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What I wouldn’t miss for the world

Montreal – As others prepare for Grand Prix or the Jazz Festival in June, I look forward to immersing myself in three weeks of mutual learning and building new friendships with an amazing group of human rights educators and defenders coming from all parts of the globe. In a few short days, Equitas’ 34th annual International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) will open in Montreal.  This will be the 17th year that I have been part of the program on the staff side.  During this time, the IHRTP has come to define the month of June for me. The topics of discussion and personal stories are often difficult. I recall one presentation by a survivor of the Rwandan genocide.  Her eyewitness account of rape and murder on a massive scale had many of us in tears, but also reminded us of the strength of the human spirit to survive.  Topics of gender equality and gay rights challenge assumptions and cause discomfort sometimes even amongst the most experienced human rights workers.  By the end of the three weeks, I’m left with an overwhelming sense of optimism.  Having come to know the commitment and courage of the participants who refuse to give up despite the challenges and threats they face, my faith in the underlying goodness of humanity and my hope for the future is restored.

Participants of the 2012 International Human Rights Training Program
As the participants are packing and preparing for their trip to Canada this week, millions of people continue to struggle to live a life in freedom and dignity.  In Syria, civilians are caught between warring sides in a bloody sectarian civil war which shows no signs of ending.  The Muslim minority in Burma is facing systematic persecution in a manner which brings back memories of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.  In too many countries, being a homosexual means you could face discrimination, harassment, violence and even criminal persecution just because of who you are.  At the same time, millions of women continue to suffer from sexual violence and harmful traditional practices, like early and forced marriages, that deny them their rights to fully participate and live without fear. Yet, as terrible as each of these issues are, through the IHRTP, I have met hundreds of dedicated human rights workers (there have been over 3,500 since 1980) from over 100 countries who refuse to give in to violence and oppression.  All have made tremendous sacrifices and some have paid a terrible price, such as: Floribert Chebeya (IHRTP 1992) assassinated in the Congo and Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja (IHRTP 2004) sentenced to life in prison and tortured for his human rights activities in Bahrain.  Nevertheless, their struggle continues and the program alumni use their learning to inspire others to join the effort. At Equitas, we put a lot of emphasis on creating a warm and welcoming environment which allows the participants to feel safe and encourages the sharing of experiences and the development of new strategies to counter the ignorance and hate fuelled by authoritarian regimes.  They acquire new tools that are put into practice upon their return home to build equality, respect for diversity and inclusive societies.  And while they work hard, there is always plenty of laughter and fun. Over three weeks, the group forms a tight bond which continues long after they have left the campus of John Abbott College.  Lessons learned from their workshops will be mixed with memories of the cultural evening, the host family dinner or just sitting in a group with fellow participants on a warm June evening having a drink and dreaming about how the world could be. If you are looking for me over the next three weeks, I will be at the IHRTP.  I wouldn’t miss it for the world.  When it’s over, no doubt, I will start looking forward to my 18th year! By Ian Hamilton, Executive Director of Equitas

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