Wiki-edit-a-thon: Writing Women Back into History

Most of my history lessons throughout primary and secondary school were about great men and their achievements. Later on, during my first year of anthropology at University, this trend continued as we were going through anthropological history. Classic pieces were written by men, about men.

But what about the women in history? Where are they? The quick answer? Most women have been written out of history. An issue which the Wiki-edit-a-thon event on March 8th 2019 sought to do something about – by writing women back into history, thus working for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Nr. 5, Gender Equality.

As part of International Women’s Day UNYA, in collaboration with the Zebra Partnership, held the ‘Wiki-edit-a-thon’ at the International House, Aalborg. 

“Wikipedia famously bears one of the starkest gender gaps in contemporary culture.” – New York Magazine

With tables set up providing snacks and coffee, participants of the event could, from 16.00 – 20.00, act as editors by rewriting existing articles, writing new articles and translating Wikipedia-pages into multiple languages.

A few of the attendees present at the event helping each other out with some technicalities (Photo by: Lea Thies).

The event started out with a presentation from the organisers of the event, Lea Thies and Elias Mark, followed by a video with greetings from the founder of the initiative, The Zebra Partnership, Carol Ann Whitehead. What originally started the initiative was a Twitter conversation between the mayor as well as the Women of London. Following this, a strategy was made and a group was formed by bringing other organisations together, thus resulting in Wiki-edit-a-thons not just in Great Britain, but around the world, making partnerships and collaboration a core feature. 

Of the current 29 million pages on Wikipedia, only 17% of women are on these pages. Of the 17%, only 10% of the contributors are women, therefore leaving many women underrepresented on Wikipedia.

After the heartwarming video by Whitehead, participants were instructed in detail on how to edit the Wikipedia pages. Examples of articles on Wikipedia in need of editing are; articles using sexist/biased language, articles where women are referred to as ‘girls’ or ‘ladies’, women being defined by their relationship to men instead of their accomplishments, or the articles simply don’t exist.

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A brief guideline, included by the organisers of the event, on how to go about editing women’s articles on Wikipedia.

As we were introduced to the Wikipedia articles in need of editing, I made the mistake of pressing a button on my laptop which resulted in the page moving to the bottom of the list on the site. In order to get back to the start of the page, I, therefore, had to scroll up for what seemed like an eternity. This in itself was proof that there is still much to be done in relation to the representation of women in history.

The attendees eating their pizza after several hours of hard work editing articles (Photo by: Lea Thies). 

Throughout the whole event, there was an atmosphere of collaboration and inclusion. As stated by Elias Mark, “Everything we do is good. A little change is great”, and  “[it] is a learning experience for all of us”, in regards to the event. Some of the participants had difficulty, myself included, with the technical side of editing. However, everyone helped each other out whenever possible.

By the end of the event, many of the participants expressed interest in continuing the work, and as expressed by Carol Ann Whitehead, “Being involved in the Wiki-edit-a-thon is not a one-off, it is like a relationship, like finding a partner. It is not just a peck on the cheek. It is a long-term relationship”. Much like my situation at the bottom of the list of Wikipedia articles to edit, there is a long way for us to collectively scroll up to achieve gender equality, and this initiative is a scroll in the right direction.

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Created by the organisers of the event, here is a step by step diagram on how to get your own Wikipedia-edit-a-thon started! Check out the ‘Women in red’ and ‘Articles in need of attention’ links below to see which articles need editing 🙂

Links to get started:

•Women in red:
•Articles in need of attention:

Article by: Liv Inuk Oldenburg Lynge

Article Edited by: Michaela Higgins Sørensen

UNYA Debates on Gender and Equality

Spirits were high as the second UNYA Debates of the year took place on Tuesday the 4th of March in the International House of Aalborg. UNYA Debates provides a platform in which anyone is free to present their opinion on the given topic and have it contested in a comfortable and open-minded environment. The topic of this debate was ‘Gender and Equality,’ a topic which all participants were able to relate to personally and therefore eager to debate.

Despite the calm and collected beginning, the debate quickly picked up as more opinions were thrown on the table. Over the course of three hours, a broad variety of issues and conflicts were covered, taking as the point of departure the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals number 5, Gender Equality, and 10, Reduced Inequalities, while also slightly touching upon goal number 1, No Poverty, and number 4, Quality Education. The various goals covered within one topic shows how interrelated the Sustainable Development Goals are and prove that one cannot speak of nor attempt to solve one goal without taking into account the other goals and their progress. The participants of the debate thus quickly discovered that gender equality cannot be achieved without addressing poverty and education, among other goals, leading to a debate covering several diverse areas, in one way or the other, related to Gender and Equality.

One of the main topics during the debate was the notion that gender inequality is embedded within our societies to the extent that children are streamlined into the fixed gender binaries of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ before they are able to think an independent thought. As children grow up, it becomes increasingly difficult to break out of the societal expectations connected to these predetermined gender roles. The majority of people do not wish to become an outsider and, hence, tend to tread in the footsteps of others, thus conforming to historically influenced gender roles. Therefore, the participants agreed that we should work towards gender neutralizing the influences which children are exposed to on a daily basis, that being for instance advertisements for clothes and toys.

Sustainable Development Goal Number 5, Gender Equality

Amongst the topics which peaked the interest of the participants were the issues connected to the way in which gender inequality is addressed in public debates. New gender-neutral pronouns may be added for people who do not identify as a specific gender, but that does not necessarily address the problem in which such people are excluded from society because of how they identify themselves. The debate concluded that focus should rather be on achieving equal payments and equal access to any job no matter one’s gender. There should be an increased focus on addressing the roots of a problem because it cannot be covered up by new words as these issues will keep recurring in society. That being said, the issue of gender identification and the importance of using gender-neutral terms in order to include the various members of the LGBTQ community cannot be undervalued. In other words, it is important to have an inclusive society for all LGBTQ members, but in order to have that and get to that level of gender equality in our society, we need to focus on the roots of the problem.

The debate ended with the participants attempting to provide solutions to the problems connected to Gender and Equality. The most popular solution was a call for equal access to information and education on anything from sanitation to skill training and preparing for jobs. Basic health and other fundamental Human Rights have to be attended to before we are fully able to tackle the gender equality issue. After the last words had been uttered, the participants had a lot of food for thought and left feeling motivated to give another push towards gender equality.

Article By: Signe Kvistborg Balle 

Edited by: Michaela Higgins Sørensen

COP24, what’s been done and where do we go from here?

As the COP24 draws to a close this week, delegates from 193 countries, activists, non-profit organisations and private sector representatives will start to leave Katowice. And as the conference disbands, commentators from across the world are starting to ask, have we done enough to stop global warming and implement the 2015 Paris Agreement?

It must be said that much remains in the balance even after two intensive weeks of discussion and debate. Let’s look at the bad news first. A bloc of four oil-producing countries – the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait – have been accused of obstructing the UN’s climate change talks. All four have refused to “welcome” the IPCC’s special report warning of dire consequences if global warming rises more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. As major fossil fuel powers, each of the four countries argued that the IPCC report should be simply “noted” in discussions. Their actions have brought sharp criticism from developing countries whose citizens are most at risk from climate-induced disasters. Ralph Regenvanu, the foreign minister for Vanuatu, a nation in the South Pacific Ocean, did not hold back as he delivered a damning speech before ministers and heads of state; “Whether you welcome, or note, or shamefully ignore the science altogether, the fact remains that this is catastrophic for humanity, and party negotiators blocking meaningful progress should have much on their conscience.” The talks were marred by further controversy earlier this week when Australia became the only nation to join the US at a pro-coal event where the US announced its commitment to extracting fossil fuels and warned against climate change ‘alarmism’.  Australia has also stated that it will not commit to larger carbon emissions reductions. As a result, the brokering of a “rulebook” for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement has slowed.

If you are wondering whether there is light at the end of the tunnel, allow me to illuminate some of the more promising developments from COP24. Following the stalls in talks earlier this week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres returned to Katowice and he did not mince words. Speaking to the plenary he stated, “We’re running out of time. To waste this opportunity would compromise our last best chance to stop runaway climate change. It would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal.” In response, some countries have upped their game. The High Ambition Coalition, a group of countries including the EU, Canada and New Zealand, as well as a large group of least developed countries and several other developing nations, have pledged to scale up their plans to cut emissions in line with the IPCC’s warning that global warming cannot rise above 1.5°C.

Other bright spots in the talks have included climate change commitments from fast and high fashion companies. Inditex, Burberry and 41 other companies have pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The launch of the Sports Climate Action Framework brings together 17 major sporting committees and federations in an initiative designed to get the sporting industry on track for a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. The sports industry is responsible for extensive carbon emissions through travel, energy use and catering. People from around the world were galvanized into collective action as part of the #ClimateAlarm initiative. On the 8th of December citizens of more than a hundred cities across the globe marched together to demand stronger commitments to climate action. In Brussels a record-breaking 75,000 people took part. Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl made a lasting impression at the UN climate summit when she challenged world leaders to better climate action. Thunberg’s words taken hold in Sweden, Poland and Australia where school children have gone on strike in protest against climate inaction. New initiatives like the People’s Seat have been widely applauded for encouraging a spirit of openness and inclusiveness in the midst of complex political discussion.

So what do we take away from the last two weeks? Consider this progress as ‘two-steps forward and one step back’. Commitments from fashion and sports industries, collective action from across the globe as well as significant pledges by the High Ambition Coalition have brought us closer to significant climate action. But at the time of writing, the “rulebook”  for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement has yet to be finalised and the oil bloc of Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, continue to drag their feet.

Further reading:

Article by: Isobel Squire (with reviews from Jana Fleischer and Daniella Domsa)

Sustainable Development Goal No 13 and the Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-cmyk-13.jpgThe COP24, Conference of the Parties 24, started this Monday, but why should we concern ourselves with what is happening in faraway Poland? The answer is simple: Because we live on the same planet and climate change concerns us all eventually. In this regard, we want to introduce you to Sustainable Development Goal no 13, which is dedicated to climate action, and how we can contribute to this goal and make the world more climate-friendly.

So here we go!

“Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” is the main message of SDG No13. But what does this mean exactly? The UN defined it with the following five sub-goals it wants to reach by 2030:

  1. Strengthen the flexibility and the capacity to adapt to climate-related disasters in all countries.
  2. Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and into planning.
  3. Build knowledge and the capacity to tackle climate change. This includes an improvement of education, extensive awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity building. Hereby, the focus is on mitigation, adaption and impact reduction of climate change and an early warning system.
  4. Implement the commitments of developed countries towards the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This also includes a pledge by developed countries to mobilise $100 billion together every year as a contribution to the Green Climate Fund, in order to support the needs of developing countries in the context of meaningful mitigation actions.
  5. Promote mechanisms to raise the capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in the least developed countries and small island developing states.

The question now is: What has been achieved since the establishment of SDG no 13?

In April 2016, 175 parties ratified the Paris Agreement and 168 parties communicated their first contributions. Additionally, 10 developing countries had successfully completed and submitted the first iteration of their national adaption plans for responding to climate change. In terms of the UNFCCC $10.3 billion had been raised, which is only a little more than one 10th of what was planned on being raised until 2020. Furthermore, the implementation of national adaptation programmes of action will help the least developed countries prepare and seek funding for comprehensive national adaptation plans, thereby reducing their risk of being left behind.

In this regard, this 24th climate conference is especially important, because concrete rules and tools should be ratified now, in order to implement the Paris Agreement. If that will not happen, the fight against global warming and climate change will suffer a major setback.

But even if no agreement will be reached on the issue of committed implementation, we as the people can help to stop the severe consequences of climate change. Here are ten steps that every one of us can implement, even when sitting on the sofa:

  1. Calculate your carbon emissions with the Carbon Calculator. This way you are more aware of the amount of CO2 you produce and hopefully, this motivates you to apply some of the following steps.
  2. Find a Goal 13 charity you want to support. Any donation, big or small, can make a difference! (See the “Get Involved” section on for inspiration)
  3. Recycle paper, glass, plastic, metal and old electronics, in order to avoid exhausting our finite natural resources and raw materials.
  4. Composting food scraps can reduce climate impact while also recycling nutrients.
  5. Choose reusable products. Use an eco-bag for shopping and a reusable water bottle or a cup to reduce your plastic waste.
  6. Buy eco-friendly products. Read the packaging to see if products are produced in an eco-friendly way.
  7. Bike, walk or take public transport. Save the car trips for when you’ve got a big group.
  8. Consume less meat and become vegetarian for one day a week. The meat production industry has a huge impact on the environment.
  9. Reduce your use of paper. Avoid printing and substitute it with electronic devices or carriers.
  10. Stay informed. Follow your local news and stay in touch with the Global Goals online or on social media.

These are only a few ideas on what YOU can do.  If you want to get even more involved or are looking for other ideas then try the Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World.

For further reading:

More on the SDG 13: and the SDG Tracker

More about the COP24 on:

The ICPP report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.

A guide on becoming climate neutral, developed by the UN for citizens.

Why Donate Blood? An Interview

Many people want to help others in meaningful ways, but perhaps it is difficult to know how. Blood donation is a lifesaving decision that is becoming more popular and has achieved great success over the years due to medical improvements. UNYA volunteers from Aalborg had an interview with Bitten Aagaard, the medical professional responsible for the Blood Bank in Aalborg about the topic. For the World Blood Donor day, we would like to share information about blood donation and encourage more people to donate blood.

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What is it like to donate blood?

Why should I donate?

According to Bitten, there are two benefits. “One of them is mental, because you actually have the resources to help someone else. There is an altruistic element to it that makes you feel good. The other benefit, here in our blood bank […], is that you get your blood pressure checked every time. That is not decided by law, but it’s something we want to do for our donors. There are also other tests taken, such as the virus’ hepatitis B, C and HIV tests, and we also check hemoglobin levels every time a donor comes here. […] However, I think what makes donors come back […] is the mental part of it. It feels good to help someone else without necessarily getting paid back.”

“[…] you have the resources to help someone else.” – Bitten Aagaard

When can I become a donor?

To become a donor, you must register at, then you will receive an email from your local blood donor asking to come for tests. Otherwise, for the Blood bank in Aalborg, someone who wants to become a donor can go to the secretariat and register as a donor. Depending on the waiting list and on the region, you can wait up to six months before donating your blood.

Can I donate blood?

According to Bitten Aagaard, anyone over eighteen years old can be a blood donor. If you are seventeen years old, you must present an authorization from a parent. Also, the donor must be over 50 kg, otherwise it could be a danger for him to donate such an amount of blood. On top of that, the donor must be in a healthy condition and there are specific criteria that defines the health of someone.

Where blood donations take place in Aalborg.

How much blood is donated?

There are different types of blood donations that the donor can chose. The two types most commonly used are full blood and plasma donations. Thefull blood donation is where the donor gives 460 ml of pure blood. The other one is a plasma donation, where 600 ml of pure plasma is donated. For the full blood donation, thirteen percent of blood is taken for donation.

What is a plasma donation?

Plasma is a clear, straw-colored liquid portion of the blood that remains after red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and other cellular components are removed[1]. Bitten explains the plasma donation: “[…] in the plasma donation, […] you fill out the same questionnaire, you go to the donation room and the needle will be put in your arm, and then draw out a full blood donation. The blood will centrifugate and the plasma will be at the top and the cells at the bottom. Then the plasma will be kept out and the rest of the cells will return to the donor. That means we only take the plasma, that’s what we need, and the donor gets the cells back. That means that the donor doesn’t have to have a quarantine, which is a break from the donation as if the donor donated a full blood.” Furthermore, you only need a two-week break between your plasma donations, whereas a full blood will need three month intervals.

Where can I donate blood?

Once you have received an appointment, you go to your local blood bank where a nurse will draw your blood that will be used for another patient in need. There are also blood buses, circulating all around the country in which you can also donate blood.

Did you know?

  • The need for plasma donations is raising quicker than the need for full blood donations.
  • The blood type O negative is universal. It can be transfused to any patient in need of a blood transfusion.
  • If you can’t donate blood, you can recruit.
  • If you have been on holidays outside the northern region, you might have to wait weeks or even months before you will be allowed to donate blood. This is due to your exposure to dangerous pathogens such as malaria, dengue fever etc.
  • According to the interviewed doctor, per year, 10 out of the 20 000 donations get nerve injuries caused by the needle insertion, which heal after several months.
  • During a plasma donation, there is a liquid called citrate that is put in your blood to prevent coagulation.
  • In Denmark, The clinicians have reduced the amount of issues with red components since 2008.
  • Plasma can be used to make medicine (immune globulins and albumin).
  • To be a donor, you must speak and understand Danish, live in Scandinavia for 1 year and have a Danish social security number



Interviews conducted by: Mathilde Thibeault-Jacobsen and Erin Cara Jalk

Article written by: Mathilde Thibeault-Jacobsen

Interviewee: Bitten Aagaard

Article edited by: Michaela Higgins Sørensen

On 5 Continents with the UN: Life as a UN Couple

What do the people in the United Nations actually do? How does it feel to be a UN diplomat? What is the life of a UN couple and their family like? These were the questions the event on Thursday, the 31st of May covered. Finn Reske-Nielsen, along with his wife, Bodil Kundsen shared the stage and their interesting life story with their audience. With over 35 years of experience in working for the UN in Switzerland, Zambia, Namibia, Timor-Lest, Paupa New Guinea, the United States, and Laos, Finn Reske-Nielsen lead an eventful career that left an impactful mark on the countries he worked in, as did his wife, Bodil Kundsen. 


             The first posting the couple had was in Zambia. With a post-graduate degree in Political Science and Public Administration from Aarhus University, Nielsen recalled, “I walked into the office in Geneva and thought I’d be getting a post somewhere like Malaysia due to the refugee crisis that was going on there at the time, however, they told me I was going to Zambia. I was too embarrassed to ask where Zambia was at the time, however, I said yes”. Finn and Bodil spent 2 years in Zambia where Finn worked at the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and then moved to Switzerland where he also held a position at the UNHCR. Bodil explained that it was quite the shock to move back to a first world country such as Switzerland where they had ‘everything the average person needed and more’, whereas in Zambia it was difficult to come across daily household products such as soap.  


           Bodil further elaborated that once they were done with their first two posts, they didn’t want to go back to Denmark as she said, “we hadn’t had enough and didn’t want to go back home just yet”. They carried on to spend over two decades more abroad, away from home. This didn’t come without its challenges as Bodil explained that they had to do everything themselves when they moved, from finding accommodation to moving all their furniture. In Timor-Lest this was a particularly challenging task as at the time the country had just gone through a significant amount of political upheaval after independence. “Trying to find accommodation in a country that had basically just burnt down was a challenge, however we managed”, stated Bodil, “and we found a nice small house. It had some windows missing, its roof was also ruined and there were a lot of mosquitos. I remember we had a table with wheels that we could roll from one end of the house to the other with just one push! Over time we got to know some people and managed to buy back the original parts the house was missing and fixed it up”, which got a chuckle of disbelief out of the audience.  


           While Finn was working in the assessment mission in Timor-Leste where he assisted in planning the governance sector of the new mission, Bodil found work in teaching as she has a background in education. Bodil found work in nearly all the countries they lived in, and even became the headmaster of an international school in Namibia that she founded, however with the nature of Finn’s career, he was transferred frequently. “Every time I handed in my CV to a new school, they asked me why I had quit my previous job, and every time I had the same answer: my husband was transferred!”, Bodil said laughing.

         Despite being uprooted time and again, Bodil found work wherever she went, and was even the prime minister of education for two days in Laos. Bodil and Finn viewed moving around as a way of expanding one’s mind as Bodil said, “we didn’t want to live in a small box in Denmark, we wanted to go out and explore the world. I encourage everyone to go out and explore the world. Even if your job doesn’t have anything to do with your thesis, take the opportunity, you will learn and develop so much more”.


        Bodil pointed out that “many people view the diplomatic life as some luxurious experience where one would live in a mansion, have servants and drink gin and tonics all afternoon, but the reality is that you have to work really hard every day. It is not easy, you are thousands of kilometres away from home and you have to start from scratch every time you go somewhere”. Finn also shared that the devastation in some countries is quite harsh, “we have seen the natural and man-made disasters affect the most vulnerable first hand, and the most vulnerable are the poorest people every time”. Working in Namibia was particularly harsh as at the time it was under Apartheid rule where white people earned $15,000 on average per year, and black people earned $63 per year. The schooling systems were also segregated, and Finn and Bodil had children that had to go to catholic school where they were hit when they misbehaved.


        There were many challenges through their journey, but both Finn and Bodil had highly impactful and inspiring careers. They truly broadened their minds and enriched their lives, and the lives of others, through their work. The most important thing to take away from this event was that you shouldn’t be afraid to go work abroad as it is a highly rewarding experience, however challenging it might be.  

Written by: Michaela Higgins Sørensen

Edited by: Dominika Floriánová

Commentary: Pride of Cultures Aalborg

Commentary: Pride of Cultures Aalborg

May 12th, 2018 marked an exceptional day in Aalborg through celebrating diverse cultures. UNYA Aalborg proudly participated in representing the organisation by setting up a South East Asian inspired stand that stood among others from Romania and Hungary, to mention a few. There was a fantastic atmosphere all around Gammel Torv, and the party undeniably started when a group of participants cheered during the parade around the venue, waiving multiple flags and spreading exuberant joy through their singing. “Unity in Diversity” was an essential aspect of the event, which was more than visible throughout the afternoon.

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Participants Dancing after the Bulgarian Performance 

The many participants enjoyed the singing, dancing, social atmosphere and the diverse selection of food the day encompassed. “This is a special moment to unite and to say thanks to this beautiful country called Denmark”, said Ronald Tomas Gaterol Mora from Venezuela, who spread marvellous positive energy throughout the day. “I really appreciate how this day has served as a platform to celebrate our cultural diversity right here in Aalborg”, Ronald continued.

There were several stands from all over Europe with a variety of delicious, well-presented foods. The European Youth North Denmark had a stand as well, and it was a great pleasure to get the chance to see the diverse foods from different countries. If I were to pick my favourite stand, it would be the Romanian representatives as their decorative ideas and efforts were so unique and well presented, they were really spot on! I also appreciated the traditional Bulgarian attire, and especially their traditional dance, which was a special experience to watch and even join in on.

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The Decorative Romanian Table

Another intriguing and thought-provoking part of the Pride of Cultures day was the Hungarian table with vegan food. We asked the representatives in charge of the stand if they wanted to talk to us a little bit about why they created a vegan stand, and they told us, “we don’t have to eat animal products to be happy, to be healthy or to live”, said Horvath Adam, who is an inspiration to any aspiring vegans out there, including myself. Horvath told us that veganism could be a worldwide thing no matter what culture; in essence, all cultures can find a vegan alternative when they are cooking their traditional food, even in a heavy meat and dairy-based cuisine like that of Hungary’s.   

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A Bulgarian Dancer in Traditional Clothing

At the end of the event, Simona Trifonova, the president of the European Youth North Denmark, shared one of the most important messages of the event with us over a short interview. Simona brilliantly said, “we are all fighting for a more united and stronger solidarity base and a more peaceful Europe”. She also expressed with great appreciation to the EU, “we are trying to make people realise how much the European Union has given us, and in reality, there are a lot of people who don’t always realise this. I am from Bulgaria and I have the chance to study here and meet all kinds of people in Denmark, which is an amazing opportunity”. I would say Simona’s thoughts and answers promote the 11th of the UN’s Sustainable Developments Goals, which is about creating sustainable communities and cities, as unity among humans in a city or region would unquestionably be an important starting point for the Goal 11.

The Pride of Cultures was a day of festivity that brought the many cultures of Aalborg

A Participant Enjoying Food from the South East Asian Stand

together to celebrate one another. The event achieved its goal in uniting cultures as people from all over Europe, and outside of Europe, were dancing Bulgarian traditional dances, eating food from Romania, South East Asia, Hungary and Bulgaria, and sharing knowledge. Most importantly, they were engaging with one another, learning about each other’s cultures and sharing joy and harmony throughout the event to create a more peaceful Aalborg, and Europe.

By: Hodan Farah

Edited by: Michaela Higgins Sørensen



Human Rights in the Action Against ISIS, with Associate Professor Ben Dorfman


In the last event UNYA Aalborg organized on April 5th, together with SILBA, Ben Dorfman provided a discussion on human right issues in the fight against the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh).

Ben Dorfman is an associate professor at the Institute for Culture and Global Studies at Aalborg University. He holds a Ph.D. in History and is actively researching in the fields of human rights and history. Recently, he published 13 Acts of Academic Journalism and Historical Commentary on Human Rights: Opinions, Interventions and the Torsions of Politics, a book presenting human rights concepts through concrete analyses of international conflicts, social justice issues, and historical scenes in the form of successive essays aimed at students, academics, and the broader public.

As we were reminded by Prof. Dorfman, ‘human rights’ and associated concepts all boil down to a simple thing: the way humans treat — and are treated by — one another. Discussions around such issues ultimately address the case of human beings, their lives, feelings, and suffering.

A global frame for human rights may be found in the terms of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, a more principles-based text) and documents like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, having more legal value). Other frameworks, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, are also important.

Looking at the content of these texts, violations of the following rights have been made in the conflict concerning Syria and Islamic State: right to democracy (UDHR, articles 12, 18—21), the right to life (UDHR article 3 and 6), the right to cultural self-determination (ICCPR article 1), and the right to avoid torture, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment (UDHR article 5, ICCPR article 7).

The talk started by a historical perspective and clarification of the context, starting from the 9/11 events in 2001, military operation of US and allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, especially, the further occupation of Iraq. The historical perspective was important to Prof. Dorfman, who clearly stated that, “as citizens, we have a duty to learning where the issues we face come from”. However, he insisted that historical understanding neither grants legitimacy to the violation of human rights, nor supports claims of cultural self-determination as a basis for violence. Instead, the historical perspective helps underline the humanity of the situations in which we find ourselves, and provides grounds for reflection on how to solve international tension.

The growth of IS in Iraq and Syria was facilitated by a lack of coordination in the opposition to Bashar Al-Assad, and problems in the administration of post-War Iraq and the civil conflicts therein. Prof. Dorfman also pointed out that IS has been very effective at marketing itself as being ‘the real fighters’ against ‘the West’.  These messages have massively, together with Western stereotypes, have helped extremist groups win political points, especially among young people.

The US and allies, as well as Russia (where it was reminded that the vast majority of bombing campaigns in Syria have not targeted IS) challenge the right to life with those bombing campaigns, perhaps especially of civilians. Cases of disrespectful treatments of prisoners by US soldiers (e.g. the case of the Abu Ghraib prison, of which pictures were extensively distributed) were also mentioned as breaches of the right to avoid degrading treatment and punishment and having provided IS with further material for propaganda.

Meanwhile, IS has responded with cruel and inhuman actions themselves, such as beheadings of journalists and aid workers, where the video footage has been shared online. IS has also pushed for terror attacks especially in the West, employing the ideologies of “individual jihad” and “low-cost terrorism” which date to Al-Qaeda.

Allied airstrikes have by far killed more people than IS terrorism. However, in the West and perhaps globally, terrorism and the related digital footage have a greater psychological impact. Prof. Dorfman illustrated this with some deeply shocking video footage from IS, together with an important reminder that “bombings can violate human rights and challenge the right to life as much as beheadings and terrorism – they just don’t work out visually in the same way”. In each case, human beings are directly affected by these actions.

The talk was followed by a series of questions and answers from the audience. The discussion revolved around the issues of validity of use of force out of human rights concerns, asymmetrical warfare (like distant drone attacks and airstrikes), and potential approaches to solve the conflict.

When it comes to the validity of the usage of force, the audience was encouraged to remember that “killing in any context is theoretically a human right violation”. In the context of the fight against IS, it seems clear that both intervention and non-intervention have led to undesirable outcomes. Honesty about the risk of rights violations with intervention and the human costs that will result from decisions to intervene appears essential – that so the terms of intervention are understood; and that also because intervention is clearly necessary sometimes to prevent further rights violations. As reminded by Prof. Dorfman, a framework for the derogation of rights in times of emergency exists (e.g. ICCPR article 4), although invocation of derogation requires serious reflection. As Dorfman argued, derogating rights the situation should not lead us too far from the spirit of rights principles: “I think it’s important to put idealism front and centre, and assure honesty in our actions so as to minimalize senses of marginalization and the idea that rights standards are to be used as a weapon against anyone”.

Regarding marginalisation, Prof. Dorfman suggest that a way forward could have consisted of, and perhaps should still consist of, bringing groups like IS to the negotiating table so as to hear their claims. This could allow us to distinguishing between legitimate claims, and purely destructive anger and raw grabs for power. Dialogue would ­– of course ­– be a difficult step, as negotiating with those we consider evil can be hard. However, it could also lead to defusing the power of the organisation, or changing its character.

The discussion session was also an occasion for Prof. Dorfman to remind the audience of a number of essential points when it comes to human rights. Firstly, that security is an important enabler of human rights, but is not their end goal (which is allowing humans to live fulfilling lives).  Secondly, creating a hierarchy on human rights is undesirable, as all should be considered important – that though the right to life does seem fundamental. Thirdly, the issues at stake are complex and it is essential to look behind appearances and simplistic messages. Lastly, an essential dimension of promoting human rights is dialogue, which may require inviting partners we dislike or oppose to the table so that they have a chance to express themselves – that so we can give a fair hearing to the human community with which we have to deal, have attempt to tamp down the most inflammatory political claims or, at least, claim we have listened before we begin to bomb.

[Thanks to Dominika Floriánová and Michaela Higgins Sørensen for the kind feedback on the first version of the article, as well as Prof. Ben Dorfman for the talk and contribution.]