Skip to content



19 September 2023 | John Jay College of Criminal Justice | New York

On the occasion of the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Journalists and Writers Foundation, in partnership with its 52 Global Partners from 27 countries organized a Roundtable Discussion on 19 September 2023 at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. on the sidelines of the 8th SDGs Conference 2023, this event had two thematic sessions: (Round 1) The Role of Human Rights Defenders for Sustainable Peace and Development and (Round 2) Civil Society Contributions in achieving the SDGs: Best Practices.

Hosting 22 speakers from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Greece, India, Iraq/Kurdistan, New Zealand, Romania, South Africa, and  the United States, the Roundtable Discussion created a platform for the international delegations of civil society members, journalists, academics, experts, and human rights advocates participating at the SDGs Conference 2023 to share their expert opinions, exchange ideas on various development challenges and offer inclusive solutions to the contemporary challenges on social, economic, and development issues.

ROUND 1: The Role of Human Rights Defenders for Sustainable Peace and Development

UNGA78 marked a critical turning point in the implementation timeline of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With this current rate of progress and rising geopolitical peace and security complexities, the Global Goals are a promise in peril. According to the recently released Sustainable Development Goals 2023 Report, only 15% of the Goals are on track while 48% are severely behind the target lines and 37% even regressed. At the midpoint of the 2030 deadline, delivering on commitments requires civil society organizations to take the lead on local bases with their transforming best practices and human rights advocates to create global solidarity to promote the fundamental rights of all individuals who have been subject to various forms of atrocities as a result of the current increase of autocracies and gender-apartheid regimes.

Round 1 on human rights defenders for sustainable peace and development was moderated by Prof. Silvia Osman (Romania), Associate Professor at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration. Prof. Osman started this critical discussion by delving into the pivotal role of human rights defenders in nurturing sustainable peace as dedicated individuals championing justice, equality, and fundamental rights, laying the foundation for a more just and harmonious world.

The first speaker of Round 1, Persefoni Koumoutsi (Greece), Literary Translator, underlined that human rights advocates have been an inspiration for the fight for justice and equity. Humanity owes and must cherish the dedicated work of human rights defenders, said Koumoutsi. The universal cause of standing tall for the victims of grave atrocities and injustices is critical. She made several references to the legendary work of Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Desmond Tutu. Koumoutsi said that there are also those individuals who fought for rights through their thoughts, pen with their intellectual capacities, and combated slavery, political injustices, racial segregation, and many more that penetrated human history. She underlined that the contributions of authors to current and future generations must also be commemorated.

Tania Bozaninou (Greece), a journalist at To Vima Newspaper with 25 years of experience, addressed the shrinking space for freedom of speech and human rights, media ownership concentration, and the dual nature of social media. She underlined the impact of advocacy work for equality in opportunities and the responsible use of technology and social media. In her speech, Bozaninou expressed her concern about the deteriorating state of freedom of speech and human rights. She emphasized the negative impact of media ownership concentration in the hands of conglomerates and wealthy individuals who prioritize power and self-interest over promoting these values. Bozaninou also discussed the dual nature of social media, which allows both self-organization and the potential for those opposed to human rights to manipulate information. She advocated for the promotion of equality in opportunities such as education and justice and lamented the persistence of global inequalities despite the potential for technology to address them. While acknowledging the possibility for technology to serve a higher purpose, Bozaninou stressed the importance of using it to foster genuine human connections and urged collective efforts, especially among journalists, to leverage technology and social media to overcoming obstacles and create better opportunities.

Following up on Tania Bozaninou’s interventions, Prof. Silvia Osman emphasized the importance of partnership and collaboration in promoting human values. Prof. Osman acknowledged that true equality might not be achievable due to our inherent differences, such as age, physical attributes, and gender-specific strengths. However, she argued that despite these differences, the key lies in working together as partners in all aspects of life rather than isolating ourselves or following divisive trends. Prof. Osman believed that partnerships are essential to ending conflicts, fostering human thriving, and achieving progress in various domains, including human rights and sustainable peace. She envisioned a society where everyone collaborates rather than competes, leading to a harmonious coexistence without the push and pull of opposing forces. This perspective advocates for the transformative power of partnership and unity in advancing human values and societal well-being.

Guilherme Stolle Paixão e Casarões (Brazil), an author and Professor at the University of São Paulo, discussed Brazil’s unique situation of not experiencing war for 150 years, emphasizing challenges like poverty and increasing division. Prof. Casarões highlighted the danger of exploiting differences to divide societies and the importance of empathy and unity. Stressing Brazil`s rich diversity, he also talked about its significant challenges, including poverty and increasing division over time. Prof. Casarões, who has observed the rise of political polarization and extremism during his 17-year tenure as a professor, discussed how such movements often tap into sentiments that dehumanize others and erode empathy. He emphasized the threat of exploiting differences to divide societies, stressing that building unity is rarely the actual goal. Prof. Casarões acknowledged that his research had led him to move beyond academia and become more involved in civil society, activism, and policymaking as these avenues provide tools to effect real change and foster empathy. His message underscored the importance of action and empathy-building beyond analysis in addressing societal challenges.

Patricia Garcia (Australia), the Partnership Development Manager of the Institute for Economics and Peace, shared her extensive experience working in conflict and post-conflict regions, emphasizing the universal desire for peace among refugees. Garcia presented insights from working in conflict and post-conflict regions, emphasizing the universal desire for peace among refugees and discussing human rights challenges and the need for greater accountability for perpetrators. She highlighted the importance of respecting and promoting human rights as a fundamental prerequisite for achieving peace. Garcia underscored the significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which holds enduring importance in the hearts of those who work in the field. She encouraged everyone to engage in discussions about this vital document, noting that it is the most translated document globally, even surpassing the Bible.

Garcia also touched on the challenges faced by human rights defenders, including threats, harassment, legal restrictions, and institutional barriers. She highlighted the lack of international support for addressing these issues, particularly in conflict-affected regions with limited media access. Patricia Garcia concluded by discussing ethical dilemmas faced by human rights defenders, drawing attention to sensitive cultural issues like female genital mutilation and the importance of collecting evidence to bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice. Overall, her message emphasized the enduring struggle for human rights and the essential role of advocacy and action in achieving peace and justice.

Johan Heymans (Belgium) is a distinguished human rights lawyer who expressed his respect for human rights defenders in challenging environments and conveyed a message of hope and determination. Heymans highlighted the resilience of defenders and their role in driving positive societal change. Johan Heymans discussed his work particularly concerning Turkey. He highlighted the multifaceted approach taken by his organization, which includes providing legal assistance to individuals facing threats, pursuing international legal avenues, and creatively addressing human rights violations through innovative methods like the “Opinions Tribunal for Turkey.” Heymans stressed two key messages: first, he expressed profound respect for human rights defenders who risk their lives in the pursuit of justice, especially in countries where freedoms are limited. He underscored their remarkable dedication and commitment to the cause. Second, he conveyed a message of hope, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a positive outlook and unwavering determination in the face of adversity. Heymans highlighted the resilience and energy of human rights defenders and their crucial role in driving positive societal change, even amid challenging circumstances and rising repression.

Dr. Ranjana Kumari (India), Director of the Center for Social Research, discussed challenges such as shrinking democratic spaces, violence against women, and climate change. She had been a transforming advocate for gender balance, equal representation, and global collaboration. Dr. Kumari, representing the global majority and drawing from Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings, emphasized the importance of individual human action and human resilience in the face of challenges. She highlighted the shrinking democratic spaces worldwide and the threats to peace at various levels, from homes to nations, including violence against women and environmental issues.

Dr. Kumari emphasized the need to address climate change as a crucial element in preserving peace and the well-being of the planet. She underscored the significance of women’s rights and their inclusion in decision-making bodies, calling for gender balance and equal representation in parliaments. Dr. Kumari also stressed the value of human connection, communication, and learning from each other. She discussed the role of technology in today’s world and the importance of reclaiming civil society spaces, land, and resources collectively. Her overall message emphasized the need for global collaboration, solidarity, and hope in the face of evolving challenges, including the impact of technology and artificial intelligence on society. She encouraged individuals and nations to stand together, protect one another, and remain steadfast in their pursuit of a better future.

Paula Penfold (New Zealand), investigative journalist at the Stuff Circuit shared insights about New Zealand’s challenges, emphasizing concepts of kinship and unity. She cited the importance of individual investigations contributing to global change and expressed hope for a future inspired by collective efforts. Paula Penfold delivered a message that reflects her role as a journalist working on issues related to human rights, justice, oppression, and fairness. While she did not identify herself as a human rights defender, her work consistently engages with these themes, particularly in New Zealand’s context.

She mentioned that New Zealand is a liberal and progressive democracy, but it faces challenges related to a fractured society and issues prevalent in the discussions at the forum. Paula highlighted two Maori terms, “whanaunatanga” and “manaakitanga,” which emphasize kinship, forming relationships, strengthening ties between communities, and treating each other with respect and care. These concepts underpin her approach to journalism and her desire for unity and cohesion. Moving on, Paula cited Ann Curry’s quote about journalism being an “act of faith in the future” and emphasized the importance of individual investigations contributing, albeit on a small scale, to the broader global landscape. She expressed hope that collective efforts can lead to a future that inspires faith and positive change.

Anil Wasif (Canada), Director of Strategy at BacharLorai, emphasized the importance of youth engagement and collaboration in addressing global challenges. Wasif shared the story of BacharLorai (BL), a digital social innovation initiative founded by young Bangladeshi immigrants in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He highlighted the significant underrepresentation of young people in parliaments worldwide despite their comprising over 50 percent of the global population. BacharLorai harnessed technology and crowdfunding to launch 17 projects, ranging from healthcare support to menstrual hygiene awareness, benefiting rural villagers in Bangladesh. Wasif stressed the power of bringing together young changemakers and the need for public policy research and signature initiatives to empower and facilitate impactful change within communities and governments.

The JWF’s Roundtable Discussion 1 on human rights defenders showcased diverse voices united by a shared commitment to human rights, peace, and sustainable development. These discussions underscored the vital role of civil society, media, and global collaboration in addressing today’s challenges and shaping a better future for all.

ROUND 2: Civil Society Contributions in achieving the SDGs: Best Practices

Civil society plays a crucial role in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with innovative projects, programs, and initiatives. The SDGs need the support of a strong and loud civil society to realize the Global Agenda by 2030. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres recognized the role of civil society, saying: “civil society is a key instrument for the success of today’s UN”, particularly in a global political climate “where governments are finding it more and more difficult to do their job”. The UN Secretary-General’s 2021 report on “Our Global Agenda” sets the parameters of the UN’s vision for inclusive, peaceful, and effective multilateralism to address global challenges such as sustainable development, peace and security, climate change, and human rights. The Common Agenda calls on civil society and NGOs to join their efforts in delivering solutions that make a positive impact in our society.

At Round 2: Civil Society’s Impact on SDGs: Best Practices, participants engaged in a vibrant dialogue, highlighting the vital role civil society organizations play in advancing progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals. These organizations foster positive change, tackle social and environmental challenges, and encourage collaboration among diverse stakeholders.

Bathsheba Smithen (USA), CEO & Founder of Cage Free Voices, emphasized the crucial role of education in liberating students, especially given the challenges they face due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cage Free Voices is working to bring education to children both within and outside traditional school settings. Smithen said: “Liberty cannot exist without an education. We use literacy to liberate students to help them see themselves even if the world is blind. UNICEF reports over the past two years more than 147 million children are missing more than half of their in-person schooling, amounting to two trillion hours of lost learning.” She underlined that to fasten the COVID-19 recovery phase, children must get back to their classroom, but changes are needed to ensure that they really learn starting with the foundational basics of reading and numeracy. Cage Free Voices is aware of this much needed change and is therefore bringing the classroom to children who are within the wall of a school building and to those who are currently not enrolled or learning from home.

Hayrunnisa Kalac (USA), Project Manager of the Alliance for Shared Values, said that the key character of reaching the SDGs is youth engagement. Young Leaders in Civil Engagement Program highlights new civic engagement projects and recognizes the leadership of young changemakers through initiatives that build relations in their communities. Groups of youth are working alongside their mentors to lead civic programs to address a social concern in their community and to promote meaningful interaction between diverse groups of people. After implementing these projects, their impact reports are evaluated by the jury. In recent years, SDG 4: Quality Education, SDG 13: Climate Change, and SDG 8: Economic Growth were among the targeted Global Goals.

Turkmen Terzi (South Africa), a journalist at Turkish Minute, shared his journey of becoming a media freedom activist after the Turkish government targeted his media following allegations of corruption. He highlighted the importance of media in establishing a free and democratic society and discussed his writings on the coup attempt in Turkey, clarifying that it was not a real coup. Terzi’s articles were published in South African independent newspapers, and despite efforts by the Turkish government to label him a terrorist, he found support in South Africa due to their historical experience with such accusations. He continued his writing, contributing to discussions about Turkey and the Middle East for Turkish Minute and becoming involved in various journalism-related roles, including as a board member of the South African Foreign Correspondent Association. Despite challenges and government oppression faced by journalists worldwide, Terzi and his colleagues work to support and protect journalists and contribute to peace and development, including by shedding light on arms supplies to African countries by the Erdogan government.

Ludmila Malai (Belgium), EU Program Manager of Intercultural Dialogue Platform, shared civic engagement, social inclusion, and intercultural dialogue best practices targeting young populations of 15 to 35. Malai underlined that the Dialogue Platforms work for the young people, with the young people. She said these days, we hear many people speaking on the fact that young citizens do not believe in politicians, they do not engage on institutional grounds. Malai emphasized that even before inviting young activists to be a part of various engagements, institutions must review their working methodology with young associates and quit patronizing them. Young people may lack experience, but what they possess is energy and fresh ideas. Malai suggested that if one is a project manager like herself, one must embrace a team with different skills, talents, and young associates with creativity. Embracing a cooperation perspective with young activists works in the most productive way, Malai underlined.

Ahmet Orhan Polat (Australia), Executive Director of Affinity Intercultural Foundation, delivered a message focused on promoting unity, understanding, and inclusivity within diverse communities. Affinity organizes events and initiatives that celebrate diversity, encourage open dialogue, and foster a sense of togetherness. Their work includes annual gatherings like the Affinity Parliament Friendship and Dialogue Iftar dinners, which bring together a wide array of participants, including political figures, community leaders, and educators, representing the multicultural fabric of New South Wales. Affinity actively engages youth in intercultural dialogues within schools across Australia, emphasizing the importance of respecting different religions and cultures. They also collaborate with various stakeholders, both locally and globally, to address community needs in areas such as education, healthcare, and youth empowerment. In essence, Affinity’s mission revolves around building an inclusive society through community events, education, and partnerships, with a strong belief in the role of civil society in achieving a more sustainable world.

Sumeyra Nur Korkut (Argentina), Director of Interfaith at the Intercultural Dialogue Center Alba in Argentina, highlighted the center’s work in promoting dialogue, education, and interreligious dialogue. Emphasized the role of faith-based organizations in guaranteeing various rights and promoting a more inclusive and peaceful society. Korkut expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to participate in the conference and highlighted the essential work carried out by their center. With a focus on promoting dialogue and education, the center has operated in Argentina for over 20 years in alignment with Sustainable Development Goals 16 and 17. Korkut discussed their active involvement in the Argentine Monitoring Platform for the 2030 Agenda and mentioned their efforts in interreligious dialogue, offering classes and services to vulnerable communities while fostering values that support peace and understanding. Sumeyra Korkut stressed the significance of collective efforts in achieving common goals and expressed her commitment to working together with the global community.

Mustafa Goktepe (Brazil), President of the Institute on Intercultural Dialogue, highlighted their best practices of intercultural courses, dialogue seminars, and publications of books and articles. Goktepe briefed the audience on the Abrahamic Family Meetings composed of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish members meeting once a month with different themes and spaces. Each month, Goktepe said, a different group hosting these gatherings brings their traditional dishes and creates an Abrahamic table. After 7 years, hundreds of people from different walks of life and religions became close friends and promoted knowledge and diversity in their respective communities, said Goktepe.

Taner Basar (New Zealand), Director of the Pearl of the Island Foundation, as a peace advocate, promotes human rights values. Established in 2006, Pearl of the Island Foundation, serves and works along with diverse communities to establish platforms under the categories of interfaith/intercultural dialogue, humanitarian aid and education. The main dialogue program of the Foundation is the Ramadan Iftar Dinners and Annual Children of Abraham Panel in addition to participating at various cultural festivals to ensure the promotion on relations within communities. Most recent flagship project of the Pearl of the Island Foundation is the SDG Awards said Basar.

Behzad Fatmi (India), Secretary-General of Indialogue Foundation, speaking of intercultural dialogue, Fatmi says people are often confused that we are just talking about different religions but what we are trying to do in Indialogue Foundation is to bring people from different traditions together to address common concerns, said Fatmi. These shared social obstacles are also addressed in various SDGs. Friendship Dinner organized every year in the month of Ramadan gets believers and non-believers to talk about common concerns of education and civic engagement. Many parents think that the lack of safe living space for girls is a critical problem that came into light during these discussions, said Fatmi. Following this discussion, Indialogue founded a hostel for female students and invited all speakers of the Friendship Dinners to support this initiative.

Mohammad Latif (Iraq/Kurdistan), President of the Dialogue and Culture Organization, emphasized that Iraq is a very multicultural and multireligious country with 8 religions actively practiced and 91 political parties. Rising differences in thoughts and social perspectives may create critical challenges, said Latif. Living together, coexistence are the focus areas of their organization as they organize various activities on the interfaith harmony week and Zero Tolerance on Discrimination Day.