Human Rights Day: Get to Know UBC Vancouver’s Anti-Racism Human Rights Advisor

For international Human Rights Day on December 10th, Oluwaseun Ajaja explains his role at UBC and shares his favourite resources. 

Can you talk a little bit about the work that you do?

I sit within the human rights team at the Equity & Inclusion Office. We hold space, provide support for, and advise UBC community members on issues of discrimination, harassment, and other human rights concerns they might have. Policy SC 7 – UBC’s Discrimination Policy – is the primary document that guides our work. And the policy itself is based on the B.C. Human Rights Code. As such, its scope is narrower than that of the Code. Within the Human Rights team, my role focuses on race-based complaints with their unique nuances that are often not easily understood and, as such, usually fall through the cracks.

Nipping in the bud, supporting, and advising UBC community members in a way that centers these concerns is my primary responsibility. Of course, success here requires collaborating with the various units, departments, and faculties on campus. In all, I see my role at UBC as one that loosely supports UBC community members as they live, learn, conduct research, associate amongst one another in a way that dignifies their differences and celebrates their sense of belonging irrespective of their race or other expressions of identity. My colleagues and I also try to ensure that those who approach our office for support leave feeling a little better and dignified than when they walked in.

What contributed to your desire to do this work?

I grew up under a brutal military dictatorship. The acute sense of restricted freedom I felt growing up instilled in me the importance of freedom, particularly what my mother refers to as responsible freedom. In my early teens, I was introduced to and gradually began to understand that responsible freedom would remain unachievable without sensible advocacy.

At the same time, I also realized that the responsibility for making and pushing for things to be better could neither continue to be futuristic nor left for others. Instead, it is a shared responsibility underpinned by a sense of urgency – both of which continue to guide my work.

The push for responsible freedom and sensible advocacy sums up human rights advising. And sufficient understanding and expertise in both are integral to human rights advising. So, the quest to ensure that freedom is reasonably pursued and advocacy is sensibly expressed, especially for those who neither have the voice nor freedom, led me to and remain the push for continuing in this work.

What philosophies have shaped your perspective?

Awareness, understanding with compassion, and participation are the three philosophies that shape my perspectives. I believe that the simpler the philosophies are, the easier it is to live up to them.

Awareness is self-explanatory. You can never know too much. Even on issues where you perceive yourself as an expert, changes show up in ways you least expect, exposing the frontiers of your ignorance. Constant awareness makes you teachable, and continuous learning is the best defense against ignorance and the consequential harm that results.

Similarly, being aware is usually not enough. Human rights advising is broad, fluid and inherently difficult. Usually, the concerns that people raise are simultaneously steeped in a painful past, a challenging present, and a hopeful future. Navigating these require a sense of compassionate understanding. This is the best way to build trust. And I can overemphasize the importance of trust in this work. Once you lose the trust of the parties, this job that is inherently difficult immediately becomes almost impossible.

The third is participation. Human rights advising is a collective job. Success usually requires collaboration from the victims and alleged perpetrators. Collective participation matters even when the issue being discussed seems simple. Human rights issues are never simple. They are usually multilayered. Collaborative participation is one way to ensure that people would continue to exercise their freedom reasonably even when the avenue to exploit others becomes available.

What are some books on human rights that you recommend?

That’s a tough one. How do I pick? I guess I’ll focus on recently published books then. The first is Re-Imagining Human Rights by Williams R O’Neill. O’Neill challenges the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, who said that the concept of naturally occurring rights is nothing but nonsense on stilts. This book re-argues that rights are neither created out of thin air nor indeed bestowed by the government. Instead, codified rights are simply natural rights that society – for a plethora of reasons – have denied groups of people, either based on their race, gender, sexual orientation etc. Thus, in the loose sense, human rights are nothing more than exerting deliberate acts to remove the artificial constraints to the full realization of these naturally occurring rights. Once you understand this, you will begin to rethink the notion of human rights as attempts to actualize what already exists rather than the creation of new concepts of rights.

The second book I will recommend is The Debasement of Human Rights by Aaron RhodesThis book is best succinctly summarized by the words Benjamin Franklin when he noted that “those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” This book traces how human rights have been so debased for the yet to be realized promises of an egalitarian economic prosperity, political equality, and other false notions of equitable safety. The effect is that we have lost on all fronts, with members of marginalized communities bearing the more significant brunt.

The third book I will recommend is appropriately titled Rescuing Human Rights by Hurst HannumI think the title is self-explanatory.

What advice do you have for people in the UBC community?

Human rights — which are simultaneously broad and restrictive — are essential to a thriving UBC. Like I said at the beginning of this interview, the responsibility of ensuring that UBC becomes a place where our differences are celebrated and our diverse identities appreciated is collective. It could be as simple as being teachable about our blind spots on human rights issues or a willingness to engage with others outside our comfort zone with compassionate understanding.

This year’s United Nations Human Rights Day theme is around Equality. Can you reflect a bit on what this theme means to you at a personal or collective level?

I am not surprised by this theme because it is where we are or at least aspire to be. At the local level, it could be as simple as attempting to answer the question “what happened to you” when human rights concerns are raised. It could also mean providing support and resources based on the level of need of an individual within a local context rather than as a collective. The collective is where it gets interesting because it is about drastically reducing the artificial barriers to access. And I use the term ‘artificial barriers’ deliberately because most of the constraints on human rights are a mirage — but a mirage sustained by institutions of colonization and exploited by the powerful in hopes of maintaining the status quo.