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Women & Human Rights: Part II

By Yuan Stevens

This is the second of two blog posts about the work of women in human rights. You can find my first post featuring Salini Sharma’s work with Safecity in Delhi, India right here.

 

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I want to tell you about the fascinating work of Ibtissame (Betty) Lachgar in Morocco. She is a clinical psychologist with expertise in victimology and criminology. 

In 2009, Betty (her preferred name) founded MALI (Mouvement Alternatif pour les Libertés Individuelles, or in Arabic, مالي؟ الحركة البديلة من أجل الحريات الفردية). They’re a radical civil disobedience organization and Betty claims that they are the only movement of this kind in the country.

MALI fights for civil liberties such as freedom of conscience, religion and expression, abortion rights and LGBTQI rights.

They fight for change in what has been criticized as an authoritarian and Islamic state where, for example, both pre-marital sex and homosexuality are illegal (see this Wikipedia page for details on the latter).

 

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Betty, left, in one of MALI’s Facebook photos. Used with permission.

 

How does an organization like this do their work? 

Those in the MALI community initiate premeditated and strategic actions that fight for specific rights and in specific places.

MALI’s first action was in 2009.

In order to fight for freedom of conscience and from religion, Betty organized a picnic in the middle of the day during Ramadan, a Muslim holiday where those who partake don’t eat or drink except before dawn and after sunset.

The act was also a part of MALI’s struggle to repeal article 222 of the Moroccan penal code whereby anyone who is “commonly known to be Muslim” can be placed in prison for up to 6 months if they violate the fast.

The active was symbolic, Betty told a group of us during the IHRTP. She said the purpose of the action was not to provoke nor shock people, but to symbolically fight against the state religion which seeks to control citizens’ freedom of conscience. The MALI movement wanted to “create a buzz”; to get people thinking. Find out more about the picnic here.

 

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Part of an exhibit that MALI showed to the Moroccan embassy in the Netherlands in 2012. Taken from MALI’s Facebook page with permission.

 

Another key action of MALI was in 2013.

Betty organized a “kiss-in” in front of the Moroccan parliament building to protest the arrest of two teens who posted on Facebook a photo of themselves kissing in public. The teenaged friend who took the photo was also arrested — all of them for public indecency. Betty told us that this event caused her to fear for her life due to the death threats that ensued.

Finally, the last MALI action I want to highlight happened just this year in 2015.

MALI members decided to take a huge risk and stood in front of Moroccan parliament with gay pride flags.

This occurred in the atmosphere of two French Femen activists who were expelled from Morocco after they stripped to the waist with “In gay we trust” written on their chests and kissed in front of a 12th century unfinished mosque tower. The women did this in reaction to the court’s prosecution of three homosexual men.

Betty says this particular action was very hard — it was tense, dangerous. An army of police was there. The secret service were there. They waited for her, she said — but she said it was, in a way, nonetheless fun for her; it’s part of the game she needs to play to fight for people’s rights.

 

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Betty at Hamburg’s 2014 Pride Parade. Used with permission.

 

There is no doubt that MALI is a radical organization that is sure to make people feel uncomfortable — that’s part and parcel of the work they do.

Regardless of our stance on MALI’s initiatives, Betty is a role model for all of us in her courage and choices — as a human rights activist and in her context — to rally people together to fight for their civil liberties and sexual rights. 

You can find MALI’s Twitter feed here and Betty’s personal Twitter account here.

Beau sur papier, mais en réalité?

2015 St-Jean FrederiquePar Frédérique St-Jean

Pour bien des Tunisiens et des gens vivant à l’étranger, la Tunisie est un pays plutôt égalitaire. Fréquemment, lorsque j’expliquais aux gens que j’étais en Tunisie pour travailler dans une organisation défendant les droits des femmes, ils me répondaient que la Tunisie n’avait pas de problèmes sur ce plan me citant le président Habib Bourguiba comme champion de cette cause. Dès 1956, Bourguiba a en effet promulgué le Code du statut personnel qui donnait des droits extensifs aux femmes, pour un pays de religion musulmane de l’époque. Ce code a en effet aboli la polygamie et instauré le divorce judiciaire, ce qui était très avant-gardiste considérant que la polygamie est encore permise au Maroc par exemple. Plusieurs considèrent que Bourguiba avait créé ce discours, afin d’obtenir l’appui de la communauté internationale pour le maintien de son régime. [1]

Sous le régime de Ben Ali, le peuple a continué d’être maintenu dans l’ignorance sur l’état réel des choses. En effet, l’information était largement contrôlée par le gouvernement qui muselait quiconque souhaitait contredire ses positions. Jusqu’en 2011, le discours officiel a ainsi continué de laisser croire aux tunisiens que l’égalité hommes-femmes en Tunisie était acquise.

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La Tunisie a fait honneur à sa réputation en 2014, lorsqu’elle a adopté sa nouvelle Constitution. Ce document juridique contient non-seulement une disposition codifiant l’égalité des entre hommes et femmes et le principe de non-discrimination, mais codifie également le principe d’égalité sur le plan du travail et d’égalité des chances.[2] Le gouvernement s’engage d’ailleurs à protéger, soutenir et améliorer les acquis de la femme, à garantir la représentativité des femmes dans les assemblées élues, à œuvrer à réaliser la parité dans les conseils élus et à prendre les mesures nécessaires pour éradiquer la violence envers les femmes.[3] Cette Constitution codifie ainsi des protections qui rendront jaloux même les pays les plus égalitaires.

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Ainsi, depuis 1956, le discours qui règne au niveau de la société est que la Tunisie est un pays égalitaire. Or, ce discours est loin de refléter la réalité des femmes au quotidien. La Tunisie se classe en effet au 123e rang mondial sur le plan de l’égalité des genres.[4] Les femmes consacrent 8 fois plus de temps que les hommes au travail domestique et au soin des enfants et des personnes âgées. Elles doivent assumer 40% plus de tâches que les hommes.[5] Il de plus en plus commun pour les femmes de travailler pour contribuer à subvenir aux besoins de la famille, même si elles doivent continuer d’assumer la quasi-totalité des tâches domestiques. Elle font face à un taux de chômage qui est de près du double de celui auxquels font face les hommes, même si elles sont plus nombreuses à obtenir leur diplôme de niveau universitaire chaque année. En 2013, 42% des femmes diplômées faisaient face au chômage. Elles ont de la difficulté à accéder aux postes de responsabilité représentant seulement 6,5% des chefs d’entreprise, 0.76% des postes décisionnels par rapport à la totalité des agents de la fonction publique et 8% des postes décisionnels au sein des syndicats.[6]

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Le gouvernement ne montre d’ailleurs aucun signe d’une volonté de poser des gestes concrets pour respecter ses engagements constitutionnels. Il y de cela quelques jours, le 22 août 2015, le gouvernement a en effet remanié les nominations aux postes de gouverneurs et a sciemment omis de nominer une femme au 24 postes existant sur le territoire tunisien.[7]

L’une des difficultés de notre travail en tant qu’Association défendant les droits des femmes en Tunisie est donc de détruire ce mythe de la Tunisie égalitaire et de renseigner la population sur les inégalités qui persistent. Pour réussir, l’Association doit dédier une part importante de son travail à la sensibilisation et l’éducation. En tant que responsable des communications, la sensibilisation occupait une large part de mes responsabilités.

J’ai ainsi décidé de réaliser la campagne « Beau sur papier, mais en réalité? », campagne dénonçant le gap qui existe entre les lois, le discours officiel et la réalité. Cette campagne a été transmise à travers les réseaux sociaux, et principalement Facebook, qui est le principal moyen de communication utilisé par les Tunisiens. À l’aide d’images évocatrices et en exposant le contraste entre les articles de la Constitution et les statistiques révélant les inégalités qui persistent en Tunisie, nous espérions pouvoir faire réaliser aux gens que, même si les lois tunisiennes sont plus égalitaires que dans d’autres pays arabes, il reste beaucoup de travail à faire pour réaliser l’égalité substantive. Cette campagne de sensibilisation a fait l’objet d’un article du Huffington Post tunisien, publicité d’une valeur inestimable pour une petite association comme Aswat Nissa.[8]

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Nombre des inégalités qui persistent sont étroitement liées à la religion et aux traditions qui sont encore bien ancrées dans la société tunisienne. Pour que le travail de sensibilisation de l’Association soit efficace, il est donc primordial de montrer que l’égalité peut être acquise dans le respect des croyances religieuses et des racines islamiques. L’Association doit chercher à créer un discours de renforcement des capacités de la femme, tout en respectant les libertés religieuses et les croyances de celle-ci. Le débat sur le voile qui a lieu actuellement en Tunisie est un sujet de réflexion fructueux. Certaines jugent que le voile est un symbole de domination de la femme et que l’augmentation de son port est un phénomène inquiétant. Ils considèrent qu’une femme moderne et émancipée ne devrait pas porter le voile.[9] Or, le port du voile n’est-il pas simplement un choix religieux personnel? Une femme voilée faisant des choix libres, poursuivant ses ambitions sans barrière pour la freiner n’est-elle pas aussi émancipée qu’une femme qui ne l’est pas?

Mon travail à l’Association m’a beaucoup fait réfléchir sur un concept que l’on nous a introduit dès les premiers cours de notre parcours en droit : la normativité. Mon travail en Tunisie m’a en effet permis de voir que le travail à faire pour qu’une loi devienne une norme, et acquière ainsi une force persuasive ayant un impact sur le comportement des gens au quotidien, il doit se produire un long et complexe processus. Pour protéger les droits humains, il est primordial d’élargir l’analyse juridique afin de comprendre les traditions, la culture, les normes religieuses et politiques qui ont bien souvent un impact beaucoup plus puissant sur les droits humains que les lois elles-mêmes. Une grande partie du travail à faire repose dans le changement des mentalités, l’adaptation des traditions et de la culture pour les rendre plus conformes au respect des droits humains, sans pour autant leur imposer un cadre étranger.


[1] Giulia Daniele, « Tunisian Women’s Activism after the January 14 Revolution:

Looking within and towards the Other Side of the Mediterranean », (2014) 15 Journal of International Women’s Studies 5, à la p 19.

[2] Constitution Tunisienne, art. 21, art. 40.

[3] Constitution Tunisienne, art. 46, art. 34.

[4] World Economic Forum, « The Global Gender Gap Report 2014».

[5] «Budget-temps des ménages ruraux et travail invisible des femmes rurales en Tunisie», CREDIF (Centre de Recherches d’Études, de Documentation, d’Information sur les Femmes), Ministère des Affaires de la Femme et de la Famille, 2000.

[6] Boutheina Gribaa et Giorgia Depaoli, Profil genre de la Tunisie 2014, Juin 2014, financé par l’Union Européenne.

[7] Kapitalis, « Nouveaux gouverneurs : «Où sont les femmes?», demande Bochra Belhaj Hmida », 23 août 2015 (en ligne) : http://kapitalis.com/tunisie/2015/08/23/nouveaux-gouverneurs-ou-sont-les-femmes-demande-bochra-belhaj-hmida/; Mosaïque FM, « Nomination de nouveaux gouverneurs par Habib Essid », 22 août 2015, http://www.mosaiquefm.net/fr/index/a/ActuDetail/Element/56376-nomination-de-nouveaux-gouverneurs-par-habib-essid.

[8] Huffington Post Maghreb –Tunisie, « Droits des femmes en Tunisie: L’ONG “Aswat Nissa” relève les différences entre la Constitution et la réalité », 24 août 2015, (En ligne), http://www.huffpostmaghreb.com/2015/08/24/droits-femmes-tunisie_n_8030852.html?utm_hp_ref=maghreb.

[9] Faouzi Ksibi, La presse de Tunisie, « Jusqu’où ira la cabale intégriste ? », 19 août 2015, http://www.lapresse.tn/19082015/103007/jusquou-ira-la-cabale-integriste….html.

 

Désaccord international sur la Convention relative aux droits des handicapés

2015 Beaubien OlivierPar Olivier Beaubien

Un instrument légal avec lequel j’ai beaucoup travaillé, cet été à « Disability Rights Watch Zambia », est la Convention relative aux droits des handicapés de l’Organisation des Nations Unies. Ce traité multilatéral, ratifié par 157 états, constitue indéniablement un accomplissement pour les droits des handicapés et les droits humains. Il est précurseur d’un changement de paradigme; plutôt que de définir un « handicap » comme une dysfonction du corps humain, la Convention le définit comme une conséquence de barrières créées par des sociétés inadaptées aux différences des personnes handicapées.

Un article central à la Convention est l’article 12, qui réitère que toute personne handicapée a droit à la capacité juridique, concept qui nous permet d’exercer nos droits civils en tant qu’agents libéraux et autonomes. Cependant, des tensions ont rapidement surgies lors de l’application pratique de cet article, comme l’illustre bien mon collègue Max Zidel dans sa publication. J’aimerais pour ma part illustrer les tensions internationales qui en découlent.

Le dilemme éthique oppose deux principes juridiques importants. D’une part, il y a le principe de « capacité juridique » et le changement de paradigme que désire promouvoir la Convention. Si le handicap est causé par des barrières sociales, c’est à la société de trouver un moyen d’informer les gens handicapés et de comprendre leur décision. Même si celle-ci devait faire une erreur, ce serait sont droit. D’autre part, il y a le principe de « consentement éclairé ». Si des professionnels jugent qu’une personne a la capacité de comprendre et de consentir, elle peut faire ses propres choix nonobstant les conséquences. Si elle n’a pas une telle capacité, les professionnels pourront alors prendre des décisions pour son propre bien.

Collègues et moi au local de Disability Rights Watch

 Avec mes collègues Pamela Chungu et Bruce Chooma au local de Disability Rights Watch Zambia

Il n’y a pas de réponse universellement acceptée à ce dilemme dans le milieu de défense des droits des handicapés et il n’y en a certainement pas à l’échelle internationale. Le « Comité pour le droit des personnes handicapées » a été créé par la Convention et est composé d’experts nommés par les états signataires. Le Comité a entre autres le pouvoir de recevoir les plaintes des citoyens des états ayant signé le protocole facultatif et de trancher si cet état a enfreint la Convention. Le Comité a émis son premier Commentaire général, dans lequel il défend fermement le principe voulant que les personnes handicapées aient en tous temps la capacité juridique et demande l’abolition des systèmes de tutelles dans tous les pays signataires.

À l’étape même de la ratification de la Convention, certains pays avaient entrevus la possibilité d’une telle interprétation et avaient émises des réservations, notamment l’Australie, le Canada, l’Estonie, la Norvège et la Pologne. Dans leurs réservations, ils interprètent la Convention comme permettant les systèmes de tutelles et ne consentent pas à une obligation de les démanteler. De plus, à la suite de la publication du premier commentaire général, quatre pays ont émis des déclarations dans lesquelles ils contestent cette interprétation de la Convention. Il s’agit de l’Allemagne, du Danemark, de la France et de la Norvège.

D’un côté, le Comité détient certainement une expertise et exerce une influence passive sur l’interprétation de la Convention. Or, plusieurs des pays divergeant de son opinion ont eux-mêmes une excellente réputation au niveau du traitement des personnes handicapées.

Il n’y a pas de solution facile, ni même de « bonne solution », à cette divergence d’opinions. La situation actuelle m’a néanmoins permis de réfléchir aux limites – et même aux dangers – du droit international. Lorsqu’on parle des droits humains les plus fondamentaux, comme le fait la Convention, il est facile de vouloir promouvoir la ratification de traités et le renforcement d’institutions comme le Comité, ayant le pouvoir de tenir les états responsables de leurs engagements. Je demeure convaincu qu’ils seront bien souvent d’excellents outils pour défendre les droits humains.

Or, de telles institutions nécessiteront toujours, en pratique, une centralisation de pouvoir, une perte d’autonomie nationale et une perte de proximité (aucun praticien du domaine de la santé ne siégeait sur le Comité lorsque le commentaire fut émis). La situation actuelle offre une bonne opportunité de réfléchir aux divergences qui surgissent de bonne foi dans la définition des droits humains, aux gains qui peuvent être faits par ces divergences et au rôle que doit jouer le droit international dans de tels cas.

Human rights monitoring in DF, Mexico

2015-Boychuk-ClaireBy Claire Boychuk

It smells of cleaning chemicals and urine. Outside, a courtyard in the middle of the hospital explodes with tropical colours; red hibiscus, yellow sunlight. Inside, the colour of loneliness is gray-blue. The images will haunt me later: this man with calloused skull and twisted ankle has lived in this metal crib for fifty-two years. A sound like a zipper from the crunching jaw of a little boy whose arms are tied in bed sheets. Screams and rocking wheelchairs.

Downtown, Mexico CityI shadow our medical expert and record her observations in my notebook. Age, treatment, diagnosis. We ask, how many hours a day is she restrained in this chair? Do the patients ever leave? Do they have families? And sometimes, are the women sterilized? Between me and this great suffering is my notebook. Later we will type up these notes, connect facts and law, cite UN conventions, write letters and reports demanding that this torture end.

This is the cadence of human rights monitoring with Disability Rights International (DRI) in Mexico City. It’s hard but meaningful work. By July, much of this evidence comes together in the form of a report, No Justice: Torture, Trafficking and Segregation in Mexico. Within hours the report is picked up by every major news outlet in the city. Soon after, ABC News airs a report on DRI’s yearlong investigation into shelters for children and adults with disabilities in Mexico City. The Mexican government responds, promising to end the use of restraints and cages. This is an historic victory. DRI has been advocating for change in Mexico for over twenty years.

I leave Mexico knowing that there are still so many notebooks that could be filled with the stories of children and adults who have survived torture and abuse, who may never see justice or redress. I leave with a heightened awareness that there is so much more work to be done in Mexico and around the world to guarantee that this generation of persons with disabilities and the next live in a world free of torture. But I also take with me a simple insight that seems to be at the heart of DRI’s work. When you begin from premise that all people are entitled to live in dignity, the only logical conclusion is that change is necessary.

 

What Yoga Has Taught Me About Human Rights

2015 Meredith Carly

By Carly Meredith

In my past blog posts, I have spoken about the distinct Boulder lifestyle; known particularly for its people’s strong connection to the outdoors, their focus on cultivating and connecting in mind, body, and spirit with the earth and the beautiful mountainous surroundings that Boulder has been blessed with.

Last night, I did something distinctly “Boulder”. I went to yoga class at a microbrewery. The 15$ fee  includes a one-hour yoga class and a beer shared among fellow yogis afterwards. The class is held in the  actual brewery, among the imposing metallic vats, the mounds of skids and the piles of beer cans. The  activities within the brewery continue as the yoga class goes on – a true way to challenge whether you are  succeeding at avoiding distraction and harnessing all of your attention into your breath. It is the perfect reminder that inner peace and strength, if you focus your attention hard enough, can be found in nearly every setting…

My only concern about completing a human rights internship in Colorado was the fear that I would miss out on one of the very important elements that many of my fellow interns are acquiring from their experience: being in the field and experiencing the day to day life alongside the people they are committed to helping.

But as I move into yoga’s final resting pose, savasana, I feel a deep connection through my mind and body and realize that I haven’t missed out at all. In fact, I have learned a very important lesson: doing human rights work, and doing it well, is not dependent on being in a particular place. It is about choosing who you want to help, devoting your energy and love to the people and causes that you care about and finding ways to achieve those things, regardless of where we may be in the world. Doing human rights work is about more than just thinking, or conceptualizing, or acknowledging that certain problems exist. As the founder of One Earth Future metaphorically put it to the interns over lunch the other day: “What good is your hospital if everyone who comes to your hospital dies?”

Believing that we need to be in a particular place, to come from a particular background, to have certain innate characteristics in order to help (while sometimes helpful in understanding the plight of those suffering human rights abuses) should not be a cop out for neglecting to pursue the issues we feel strongly about. Keep an open mind. Be innovative. Embrace the challenge. Take your unique experiences, whether they come from Colorado, Uganda, Iqaluit or Montreal and allow them to shape what you can contribute to the world.

There are days that your mind and body will embrace the challenge more easily. As yoga has taught me: just because you did a certain pose with ease one day, it doesn’t mean that same pose will be easy the next. While this may seem frustrating, it is indeed a beautiful thing that the world around us changes every day. Every single day nature provides us with a different set of conditions; different opportunities to address the problems that may not have been solved the day before, but that may just thrive under the new conditions of the world. Change is not dependent on where we are. It’s dependent on how we use the conditions around us to achieve the things we wish to achieve. As Heraclitus so eloquently put it: No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Namaste.

Women & Human Rights: Part I

By Yuan Stevens

This is the first of two blog posts about the work of women in human rights.

 

All street art photos from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s project, “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” Photo by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.


In this post, I’m going to tell you a bit about the work of Salini Sharma in Delhi, India and some thoughts on her organization’s work in relation to privacy. 
In my next post, I’m going to talk about the work of a civil rights activist in Morocco.

First of all, why (these) women? 

The organization I interned with, Equitas, held their 36th annual International Human Rights Training Program (“IHRTP”) this past summer.

The theme of the entire program was centred on how to better equip young girls and women to meaningfully participate in their societies. That very theme inspires this post. I’m writing about these women because I find their work fascinating and connected with them at the IHRTP.

Salini (pronounced Shaw-lini) Sharma, the first female in her family to obtain a bachelor’s degree, studied biotechnology engineering before working with Safecity in India.

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Me (left) and Salini (right), during Equitas’s International Human Rights Training Program.

Salini told me that she didn’t find it incredibly satisfying to work in biotechnology engineering — even though she absolutely loved studying it. Once she began working in the field, she was consistently given odd tasks she was overqualified for. The timing of her shifts were consistently very inconvenient. It’s hard not to attribute this to the fact that she was female in a very male-dominated field.

After months of volunteering with UN Women and a growing passion for working in the development sector, Salini is now the Program & Outreach Officer with Safecity, an amazing organization in India that fights against gender-based violence — primarily through their crowd-sourced map that reveals anonymous complaints of sexual harassment all over the country.

They advocate for change in urban planning and police enforcement through reports, their community-led campaigns, events, and through the sharing of digital tools that empower women.

According to BBC, the site was created just after a 2012 gang rape of a Delhi student.

harassing women masculinity

Photo by Pat Gavin.

An important feature of Safecity’s work is that they welcome and encourage anonymous complaints of all kinds of sexual harassment.

This of course results in some practical problems of accountability — but, as Harvard Berkman faculty associate Zeynep Tufekci argued in a recent Medium article, the ability to choose when to reveal information about ourselves — or not — is a necessary corollary to an “open and connected world.”

Tufekci wrote her article in response to Mark Zuckerberg and his family’s decision to share that his wife, Priscilla Chan, had had miscarriages before they had conceived their current baby to-come. (Congratulations to their family!)

Tufekci eloquently reminds us [emphasis added]:

 ”Privacy, the bedrock of openness, is at its core about agency, about control and about the right to engage the world on your own terms (and with the name of your own choosing, too).”

 

On MLK

Photo by Graff Hunter via streetartsf.

 

The work of organizations like Safecity are emblematic of this same belief that we must first and foremost celebrate self-determined privacy and control. Only then are (a woman’s) decisions (to be open) meaningful. 

Safecity provides women with the ability to have meaningful control over their lives through community-involvement and advocacy about their needs to state decision-makers.

Tufekci ended her article the way I will end this blog post:

 

“Just like privacy, openness are connectedness are about agency and control — otherwise, they would be exploitative and become a violation. There is no contradiction between strong privacy and an open and connected world.

Privacy and openness, control and connectedness, agency and disclosure feed on each other, and can only be built on each other.

 
two women

photo by carnageflushx.

Final Reflections and Lessons Learned

2015 Zidel Max 2By Max Zidel

As I write my final blog post, I watch through the big glass windows at Budapest International Airport as the various planes pull out of their gates, accelerate and disappear into the sky. In an hour or so that will be me, boarding an EasyJet flight for Berlin and eventually Italy, where I will spend a couple of weeks with friends before returning to Canada.

As I sit and enjoy my espresso (one of my favourite pastimes), I am conscious of the Hungarian words that hang above me – “felvonók” for lifts, “mosdók” for washrooms – which remind me of the unique culture and kind people that I leave behind. I think about all the amazing nights I spent with friends by the Danube or dancing on Margit Island (it’s a little island-park between Buda and Pest); I think about all the amazing people that I met – through work, family friends or living arrangements.

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Of course, while I have many great stories to share about my short three months in Budapest, I have decided in my final blog post to make some concluding remarks about my experience here as a human rights intern, and some of the key lessons I have learned about law, social justice and even myself.

1. Personal experiences are crucial, but there is a danger in generalizing. Having grown up with a sister with severe intellectual disabilities, I have had many first-hand encounters with the ways in which law and mental disability interact, as well as with trying to live up to the needs and aspirations of someone who was often incapable of verbalizing her thoughts and feelings. This kind of personal connection and experience was essential to my work at MDAC, but I also learned how important it is to keep it in perspective. My sister’s story is really only one among many, and what she may have wanted out of law or life is not necessarily what other individuals with mental disability may want. And this works both ways. For example, while the CRPD’s General comment on Article 12 rightly callsfor an end to guardianship and a move toward supported decision making, I fear that in my sister’s case this would be a step in the wrong direction. Incapable of understanding notions like ‘money’ or performing basic tasks like getting dressed or preparing a meal, my sister’s dignity and autonomy were greatly enhanced by some of the substitute decision making carried out by my parents. But while this may be true for my sister, I have no doubt that it is probably not true for the vast majority of individuals with mental disability.

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2. Legal human rights work doesn’t always feel like human rights work. Legal work can be powerful and impactful, but it can also be highly removed and impersonal. Though I very much enjoyed the various research tasks I was assigned to and am really pleased with the amount of knowledge I acquired in the process, I am aware of how often I simply disconnected from the real world while sitting behind my desk. Just as in law school, I often found myself in a universe of legal jargon – where peoples’ stories were simply fact summaries and fundamental rights a means to some strategic objective or outcome. This is not to say my desk-work was not important – it was and I do believe that it will eventually lead to some real change and impact at a very personal level for some of our beneficiaries. I just thought it important to point out that I sometimes felt like that wasn’t the case, and that maybe there is a better balance that can be struck between engagement and legal work.

3. It is hard to go somewhere when you don’t know where you are going. Over the past few months, I learned that it is much easier to denounce something that’s wrong or unjust than it is to articulate a promising alternative. If guardianship is abusive, invasive and belittling, then what do we propose instead? If institutions are broken and harmful, then what is a better vision based around community care? These are the challenges we faced every single day at MDAC. And rightfully so, because it’s not enough to tell judges and governments that the current ways aren’t working if we don’t have any better ideas. And we don’t just need ideas, but also ones that are affordable and implementable. This is no easy task, and indeed it often felt like we were driving into the abyss without any maps to lead the way. Human rights, it seems, is not necessarily about “immediately realizable” rights, but more so about courage and experimentation, and an acknowledgement that the world we live is and will continue to be – imperfect.

All in all, I am really glad I got the chance to work at MDAC and participate in this amazing internship program. I really look forward to reflecting on all of these issues in greater depth as I begin the process of writing my term paper this fall!

To Witness a Miscarriage of Justice

2015 Noga BrodieBy Brodie Noga

I used to think that the phrase miscarriage of justice was oddly visceral. Having felt my heart slow, my chest become heavy, and my stomach wrench as the “Phnom Penh 11” were handed down 20 and seven year sentences in a deeply flawed legal proceeding after a mere 15 minutes of deliberation, it now feels sterile.

The trial of the 11 opposition party officials and activists I was observing had deteriorated quickly after an opposition led boycott of a vote on the NGO law and a major political rally held at a contested area of the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Plaintiffs conveniently failed to show when summoned and instead had suspiciously similar written statements read into the record; after months of delay the trial was suddenly sped up to a daily schedule despite defence lawyer protestations that they would be unable to attend; the day of the verdict only one of the nine defence counsel was present; closing arguments were announced with three minutes notice; and as as the judges left to deliberate, scores of police were mobilized to shut down the streets surrounding the Court and to fill the courtroom.

When it became clear that the outcome was pre-determined, the 11 men charged with leading and participating in an insurrection – despite a total absence of any accusation that they’d committed acts violence or that the events of July 15 2014 had in any way amounted to an insurrectionary movement – began to joke. One man, whose son had died that morning, teased the court police that he needed to pee before the verdict was rendered and promised he wouldn’t run away. Others asked the guards if they could have their cellphones back so they could give them to their family before they were jailed. While my translator conveyed these words to me he would interject and tell me how these words hurt his heart. They hurt mine, too.

And then the verdict came, read so quickly most couldn’t even catch who received which sentence, and the police handcuffed the 11 to lead them to prison. As we left, my translator told me that he was glad to see the verdict so that now he will be prepared for when they come for him. And then my heart hurt for him as well.

As students of law we often talk about justice and injustice, but it is nearly always in the abstract. The trial is far from the first terrible thing that I have witnessed, but the emotional charge that hung in the air as the verdict was read continues to haunt me. But it wasn’t the catalog of fair trial violations in my notebook that was disturbing, it was the performance of state power before me, it was the men aware of their looming sentence, it was the nervous energy of the audience, it was the rapidity of the judge’s speech as the sentence was read. Law in the abstract never really exists without law in the concrete. A miscarriage of justice isn’t just a failure of the court to abide by abstract codes of behaviour, it is the immensely visceral interaction between humans whose final reality exists in their flesh. For me and for those in the audience, the physicality of the injustice was vicarious. For those 11 who felt the handcuffs around their wrists, it was far more immediate.

Legal information and human rights

2015 Vallery Bayly

By Vallery Bayly

Accessing legal information is critical to enforcing rights. This is as true in Canada as it is everywhere else in the world. People need to know what their rights are before they can even think about trying to enforce them. Human rights defenders, and particularly lawyers, also need to be able to access legal information in order to protect and enforce human rights.

Availability

Over the past twelve weeks of my internship with Avocats sans frontières Canada, I’ve worked on a few projects related to the legal framework (the justice system and domestic laws) of other countries, particularly Mali. Often during my internship I have found myself frustrated with the lack of availability of basic legal information. For a Canadian law student, the idea of not being able to access legal information online is unthinkable. But when I look for information about Malian law, it can be difficult – often impossible – to find even basic legal texts. Even when information is available online, it’s often out of date or incomplete.

In Canada, it’s fairly easy for lawyers, law students, human rights defenders, and citizens to access vital legal information. The Supreme Court puts all of its jurisprudence online, and laws are accessible through federal, provincial, and municipal government websites. There’s also CanLII, which offers free access to cases and legislation.

There is nothing like CanLII in Mali. A very small number of cases are available online. A few of the most important laws – like the Civil Code and the Penal Code – are available, though generally finding them requires some digging. However, some of my research ended when I was unable to find any relevant legal information online. If this is frustrating for me, sitting in an office in Quebec, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for the people who really need this information. And this isn’t only the case in Mali – in many places, legal information is difficult or impossible to find online.

Accessibility

It goes without saying that it is not enough that legal information simply be available. While lawyers can make use of cases and laws in their original form, they must also be available in a form that is accessible and comprehensible to the people who need the information most. Literacy rates can affect the accessibility of legal information. Language barriers can also exist. For example, almost 50% of the population of Mali speaks Bambara as their first language, and there are a variety of other languages spoken. The official language – the language of the legal system – is French. These factors can make even the legal information that is available inaccessible to the majority of the population.

This is why many projects aimed at reinforcing human rights and increasing access to justice focus on providing legal information in an accessible format – although access to justice is a multi-faceted problem. Even if information is available, making use of the information can be difficult if courts are difficult or expensive to access.

There are no easy solutions to these problems, and many of them exist in Canada as well, albeit to a lesser extent. But what I’ve learned over the course of my internship is that we’re incredibly lucky to have free, easy access to so much legal information.

Human Rights Education: Teaching Right from Wrong

2015 Cichalewska VictoriaBy Victoria Cichalewska

In my last blog post, I made the observation that one of the reasons Human Rights Education (HRE) is important is because laws are not enough to ensure that rights are protected. Mentalities need to change first before laws can be properly enforced. Another reason why HRE is important was highlighted during the International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) at Equitas. HRE instructs people on what their rights are and thus helps them distinguish right from wrong.

During the IHRTP, participants were asked to watch a documentary entitled “A Path to Dignity: The Power of Human Rights Education” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahE0tJbvl78) which explores the positive outcomes of Human Rights Training in India, Turkey and Australia. In the documentary, Navi Pillay, the previous United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, states that the “full realization of Human Rights requires all human beings of being aware of their and other people’s rights and the means to protect their human rights, which is the task of human rights educators.” For example, in the documentary, one girl from India explained the gender discrimination present in her community and then said that HRE helped her understand that being a girl is not the problem. Rather, her human rights have been denied, and the problem is societal. She realized that the way her family and community was treating her was wrong. Such realizations allow individuals to feel more empowered and inspire them to work towards social change. This is something I heard a lot from participants at the IHRTP. Many have also gone through the same journey that led them to understand that their identity did not justify the abuse they suffered.

But who gets to decide where the problem lies, what is right from wrong and ultimately which rights should be protected? How can we convince people of what behaviour is wrong, and what needs to change? This was a huge topic of discussion at the IHRTP.

In fact, this year was the first one in which the thematic session on LGBTQI rights was mandatory for all participants, contrary to other sessions, like the one on freedom of religion, which was optional. This caused a lot of controversy among the participants. Although many of them, especially the LGBTQI activists, were very happy about the mandatory session, other human rights activists were not. Some did not understand why the LGBTQI session is mandatory. Some claimed that LGBTQI rights are NOT rights, and others compared it to bestiality. I was shocked at how many human rights educators and activists from around the world were against LGBTQI rights and did not believe in defending the rights of this minority group.

This controversy surrounding the mandatory LGBTQI session was amplified during the presentation on “Universality and Cultural Relativism” led by Yousry Moustafa. Many participants expressed their ongoing concern that the idea of Human Rights as universal is just another form of western imperialism. However, Moustafa explained that the rejection of the idea of Human Rights as universal and the promotion of cultural relativism usually comes up in discussions on minority and sexual and reproductive rights, including LGBTQI rights. States will rarely turn to cultural relativism when discussing civil and political rights, for example.

So how can we promote the rights of minority groups that are often controversial for many, and resist cultural relativism, without it being another form of western imperialism? How can we convince people of what is right from wrong? The facilitators of the groups (the people that would lead and facilitate the classroom discussions) would often discuss the strategies they would use when talking about LGBTQI rights. The approach that would most often come up is reminding participants that the LGBTQI community, like all other minorities, are human beings and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. But is that enough?

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