I have gone 28-hours without sleep. I was awake through the coldest night of winter so far with many other hardy souls from De Montfort University, Leicester, to demonstrate our solidarity with victims of breaches of human rights worldwide with a 24-hour vigil. I was willing to deprive myself of sleep and do this is because I believe that being civically and politically engaged is a crucially important attribute all students should learn and develop. Secondly a vigil is really interesting and entertaining, a place where views of different people from a variety of disciplines can come together and pull ideas apart and put them back together again and develop understanding. Finally, I believe that an outdoor vigil that lasts 24-hours is symbolic. It shows an unbroken chain of commitment that gives those suffering violations of human rights hope that there are good people out there who want to make the world a better place.
Empowerment, hope and solidarity
I helped close the vigil, with a few others, by saying something my granddad used to say to me that I always found motivating. He always said: “A little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing” in the context that we can carry on our daily lives, ignore the world, and do nothing, or we can demonstrate our solidarity, and do something, no matter how small. At the end of the vigil a large number of people thanked my team, personally or via social media, for allowing people to give their voices at the event. Staff and students speaking at the end to reflect on the past 24-hours certainly expressed emotions of empowerment, hope and solidarity. This film reflects the mood of the vigil brilliantly:
Intolerance and discrimination
This was our second high profile event of this nature, Earlier this year, students and staff at De Montfort University delivered a 24-hour Vigil of solidarity for refugees and victims of intolerance and discrimination. The motivation was to create an event that allowed staff and students to debate and demonstrate their support for those living with the consequences of anti-immigration rhetoric and intolerance demonstrated in the global political sphere. One example was the US Government under President Trump who placed an executive order to stop Muslim people from seven countries – Syria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Sudan – travelling into the US. Trump also put a block on all Syrian refugees coming to America, stated that ‘torture works’ and initiated a policy of ‘extreme vetting’.
‘The world is failing in its response’
The situation has not improved since the last vigil, the President added North Korea, Venezuela and Chad to his controversial travel ban – removing Sudan . Elsewhere, more than 603,000 Rohingya Muslims are estimated to have crossed into Bangladesh, driven out of Myanmar amid accusations that the country is committing acts of ethnic cleansing. Humanitarian aid charity, The Red Cross says the world is failing in its response. Closer to home, hate crime in the United Kingdom has risen 29 per cent – the largest recorded rise in the six years since records began. The unprecedented surge correlates with the outcome of the Brexit vote and an increase in terrorist attacks in the UK, according to Home Office analysts. Our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dominic Shellard, called the second 24-hour vigil following approaches from concerned staff and students.
Free movement of ideas
Academic engagement is founded on the free movement of ideas. We wanted the vigil to reiterate that each member of our scholarly community is a proud #CitizenOfTheWorld and that we completely reject intolerance, divisiveness, walls and bans. The theme of the event was to demonstrate solidarity with victims of human rights breaches and reignite United Nations Article 1 of the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The document is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds, and from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages. The vigil served as a reminder of the fundamental message in Article 1 that:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
The vigil was an opportunity to show solidarity with oppressed communities around the world and as a forum to debate and interrogate the meaning of Article 1, to consider whether its relevance has been eroded and whether it is time to review its wording and reignite the purpose of the article to bring it into the 21st Century. Evolution of equal rights since the article was signed has now seen the use of the word “brotherhood” become arguably outdated. One key discussion explored how it might be appropriately replaced with divided opinion between keeping Brotherhood and resquesting a change to “unity”. Renewing Article 1 would at least bring renewed commitment to it back to the United Nations General Assembly membership, as it is apparent some have lost sight of its meaning since the document was signed in 1948.
New levels of engagement
The 24-hour vigil is documented minute by minute here I think this vigil demonstrated a new level of engagement from our students in international issues and their ideas to challenge them. It was our plan to learn from the previous vigil and put a lot of emphasis on promoting the idea to the student body. In the lead up to the event I have learned so much about how students want to engage with political issues and the barriers that prevent them getting involved. I am wondering if we need to create more opportunities for the public demonstration of student voice so that when these events come around, young people feel better equipped and confident to take on big issues. This second vigil feels like a huge breakthrough in terms of helping our students to be able to confidently get involved in civic/political participation of this kind and deliver such powerful speeches. Furthermore there was lots of new academic staff getting involved too, which is also really positive, taking the event to another level in terms of teaching and research engagement. I mentioned earlier that I joined others to help end the vigil, promoting my belief that “A little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing”. Twenty Four hours of celebrating, advocating and defending Article One is actually quite a bit thing for a university, in the face of the world it may be quite small. But it was a little bit of something.
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