Saturday, November 14, 2015

In a State of Statelessness: A stranger took me in. Attacks in Paris

In a State of Statelessness: A stranger took me in.

Last evening’s events in Paris and Beirut that have seen more than a hundred dead and more than 200 wounded, bring home very sharply the fragility with which our life and freedoms should be guarded and the important need for leadership that inspires peace, reconciliation and settlement of disputes through non violent means.
That has been the raison d etre of our work at UNESCO, in the last two years: most recently as Chair of the Education Commission; on the Executive Board and even before since I have been working with communities across the Caribbean region to strengthen cultural confidence, identities, mutual respect and promote intercultural dialogue.
Last evening's attacks on Paris and the experience of being so close  to the mayhem brought closely home that the spirit of goodness in people is alive and well, despite the trauma that accompanied and is only now setting in at the thought of how close a call it was, again, to be almost accidentally, in the line of fire, of insurrection and siege.  And this morning as we braved venturing out not knowing the extent of the state of emergency, that feeling strengthened as Paris and her admirers reaffirmed that we are not cowing behind closed doors in cafes, in grocers, at their monuments as we did at the Sacre Coeur overlooking the city Paris this morning and lit a candle for peace in the world and for peace in my country.
Searching the Google Map to establish my location, I awoke this morning to the reality that I was not very far from the districts that had been bombed when a stranger took me in. In a split second she had assessed that with the all-round panic I would not make it to where I was staying. Her home was close by. She ushered me up the hill and some winding roads and into what I thought was the safety of her home. In my mind the actions of the bombings were some distance away on the other end of Paris. She knew that it was in the district neighbouring.
When we got in and turned on the news to see bits and pieces of the damage. She connected me to her wifi so I could be in touch with friends and family. She made her couch, got me fresh clothes and hot tea while we discussed the unfolding news. She must have been trying to find strength in making herself useful. Sometime, while we were looking at the news she just started bawling. ‘Why were people like that? Why? It was uncalled for.’ She could not stop. She was an American living in Paris for some 30 years, a singer. She had gone out, the first time in a long while, she said, with another friend, French, also a singer, to listen to the singer in that restaurant, also her friend.
I was sitting at a table and they asked for the seats next to me. We started talking about music and Paris, the Caribbean, America.
And just as the singer was about to begin her last rounds our phones started beeping with news flashes.
We paid bills and grabbed coats and it was then she said I should follow them. By the time we stepped outside the streets in one of the most vivacious districts of Paris – Montmatre – was already emptying out. not a cab in sight and we guessed that the metro would have been halted or clogged with the mayhem.
I stranger took me in. Thinking about it now I want to bawl like she did, kneeling on her bed and bawling. We didn’t need the hate crimes and the suicide bombings and the lives lost: the impetus of ignorance and arrogance. We wanted leaders with vision and a passion to do what was necessary to change, not to perpetuate animosity and negativity. It was not business as usual. That is what I told the opening of the Education Commission that I chaired. The violence in schools, one of the issues on the agenda of the Education Commission being debated have roots in the minds of men and women and politicians and academicians and homes and communities and those had to be addressed by the education system too because they reached into the schools and created the problems of violence and bullying there.
A stranger took me in and officials in my country seemed intent on pushing out.
I had gone to that district at the other end of Paris to escape the negativity that had been brought into an environment trying to build peace, encourage dialogue and negotiate compromise and that was threatening to undermine the work we were trying to do on the UNESCO Education Commission. Many of these were negotiated positions and actions accomplished through months and in some cases years of discussions, dialogue, debate and compromise, through various fora.
On Monday November 4, at the start of the High Level meeting on the Framework for Education to 2030, I was escorted by the Secretary to the Education Commission to the Trinidad and Tobago nameplate which forum I was invited to address as Chair of the Education Commission, a position proposed by the Executive Board in April, reaffirmed in November and which was endorsed by the General Conference the day earlier.
However, I was told by the Minister who headed the T&T Delegation that I was not to sit with the Trinidad and Tobago delegation. I was confused. I was at UNESCO as a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago flying the flag of Trinidad and Tobago in the work of UNESCO. “You are not needed here,” he said. “Go.”
I left the room, shocked, I guess, and dejected and rejected. Sometime later I was told that the speaking time allotted to the. Chair of the Education Commission had been appropriated as well.
It did not end there.
I was ‘not a member of the Trinidad and Tobago delegation’. That message came in a note three days later, addressed not to me, but to a member of the UNESCO Secretariat. I wasn’t copied in on the note, but UNESCO brought it to my attention as they wanted to understand and thought I could explain as they had looked and could not find any of the three persons named as the Trinidad and Tobago delegation on the seats with the Trinidad and Tobago nameplates in the two rooms where meetings were being held.
I was as confused as they were. It was unprecedented that a member state would isolate its representative, and one who was chairing a commission, and not any commission, the flagship education commission at that and deliver the message in that manner. It raised many questions and no one to answer them. It had the desired effect to make everyone uncomfortable. On no man’s land, I began to understand the feeling of statelessness.
Officials in my own country were trying to deny my national identity? On the other side of town, a stranger would take me in.
“I have a refugee in my house,” the stranger who took me into her house laughed to her friend who called the check in on her during the night of the attack. She knew nothing of the situation I had been facing, but somehow the reference seemed appropriate.
In the week that the ‘delegation’ had been here they could have asked for an audience with anyone in UNESCO and get it; and I was there for any discussions as well. I had made several times to dialogue. That was the modus operandi of UNESCO. Fostering dialogue. But dialogue can only happen if parties agree to. It takes two hands to clap. And two to make a debate that can stimulate a flow of ideas and enrich a nation. But we know what has been the fate of calls for national leadership dialogues and debates. Is it any wonder?
No reasons given. We were all left guessing. We worked out various scenarios to ensure that the good work of the Commission and its achievements would not be jeopardised. Some may not know how to put partisan interests behind them in favour of the national and global interests, but that was the forte of UNESCO; that was the kind of preparation I had been undergoing for the last many years, functioning with its sometimes very cumbersome instruments and processes from community levels across the Caribbean, with other intergovernmental agencies trying to utilise them and more recently as a member of the Executive Board trying to refine them, make them applicable and relevant and then connecting them and aligning the global agenda as Chair of the Education Commission, to the local needs and interests raised by states.
I had just come from rooms where various international agendas were being tabled. Leaders were expressing the rhetoric of commitment to various UNESCO’s and the UN ideals.
In the rooms of the various commissions and committees were working our way to find consensual ground for these competing interests and agendas, and on all counts, with a slam of a hammer, the aide of an experienced and competent secretariat, I found great satisfaction in thumping the hammer - to signify that we had reached a consensus and the issue was resolved and ‘adopted’. Moments like that peaked and the room filled with tension when I announced the item on UNESCO’s role in protecting cultural property in occupied Arab Territories, a hot topic issue that has been raging in the international arena. We had had behind the scenes discussions with both parties, Isreal and Palestine, on how the matter could be handled with minimal disruptions but in a room full of a diverse range of Member States, any State could change the tone and timber of the dialogue. So it was with relief that when Member States took the floor it was to commend the ‘consensual’ and conciliatory tone of the discussions.
It is in reflecting on that, of what can be done, and at what we have achieved, and the high commendation of my colleagues, both in the room and outside, to members of the Trinidad and Tobago delegation, and to members of the UNESCO Secretariat and the Director General that the trauma began to set in, on what a fragile place Trinidad and Tobago sits.
I have devoted most my time and energies of the last two years, and the decade earlier, to these processes; to broadening the space for Trinidad and Tobago, for the Caribbean, for Latin America, for Small Island Developing States – all these felt not fully integrated and included and we had been beginning to broaden those spaces as well as increasing opportunities for cross regional collaborations through the Commonwealth and across UNESCO/UN defined regions. I felt proud that from a small island state I was able to win the approbation and confidence and support of my colleagues to represent UNESCO interests at both governing organs of UNESCO – the Programme and External Relations Commission of the Executive Board four  consecutive times is quiet a vote of confidence;  and thereafter to Chair the Education Commission of the General Assembly – especially as education was the flagship programme area of UNESCO and member states had tremendous ideas and expectations of what needed to be done to meet the needs of the next generations.
Except for the tremendous show of support, confidence and strength from international colleagues and the UNESCO family, I am left a refugee it seems, by officials of my country.
No one has called or attempted to contact me to find out how I am faring, except relatives, the social media and conventional media friends.
The second letter had come unsigned at the end of day on the day before the Divali holiday in Trinidad and Tobago, and signed the day after. The workload of the Commission was occupying my time so mails didn’t get cleared until the end of the week. That’s when I saw the instructions that I was to not attend any other Executive Board meetings in a letter that tried erroneously to link the representation on the Board 2013 to 2017 to the post of Chair of the National Commission for UNESCO which four year term 2011 to 2015 ended in August 2015. They are unrelated. That the instructions have come while I am in Paris, away from home, performing functions raise their own questions.
I am awaiting an explanation, reasons: whether my performance or competence is being questioned, and dialogue as I had requested before I left Trinidad and Tobago as I commended the new office holders and wished them success in carving a way forward for Trinidad and Tobago.
That way forward should not be one that leaves citizens isolated and marginalised. That was the feeling that had me looking for a space away from the meeting rooms and cocktail chatter at the close of the work day at UNESCO to the other end of Paris where the vitality of people singing and dining and reaching out to each other in easy and difficult circumstances, when amidst the bombings and explosions in a foreign country, a stranger took me in and convinced me more than ever, as the UNESCO motto reads:
Since wars begin in the minds of men and women, it is in the minds of men and women that the defenses of peace must be constructed.


Opposition on auto-pilot
Monday, November 30 2015
THE EDITOR: The Leader of the Opposition recently said the Government was on auto-pilot. This is untrue.
The Government is alive and well. If anything, the Opposition seems to be on auto-pilot.

Maybe because of its upcoming internal elections. How else can it explain its silence on issues haunting our nation currently.

How is it that our representative for UNESCO can be left stranded in Paris amidst the terror attacks and citizens were only made aware of this from reading international news? My heart goes out to Dr Kris Rampersad who was forced out of the UNESCO meetings in Paris by the minister heading the TT delegation without any explanation, just a cold-hearted “you are not needed here.” Thank God for the kind heart of a local who took Rampersad in amidst the siege.

The Opposition must be on auto-pilot as six-year-old Ezekiel McIntyre from Sea Lots pleads with the public for assistance in raising $150,000 for open-heart surgery in Cuba as he has been turned away by the Government and is nearing his deadline.

Three million dollars in paintings and trips to London for $1,900-a-plate dinners for Balisier House have taken precedence over the life of a child and the Opposition is yet to be heard.

While they battle each other, touting their achievements and who is more for the people, the people are being abused and neglected.

We are in a sorry state of affairs here in TT .

Allan Hewitt Maraval

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