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A Colombian lawyer, a Kenyan mediator and an Australian advocate for migrants are being honoured for championing social justice. Here's what you need to know

Above: Leyner Palacios Asprilla, Alice Wairimu Nderitu and Daniel Webb are being honoured by the Canadian-based Global Centre For Pluralism.

The Global Pluralism Award honours three people around the world for their efforts to build an inclusive society in their community. Former prime minister Joe Clark, who chaired the awards committee, said that the variety of applications broadened his own definition of pluralism, and highlighted the need for pluralistic societies.

"Tensions are rising in the world," Mr. Clark said. "There needs to be an emphasis on the ways those tensions can be addressed, and respect for differences should be encouraged."

The selection committee received applications from 43 countries and travelled to many of the applicants' countries to see what kind of impact their humanitarian work had made.

"There were 230 candidates from 43 countries," said Mr. Clark. "We bore in mind that we wanted our own selections to reflect that variety. The three prize winners and seven honorary mentions gives some sense of the variety of applications."

This is the first year that the Ottawa-based Centre For Global Pluralism has given the awards. The jury of seven international members – which also included Argentina's former foreign affairs minister, Dante Caputo, and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi – judged applicants on their impact on their community, authenticity and innovation in how they tackled conflict.

The three winners used the values of pluralism to break apart divisions of race, gender, economic status, and tribal conflict.

The winners included a Kenyan mediator who battled gender norms and resolved conflicts across Africa, an Australian lawyer who worked to shift public opinion on migrants, and a Colombian lawyer who would heal wounds in his community after an attack that killed dozens of his family members. Winners received their awards in Ottawa on Nov. 15.

Leyner Palacios Asprilla, Colombia

Photo: Richard Emblin

Leyner Palacios Asprilla can credit his local church for helping teach him the values of pluralism. In his hometown of Bojayá, Colombia, where it's 11,000 residents are split between Afro-Colombians and the Indigenous communities, Mr. Palacios was able to experience both sides of life in his teenage years when his priests took him to different parts of town as part of their work.

"As I was growing up, because of my [priests'] work, I always visited Indigenous communities," said Mr. Palacios, whose family was Afro-Colombian. "As I grew up, I realized how these people also lived in poverty with lack of access to health and education."

That understanding of how both of his town's peoples had the same struggles proved to be instrumental in sparking change after years of civil conflict between rebel groups in Colombia.

In 2002, a brutal fight between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in its Spanish acronym), a Colombian rebel army involved in a decades-long civil conflict, and other paramilitary forces would ravage not only his community, but an overwhelming part of his family. FARC bombed a church during the fighting, killing 79 people. More than half of the victims were infants, and 32 of the victims were his own family.

The town of Bojayá had tried to voice their grievances about the decades-long violence to the Colombian government, but with each of the town's 50 ethnic communities speaking out on their own, their words carried no weight.

Mr. Palacios understood that if he could bring the different groups together and unite the voices of the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian people, maybe they could finally be heard.

More than a decade later in 2014, Mr. Palacios co-founded the Committee for the Rights of Victims of Bojayá, a group that would collectively represent his entire town. As a mediator between the town's two major ethnicities, he was able to get the two groups to finally trust each other.

It was a difficult task, he said, because the two groups spoke different languages, had different cultures, and lived in different parts of town. It was also difficult because FARC had used their differences against them.

"When the massacre took place, the paramilitaries told the Indigenous population that the blacks were to be blamed," said Mr. Palacios, 41. "The armed groups just wanted to divide the people … they started to put families against each other."

To mend these wounds, Mr. Palacios was able to get the town's different communities to actually meet in a physical place and talk out the situation. He ultimately won the award for pluralism because of his ability to bring so many of his town's people together to finally make a difference.

Today, after years of the community voicing their grief together, Mr. Palacios has been able to incite real change. FARC recently acknowledged the role they played in the massacres and the government has also taken the responsibility of properly identifying and exhuming the bodies of those that died in the church attack.

Mr. Palacios says that their work is nowhere near finished, but it has been a promising start.

"They will be able to bury their loved ones, and they'll be able to to it according to their own tradition," said Mr. Palacios. "That will help to begin healing spiritual wounds."

Alice Wairimu Nderitu, Kenya

Photo: Joseph Truong

When Alice Wairimu Nderitu goes to mediate conflicts in an unfamiliar region, she pays close attention to how the locals dress. Then she goes to a tailor, and gets a garment made that makes her fit in seamlessly. Her reasoning isn't fashion – it's because if her outfit goes unnoticed, it's one less thing to make men remember that she is a woman and an outsider.

It's just one of the ways that Ms. Nderitu has had to put extra effort to succeed as a conflict mediator in Africa, where such a role is usually filled by men.

Ms. Nderitu says she was always told that men were the people who started conflicts, so they naturally should be the ones to end them. But she knew that including all types of people was the best way to actually solve issues.

"I keep seeing knowledge gaps between the men and women that we must fill. We need to train them, they need experience," said Ms. Nderitu, 49. "I want women to feel they've been heard."

A Kenyan national, Ms. Nderitu has worked to resolve tribal conflicts in South Sudan, Somalia, and in her home country. But some of her most extensive work has been in Nigeria.

Decades of slavery, exploitation and colonialism had fostered a sense of mistrust in the country's Kaduna region. The size of the conflict was staggering: There were 29 different tribes in the area, each brought six members to the conflict resolution process, which was moderated by Ms. Nderitu.

After years of work to try to heal their relationship, fighting restarted only three months after Ms. Nderitu left. She returned to spend months more to try to create a peace that would last.

Finally, she says, the groups have kept their peace since she last finished her work there.

"It feels like heaven," Ms. Nderitu said. "I go to bed every night and say 'thank you God.' "

Her belief that the peace process must be inclusive has led to another side of her work. With the prize money that she'll win from her award, Ms. Nderitu hopes to build a database of women mediators.

The database would be initially made up of 30 Nigerians and 20 Kenyans, she says. The women could, like her, mediate in the opposite country. That kind of database is important, she says, because no such resource currently exists to find qualified women to do conflict resolution work.

Ms. Nderitu wound up winning the pluralism award not only because of her efforts to resolve tribal conflicts throughout Africa, but her efforts to bring women into the peacemaking process.

Organizations like the United Nations often try to include women in skilled roles throughout Africa, but she says there's also a lack of opportunity for those women to become properly qualified. After working to resolve the conflicts of so many different African peoples, Ms. Nderitu now looks to show other women that they, too, can do the kinds of important work that she's done.

"People keep saying, 'Oh, you are the only woman at the negotiating table,' " Ms. Nderitu said. "I want to make that statement obsolete."

Daniel Webb, Australia

Photo: Tom Clarke

Daniel Webb's work is inspired by two things: a deep-seated belief that everybody deserves basic decency and respect, and an opinion that detainees in Australia's offshore detention centres have been denied their basic rights.

As a human rights lawyer, Mr. Webb has worked for five years to end the detainment of thousands of asylum seekers at Australia's offshore detention centres and to prevent their deportation altogether.

Since 2013, he says the Australian government has actively tried to ward off migrants who are seeking asylum by boat. The government announced that year that asylum seekers would be detained indefinitely at detention centres such as Manus Island, a former naval base in Papua New Guinea.

"On a global level, it's utterly counterproductive," said Mr. Webb, 33. "If every country in the world had a single-minded focus on deterrence, then people fleeing persecution would be left with nowhere to go."

Mr. Webb has visited the centres multiple times, and describes the conditions as jail-like. His first visit came after an asylum seeker was killed. He described the situation there as inhumane, with reports of violence, sexual assault, suicide and medical neglect rampant in the facilities.

"But the thing that cause the most anguish was the uncertainty," said Mr. Webb, saying that the detainees he spoke to described it as mental torture for them to have no idea what would happen next, or when it would happen.

Many of the migrants came from countries such as Burma, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and parts of Africa.

Mr. Webb won the Pluralism Award not only because of his efforts to free those migrants, but because of the immense challenge that it was to change public perception about the migrants.

Political wrangling over the issue meant that the policy of holding migrants in offshore detention centres was actually popular among Australian citizens because they'd been painted as smugglers and criminals, rather than refugees.

Mr. Webb says changing Australian opinions came down to how you positioned the issue.

"Fundamentally this issue is about people, and whenever we are able to make this debate about people … the public opinion shifts," said Mr. Webb.

Over years of work, Mr. Webb has been able to spark actual change. Beyond changing people's perceptions , he has also managed to temporarily bring around 400 detainees into Australia for medical treatment. But their situation is uncertain and by no means permanent.

Mr. Webb says there's still a large amount of work to be done. The Australian government closed the Manus Island centre oct. 31 and cut off all power, food and water, but several hundred refugees have refused to move to alternative accommodation, saying they aren't safe. Before the closing, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had called the situation a "looming humanitarian emergency" and protests across Australia have since called for the refugees to be brought to Australia.