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Envisioning the Right to Belong: A Conversation

May 11, 2020

Lorraine Coulter is a U.S.-based journalist, poet, and international development consultant.

On May 4, 2020, the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness (SCSC), in conjunction with Human Rights Watch (HRW), convened a group of leaders from around the world in an online convening to discuss a new and positive vision for human rights in the age of COVID-19, climate change, severe inequalities, and social isolation: the Right to Belong.

In her opening remarks, Kim Samuel, Founder of SCSC, spoke to the Right to Belong as a positive vision underpinning a constellation of human rights—a vision that can advance the work of human rights to build a future of equity, sustainability, and care.

The Right to Belong is grounded in the notion that the social reality for human beings is not just an ideal of freedom in the sense of individual autonomy. It’s also the experience of connection to community, rootedness in nature, social solidarity, and shared responsibility.

This vision is present in the legacy of human rights, which foresaw the balancing of freedom and responsibilities of the individual in relation to the community. A reciprocal relationship must exist between the two in order for equitable standards for all human life to be upheld and true belonging to arise.

The discussion gathered the diverse experience and perspectives among participants to explore and build the vision around the Right to Belong. The meeting included experts in movement building and advocacy as well issues pertaining to the rights of people living with disability, people in poverty, older persons, LGBT people, Indigenous communities, migrants, refugees, and others. Together, these voices opened new ways of thinking about the Right to Belong and its potential to be a unifying narrative for human rights work and action on the ground in practical, concrete ways. 

Several important themes emerged from the discussion.

First, the onset of the global pandemic has catalyzed a rapidly growing demand to rebuild structures of belonging and equality on local and global levels.

Graça Machel—a trailblazing human rights leader, government official, and widow of Nelson Mandela—opened the meeting, describing how the global pandemic has revealed that we all belong to just one category: the category of human. And yet, she underscored, the virus has also exposed and magnified stark systemic inequalities. The current moment is an opportunity, she affirmed, for human rights to transform nation states and global governance systems to restore equality to all people.

Diverse participants noted the growing hunger for new vehicles of belonging. The coming months and years will be a time to prepare for a new future in which all are cared for—and to rebuild societies that respect diversity and restore structures that foster resilience, respect for the natural world, and balance between the individual and the collective.

Second, the Right to Belong offers a narrative framework that can unite people around shared values.

The traditional work of human rights is about exposing abuses and enforcing rights against discrimination. As Ken Roth, the Executive Director of HRW, noted, the Right to Belong reconceptualizes human rights in new, emotionally resonant ways. It reflects a longing everyone feels regardless of culture or geography. And it places focus on that which unites us.

Human beings long for connection to the whole human family, many participants agreed.

Many highlighted their own experience in rights-based advocacy in which positive, “hope-based” or “aspirational values” communication has been a powerful strategy in shifting viewpoints of the public on issues such as same-sex marriage, female reproductive rights, and the death penalty.

The positive vision of the Right to Belong is larger than just expanding freedoms.  It’s also about collective resilience. For Kenneth Deer, who has been active in promoting and defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the UN system for over three decades, the balance of individual and communally shared rights is central to the survival of Indigenous peoples—at stake currently for peoples in Amazonia and small communities in the Far North taking measures to protect themselves as COVID-19 spreads.

Third, emergent voices, including those of people who have experienced isolation themselves, and those of the youth (Generation Z in particular), will play a pivotal role in a movement around the Right to Belong. We need to give their voices a platform.

The most powerful voices of a movement around the Right to Belong will come from people who have experienced isolation and are often excluded from structures of power. Participants including Judy Heumann, a lifelong advocate for disability rights, and Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics International, emphasized that they will be the source of the most profound ideas, creativity, and ingenuity.

We must harness the unique experiences and capabilities of a wide range of actors from all parts of society, and especially the vulnerable, to reach into the world and connect with those who need it the most, urged Ambassador Luis Gallegos, the Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the United Nations, in remarks he sent along for the discussion.

Others noted that young people have historically been important in infusing energy into movements; narratives of belonging to the human family have been particularly resonant with Generation Z.

We must watch for these voices when they emerge, Tim Shriver advised, to consciously and deliberately give them the forums through which to speak and act, and then get out of the way.  Kim Samuel emphasized how this has been a primary approach for the emerging movement for belonging.  

In closing, Shantha Rau Barriga, Director of the Disability Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, gave a sweeping recitation of the contributions of everyone in the discussion. She summarized a wide variety of participants’ responses to Kim Samuel’s core opening question in framing the Right to Belong:

What do we value?

The answers, from among the diverse group of participants, included the following:

Emotional connection.
Shared responsibility.
Diversity, heritage,
Love, courage, humility.
A sense of purpose,
the ability to activate change.
Access to all rights,
mental wellness,
different and yet accepted.
The notion that we’re all born equal.
We all deserve dignity.
We belong to the same category—human.
We need “new structures of us,
a new sense of tribe,
bonds that bridge us.”
The need to be needed.
Bringing those who feel they don’t belong into the conversation.
This is what we value.  

The essence of the Right to Belong is a positive vision of our global future—what we aspire to as humanity. To build a better future, we need a clear articulation of the future we desire. The May 4th meeting was the beginning of ongoing process, the first in a series of gatherings on realizing the Right to Belong. It was an important deliberation on a crucial question for our common future: our shared values.