Ask Gary 2 – “Humanism supports democracy and human rights.”

by | September 27, 2020

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Gary McLelland is the Chief Executive of Humanists International: “Gary joined Humanists International in February 2017. Before this he worked for the Humanist Society Scotland since 2013 as Head of Communications and Public Affairs. He has also previously served as a Board member of the European Humanist Federation based in Brussels, as well as a board member of the Scottish Joint Committee on Religious and Moral Education. Before working in Humanist campaigning, Gary worked for a global citizenship project at the Mercy Corps European headquarters in Edinburgh, and also in policy and service delivery in education and social work. He has a BSc (hons) in psychology, a diploma in childhood and youth studies and master’s in human rights law, in which he researched the approach of the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations’ approach to so-called ‘blasphemy laws’.”

Here we talk about vetting those in need, and international diplomacy.

*Interview conducted on September 4, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s talk about some filtering secular organizations, international and national, can do to vet asylum claims based on some form of fear of anti-secular reprisal, or religious fundamentalist violence against them, or legal actions against them. What are preliminary things to look for when vetting some of these cases?

Gary McLelland: Yes, one of the best ways to verify a case if it is possible is by referral. So, we have a matrix system, where we assign people scores based on different criteria. One of the criteria that we ranked very heavily is whether they are referred by another organization. Let’s take a hypothetical case of a humanist in India facing persecution because of some local incident, if that person can be referred to us by a member in India who knows them, has met them, can understand the context, can verify the level of threat that this person is facing, or, indeed, intervene and help them in some way. That goes a long way to establishing the credibility of the person.

Often, we don’t have that. We have people referred to us by a non-member. A lot of organizations will face this issue. As the public awareness of them providing support grows, because of news articles or more successful cases, the number of cases that get referred to it grows as well. It is happening to us as well. We have seen a massive growth in the number of referrals. One way is by the referral link. We can use the local members to help in another way. Sometimes, when we go through the verification process, we have said approximately 40% of the people who request help do not pass the verification stage. Often, this is because we can’t verify who they are or the risks that they are facing.

Sometimes, if they contact us, we will redirect them back to a local member, or another local contact in the region, to see what is the context, and if the story makes sense – a sense test. Another factor is the urgency of the case. Sometimes, it may be the case that someone may be seeking relocation because of some long and chronic issue. There are cases as in Mubarak’s because we had to jump on this immediately because we only knew that he had been apprehended. We didn’t know where to or why. The next thing is to get some level of verification from another form of contact in the region, which makes a lot of sense. Today, we were lucky to confirm another consultant on our staff, Kacem El Ghazzali. He is a Moroccan guy who has been working with us since 2013 t the United Nations. He came on board as a consultant for case work, specifically, for the MENA region. Kacem speaks Arabic and French.

So, also, he has a knowledge of the issues humanists face in the region. So, he is able to get in touch with people in different languages with some cultural sensitivity and awareness as to what is going on. These things can help having a conversation in their native language for 10 minutes versus an email exchange to understand the depth and the contexts for somebody who is genuinely in need. There is no one size fits all approach. The different requests that we get are very, very different. In many cases, it does require a lot of backwards and forwards. As I said in the article in The Friendly Atheist¸ the contact tends to move to an encrypted source, e.g., Signal, WhatsApp. That allows us to have a more in-depth conversation with a bit more understanding as to what is going on. The short answer is that it takes a lot of time. There is a lot of pressure when we get these referrals . They may often be in a heightened state of stress. The emotional reaction is to act as quickly as possible. However, the systems that we have in place and the policies that we  have in place protect everybody. In that, we only protect people we can verify.

That process takes a lot of time. We ask for two. One is identification of the individual, identification documents. Another is verifying claim of being at risk, whether threats or harassment. So, we will request screenshots of credible threats, testimony of other people, so on and so forth. It can take a long time. Of course, a very, very stressful thing or the staff to review this stuff. We work as a team. We have a coordinator, Emma (who you should speak to at some point, actually), who has been doing this work for over 7 years. She worked on the writers at risk program at PEN International with some of the Bangladeshi bloggers. She has a real depth of knowledge about these issues. She coordinates not only our staff team, but our members, to respond to these cases and requests.

Basically, she will do this on an ongoing basis with my support. Every two weeks, we convene a case conference where the staff and I will discuss or go through the caseload to check what is happening with each case. Do we need to close a case or re-prioritize it, e.g., approve different levels of funding?

Jacobsen: As we should note, as a side point, Emma started the position on the Bala case.

McLelland: [Laughing] That’s true.

Jacobsen: Which is extraordinary [Laughing].

McLelland: She started the day before the Bala case started. I said this to Emma, “I know this is one of the most stressful jobs that you can do, which is to be in contact with people in a life or death situation. It is incredibly stressful. Inevitably, some things will not go the way you them to.” I wanted to have as long and as slow an introduction as possible to know the organization, the people, the history of the organization. Within 24 hours, Mubarak’s case began. She acted as professionally and diligently as anyone could have expected. She continues to be in daily contact with the lawyers and Leo. It was an incredible baptism of fire, you could say.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] We should take an educational point, as well, from extraordinary cases coming out of exceptional people like Gulalai Ismail. Those cases take years and extensive networks. We can’t go into depth there on some things. However, in general, what do organizations need when tracking, covering, and helping/assisting these extraordinary cases, singular?

McLelland: Like you said in the question, one is having a mind on the long game. I said this to some people when Mubarak was kidnapped in April, “Look, I know the urgency people feel about this. I feel it as well. If you allow yourself a few moments to reflect on Mubarak’s case now, where he is creamed in some prison in Nigeria worried about COVID-19, crammed with mosquitoes, wondering if people know where he is, not know what condition he is in (e.g., beaten up) without access to his lawyer. If you reflect on it, then you can understand why people feel a strong sense of urgency, why they want things to happen now, why they want people to get involved, why they tweet. It is important to channel the energy somewhere positive. However, what I think our experience, training, and policies also kick in, which is, perhaps, not a very natural response; a sense of calm, a sense of the long game, based on the experience with Gulalai. We know these cases take months, years. We know there will be back channel communications, negotiations, diplomacy, and a whole different set of layers of campaigning, not just the surface level that the public will see. There are a whole lot of challenges about that.

Not just from the management point of view, another case, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, we did campaigning. We got support from Amnesty International on this case of a humanist anti-slavery campaigner from Mauritania. It was a win for us, in a sense. Amnesty can muster far more resources and change than us with our smaller size. From a management point of view, it is a tricky thing. You have to balance between getting public support to management to campaigning to taking action and standing outside of embassies. Also, you need to respect the other twin track diplomatic channel. We at Humanists International, our reputation is something that we value very highly. Many governments and international agencies around the world, because we practice the restraint and the long-term and quiet diplomatic approach, when we do ask for help on the rare occasions; people do respond.

When Mubarak went missing, within 48 hours, our briefing was read by over 25 governments around the world. We had direct contact with foreign ministers, U.N. officials, because we don’t jump on every single case without verification. Because people know that when we ask for help; it is urgent. We have checked for facts. It can be the real challenge. The challenge of what you can say publicly and what you can say privately. As you rightly said, we can’t go into too many details, because it is a core part of diplomacy that you respect the confidentiality of the process. If you think about Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir’s case, his release came after months of negotiations with the Mauritanian government. We know some central government authorities would be more than happy to release prisoners of conscience, e.g., Mkhaitir, Gulalai, Mubarak, etc., because the international backlash impacts trade, tarnishes the image of the country. It is an awkward thing for global leaders to have to answer these questions during trade missions.

So, in many cases, we know that they would be far happier to see them released. However, there is also the internal politics in the country. Many, many times, they can’t be seen to lose face with the reactionary extreme religious elements in their country or rival political candidates. There can be so many different layers to what is going on here. Understanding that, and having some input into that process, it can be very helpful. That I an extremely frustrating thing. Because we rightly see someone like Mubarak as a friend and a colleague, as an individual; however, it is difficult to put yourself into the mind of having him as a pawn in some political game playing out in Nigeria. The sad truth is that for some people there; that’s the way that they see it. We have to be able to be willing to have some input. It takes so much trust to have meetings with foreign ministers, U.N. officials, have off the record briefings, and so on. It takes a lot of trust because people have to trust that we will not divulge the details of this communication. It is a very interesting process.

With many cases, you want to shout from the rooftop [Laughing] about all of the amazing work that you’ve been doing; it is very frustrating when you can’t. You have to ask people to trust you that you’re working on it. I can tell you. There are active updates in the last few days. Some certainly positive ones, but we can’t share them publicly, because it would put people at risk to divulge it; it is a very frustrating thing. Because we want people to know what we know. We have to have our eye on the long game. Breaching the trust of some contacts now, it comes with the risk that they won’t tell us things in the future; that’s a risk that we can’t take, frankly. It is a very frustrating line to walk, as I said.

Jacobsen: Gary, thanks so much for your time.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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Image Credit: Humanists International/Gary McLelland.

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