Black History Month: who's in, who's out?

Black History Month 'Who's In, Who's Out' debateBlack History Month (BHM) is an event that has existed for over 80 years throughout America, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It is a way of showing remembrance and celebrating important figures who have helped change and shape historical events, making the world the place that it is today. The University of Leeds marks BHM each year, and this year is putting on a range of interesting talks and events throughout October. Leeds Student went to the United Nations Association (UNA) on 10 October to take part in their debate, ‘Who’s In, Who’s Out’, where they explored the issue of minorities throughout the world not receiving the right recognition or protection from their country or internationally. One of the main topics of discussion was: which countries are really to blame for the minority crisis?

The story that began the debate was one that has been on the news constantly since August. South African miners have found themselves subjects of oppression and abuse at the hands of  the South African police after 28,000 went on strike demanding a pay rise. The world’s biggest platinum producer, Anglo American Platinum, retaliated by sacking 12,000 miners, stating that they had lost over 700m South African rand because of the strikes. Back in August, 34 miners were shot dead by the police, creating an uproar in South Africa and throughout the rest of the world over ‘minorities’ being treated unfairly compared to other citizens. One South African miner memorably said, “we’re not fighting, but they shoot us”.

The UNA did not just discuss what action should be taken in South Africa. Many issues were discussed, such as the law that is aiming to make any kind of gay propaganda illegal in Ukraine, a law that has been criticised as being “a throwback to the Middle Ages”. The Kurdish-Turkish conflict was also brought up, along with the Romani people living under oppression throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

Although the UNA is only a small group of students here at the University of Leeds, this BHM event gave them a brilliant opportunity to explore ways that the UN could help protect threatened minorities throughout the world. 30 people took part in the ‘Who’s In Who’s Out’ debate, representing countries such as South Africa, France, Italy, the United States, Kenya, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Guatemala and Iran. It was the delegate’s duty to represent their country as accurately as possible as well as provide any necessary controversy and clashing opinions.

The South African delegate was the first to speak in the debate, stating that although South Africa has the worst history of minority problems in the world, it has managed to escape problems within the country without misguided vengeance from any party. The delegate stated that it is the perfect example of a ‘rainbow nation’, which was received by listeners with disbelief and laughter. Delegates lashed back at South Africa, asking how the delegate could justify the Apartheid that lasted almost 50 years. France followed this speech by stating that “minority rights are not a problem. Human rights are, though”. The French delegate described how they believed that it was mandatory to assure the safety of their whole country by banning burqas, following this statement by advising the United Nations that they should protect all human rights, and not just those of the minorities. The reaction to this speech was incredibly mixed, with some people disagreeing under their breath, whilst other nodded and went along with the French delegate’s speech. As anyone who follows the news will be aware, the ‘Burqa Ban’ in France is an incredibly controversial law, so the UNA’s French delegate bringing up the topic developed the talk into exploring other kinds of minority problems connected to affected ethnicity and gender. It has been a controversial issue in the UK over recent years too, with people wondering whether banning the headwear would reduce crime, as armed men have been known to wear them in order to rob shops without being identified. Italy was quick to agree with France, also stating that “we are in the middle of a financial crisis. We must help all people, not just because of their race, gender, or culture. We do not have a resolution to help the miners in South Africa – we must be more universal.”

The United States was definitely one of the most interesting, as well as one of the most challenging countries, to represent in the debate. When the delegate stood up and announced that “the world should take our example”, the other countries involved in the talk had many questions for them to answer. South Africa asked America if, in that case, they felt that the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay was justified. The UK quickly joined in the debate, asking the US if they did not also feel that African Americans have not been protected but had been seriously undermined, which is still taking place in many states to this day. There was also the question regarding Native Americans and their treatment throughout American history. This problem of minorities being oppressed can be seen in many cases throughout US history, with one of the most brutal acts of violence being as late as 1967 in Detroit. The US quickly retaliated to the UK, accusing them of being hypocritical.

Pakistan and Iran had incredibly interesting speeches to make. The Pakistani delegate began his speech by addressing “brothers of colour” and stating “our country was born out of minority. We fully support any minorities. We advise people not to give in to Western or Indian propaganda.” He ended his speech by reminding the rest of the room that Western countries such as the UK and the USA were built on colonialism, and were therefore not in a position to help South African solve any of its problems. The Iranian delegate gave his support to the Pakistani delegate and explained how the Persian community had always felt oppressed by colonial countries, like the US, saying “we would be better without this ‘police of nations’”. Russia backed up this argument by pointing out that many minorities, like the Romani people and the Kurds, are not affected by Western foreign policy: “we have been bullied into submission by the West. They are bullies just like Hussein and the South African police. The biggest bully lives in The White House”. As this was not an official or formal debate held by the actual United Nations, the onlookers to the debate became increasingly excited by the mounting controversy that was becoming apparent within the talk. Perhaps the Italian delegate was the best person to end the exciting talk as he reminded everybody that we should “remember common humanity”.

Although no wonderful revelations were made to change the course of world history, as no one there was actually part of the official United Nations, it was an innovating and exciting experience being able to debate world affairs and deciding outcomes for modern world problems. Although the event was to commemorate Black History Month, the debate did well to explore other world issues that relate to minorities who are still being affected in this day and age. There was no official resolution created by the UNA, yet it was evident from the speeches that were being made that the South African delegate had cleverly managed to divert the topic of conversation away from any atrocities that they were making, and instead verbally attacked the West for any mistakes that they had made. Some may argue that this was entirely justified, but I suppose it is up to the real UN to make that decision. It was an incredibly interesting debate, which clearly showed the students of our university have a solid grasp on world affairs and how they feel would be the best way to make the world a better place for all of humanity. Perhaps we have some politicians and delegates in the making…

words: Charlotte Prince
photo: Courtesy of United Nations Association

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