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The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) held its annual General Assembly in Manila, Philippines, yesterday. The General Assembly (GA) is the democratic core of the worldwide Humanist umbrella organisation, a formal meeting that is held each year alongside the conference of an IHEU Member Organization. This year the host organisation is the Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society (PATAS).

The delegates were welcomed by Yek Lai Fatt, founder and chair of PATAS. (Full minutes of the meeting will be available for Member Organizations in due course).

Sonja Eggerickx, president of IHEU

Sonja Eggerickx, outgoing president of IHEU

The 2015 GA was notable as the final meeting under the presidency of Sonja Eggerickx, stepping down after four terms on the Executive Committee, the latter three of which she served as president. She was the first woman president of IHEU (out of four presidents under the current role structure; the title of president was introduced in 1996.)

Sonja’s professional and humanist careers are a history of breaking new ground. Professionally she began as a teacher in non-confessional (secular) ethics. At that time she was among the founders of a local humanist youth group (Humanistische Jongeren) and later became the first female president of the national Humanistische Jongeren organisation. Sonja was active in Humanistisch Verbond, both on the regional as well as on the national level. She sat on the board of the very successful humanist house in Gent (Geuzenhuis). In her professional life, she became a school inspector and represented the teachers’ organisation at UVV-level, becoming the first female president there in 2006. When she professionally retired in 2012 she was asked to become the ombudswoman in non-confessional ethics education. She remains a celebrant on a voluntary basis for humanist marriages and funerals.

As outgoing president, Sonja Eggerickx made the following address to the 2015 General Assembly, discussing the end of her presidency, and an upcoming new role at IHEU…

Dear friends,

The problem I have with this address, is that I would really like to have a completely different text. One in which I would be able to sum up all the good and very positive things that happened last year, from Oxford to Manila, from 2014 to 2015. Alas, on top of all the misery caused by humans to fellow humans, there was the earthquake in Nepal, the earth is still trembling, hurricanes coming over the devastated country, the rainy season started. Thus I think that I can ask you to support our Nepalese member organization, SOCH Nepal, they are doing tremendous work.

Holding our General Assembly in Manila reflects that IHEU is growing,  and not only in the northern part of the globe. The Executive Committee made south-east Asia a priority region, and we hope  that this GA helps support our friends, our Members here. In the Philippines the very existence of non-religious people is overlooked or misunderstood by many, and so it is our hope that even by being here we show that  being “atheist” or “agnostic” is not strange or impossible, and that we are humanists: that our intentions are not malicious or bad, indeed that we are “good without god” as our Member the American Humanist Association so proudly puts it. They are damned right.

In much of western and northern Europe for example that battle is for the most part won:  only very dogmatic people would say that we cannot be “good without God”. Here in the Philippines, however, that battle is very much ongoing. The challenge here is still to demonstrate the very existence and validity of secular thought and the humanist worldview.

Of course, being here in Manila poses a challenge for many of our Member Organisations, for whom this part of the world is so far away that they didn’t make it to come here and participate in person, but their involvement and solidarity is proved by  their giving proxies for voting, meaning “we are not there but at the same time, we are…”

In the Activities report in your papers, you were able to read about our achievements in the last year. It is always good to realize that we did a lot, with limited resources. But of course a major challenge to humanism around the world is that, while humanist and secular ideas are growing everywhere, often being heard for the first time thanks to the internet and globalization, nevertheless in many parts of the world it is not even possible or legal  to register a humanist organisation.  More and more individuals join together finding each other on social media, or publishing blogs, and it is clear by now that they are successful in raising awareness and raising the profile of secular views.  But this very success brings with it its own risk; writers are taken into prison for writing, or they face torture or exile, and as we have seen so tragically in Bangladesh this year, there are extremists who would maim and murder in the name of responding to a supposed “insult” to their religion. Sometimes it is as if some governments and some extremists want to prove just how much our Freedom of Thought report is right.

We cannot help every threatened individual directly, IHEU is not that powerful, but for example we have worked directly with some of the Bangladeshi bloggers who are living in fear of further machete attacks. IHEU and some of our Members are also able to raise awareness and put our –mostly democratic- governments under pressure, so that they at least have to react in international bodies like the UN Human Rights Council, and we continue to look for allies in those bodies in order to be stronger to defend freedom of expression and other Human Rights.

It is an honor to have our GA in Manila and join it to the PATAS conference on the theme “Breaking Through With Reason and Humanism.” Indeed reason and humanism go hand in hand in order to counter irrationality, and to contest ideas and beliefs which are totally unscientific, or untrue, and especially those practices and policies which are dangerous or which violate human rights.

We have seen too many beliefs manifested in the past year that punish love and cherish hate. That is not the world that we want to live in. It is IHEU’s task to support even smaller groups in countries where rationalism can be dangerous, because those small groups, online forums, blogger collectives, tentative local meetings in person,  these are like new wells drawing up fresh water. They spread the richness of humanism, the advantages of secularism, the respect for universal human rights.

Brave new groups will grow, and their course is not always obvious in cultures  where dogma reigns over reason. The following quote, attributed to Margaret Mead is apt: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. Although the authorship of that quote is disputed, the statement rings true and is very pertinent to the way that humanist ideas, are spreading around the world.

With this in mind we are working on multilingual functionality of our website, there are many new translators in our informal network, and it is an important indicator of how we are working that the latest Freedom of Thought report was worked on by a truly international team of volunteers, coordinated from the office but based in many countries, speaking many languages, and exhibiting a huge diversity of experience.

The IHEU is professionalising, and this is one of the reasons we have some success and are picked up by the big news agencies. So this is the occasion for me to thank Colin Divens for all the administrative work he is doing, the contacts he has with our MO’s, and –maybe less pleasant for you- chasing them to pay their dues. Thank you also to Bob Churchill, our Communications Director, for his never-ending work, managing internal, external, and online communications; he is a point of contact for people in distress, frequently representing IHEU as a spokesperson in media and conferences, as well as successfully coordinating whole new areas of our work.

Thanks also to Elizabeth O’Casey, our head of delegation to the Human Rights Council; we are extremely grateful to her for this busy and vital work in difficult circumstances in Geneva, pushing the humanist policy agenda and holding human rights violators to account.

Finally a big thank you to all our volunteers, delegation members in the UN in Geneva and New York, the Council of Europe, and elsewhere. You are all so precious to IHEU and thus for a better, a more humane, a more humanist society.

As tradition requires, I will repeat the usual but important call for support, we need money for more staff and more resources. I would like to gratefully acknowledge that we have had an offer of enhanced support from several of our Member Organisations recently, that we are now discussing how best to use this good will for the international Humanist movement.  And with all this in mind, I am happy also to report that plans are now in place to recruit – later this year – a new staff post of Executive Director. This role will help to continue the proffesionalisation of IHEU, expanding our capacity and normalizing our staff structure. We hope to be advertising the role within the next few months, and of course we will notify all Member Organisations, asking you to draw the new position to the attention of suitable candidates. So please do get involved. This I think is an exciting opportunity and an important development.

This is my last General Assembly as president. I have been on the EC since 2002, so in my own name, thanks to each and every one of you, including those who couldn’t make this particular GA, for your work, your friendship, your empathy. It has been great, and at the next GA I will be sitting over there with you. IHEU has a tremendous place in my heart.

Thank you,

Sonja Eggerickx

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