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‘What excites me most is the art of making change happen within and beyond’ – Interview with John Samuel, the New Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA

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Since 19 October 2016 John Samuel has taken up the position of Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA. The following interview is based on a conversation we had with John, as he sets out on this new phase in his career. We asked him about what had motivated him in the first place to become a human rights defender, how his commitment might have or have not changed over the years, and many other questions to get to know him a little better. The following interview is the result of this conversation.

John Samuel has more than 25 years of experience and expertise in human rights advocacy, democratic governance, sustainable development and institution building in India, Asia and beyond. Before joining FORUM-ASIA, John served as the Global Head of the UNDP-Global programme on Democratic Governance Assessments and the Global Democratic Governance Advisor to the UNDP. He was the International Director of ActionAid, based in Bangkok, heading both the Asia-Pacific Region and the global thematic stream on Democratic Governance. He was founding Co-chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty(GCAP) and the Chief Executive of the National Centre for Advocacy Studies in India.

He was instrumental in initiating several youth and social movements, and establishing various national and international civil society networks, research and advocacy institutions. He has written extensively on human rights, civil society and governance, and has four books and several hundred articles and papers to his credit.

How did you become involved with the human rights movement?

I became acutely aware about human rights violations and repressive laws during the emergency regime in India from 1975 to 1977. During the emergency regime, many of those with political affiliations and strong views were arrested, including people from my village in Kerala, India and members of our public library. The brutal torture and killing of an engineering college student, Rajan, while he was in police custody, clearly demonstrated the State violating human rights. It was the repressive emergency regime and brutal killing of many people, made me realise that how state and police can violate human rights. As a student activist I too joined a campaign against a Hydro-electrical project that would have destroyed the silent valley forests in Kerala, made me realise the importance of sustainable development and human rights. Such kind of awareness and the political climate in India in the late seventies, eventually drew me into the political process . Dalits were at the receiving end of various forms of discrimination. It is the struggle against discriminations that brought me in to international campaign against apartheid in the 1980s and Free Nelson Mandela movement. This also gave me a broader sense about the international struggles against discrimination on the basis of colour, gender and creed.

As I read the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Marx Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists, I was inspired to dedicate my life to a larger cause than only studying for a career. So in 1981 I started a journal and magazine for young students, to highlight the issues of discrimination, environment, freedom, human rights etc. Engaging with the little magazine for five years was a learning experience and also helped me to articulate perspectives on democracy, human rights etc.,

During my university years in Pune, from 1987 onwards, I got actively involved in understanding and mobilizing for human rights. Initially through a students’ collective called Bodhi (the tree of enlightenment). The student collective grew into a civil society movement of young people called Bodhigram, which focused on protecting the rights of street children and to initiate alternate schools in the slums. Later we also worked with the grassroots women’s collective. Bodhigram is still active as a grassroots movement and knowledge centre working with young people and women through a human rights approach.

I did my doctoral research on North-East India and travelled across the region. This exposure provided me a direct experience of multiple forms of human rights violations and I used my writings to highlight some of these issues.

And how did you become involved with FORUM-ASIA?

I am excited to join FORUM-ASIA, partly because I knew the organisation from its inception and closely observed its evolution in the last twenty five years. It is during my work with the National Centre for Advocacy Studies (NCAS) in India that brought me closer to the work of the FORUM-ASIA.

I followed FORUM-ASIA’s work on human rights investigation and after the Vienna Human Rights Conference in 1993; there was much better coordination between human rights groups at the international level.

During my stay in Bangkok from 2003 to 2010, I had the opportunity to interact and work with the leadership and staff of FORUM-ASIA on several occasions. Many of the staff also participated in the Bangkok Development Forum, a regularly shared learning space for development and human rights practitioners, convened by me for three years.

What excites you the most about your work and the contribution you make and what inspiring moment?

There are three things excites me. The first among is a constant effort to make change happen within and beyond. Activism is courage of conviction about certain ethical and political values and applying this in our own lives and all arenas of our work. Unless the process of change happens within oneself, it is difficult to make change happen beyond. It also excites me to work with young people and all through my three decades of work, I have constantly worked with young activists and practised transformative leadership by working with them. The third exciting thing is to bridge between grassroots social movements, human rights organisations with the national and international advocacy and campaign effort. This constant touch with grassroots and at the same-time working at the international level excites me. This is also what makes me excited about the FORUM-ASIA. Its membership consists of grassroots human rights movements and those who are struggling for human rights in the frontline. Among the things that inspired me was our effort to support the right to information movement in India, which eventually resulted in the enactment of a powerful Right to Information Law.

My involvement in the Trade Justice Campaign, Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP), International Social Watch, the World Social Forum and Africa-Asia Solidarity Forum gave me an opportunity to learn and do advocacy from the grassroots level to the global level. The three streams of perspectives that informed my choice of action and advocacy are human rights, democratic governance and sustainable development.

What are the most challenges and obstacle moment?

Challenging moments were when the Government came down heavily on human rights activists. The most challenging was when many of my friends got arrested or jailed. One of my fellow activists in India got arrested and was kept in jail for many months on false charges. So I had to organise the press and legislators to do the first human rights investigation, as well as a campaign to release him. But this also resulted in government agencies snooping on me during my tenure at NCAS as I was actively involved in supporting social and human rights movements of Dalits and Adivasis in India.

If you could give a message to the new generation of people working on human rights or development, what would it be?

As Martin Luther King Jr said ‘injustice anywhere is threat to justice everywhere’. Hence young people will have to be global and local at the same time, making use of the social media, to stand up for rights and justice everywhere. The idealism and imagination of young people make the world move towards a peaceful and just world where no person will be hungry and every person can live a life of dignity, freedom and creativity.