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August 31, 2014

The Storyteller’s Art – Bringing Ancient Wisdom and the Philosophy of Ubuntu to Life

An Interview with Kiran Singh Sirah – Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center

Kiran Singh Sirah began his career as an artist and teacher, which led him to establish a number of award winning peace and conflict resolution programs in museums and cultural centers in the UK. These initiatives address sectarian, ethnic and religious conflict, poverty, and gang violence. Kiran went on to develop arts-led projects exploring modern slavery violations, war, and issues facing socially marginalized peoples. Kiran is a graduate of the Rotary Peace Fellow program and a folklorist interested in the power of human creativity, arts and social justice, and the notion of a truly multicultural society. Kiran currently lives in Jonesborough, TN.  He was selected as Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center in 2013.

I had the opportunity to talk with him recently about the power of storytelling to unite people across different cultures and belief systems.

Rebecca Popham:      The 42nd Annual National Storytelling Festival for 2014 is rapidly approaching. This is already your second annual Festival.  Your selection as the new Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center (ISC) in Jonesborough, TN, last year came just as the 2013 Festival was ramping up—kind of a “baptism by fire.”  Tell us a little bit about why the position of Executive Director of the ISC appealed to you.

Kiran Sirah:      A baptism by fire indeed! But a great one. To some extent it was like being placed in the middle of story! I still have to pinch myself everyday for this wonderful and unique opportunity. I love my job and I am grateful for the people that support storytelling. To be in this position gives me the chance to work with storytellers of all kinds, to draw from all my experiences and my education in the storytelling arts, folklore, and peace-building and global networks to contribute to our international and regional storytelling communities. What attracted me initially to this job was the chance to promote and develop our ancient art of storytelling, to bring it to new heights and to expand the role that storytelling has to enrich people’s lives here and across the world and make a real difference to people’s lives.

RP:     As a graduate of the Rotary Peace Fellowship program can you describe the connection between storytelling and working toward global peace?

KS:     Storytelling is a powerful social force. Telling stories opens doors to help bind and form communities and find important connections to the entire human family. In essence it helps us to holds up mirrors to ours and other cultures and establishes a sense of a global identity. Storytelling is what forms relationships with others, it is the powerful expressive realm in all its dimensions that gives voice to who we are and where we are going. Used wisely it may also be the one of greatest conflict prevention tools the world might ever know. As a Rotary Peace fellow I have had opportunities to learn not only techniques to building peace but also how complex, multifaceted and diverse our peace community is. My main thrust in peace work has been to encourage intercultural dialogue and therefore Storytelling offers what I believe is the greatest way we can do that to help us all work towards a peaceful world.

RP:     Did the ISC have a history of including the concept of nonviolence and the philosophy of Ubuntu in presentations at the annual festival, or is this a new dimension that you are adding to the spectrum of human behavior already covered in stories told by the Master Storytellers who perform at the ISC Annual Festival?

KS:      The tellers that have performed over the 42 history have come from all over the world and from a diverse spectrum of storytelling traditions. Many tellers draw from family, humor, local, and global traditions as well as personal narrative and experience. There is often ancient wisdom that one can hear in the stories they tell. It is not a new idea introduced by me, but something I think storytellers have been doing ever since people started telling stories around campfires or from the time when humans etched visual pictographs onto cave walls to today when NASA scientists use visual storytelling inscribed space probe and send them out into the universe. Storytelling has always connects us to indigenous ways of life. I guess what I am doing here is expanding the way we can translate the Ubuntu concept into new disciplines and arenas, to invite partnerships and collaborations, so that we can share ways as an organization to live up to this great concept of Ubuntu.  By sharing ourselves with others and vice versa being open to learning from others we can ignite the belief in Ubuntu in really creative ways.

 On Thursday, August 21, you appeared on NPR’s Religion in Life program.  What is your primary message to that audience about the role of storytelling in our culture? (Hear Kiran’s NPR interview via podcast at http://religionforlife.podomatic.com/)

KS:      I have great respect for Reverend Shuck who hosts the NPR series Religion for Life, so it was honor to be interviewed by him. My primary message was that by sharing my own stories of my upbringing and how storytelling changes my life, I hope others may also think about how storytelling can play a part in their lives. Across the world the voices of young people need to be heard, and so the message was for us to think about how we can help to nurture the next generation. Certain stories may belong to different people or different groups and cultures, but the Art of Storytelling as an art form is something that belongs to us all.

RP:     What projects are you working on at ISC, in addition to the annual Festival, for 2015 and beyond?

KS:      Our story at ISC is constantly evolving. As the world’s oldest public storytelling festival, we are at a great time right now in our 42 year history. Right now we are developing a number of new initiatives connecting storytelling programs and establishing international storytelling programs as well as regional and national programs. We have a number of digital programs under development to reach youth, new learning programs, and we also have a long-standing relationship with the Smithsonian Institution which we are continually developing. We are also developing new strands to our key event, the annual National Storytelling Festival as well as to our Storyteller-in-Residence series that takes place between April and November. Beyond that we have some exciting work with organizations including the global Masterpeace Project and the United Nations to invite storytellers to tell their stories of peace and change.

Here at the ISC we are reigniting and discovering new ways to bring the broader Art of Live Storytelling to even more arenas and audiences. Not only is this my personal passion, it is my life’s dream to elevate this great art form to a position where it is seen as an effective tool in helping to establish intercultural dialogue.  Such a dialogue would celebrate diversity and respect for life and difference, which I see as the key components for creating a more peaceful world. Part of our mission is to connect emerging Storytellers and new audiences to the great Master Storytellers who already offer so much to the world. Ultimately, everything we do here at ISC, and my life from here on in, is about the Art of Storytelling contributing to building a better world. Storytelling for all!

RP:      Thank you, Kiran, for giving us more insight into the role of storytelling in the pursuit of peace.  Clearly, it is a critical part of any effort to true understanding among cultures within nations, and among all of the nations of the world.  And we can’t forget that Ubuntu really starts within the family unit and also between just two people.  Stories are at the very root of our human experience.

August 10, 2014

Looking Inside the UN

BOOK REVIEW—An Insider’s Guide to the UN, 2nd Edition by Linda Fasulo

Submitted by John M.B. Balouziyeh
“An excellent introduction to the UN, but not without flaws”

Overall, Linda Fasulo’s An Insider’s Guide to the UN is a well-executed introduction to the inner workings of the United Nations. In terms of depth of treatment, it is about as comprehensive as the UN’s own Basic Facts about the United Nations, but the numerous interviews, firsthand accounts, and stories make Fasulo’s volume more engaging.

Vivid Descriptions of Action in International Crises

The greatest strength in Ms. Fasulo’s book emerges from her vivid descriptions of how the United Nations operates and how it tackles international crises. Ms. Fasulo manages to hold the reader’s attention by illustrating otherwise dry facts and figures with a plethora of historic accounts and real-life examples. In Chapter 6, the author describes peace operations by giving a detailed account of how the UN Security Council, through wielding its powers with respect to threats to peace under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, addresses a 1998 border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The account begins with the annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia in the 1980s and continues with the Eritrean war for independence and Eritrea’s subsequent occupation of disputed territory in 1998. Fasulo describes how the UN Security Council intervened and applied pressure for the parties to accept an African Union (AU) plan to resolve the dispute in light of a “looming humanitarian crisis as drought and unrest threatened massive starvation” (p. 56). Finally, after several outbreaks of violence and an Ethiopian invasion into the heart of Eritrea in 2000, the parties agreed to a ceasefire, and the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) was formed to monitor the border. The final accord, signed between the parties in Algiers in December 2000, might not have been possible had the UN not intervened diplomatically.

Putting a Face on UN Bureaucracy

Other examples abound. Chapter 17, entitled Making a Career at the UN, contains the firsthand account of UN Undersecretary General Shashi Tharoor’s early years as a staff member in the UN Refugee Agency, which is also referred to as the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He describes his assignment in Singapore (1981-84) to “help organize efforts to aid the thousands of Vietnamese fleeing their homeland in the aftermath of the collapse of the Saigon government” (pp. 148-152).  Fasulo thus succeeds in putting a face on the large UN bureaucracy.

Extensive Resources

The book contains a comprehensive account of UN advocates, donors, and friends in Chapter 15, and recommendations for how readers can get involved with the UN, including through the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNAUSA) and the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS), an organization created to “encourage education, writing, and research that contribute to the understanding of international issues” and that hosts a “summer workshop for younger scholars and practitioners hosted in cooperation with the American Society of International Law (ASIL)” (pp. 143-144).

Subtle Bias Undermines Complete Accuracy

Its merits aside, the author’s objectivity may be questioned by readers who get a sense of her bias toward portraying the UN in an almost exclusively positive light. One result of a lack of complete objectivity is that certain inaccuracies are allowed to stand or are not caught before publication. Hopefully, the inaccuracies discussed in this review will be addressed in future editions.

Subtle bias is found in chapter titles like UN to the Rescue (Chapter 23), as well as in how phrases are spun, e.g., “the big problems the UN can address in a year” (p. xi), and the way major challenges plaguing the UN itself are overlooked in the text. One does not read of the significant budget problems that confront the UN. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), for example, is constantly in the midst of a budget crisis and deficits. The accusations of corruption, mismanagement, and inefficiency that have been levied at the UN by its critics are not covered in depth. The book does discuss some of these criticisms (see the discussion of reforming the UN Security Council on page 47), but overall, the author focuses on the UN’s achievements without addressing its weaknesses or those of its affiliated institutions.

Can the ICC Execute Arrest Warrants?

An inaccuracy emerges in the discussion about the International Criminal Court (ICC). The book states on page 102 that “…most perpetrators of atrocities have been able to act with impunity, as long as they remain in power or can find exile or asylum in a friendly country.  If there had existed a single, international body with acknowledged jurisdiction to try cases involving human rights abuses, it is possible Pinochet would have actually been brought to justice. The ICC remedies this deficiency.”  However, the book omits the fact that the ICC has no executive authority to execute arrest warrants, and it is still up to sovereign nations to arrest and extradite accused war criminals. This inherent weakness is exemplified by the fact that more than five years ago, on 4 March 2009, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but to date, the government of Sudan has failed to execute the warrant or extradite Al-Bashir to The Hague for prosecution.

The author seems to advocate the ICC as an instrument to bring criminals accused of the worst crimes to justice, but the case she makes for the ICC is not entirely accurate. The book states that “…until recently there were no international courts for trying persons accused of committing atrocities, except for special tribunals such as the one at Nuremberg after World War II” (p. 102). The reality is, however, that in addition to the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal and other ad hoc tribunals, hybrid institutions such as the Special Panels for Serious Crimes in Dili District Court (East Timor) have been created to address international crimes. Moreover, States could address the most egregious crimes, such as genocide, by invoking universal jurisdiction, which allows the courts of any nation to try nationals of any other nation without the consent of the latter nation. Thus, even if the ICC did not exist, the international community would be able to address many international crimes by appealing to universal jurisdiction, ad hoc courts, and hybrid institutions.

Too Broad a Brush?

At times, An Insider’s Guide to the UN brushes over facts without employing necessary qualifications to clarify exceptions, thus leading to inaccuracies. For example, Chapter 10’s focus on the International Criminal Court (ICC) opens with a discussion of the crimes over which the ICC has jurisdiction, listing  “genocide, war crimes, and other crimes against humanity” (p. 100). This implies that genocide and war crimes are crimes against humanity, but under the Rome Statute of the ICC (SICC), this is not necessarily so. A crime must be “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population” in order to qualify as a crime against humanity (Art. 7.1 SICC), but a single act can be deemed a war crime without constituting a “widespread or systematic attack” necessary for it to qualify as a crime against humanity.

The Guide states that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) “…hears only those cases involving states, not individuals…” (p. 100-101). While it is true that the jurisdiction of the ICJ is limited to hearing only those cases in which all of the parties are States (Art. 34.1 Statute of the ICJ), many of these cases involve individuals. For example, the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Belgium (14 February 2002) dealt with the perpetration of international crimes and whether an arrest warrant for an individual(s) was valid.

Is the ICC All Powerful?

In discussing a point of contention regarding the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Guide states that the ICC “…has the authority to bring individuals to trial without needing permission from any individual or government” (p. 101). However, the ICC only has jurisdiction over an individual in the following cases: (i) the crime was committed in the territory of an ICC member State or on board a vessel or aircraft registered with a member State (Art. 12.2(a) SICC); (ii) the accused is a national of a State party to the SICC (Art. 12.2(b) SICC); or (iii) the State in question agrees to jurisdiction (Art. 12.3 SICC).

Therefore, in ratifying or refusing to ratify the SICC, a State exercises control over whether its citizens may be subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC. The only situation in which a citizen may be subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC without his or her State’s consent is if he or she committed a crime within the territory of an ICC member State or on board a vessel or aircraft registered with a member State, but even in these cases the ICC member State may guarantee to the citizen’s State that it will not pursue criminal prosecution at the ICC, as Mali did with respect to US soldiers earlier this year.

While it is also true that cases may be referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council without a State’s consent (e.g., as has been done with respect to the Sudan), such cases do not pose a threat to the US and other veto-wielding members of the Security Council.

On page 102, the author states that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is based in Kigali, Rwanda. However, the ICTR is actually located in Arusha, northern Tanzania, with an office in Kigali and an office in The Hague.

The book states that a special court for Sierra Leone was set up in 2000, but 2000 marked only the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1315 to start negotiations with the Sierra Leonean government to create a Special Court, which was set up two years later in 2002.


Overall, An Insider’s Guide to the UN is an excellent introduction to the United Nations, but it could be strengthened in future editions.