Fateh Azzam - "There Are a Lot of Challenges to Progress"

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Nov 02, 2013
by Oscar Tollast
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Fateh Azzam - "There Are a Lot of Challenges to Progress"

Board Chair of Arab Human Rights Fund speaks to Salzbug Global as MENA session convenes Fateh Azzam speaking at Friday's opening session

The Board Chair of the Arab Human Rights Fund has suggested the biggest priority in the Middle East and North Africa region is to create a shared common vision.

Fateh Azzam spoke at Salzburg Global as part of a seminar session entitled, ‘Getting Transition Right: A Rights-based Approach towards Diversity & Inclusivity’.

The session, which started on Friday, is being hosted by Salzburg Global and the Arab Human Rights Fund and will focus in particular on four key countries in the midst of transitions that can pilot new approaches to diversity management: Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen.

Mr Azzam, who helped establish the Fund, has served on the boards of several Palestinian, Arab and international human rights organizations.

Prior to this, he served as regional representative for the Middle East for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2006 until 2012.

In a Q&A with Salzburg Global, he revealed the biggest challenges facing diversity and inclusivity in the region, what issues need to be prioritized and what role policy has to play.

What’s brought you to Salzburg Global this weekend?

We’ve co-organized with the Salzburg Global Seminar this discussion on diversity and inclusion in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Why did you decide to partner with Salzburg Global?

It came up by chance in a discussion between one of our staff members and people at Salzburg and it just seemed like a very good idea.

We in the Arab Human Rights Fund are moving more – besides doing philanthropy [and] grant-making in the human rights arena – we are also moving more towards creating a forum and developing the think-tank expertise to help people around the region think in human rights terms, to consider some of the human rights issues and the best ways to move around.

It just seems that the partnership for this particular topic, given what’s going on in the region, was a very important idea at this time.

What are the discussions centered on this weekend?

They’ll be centered on identifying what the issues are in terms of inclusion and exclusion, and in terms of diversity.

Not so much diversity management, but the relationship between how we encourage more inclusion and how we promote inclusion in the context of human rights.

How can human rights and diversity interact? That was raised actually in the first session.

Is it a matter of creating a culture of diversity where human rights can be protected and guaranteed and respected, or is it an insistence on respect and the guarantee of human rights that can lead to more inclusive societies and societies that are at more acceptance of diversity when you protect inclusion by the rule of law and by guaranteeing human rights?

Whilst these discussions take place, what do you feel are the biggest priorities?

I think the biggest priority right now is to try and create – not consensus – but at least some common ground, some common vision in the region.

There are so many things changing right now in the transitions after the revolts of the last couple of years.

People are so focused on the problems and on the reasons why we need a change but there’s not enough discussion on what kind of vision for the future do we have and do we want.

For us of course, as a human rights actor – the Arab Human Rights Fund – it is a human rights vision.

It’s a vision of inclusion. It’s a vision of the rule of law based on respect for human rights.

How can we get people in the region to think in those directions so that the promise of the revolution can become real and not drowned in the differences, problems and issues, and the historic exclusions that have created the revolts in the first place?

What motivated you to get into this line of work?

I’ve been in this line of work for 30 years. A well-known American politician – I think it was Kennedy – said one time, ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’

So if you don’t like the way a situation is, then you have a responsibility to do something to change it.

Even if your role can be tiny and miniscule, it is a role and you have something to say, so you might as well jump in and try and do it.

You find people that you can do it with, you find colleagues, [and] you find people of like mind that you can work with to make it happen.

That’s what I’ve been doing for most of my life. That’s what a lot of the people here are doing.

It’s a commitment to taking on a personal responsibility to be part of the change.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges to progress being made?

I feel there are a lot of challenges to progress. One [of them] is interference. There is a lot of interference.

There’s a lot of regional interference, a lot of international interference.

Everyone wants to play in our yard, and everybody has something to say and finds people they want to support.

Another big, big problem is that there are a lot of vested interests: people that have power and don’t want to give up that power.

These people are allied to many of the people who are interfering from the outside as well so that the voice of the people gets lost.

The voices get lost, and that’s one of the most important things from a conversation about inclusion: how do we make sure peoples’ voices are heard again?

I think that’s what we have to be looking for. That’s a big challenge. How do you get people who have too much power to give up some of that power and allow others in?

What role does policy have to play in terms of diversity and inclusion?

We have to define policy first. Policy is not politics. Policy is having a direction, having a set of principles to guide what your politics should do.

You have to have an idea that can then be translated into a policy that says, ‘I want to go in that direction.’

For example, if you don’t have an educational policy, then anybody can educate anyone they want and you can actually end up in a situation where differences are deepened and exclusion gets even worse.

Whereas if you have a policy on education that says education has to be inclusive, education has to be broad, education has to start at this level and go to that level, and has to incorporate human rights ideas in the education, then that policy can move us towards where we want to go.

What are you hoping to get out of this session?

First of all, the dialogue itself is crucially valuable on its own. Even if nothing else comes out, it’s the fact that people have come together and will go back to their countries and take some of the different ideas that were shared.

That’s a very important outcome. But then if we can manage to also get a set of recommendations for later to follow up in terms of developing policy ideas or policy directions in that specific national context - but also for the region as a whole - for each of the participants to take back and maybe try and build coalitions and move in that direction, then we would have had a very good impact from the meeting.

Of course, for the Arab Human Rights Fund, having tried to play this role as convener, [we are hoping] to be able to come back and get some interesting new ideas or clear ideas about not only our funding but where are program can go to help move this agenda of inclusivity and diversity forward.