woensdag, april 20, 2022

The power of positivity: a conversation with human rights activist Mpanzu Bamenga

‘Human rights are all around us, but you must choose to see them, to keep seeing them, and to keep protecting them.’ This was one of the main themes during our dialogue with human rights activist Mpanzu Bamenga on Friday the 11th of March, a few days before the local elections. On this evening, hosted by Initiatives of Change The Netherlands (IofCNL), fellow human rights activist Uyên Lu (communications coordinator at IofC NL) spoke to Mpanzu about human rights on the local level, his struggle against ethnic profiling, and the importance of positive energy in politics.

The importance of local democracy

The evening started with an interview, during which the audience got to know Mpanzu through the questions of Uyên. On the eve of the local elections, it felt important to reflect on the local human rights culture. After all, global developments have an impact on the local level and this is where human rights are at risk of being violated. The most recent example of this is the Russian invasion of Ukraine: geopolitical tensions have a direct impact on the lives and human rights of Ukrainian citizens.

At the same time, the developments in Ukraine show how fragile democratic society is. Maintaining our democratic society requires constant protection of our rights and input from us all. According to Mpanzu, ‘human rights are everywhere, but you must choose to see them.’

He adds that the way we respond to injustices is also a choice. When his sister died in police custody because she was denied access to medical care, Mpanzu’s emotions fuelled his will to fight against discrimination. His campaign against ethnic profiling in the Netherlands would also get quite emotional from time to time. In such situations, turning emotion into positive energy was a useful strategy. It eventually convinced the commander of the Royal Marechaussee (Dutch military police) to bring an end to ethnic profiling at the airport.

Equality as a foundation

In 2021, Mpanzu won the prestigious Mensenrechtenmens human rights award, awarded by the human rights watchdog College voor de Rechten van de Mens, for his efforts against ethnic profiling. During the interview, he explained how ethnic profiling perpetuates negative stereotypes of minorities. When a certain group, based on ethnicity, is checked for crimes more frequently, that will actually lead to a disproportionally larger amount of members of this group who are prosecuted. That wrongly confirms the prejudices that led to ethnic profiling in the first place, and this confirmation is often used as a justification for profiling. Mpanzu emphasises the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to be treated equally in equal situations. Ethnic profiling violates this human right. If some individuals have an increased chance of being suspected of a crime based on their looks, that means we are not all equal in the eyes of law enforcement.

As a city councilor in Eindhoven, Mpanzu also strives for equality. He recently proposed to introduce a citizens’ council, which would function as a third house of parliament on the local level, allowing citizens to voice their opinions and influence municipal policies. By inviting citizens to participate, Mpanzu hopes to achieve a more accurate representation of the city’s population in local politics.

Personal connection

After the interview, an open dialogue between Mpanzu and the audience naturally followed. The interaction sparked interesting conversations, personal stories, and new perspectives. The themes that came up during the interview were openly discussed, especially people’s personal experiences with discrimination, and what we can do as individuals and as a society to work on a solution to this complex issue. Again, Mpanzu emphasised how important it is to focus on positivity and to turn emotion into energy.

Mpanzu also emphasised the importance of mutual understanding. Activists and idealists are often seen as moralistic or annoying. During the dialogue, Mpanzu explained that making personal connections is just as important as having positive energy, if you want others to listen to what you have to say: ‘To convince others of your perspective, they must first understand where you’re coming from. Only then are others willing to hear your arguments.’ In other words, by having these conversations and sharing personal stories, it becomes easier to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

At the end of the evening, Mpanzu was asked one final question: “Have you, in your many years of living in the Netherlands, seen social progress when it comes to discrimination, or do we keep seeing the same issues over and over again?’ Mpanzu replied that it is a matter of perspective: of course there are still many problems with discrimination in our society, and these problems will not disappear overnight. However, it is essential not to forget our victories. Today, the average Dutch person is much more aware of discrimination than they were a few years ago. Think of the recent apologies made for the Dutch history of slavery and the Keti Koti celebrations, but also awareness of issues around Zwarte Piet and ethnic profiling.

Every significant societal change starts with small steps. To illustrate this, Mpanzu mentioned the Netherlands as the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage.This process started with a single couple that went to court, and even though they lost their case, this event planted a seed for societal change, with significant results in the long run. The best activists and politicians stay positive no matter what. Barack Obama’s famous catchphrase ‘Yes, we can!’ was born after losing an important debate. Despite the loss, these three words became a part of history and won people’s hearts. Such a positive mindset can be the most important part of a political message, according to Mpanzu.

At the end of the evening, host Willem Jansen surprised both Mpanzu and Uyên with a special request. He asked Uyên, who had told her story to IofC NL last year about her human rights activism in Vietnam, to present her book Hidden Resilience to Mpanzu. It was a satisfying conclusion to a special evening. 

By Daan Korfage.