Solidarity for Human Rights
December 4, 2006

This is the text of a speech given by Itrath Syed to the final plenary gathering of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) National Human Rights Conference, on November 26, 2006.

Thank you.  It is such an honour to be here today and to be a small part of this incredible process. 

But first let me begin by acknowledging that we are on unceded native land and let me express my respect and my solidarity for the struggles of all people under occupation, everywhere.

I’ve been asked to speak today about solidarity and what that can look like in our collective struggles towards human rights.

Solidarity.  What does it mean?  How do we think about it?  And what can it do for us?

Firstly, I should say that I like the word solidarity.  I especially much prefer it to the word, “unity”.  “Unity” to me implies an erasure of difference, a refusal to acknowledge our different realities.  Solidarity to me implies the opposite.  It means we are working from our particular realities, our experiences and our struggles and reaching out to eachother from where we stand.

This is important because we are not all the same.  It is important because we stand in different places with different relationships to power.  And while we are all impinged upon, and indeed formed, through the systems of oppression around us, we are not all equally affected by them.  And I think this matters.  I think power matters.  And I think that our struggles have to begin from this place of looking at power with clarity and looking at who we are in relation to the centres of power.

Because solidarity is not charity.  It is not about “helping” the helpless or about “saving” anyone. Solidarity is about seeing the ways by which all of our struggles are interconnected and seeing the ways in which our own relationship to power implicates us in the struggles of others. 

Whether we are talking about solidarity with the marginalized in Canada or with the 2/3 world that is marginalized globally – our solidarity must be grounded in the clear understanding of how our own privileges facilitate the marginalization of others.

Because surely, feasting is made possible by famine.  Surely, over-consumption is made possible by depravation.  Surely, greed is made possible by need. 

Because, my friends and comrades, we are in a time of crisis – a time of ever increasing sites of exclusion, sites of exception.

By this I mean those spaces, those bodies, that are considered to be separate from what is normal.  They are the spaces where our comforting notions of who we are, and where we live, do not apply.  They are the notwithstanding spaces of human rights, of civil rights.

We have these spaces in Canada.  And we have these spaces in our world. And we allow these spaces to exist so that we do not have to change our perceptions of reality.  It is through this constant separating of a “here” from a “there”, and an “us” from a “them” that we are lulled into complacency and, indeed, complicity.

We think of Canada as a successful multicultural country, we pride ourselves on that. Even though we are ever more so in a time of increased racism, increased islamophobia, where entire communities of Canada are considered threats to the nation.

We continue to think of Canada as a country where justice works.  We do not think of Canada as a country wherein the police and the government conspire to send a citizen to a torture prison.  Because we see the case of Maher Arar as an exception.  We do not let what happened to him disrupt our idea, our imaginary, of Canada, or indeed of even the rcmp.

We do not think of Canada as a country where 5 men can be held under fascistic laws, in legal limbo, without knowing of what and by whom they have been accused.  Because these men, they are the exceptions, not the rule.  We do not think of Canada as that country.

We continue to think of Canada as a place where women’s rights are respected, because we allow ourselves not to notice that Canada is a country where 500 native women can go missing with nearly complete silence by the police and the media.

We continue to think of the U.S. as a place where human rights operate, because we chose to think of Abu Ghraib, Bagram Airforce Base and Guantanamo Bay as somehow separate, apart from what defines the character of the U.S.

We continue to think of the state of Israel as the “only democracy in the Middle East”, despite its apartheid laws, despite its occupations, and despite the fact that Gaza is the largest prison in the world, and that massacres like that of Beit Hanoun happen routinely, with no accountability.

And indeed we continue to think of the world as a place of plenty, despite the fact that hunger continues to kill hundreds of thousands.

And indeed we continue to think of our age as one of progress and technological advancement, despite the fact that so many are denied clean water and the most basic healthcare.

All of this happens because we are willing to accept these truths as reasonable exceptions to our realities.

Solidarity is about moving beyond these divisions, about refusing to accept a union, a country or a world where anyone is rendered an exception.

And that is the task that we all must take up now, if we are going to turn this thing around.  And that is the task that has been before you this weekend.

Both within Canada and globally.  The systems of oppression are overarching; they cross borders and timelines.  And if the forces of capital, of imperialism, of exploitation, are globalized, than so must our solidarity be, so must our resistance be.

The solidarity we need ourselves and the solidarity that we extend to others must be grounded in the idea that the same process that includes some of us, excludes others of us.  Regardless of how small or large a group we are talking about, the same process applies.  Some of us are considered dispensable, in order that others can be considered indispensable.  Some of us are considered a threat so that others can be seen as safe. 

The solidarity we need is one that refuses to allow this to be, one that looks with courage at the mighty, one that speaks truth to power, one that stands up for principles of justice and equality, even when it costs us our own privileges.

Solidarity is not about pity, not about charity, not about sympathy.  Solidarity is about respect, about listening and about taking leadership from those with whom we are wanting to be in solidarity.

It is most definitely not speaking for, but rather speaking with, standing with.

Solidarity is not, as has been said, “being the voice for the voiceless”, but rather it is about recognizing as Arundhati Roy reminds us, that “there are none who are voiceless, just those who are the preferably unheard or the deliberately silenced.”

Solidarity is about refusing to be complicit in the silencing of others, it is about refusing to allow ourselves, through whatever seemingly distant process, be complicit or in any way profit from the silencing and marginalization of anyone.

It is about standing up, wherever we are, and demanding that no one be left outside.  It is about using all the means at our disposal to highlight and isolate the systems of oppression that separate us from eachother.

And above all solidarity work is the practical manifestation of the unwavering belief that we can make change, that we, as activists and unionists and workers and students, are not powerless.  That as much as we are aware of the massive and interwoven systems of oppression that crush us down, we are also aware of our own power and our own agency and our own determined, unshakeable, relentless, stubborn insistence to not only rise up, but also to hold one another and to lift eachother as we rise.

And this is the task that you alone can take up in your union, in your locals and in your communities.  You will have to decide what campaigns, what processes, what systems you will need to take up and take on.  You have a long and a proud history of fighting the good fight.  I wish you all the best in the work you have ahead of you. And I thank you again for the commitment and the passion with which you have taken up this work and I thank you for allowing me to be here to share a part of it with you.

Thank you.


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