Gary McLelland on Humanists International General Assembly 2024

by | June 28, 2024

Gary McLelland 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’.

Scott Jacobsen: How was the theme of “Secularism and Harmony” chosen for this year’s General Assembly?

Gary McLelland: The theme was chosen by the Humanist Society Singapore. Singapore is one of the most ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse countries in the world, given its location and history. The Singaporean governing organizations have been very focused on societal harmony. Although these policies have faced criticism, the idea of having a cohesive and harmonious society seems to be very important to many Singaporeans. Therefore, they wanted to showcase examples of good practice in the region.

Jacobsen: This year, the event spans two days. Will there be any surrounding events or tours in addition to the General Assembly?

McLelland: That is the plan. While I haven’t seen the final details yet, I know that the organizers, HSS, are planning to provide additional opportunities for people who want to arrive a few days early or stay a bit longer. The two-day event will include several cultural experiences. Currently, the plan is to visit different projects on Friday, have a communal meal, and then begin the conference and meeting on Saturday.

Jacobsen: How is registration for the conference going?

McLelland: I am not sure about the conference registration, as I haven’t spoken to HSS recently. However, we have around 52 people registered for the General Assembly, and we expect to have approximately 70 to 80 attendees. So, we are more or less on track with the registrations.

Jacobsen: How does this year’s registration compare to previous years?

McLelland: Comparing year-to-year registrations can be difficult. Last year was a Congress year, which usually draws more attendees. Most of our membership is based in Europe and North America, making Singapore a distant location for many. Therefore, larger delegations from these regions might not be as big as they would be for an event held in Europe.The closest comparable event was in New Zealand, which is still quite far away. Despite these challenges, we expect around 70 to 80 attendees for the General Assembly and hope for more at the conference, as HSS plans to market it to their members and the broader Singaporean NGO sphere.

Jacobsen: How does this event provide a better opportunity for humanist organizations in the region to participate more actively in the annual event?

McLelland: This is an exciting time, especially after the pandemic, which had a negative impact on humanist organizations worldwide. For instance, the organization in Malaysia closed down. However, last month, the board approved a new organization from Malaysia and another from Indonesia as members. Both are planning to attend the General Assembly along with other representatives from Asia. This event offers a great opportunity for these organizations to strengthen their connections. In the past, we funded Young Humanist Asia events, one of which took place in Singapore in 2018 or 2019. Re-establishing these bonds is important, and the event will feature international panels and speakers focusing on regional issues. This will be insightful for attendees from outside Asia to understand local concerns.

Jacobsen: Are the themes for the General Assembly chosen to be related year-to-year, or are they independent topics?

McLelland: There isn’t a specific schema for choosing themes. The applicant organization often proposes a theme that is topical or of particular interest to them. This is usually agreed upon in conversation with the board and staff. In some cases, we have asked organizations to consider a specific theme due to its relevance, as we did in 2018 with the theme of politics of division and populism. Generally, it is up to the hosting organizations to propose themes when they bid to host the General Assembly. For example, we are already discussing the theme for the 2026 World Humanist Congress in Washington, which is being organized by American Atheists. Setting a theme so far in advance is challenging, especially given the unpredictable nature of global events.

Jacobsen: What do you find is the highlight for yourself when you attend these events?

McLelland: It’s definitely meeting people and seeing them again in person. I spend about five hours a day on Zoom calls, talking to people, but there is really no substitute for spending time with someone in person and hearing what’s happening. I’m always struck by the fact that when you bring leaders of humanist organizations from the four corners of the world together, the challenges, stresses, and difficulties are very similar, regardless of the organization’s size. For attendees, this can provide support and make them feel part of something larger, sharing common experiences. We talk about being a global movement and a global family and having a chance to come together in person once a year adds a tangible reality to that, which is otherwise virtual and less concrete.

Jacobsen: We have some elections coming up. How can people apply for positions like treasurer, board member representing Asia, board member representing Latin America, and general board member?

McLelland: There are four vacancies this year. Our current Treasurer, Boris van der Ham, is not standing for re-election, so he will be retiring from the board, which is significant, especially since our current president, Andrew, will also be standing down next year. This marks a period of substantial leadership changes within the organization at the board level. It’s a time for open discussions, questions, and challenges to ensure that Humanists International members feel they have a say in the organization’s direction. You can apply to join the board by visiting our website I should clarify that the two restricted board positions for Africa and Asia are not representative roles. Once selected, all board members have equal status and are there to govern the organization in the best interest of Humanists International. The purpose of these positions is to ensure board diversity. In the past, the board was almost entirely European and American, which didn’t lead to good governance for a global organization. Having a diverse board helps us better understand political and cultural issues worldwide.

A major theme for this year’s General Assembly is engagement. It’s vital for governance that we re-engage with members. Some members have expressed feeling more remote from the organization’s work since the pandemic. Our membership has grown, and we do many more things online now that not everyone can access. The organization has also become more complex, with more personnel and programs, making it harder to stay updated. Therefore, we’ve agreed to have a fuller agenda at the General Assembly, sharing the budget, detailed reports on staff activities, challenges faced, and future work plans. This transparency is crucial as we undergo governance and leadership changes. Members must be fully engaged with these changes, question assumptions, and contribute their views on the future direction.

Jacobsen: Who are the speakers that people can look forward to seeing this year?

McLelland: We haven’t announced the names of the speakers yet, so stay tuned for updates.

Jacobsen: For those who want to be added to the agenda or submit papers, the deadline is July 23rd, correct?

McLelland: That’s correct. The deadline for everything related to the General Assembly is July 23rd. If you want to be nominated for a board position, you need the backing of three member organizations. Submit your form, available on our website, by July 23rd. If you want to propose a new policy, have a question answered, or initiate a formal debate or discussion at the General Assembly, you can submit that as well. Any member organization can do this. The email address is Additionally, if you know someone who has done exceptional work in the service of humanism, you can nominate them for the Distinguished Services to Humanism Award. There’s a form for this on our website as well.

Jacobsen: Excellent. Thank you.

McLelland: My pleasure.

Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash

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