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Ambassador Lecture Series – Roadmap to Peace?

It is an incredible feat to have the highest representatives of Israel and Palestine in the Netherlands in one table openly talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The event is a testament to the hard work of the Ambassador Lecture Series team, the United Nations Student Association Maastricht (UNSA) and the European Law Students’ Association (ELSA) Maastricht. Not surprising given the contentious topic, it took more than a year of planning and organisation for the event to materialise. Our two student reporters, Brian Megens and Karissa Atienza, attended the lecture for this blog.
Text: Karissa Atienza
Text & Photography: Brian Megens

© Brian Megens

Ambassador Lecture Series, Israel-Palestine Dialogue, H.E. Mr Haim Divon

H.E. Mr Haim Divon represented the State of Israel. A native of Jerusalem, he has served as the Ambassador to the Netherlands since August 2011. Ambassador Divon’s diplomatic career has spanned over three decades, having received postings in India, Sri Lanka, Canada, and Ethiopia.Meanwhile, the State of Palestine was represented by H.E. Dr Nabil Abuznaid, the Head of the Palestinian Delegation to the Netherlands since September 2009. A Hebron local, Dr Abuznaid’s public service dates back to his tenure as a policy advisor to the late Chairman and President of the PLO, Yasser Arafat during the Oslo Peace Negotiations. 

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Ambassador Lecture Series, Israel-Palestine Dialogue, H.E. Dr. Nabil Abuznaid

The event commenced with introductory remarks from each participant. Ambassador Abuznaid wasted little time for pleasantries and went straight to business, listing a number of instances of Israeli aggression including the 2014 attacks on Gaza and the burgeoning Israeli government-supported settlements in Palestine territories. To this, Ambassador Divon replied with humour, stating that “we don’t get up in the morning and say, what can we do today in order to annoy the rest of world?” He states that the settlements are not the problem. The core of the issue, he says, is the denial of the presence of a Jewish state while the main obstacle to peace is the refusal to sit down and talk. Ambassador Abuznaid recognises and respects the right of Israel to exist and live in secure borders. However, he is against the Israel policy of occupation. According to him, under this policy, all Palestinians have to go through humiliating checkpoints every day, essentially restricting their freedom and dignity.

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Ambassador Lecture Series, Israel-Palestine Dialogue

The two student moderators, Jakob Henninger and Adrienne McManus, divert the conversation towards the role of young people in the conflict. Ambassador Abuznaid states that Israeli children are forced to go to war, carrying weapons at 18 years old and patrolling checkpoints. “Why not enjoy the beaches?” he says. He continues that “security comes with peace with your neighbours, all these weapons would not bring security.” Ambassador Divon retorts that if Israel does not send these young men and women to the army, there would be no Israel. The level of threat in this “crazy neighbourhood” requires them to have a strong army, “otherwise, you are out of the game.”

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Ambassador Lecture Series, Israel-Palestine Dialogue

The conversation turns toward the concept of a two-state solution. Ambassador Divon states that he is very hopeful, but the key is to sit down and talk. However, Ambassador Abuznaid believes that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to keep the status quo. He believes that Prime Minister Netanyahu will never stop building settlements nor accept a Palestinian state.

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Ambassador Lecture Series, Israel-Palestine Dialogue

At this point, the floor is opened to questions from the student audience. Maastricht Students reporter Brian Megens who was three weeks in the West Bank for a personal photography project last January, asks to Ambassador Divon whether it is reasonable to expect people who live right next a wall, which is illegal under international law, to set the first steps for peace. Ambassador Divon replies that back when there was no checkpoints and no wall, suicide bombings had killed innocent people. He states that Israel was left with no choice, but he concedes that the wall is “ugly and inconvenient.”

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Ambassador Lecture Series, Israel-Palestine Dialogue

This is not the first time both ambassadors have sat at the same table in Maastricht. In 2012, Studium Generale organised an event on the Israel-Palestine relationship in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, featuring both ambassadors at the same lecture hall. Have their opinions on the matter changed since then? We do not know. However, one thing is for sure. As a salesman would never say his products are bad, it was in the line of expectations that last week’s Ambassador Lecture Series’ Roadmap to Peace for Israel and Palestine with Ambassadors Divon and Abuznaid provided little concrete solution nor glimmer of hope that the Israeli-Palestine conflict would be resolved anytime soon. The organisation of the Ambassador Lecture Series deserves respect for setting up an event dealing with such high politics. However, taking a more realistic approach for future events might be advisable. Making the two representatives of Israel and Palestine sit together was itself the biggest achievement of the evening as a real dialogue between the two never took off.

© Brian Megens

Amnesty International Maastricht Students (AIMS)

This week we met with two of the Board members, Méabh Branagan and Magali Mattar, of Amnesty International Maastricht Students (AIMS). Together with 4 other Board members, Méabh and Magali lead a group of motivated Maastricht students with a passion for human rights. Méabh, a UCM student, is the PR Person while Magali, an ELS student, is in charge of Fundraising and Promotion. Read on to know more about this organisation and some of the students behind this movement. 

Interview and photography: Brian Megens
Interview and text: Karissa Atienza

How did Amnesty International Maastricht Students start?
We were founded in 1998 because a number of students were disappointed that only a few students joined the Torch Walk for the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In response and to raise awareness of human rights among the student population Maastricht, they decided to start AIMS.

Tell us more about the structure of AIMS…
We have 6 board members and 3 subgroups which are led by 2 board members each. The subgroups meet weekly, and these are where most of the activities are delegated. We have the Actions subgroup which is led by the PR and the President, then we also have the Lectures and Debates subgroup which is headed by the Secretary and Treasurer, and lastly, we have the Promotion and Fundraising subgroup which is what the Fundraising and External Contact Person are in charge of.

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Magali Mattar

What does AIMS do?
We have a collection week every year in March, so we fundraise in the streets, which we send to the main Amnesty office in the Netherlands. This year, it’s from 13 to 19 March. We have a yearly budget of 10 percent of what we collect. We’re not funded by the University nor do we get administrative months for our work so we’re very independent and without any political affiliation. Everything that we collect from fundraising goes to the main office.

Do you collaborate with any other organisation?
We’ve had collaborations with the HeforShe UN, Justice for Palestine, and the Feminist society (UCM). We also collaborate with the Amnesty Maastricht group during the collection week in March and during the Human Rights week, we have letter-writing marathons. The Amnesty Maastricht group is separate from the Amnesty student organisation. We also collaborate with other student groups for a number of our activities like Movie That Matters. It’s where we screen movies that tackle human rights issues on the first Monday of the month. It’s the only thing that is actually coordinated within the other groups. It’s the same show throughout the Netherlands. There’s a National Student Day where Amnesty student groups get together in one of the cities and it’s a chance to meet up with the other groups and learn about their local activities.

Méabh Branagan

Méabh Branagan

Why did you join Amnesty Maastricht?
Magalie: During high school, the teachers always proposed to us that we should join Amnesty. They themselves were in an Amnesty group and if they need help, they would ask us. The activities were really supervised then. In here, it’s much more independent, so if you’re interested in a particular topic you can organise activities around that theme.
Méabh: I first came across Amnesty during high school. A teacher told us about it. I became one of their members, so we did things like signing petitions. I like that they focus on a full range of human rights rather than specific issues. When I came to Maastricht, I knew I wanted to continue.

Why should Maastricht students join Amnesty?
It’s a great opportunity to learn about human rights and be aware of the different issues in the world, and also to create awareness of these issues.

Show your support and join the Amnesty International Maastricht Students (AIMS) for an exciting Kick-Off Party for their annual Collection Week (13-19 March) this Sunday 13th March (13:00-19:00) at the Markt for an afternoon of dance, music, quiz games and other fun activities!

© Brian Megens

The New Face of Maastricht, Annemarie Penn-te Strake Mayor of the City

Last July, Annemarie Penn-te Strake came into office as Mayor of Maastricht and since then has been the face of the city. She is the successor of the controversial former mayor, Onno Hoes. One can say that this was a remarkable decision given her apolitical background and unaffiliation to any political party. Just like the impressive city hall, Annemarie Penn-te Strake is an exceptional woman. A former judge and public defender, she is the first woman to become Mayor of the city. Last Wednesday, we had the pleasure of asking her a number of questions at the majestic city hall. She is an imposing woman who exudes warmth and experience. Read more about her and her experience as the Mayor of Maastricht.

Interview & Text: Karissa Atienza
Interview & Photography: Brian Megens

© Brian Megens

Annemarie Penn-te Strake

Who is Annemarie?
I’m an optimist. I have a positive outlook in life and I try to experience life in a light manner. When I think of something, find something, or do something, it has to be well thought over. In my work, I try to do things as best as I can – although I am not a person that strives for perfection – without taking my feelings into account. I do what my conscience says and what my inner self considers the best thing to do.

© Brian Megens

The office of the Mayor

How has your legal background helped you as a mayor?
I went to law school in what was then Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen, where I studied Dutch law. At the same time, my friend and I opened a legal clinic where student-lawyers gave judicial help and advice for free. After university, I travelled to Africa for 2 years to do development work, so no law. When I came back, I thought to myself, what would I like I do with my study? The only thing I wanted to do was to become a judge because then you work in law in its purest form. There is no goal of making money or being part of a certain party. You’re working in how law should be put and used in society. As a judge, you also have an independent role and I liked that so I did my 6 years training to become a judge. I was in the judicial system for 35 years. I was a judge for 20 years while the years after that, I worked in the public prosecution.

What I learned as a judge is to analyse problems in a hygienic way, make a judgement based on it, and communicate it in a polite manner. As a public prosecutor, you have to make decisions at crises situations, so there I learned to make decisions in a quick, fast manner. Working in public prosecution brings you closer to society while as a judge you are quite independent and separated. It’s just you, your files, and your judgement. Altogether, I feel that my experience has been a great gift in helping me do this amazing job.

© Brian Megens


How has your experience been so far?

This job has been even better than I expected! The work has been exactly what I had hoped it would be and even more. It’s very close to society, and the people and the parties in our town. Everyone is very important in the welfare and well being of our city. It’s a great privilege to be able to work here. Our civil servants work very well and I’m very happy with how I am supported by all the men and women I work with.
Together with my colleagues and other mayors, we work on several very interesting themes. What can we do, not only for the city of Maastricht, but also for the whole region and the province? What is also very interesting is of course, the meaning of the university to our town. We are looking at the different ways to connect this beautiful city to the university and the students. It’s going better and better from what I see, but of course, there is still a lot to do.

© Brian Megens

If you look at the map of Maastricht and the south of Limburg, you realise Maastricht is in the heart of the Euregio. Everyday we think about how can we make a connection with Belgium and Germany on several aspects like security, labour market, environment and culture. It’s very important for this town to realise the meaning of our environment. In one way, it has a lot of potential, but also the borders are a problem because of the different legal systems. With the university, we are trying to look at solutions to this legal border.

What is your personal experience with Maastricht University?
As a mayor, I realised how important the existence of our university is to the town. I live in the city centre, and having all these young people with all their different languages walking around makes Maastricht special. Imagine Maastricht with only old buildings and the elder population. The university makes it necessary, and these students make it necessary, for us as a city to look forward to the future and to organise things that are attractive to young people, not only for the university students but also young locals.

© Brian Megens

How do you see the future of the university?
If I can dream about the university, I hope that it becomes even bigger. I hope that in The Hague, they recognise that this university was born to be one of the best international university in Europe.

What do you like about Maastricht?
It’s the feeling. I really love the city and I’ve lived here now for almost 25 years. What Maastricht has is a combination of old history, which gives you a certain feeling of wellness. Life is good here. When I say this, I realise that this is not the case for everybody; of course there are people who are poor, don’t have work or are lonely here. But for me, Maastricht has this feeling of a warm blanket around you.

© Brian Megens

Annemarie Penn-te Strake

 

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

When Germany opened its borders for 1 million refugees, Australia allowed 12 000 asylum seekers into the country. This is just a fraction compared to Merkel´s quota, especially when we look at the size and population. With 22 million inhabitants and a land of the size of North America, you would think it is more plausible that Australia would take in a few more. This, however, is not the case, at all. Australian immigration policies are complicated and make it very difficult for immigrants to enter or settle down. Yes, it is one of the most multicultural societies in the world, but that doesn’t mean it is very welcoming to strangers.

With 4 coastlines to protect, one of the most discussed issues for Australia is to hold back the illegal immigrants, coming from Indonesia by boat. These people are so desperate, they get on a tiny dingy and cross the Indian Ocean in the hope to find some luck in this sunburned country. Unfortunately, most of them get the status “unlaw-ful non-citizens and end up in a detention center where they are waiting to be deported. They will not be granted a visa and deportation can take up to a few years. The detention centers are known for being harsh and problematic. Over the last few years, riots have been taken place and asylum seekers have sewed their lips together as a form of protest. It is the uncertainty and desperation for these people what drives to anger.

The discussion about boat immigrants, as they are often called, played up after the Paris attacks. The question was if Australia was safe, and what would happen if they would allow more immigrants into the country. The majority of the population was afraid of a terrorist attack. People explained that it is “very likely” that something will happen because “you don’t know where the enemy is.” Paris was taken by the media and politicians as an example to show what could happen if a country takes up too many immigrants. It confirmed what the majority feared if Australia would take more refugees.

In the past, Australia hasn’t always been so neglecting to foreigners. In the 1970s, there was a completely different approach to refugees. The immigration minister back in 1976, Michael MacKellar said the following after the first boat of Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived in Darwin:
“As a matter for humanity, and in accord with international obligation freely entered into, Australia has accepted a responsibility to contribute towards the solution of world refugee problems.”
Promises were made to use the “full resources” for current and future refugees, because of “moral rightness”.

What has changed over the years and how did it changed? Media nowadays, uses phrases such as “potential terrorists”, “job-takers” and “illegals”. The promised “full resources” turned out to be detention centers which I have briefly mentioned above and the Australian Border Force, which aims to protect and control the movement of people and goods across the border. Why is Australia nowadays so neglecting towards asylum seekers?

It is a tricky question and a complex answer.

One thing is clear: Australia has changed as has their way of thinking and talking about aslyumn seekers. Immigrants are not regarded as victims of war or traumatic events, rather they are considered as persons who come here to work. By changing the way of discussion in public, it is changing the view on the subject. Another example is the phrase “how to stop the boats” instead of helping people. The detention centers are build out of vision of the Australian citizen. This creates the thought: “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Recently I have talked to a local named Jack about this topic. He stated that humanity should be ashamed of itself of what is happening in the world with the massive stream of immigrants. His argument was explained in a long speech and contradicted himself by concluding that Australia does not want more immigrants. “We are accepting more than enough refugees already. We don’t want them here, they can go somewhere else.” So if the world should be ashamed of himself, should Australia be too? Would it not be a better idea to help those people instead of putting them away? Jack sighted and looked annoyed. “Look, we probably could do more but we don’t want to. We have our own problems to take care of.Australia could do more, yes that is true, but does it want to? As far as I can see, no. Perhaps some issues are, indeed, too far out of sight to be kept in mind.