Solutions for more Justice and an Open Society
As I entered the FNF-IAF Academy on the first day for the very first session, the theme of the conference resonated in the room - the diversity of participants was unmissable, in terms of nationality and areas of work. Committed and spirited lawyers, activists, politicians, and academics to name a few, from over 20 countries had gathered in one room to identify problems, discuss concepts and ideas, and find solutions to build a more just and free society.
On the first day, the participants were eased into the packed and exciting schedule for the next 11 days through ice breaker sessions. This was an opportunity for all of us to become familiar with one another before we began to engage in more focused and structured discussions.
Each day of the seminar dealt with a new concept or idea related to open societies and liberal values – foundation of a liberal democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech and expression, non-discrimination, open borders, economic liberalism, and rationality. The distinctive feature of this seminar was the manner in which each session was organised. For every individual session, participants were divided into smaller groups to complete group exercises and make presentations. This was preceded or followed by a brief lecture from our facilitators – Sven Gerst and Bican Sahin – on the concept of the day. Finally, there would be a plenary session for participants to air their views, debate key tensions, and bring experiences from their own work and countries to the table.
The interaction with participants from across the world was definitely a highlight of the entire seminar. It was an opportunity to not only meet people from different cultures, but also to forge alliances and learn from their struggles in the fight for freedom and liberty in their respective societies. The group exercises were an effective method of allowing participants to work collectively to make a strong case for the brief we were given, and helped us all bond very early on during the seminar. At the end of the seminar, I returned to India knowing that I had made close friends in over 20 other countries and I believe the process of learning from them is ongoing.
Every session was anchored to an introductory lecture from the facilitators which provided a background to the issue we were discussing and a guide to approaching and resolving them under a liberal framework. The facilitators ensured that the seminar was a space for open and free discussion with no limitations, except of time. Their easy and approachable demeanour and enthusiasm during and after the workshop, not only put everyone at ease but also elevated the level of discussion among the participants. A particularly nice touch at the end of the seminar was to have all the participants organise themselves into groups and prepare a brief write up on one theme of the seminar, to be collated and made into a concept note on the foundation of open societies.
The other core activity under the seminar was the outstation excursions organised to Cologne and Dresden, and both excursions closely tied in with the theme of the seminar. The organisers had ensured that the excursions combined learning experiences with cultural exposure and free time for participants to explore the cities on their own.
The first excursion to Cologne was divided into two parts. In Bonn, we attended a talk at a local not-for-profit organisation which assists refugees and migrants with integration into German society. This was followed by sightseeing in Cologne. The talk in the first half was timely given the movements across the world to restrict borders and the antagonistic attitude to ‘foreigners’ of any kind, whether ethnic, religious or based on nationality. In the second half, we were free to roam around Cologne and spend the evening in any way we wished. Undoubtedly, the cathedral at Cologne is one of the most breath taking pieces of architecture I have ever witnessed and the Ludwig museum’s eclectic collection of art ensured I had a full cultural experience.
The second excursion was divided into three distinct parts – a visit to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, the stay in Dresden, and the short visit to Weimar.
Buchenwald: “A sober experience”
Before we set off on the excursion, IAF ensured that we were sufficiently briefed on the concentration camp. Having visited Auschwitz before, I had mentally prepared myself for the worst. The Buchenwald camp visit, which was preceded by a short film, was a sobering experience and tied in well with the discussion we had in the previous sessions on tolerance and non-discrimination. Following this, we went to Dresden, which was an interesting choice as the city was destroyed entirely during the Second World War and had to be built from scratch. During our stay in Dresden, we had three very interesting sessions. The first was on the rights of LGBTQ persons in Germany and how law and advocacy has approached and secured their rights. Second, was the talk by a young political belonging to the Free Democratic Party on the rise of the far-right movement political movement in Germany and solutions to tackle this. Finally, we visited the Stasi archives of information carefully collected and documented on citizens and political dissidents by the German Democratic Republic prior to unification of Berlin. As India has set out on a path of collecting information on its citizens through the Aadhaar programme, this visit alerted me to the dangers of weakening the right to privacy. As a lawyer, another interesting aspect of this visit was learning about the law governing the release of information which is now maintained through a detailed and organised system.
The session that was closest to my heart from the excursion to Dresden was the visit to Frauenkirche Church. I had attended an English sermon during some free time, and was struck not only by the beauty of the church, but also by its commitment to addressing human rights issues that are central to our global world order. In fact, the English sermon focused on accepting and helping our fellow humans, through the lens of the current refugee crisis.
On the last day, the IAF Academy organised a formal dinner for all participants and the entire team. The dinner was a final chance for us all to be together and reflect on our learnings and memories over the 11 days, before we departed to our respective countries. The cloud of disappointment at having to leave Gummersbach is a testament to the way in which FNF had organised the event and taken care of its guests. However, more importantly, the seminar underscored the importance of the work that FNF does across the world; it is committed to liberal values and civic and political education, which was evident from the thought that had gone into the agenda of the seminar and the sessions themselves. It is a reminder that FNF’s role as a political foundation cannot be understated.
Three weeks have passed since I returned to India and every day, as I continue to work in my focus areas of equality and non-discrimination at the Centre for Law and Policy Research, the lessons from the seminar have stayed with me. I am excited to put in practice what my learnings over the 11 days and the group photo of the entire team of participants and organisers which adorns my wall at home will always serve as a reminder of everything we can achieve as a community.
Deekshitha Ganesan currently works at the Centre for Law and Policy Research as a Research Associate. She recently attended FNF-IAF's leadership program in Gummersbach, Germany on Foundation of Open Societies: Individual Self-Determination and Tolerance. In this report, she is sharing her personal thoughts.