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John McNee: Why we need to celebrate pluralism in action

By John McNee, Secretary General of the Global Centre for Pluralism

Diversity is a fact of modern life for most of us. When celebrated and supported, it can be a foundation for innovation, peace and prosperity.

More than ever, as inequality, social exclusion and a growing chorus of populist leaders pit groups against one another, we need constructive responses to diversity. We need both the institutions and the popular will to embrace difference as a force for good, rather than something to fear. These are what we at the Global Centre for Pluralism (GCP) define as the “hardware” and “software” of pluralism.

Pluralism is a challenging idea to explain: It may be best understood when we see it in action. That is why GCP launched the Global Pluralism Award − presented very two years − which recognises individuals and organisations whose work breaks ground for more inclusive societies. In addition to granting CAD 50,000 (US$ 38, 310) to each winner, the Centre works with them to increase their visibility and expand their networks.

In 2017, the inaugural Award recognised three winners and seven others worthy of honourable mention. Through their ongoing efforts, and with funding and recognition conferred by the Award, these three winners made a tangible difference over the past year.

In Colombia, victims-rights advocate Leyner Palacios Asprilla showed us that pluralism means ensuring that all victims of war, including marginalised ethnic groups, enjoy peace and reparations. Leyner worked with his community to rebuild the decimated Bella Vista Church − where the infamous massacre of Bojayá took place − as a community training centre dedicated to peace and pluralism. Leyner was appointed to the Secretariat of Colombia’s Inter-Ethnic Truth Commission of the Pacific, which represents more than 100 ethnic communities.

In Australia, Daniel Webb and colleagues at the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) demonstrated that pluralism means the rights and dignity of asylum seekers must be upheld. In 2018, their campaign against the inhumane offshore detention of refugees on Manus and Nauru islands focused on the separation of families, reaching national and global audiences through media outreach. In The Washington Post, Daniel called attention to “resignation syndrome” among child detainees, a coma-like condition linked to trauma. Legal cases brought before the Federal Court in September 2018 secured medical evacuations for 160 people, including 43 children. Separated families have since been reunited in Australia.

In African countries riven by conflict, Alice Wairimu Nderitu taught us pluralism means women play a meaningful role as mediators, and all local ethnicities must be welcomed in the peace process. Over 2018, she developed a manual for women community mediators that helps conflicting parties respect their differences as a crucial step towards peace. With Centre support, 20 women from six African countries joined with international experts and academics to provide feedback on the draft manual. Taking her message on inclusive peacemaking to wider audiences, we hosted the Canadian launch of Alice’s book, Bridging Ethnic Divides and Building Peace: A Commissioner's Experience on Cohesion and Integration. Last July, she briefed heads of state at the 31st African Union Summit on pluralism as a response to ethnicism. 

The Centre looks forward to presenting a second round of Global Pluralism Awards this November. Our call for applicants in March 2018 drew an astonishing 538 entries from 74 countries ─ more than a twofold increase from the inaugural Award cycle. After many rounds of due diligence and jury deliberation, 10 finalists were announced in June.

The Awards are just one factor sustaining the tireless efforts of these inspiring individuals and organisations. But with walls and prisons increasingly offered as solutions to the complex problems facing humanity, we need to stop and celebrate the work of those who show us a better way is possible.

John McNee, GCP Secretary General since 2011, served as Canada’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York from 2006 to 2011. A career diplomat, he earlier served as Canadian Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg, Syria and Lebanon and as Canada’s representative to the Council of Europe.

Founded in Ottawa by His Highness the Aga Khan in partnership with the Government of Canada, the Global Centre for Pluralism is an independent, charitable organisation that advances positive responses to the challenge of living peacefully and productively together in diverse societies.