaugural award ceremony featured the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverly McLachlin and The Aga Khan who recognized three champions of pluralism. The three winners included Leyner Palacios Asprilla, co-founder of the Committee for the Rights of Victims in Bojayá, Colombia; Alice Wairimu Nderitu for her work as a peacemaker with the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights; and, Daniel Webb, an Australian human rights lawyer who coordinated the #LetThemStay campaign in 2016.
The New Champions of Pluralism
Leyner Palacios Asprilla, cofounder of the Committee for the Rights of Victims in Bojayá, found himself victim to the constant violence between guerilla and paramilitary forces that had rattled Colombia for decades. This escalated when in the spring of 2002, the people of Bojayá, the area in which Leyner lived, were caught in the middle of a battle between the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The conflict escalated until the FARC guerilla forces eventually bombed an Augustinian missionary church where innocent residents had taken refuge, killing 79 people—48 of which were infants and children. Tragically, 28 members of Leyner’s own family were killed in the bombing.
In 2014, Leyner founded the Committee for the Rights of Victims of Bojayá in an effort to unite the voices of all marginalized communities found within Bojayá—such as the Afro-Colombian and Eberá communities, who were often at odds with each other—in order to demand their basic human rights and represent themselves at the peace negotiations between the guerilla forces and the government. His work ultimately led to his nomination for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize and more importantly, influenced the FARC forces to publicly apologize for the 2002 massacre and request forgiveness from community members—an effort which eventually led to more concrete measures being implemented, such as the planning of a memorial site, individual and collective reparations and the identification of victims’ bodies.
Alice Wairimu Nderitu began her work as a peacemaker by joining the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights as a commissioner in order to try and prevent the atrocious Kenyan violence spurned by the 2007 elections, which resulted in 1,300 Kenyan being killed and over 600,000 becoming displaced, from happening during the next election cycle. As the only woman amongst 100 elders from 10 different ethnic communities, Alice was able to use her role as both a woman and a peacemaker to successfully lead the 16-month long peace negotiations that resulted in peaceful elections in 2013.
Alice now works towards efforts of peace and gender equality by mediating between ethnic communities throughout Nigeria. In Nigeria’s Southern Plateau, for example, Alice currently works as a lead mediator between 56 ethnic communities, each represented by six people with six key roles—a representative of the traditional council, a religious leader, a cultural development leader, a respected opinion leader, a woman and a representative for the youth. These representatives are then asked to discuss their problems, potential solutions and roadblocks to these solutions and create a position paper, which is then discussed by each individual community during meetings between all 56 groups. Alice’s work in similar situations has led to peace throughout Kenya and Nigeria, the likes of which hadn’t been experienced in decades.
Daniel Webb, an Australian human rights lawyer, coordinated the #LetThemStay campaign in 2016 in an effort to raise awareness about the atrocities and human injustices refugees on the islands of Manus and Nauru faced daily by the hands of the Australian government. Daniel’s campaign highlighted the Australian government’s policy of sending any asylum seeker who arrived to Australia by boat—including pregnant women, newborn infants and children travelling by themselves—to detention centers on offshore islands in an effort to deter future asylum seekers from trying to gain refuge in Australia. Since the detention centers’ openings in 2013, numerous instances of violence, sexual assault, medical neglect and even murder have been reported, with a lack of basic living conditions leading to the death and devastating injustices of most of the prisoners.
Through the #LetThemStay campaign, Daniel has been able to sway public opinion towards understanding the asylum seekers as fellow human beings deserving of respect and compassion. Since its conception, Daniel and his team have been able to prevent the deportation of more than 300 refugees and prompted the release of 230 people from the detention centers, and their work continues to advocate for the release of the rest of the refugees from the islands.
The award ceremony also honored seven other nominees in their efforts to promote pluralism, including:
ATD Quart Monde, an international organization headquartered in Paris dedicated to eradicating poverty, which has empowered those in poverty through legislation such as the passing of a minimum welfare income for those unemployed as well as universal health coverage throughout France.
BeAnotherLab, a multinational group headquartered in Spain whose aim is to decrease implicit bias and promote empathy through virtual reality technologies that help participants empathize with others by creating the illusion of being in another person’s body.
Fundación Construir, a Bolivian think tank that mediates between indigenous communities in Bolivia and the government in an effort to integrate indigenous communities into the legal system and empower their development in positive ways.
Hand Talk, a Brazilian social enterprise that has created groundbreaking technology that offers users the ability to translate spoken language into Brazilian sign language in an effort to provide the deaf community with new tools for communication and integration.
Sawa for Development and Aid, a grassroots and youth-led non-profit in Lebanon that provides humanitarian relief, livelihood programming and educational centers to Syrian refugees in order to ease tensions between refugees and their host communities.
Wapikoni Mobile, a Canadian non-profit which empowers indigenous youth by providing young people in remote locations the opportunity to learn about filmmaking techniques using modern technologies, eventually leading to the presentation of their work in screenings throughout Canada—and even the Sundance Film Festival.
Welcoming America, an American non-profit that builds the relationship between new immigrants and their new communities by providing programs for immigrants to better integrate into society as well as encouraging interactions between immigrants and long-time residents.
Through this award, the Global Centre for Pluralism has sought to celebrate and support in very tangible ways those who do the hard work to advance pluralism in action. Most importantly, the Centre is also putting pluralism on the global agenda, demystifying what the concept really is by showing rather than telling what it really means to advance diversity, inclusion and peacemaking.
By showcasing examples of how people of different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds are able to thrive because of the differences in their identities and cultures, advocates for pluralism can disperse the fear that differences are dangerous and show instead that diversity is a saving grace in an age of conflict and fear.