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The Best Journeys Are Not Planned, But Discovered

By Elias D León

It has been several weeks since I returned from Costa Rica where I interned at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Shortly after returning to Montreal, I encountered way too many memories floating around my brain, which developed one by one thanks to my 12 weeks once in a lifetime experience at what, I call, one of the most exotic and colourful places on Earth. In this first blog post, I will offer some of my reflections and impressions about my time in Costa Rica representing McGill Law at the OAS’ principal judiciary organ that promotes and protects human rights across the Americas.

Andrea Buitrago & Elias León, McGill Law Representatives at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Latin America’s Flavours: Returning to my Roots

On May 3, 2017 at 6:58 am I woke up in my flat in Montreal thrilled to embark on a journey that I thought would bring me back to the continent of my origin: Latin America. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was nervous, scared, anxious, or just happy. Perhaps a combination of all. Since the political turmoil in Venezuela got out of control, I have not been back to Latin America. I knew Costa Rica would be very different from Venezuela, in terms of political stability, proper access to food, health-care, water (from what my folks would call ‘luxurious goods’ currently non-existent in my homeland, regrettably). However, I was very curious to land in the International Airport of San Jose to discover how similar this small country in Central America would remind me of Venezuela in a particular way. I don’t mean returning to my “real” roots, rather I mean returning to the continent that brings together rich cultures, tasteful gastronomy, vibrant social life, and a devotion for hard work in trying to become a better person every day – that’s what made me think this opportunity was all about: returning to a country that would make me feel, more less, back in Venezuela since, as of today, I cannot seem to be able to do this.

As soon as I arrived in Costa Rica’s capital, my good friend Natalia and her friends picked me at the airport and drove to her house to meet with her family. Immediately, I felt just as if a friend from childhood picked me up in Caracas to then have a home-cooked meal. As the days progressed, I was lucky enough to meet several locals who welcomed me with wide-open arms and invited me to countless journeys with the objective to discover Costa Rica’s diverse biodiversity, the “pura vida” style, appreciation for environmental stewardship, and most importantly, the beginning of new friendships, which is how they take pride in being good Costa Ricans hosts. Interestingly, I also met several Venezuelans. In fact, there were so many Venezuelans who have recently arrived in Costa Rica as political refugees that, overtime, it really felt like returning to my roots (and this time I mean it literally). However, I have to admit, I was sad (and possibly upset) to learn from each Venezuelan’s story about how they had to leave everything behind overnight – including their families, loved ones, professional careers such as practices in medicine, the law, business, and engineering. They all seemed to have to start from zero and worked as Uber drivers or blue collar positions in order to make just enough Colones (Costa Rican currency) to eat, pay a shared room in a flat, and save enough so they could send money for their families who could not escape the current dictatorship Venezuela is facing.

My 89 days in Latin America were extraordinary. These twelve weeks allowed me to reflect upon and cherish all opportunities Canada had given me until now, but this visit also made me feel proud to belong to a continent with such a unique culture. People there are hard-workers, warm, loud, funny, great sense of humour, love to go dancing or to share “arepas” or “gallo pinto” during a lunch break, devoted to faithful groups, constantly staying active through physical activities, and so much more. I am lucky to know we, as Canadians, can do all of these things in Canada as well, but there was something unique about being able to do all of these things over again in Latin America, just like I used to during the first fifteen years of my life in Venezuela. 

Oath of Confidentiality Official Ceremony with 2017 Interns & Visiting Professionals

The Inter-American Court: From exchanges of Conversations with Human Rights Violation Victims to the President of the Court

One of the biggest assets of working at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is definitely the people you meet. As for all of us in the legal profession is social, the nature of the work is grounded on a wide range of different personalities whom you work with and interact at many different levels. Yes, you certainly get to work with some of the brightest and most respected human rights jurists across the Americas. But you also get meet, talk, interview, and listen to the very people who travel hundreds of miles to a architecturally colonial style white house in the historical neighbourhood of Los Yoses, which serves as the premises of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. For confidentiality constraints, I cannot disclose details, but what I can share is my reflection on how powerful the words I exchanged with some of the victims of human rights (who were going to testify during court hearings in the cases I was assigned to) were and how much they motivated me to do my work better in my office at the Court. Most of the time I would be speechless to learn from what they had to say. Other times, I felt powerless by not being able to ‘do more’ or ‘try to assure them that everything was going to be okay’ – when in fact I knew that some of these victims had to return to their home countries, the next day of the court hearing date, where they would sometimes be prosecuted either by volatile governments or organized-crime groups.

Most of the time however, I learned a great deal from the lawyers in my team, fellow law clerks, and most certainly, the lawyers whom I shared my office with. The great advantage about working in such an active and collegial working environment is that each lawyer was from a different country, whose parcour was significantly unique from one another. I remember nourishing excellent friendships with lawyers from Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Cuba, Uruguay, and even Germany. Some of them have done human rights law for 20+ years while others were corporate lawyers who decided to make the transition from business law to human rights law in their mid-level careers. I learned something valuable and unique from each person. At work, we would engage in very transsystemic dialogues doing comparative legal analysis on contemporary issues as climate change, refugees asylum, international security, and same-sex marriage. On a more inter-personal level, we would discover each other’s national gastronomy, customs, traditions, and culture. This special aspect of the Inter-American Court constantly made me think of the fond memories I have working in diplomacy being posted in few different cities. I just think it’s the perfect work environment for any McGill Law student seeking to discover new cultures and ontologies.

 

Advisory Opinion on Gender Identity and Patrimonial rights derived from relationships between persons of the same sex. For more information, please consult: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/solicitudoc/solicitud_17_05_16_eng.pdf

Meeting the Honourable Roberto Caldas, President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Pura Vida: Beyond a Destination to Gain a Superb Summer Legal Experience

So you may be thinking what Pura Vida is. Well, it’s a phrase that essentially encompasses how “ticos” look at the world. It’s how they look at life-work balance, social relationships, family, communication, and frankly anything. Instead of saying buenos días Costa Ricans enthusiastically say “Hey, PURA VIDA!” Instead of apologizing for not submitting a work deadline on time, they say “pura vida.” Instead of responding “I’m good, how are you?” they say “Pura Vida!” This was certainly a highlight in my journey in Costa Rica – and was consistently a joke we had between everyone who wasn’t a Tico in the Court. The point is that Costa Rica is probably one of the countries with the happiest people and as a McGill Law student who had just finished 1L, I certainly took the opportunity to learn from this ‘pura vida’ way of life to think more about work-life balance. I learned that it is important to really make the effort in being patient when something does not happen as quickly – or as efficient in North American parlance. It’s important to take this type of 12-week culturally enriching experience to step outside of our comfort zone or incredibly busy lifestyles to meditate, do yoga, breath fresh air, take different types of risks – less so professionally inclined and more so learning a different sport like surfing. All to say that the “pura vida” outlook on life, which every Costa Rican seem to experience on a daily basis – and indeed, every staff attorney or law clerk at the Inter-American Court – taught me that you experience the fabric of a place by immersing yourself in the flavours, sites, and sounds of a destination. In my opinion, this is when you have fully experienced Costa Rica and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the way it’s meant to be. Different for everyone, but yet extraordinary for all.

Exploring the Volcano Arenal

Reflections on Human Rights Education

By Sara E.B. Pierre

One of the things I loved the most about working at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) was observing and participating in their capacity-building workshops. I am a big believer in education, and I think it is crucial when it comes to human rights work. IHRDA gives presentations and workshops as part of its education mandate. They also have a mandate to defend, which they do by advocating on behalf of victims of human rights abuses, and to inform, which they do by building a comprehensive database of African human rights legislation.

There is one phrase in particular that one of my supervisors said at a capacity-building workshop back in The Gambia which has stuck with me. In our Critical Engagements with Human Rights class, we have had many discussions about the tension and overlap between international, national and regional human rights norms. Are human rights a Western concept? The answer is no. The phrase I remember my supervisor saying was at a capacity-building workshop for police officers/prosecutors and social workers on harmful practices against girls and women. He said that harmful practices against women and girls are not part of African culture; “maybe it was a part of our culture 200 years ago, but if you practice FGM (female genital mutilation) or child marriage in Africa now, you are violating our culture.” I think he was trying to show how culture is fluid, and no one state has a monopoly on the concept of human rights. Yes, we may all have slight differences when it comes to writing laws, and this is a good thing. However, the bottom line is that human rights are universal rights, and nothing, not even claims of practicing one’s actual or alleged culture, should get in the way of that.

The capacity-building workshop was prepared by an NGO called Safe Hands for Girls, in collaboration with IHRDA. The theme of the two-day training was harmful practices against women and girls, and we focused on forced marriage, and especially female genital mutilation, or FGM. This last topic was especially difficult to hear about, as the first speaker went into the painful specifics of the operation, complete with real life images. There were no trigger warnings, but there was a moment of individual prayer before the workshop began. Besides talking about how painful the procedure is for infants, children and women, the speaker also explained that how it is done can lead to complications which affect the health and sometimes the life of the person being operated, especially when/if she becomes pregnant.

 

One of my supervisors at IHRDA spoke about women’s rights in The Gambia. He brought up an interesting point: how even though FGM has been outlawed in the country, and there is extensive knowledge that the practice is still widespread (76% of women in The Gambia have suffered through FGM), there have been no cases brought forward. When he brought up the question of how this can be, something interesting happened. A police officer said there have been no cases brought forward because they do not receive reports or complaints. However, a social worker replied that just the other day someone came to her with a report of FGM, and when they tried involving the local police, the police officer did not want to make an arrest for fear of being targeted by the community. I think this situation is all too prevalent and is very useful for showing the disconnect between the law and practice. To me, it shows that human rights work must be rooted in education, and must be contextual. A top-down approach does not work. If we truly want sustainable change, we must first change the attitudes of the perpetrators of the human rights abuses. In order to change peoples’ minds, we have to get to know them.

 

 

Looking back on my summer at Equitas

By: Nathalie Laflamme

The few months I worked as an Education Intern at Equitas went by in a flash. In some ways, the internship almost seemed too short, and yet, as I look back, I realize just how much work we were able to accomplish in such a short period of time during the three-week-long International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP). I thought I could use this blog post to write a little more about exactly what my role was during my internship, and to give you a better idea of what it was like to be a part of the IHRTP.

Before the IHRTP

In the first month of my internship, I worked at the Equitas office, located right by McGill campus. All the interns – 2 Education Interns, 9 Coordination Interns, and 1 Communications Intern – shared one conference room. It goes without saying that we all got to know each other quite fast. The funky ice breakers (or “energizers,” as they are called at Equitas) we did every day after lunch definitely helped our friendships blossom. During this time, my main task was working on a lengthy and fascinating report, which compiled much of the information incoming participants included in their Pre-Training Assignments. Using this information, I was able to write a report which included sections such as most prominent human rights violations, separated by geographic location. While this was a lengthy, often quite technical task, I found myself completely engrossed by the information provided by participants. The 40-page report is one of the things I am most proud of accomplishing during my internship. I learned so much about different parts of the world I previously knew nothing about, and got to learn it directly from the mouths of experts—it was unlike any learning I had ever done before.

All the Equitas interns! Photo by Michael Cooper/Equitas.

This task also allowed me to learn so much about the participants before meeting them. Not only did I learn their names, but I also got to learn about their organizations, the projects closest to their hearts, and their reasons for wanting to take part in the IHRTP. This also turned the first week of the IHRTP into a fun mental puzzle for me—putting faces to names was a neat experience, to say the least!

During the IHRTP

I blinked, and then we were moving to John Abbott College. I must say that it is impossible to list all the tasks I completed during the IHRTP, as there was so many and they were often quite technical. The days were filled to the brim with task after task, making for a very interesting—and definitely never dull—work environment. My main tasks consisted of setting up rooms for plenary presentations and working with resource persons to make sure their presentations went smoothly. During the plenary sessions, the other Education Intern and I would take notes (one in French and the other in English) that we would later publish on the Equitas Community (a forum for IHRTP participants), with translated PowerPoint presentations and other relevant documents. We also worked closely with Facilitators—former IHRTP participants who lead the small group sessions that participants take part in during the day—to make sure they had all the materials they needed. This involved many last-minute runs to the store to buy markers and flip charts. We also did instantaneous translations during many events, which was so much harder than I thought it would be. Additionally, I ran evaluations at the end of every “stream,” which is what Equitas calls the chapters of the program. This involved many hours working with participants in the computer labs, where I assisted them to make sure they completed the surveys.

A photo of me taken for the 2017 IHRTP photo campaign. Photo by Gabrielle Vendette/Equitas.

If this does not seem like much, I can guarantee quite contrarily that the days were packed. At the end of every day, when the intern in charge of driving the van back to Montreal texted everyone saying they were leaving, I was always left scrambling, hoping I had one more hour to finish up. The pace was like nothing I’ve experienced before (and I have worked in very stressful work environments!), but I must say that it was a pace that made me more productive than ever.

The IHRTP allowed me to meet so many incredible, passionate human rights defenders. While I was introduced to the facilitators on the very first day of their orientation during a meeting, I met most participants during meals, or at IHRTP events, and even sometimes while playing soccer! My biggest regret is not spending more time getting to know them. Getting to meet all of these amazing people was by far the highlight of working at Equitas for me.

I also had the privilege of spending some time in the classrooms while assisting a participant living with a disability. This allowed me to see the participative approach Equitas uses in action while also getting an intimate look inside the program. The program does not use a “classic” teaching style where a teacher lectures the class. Instead, a facilitator and co-facilitator facilitate the activities in the classroom. Participation is crucial, as participants are the true experts. The program works so well because participants get to learn from one another. The small groups are also purposely diverse to create an interesting blend of ideas and experiences. Participants learn through various interactive techniques so getting bored is not an option—the schedule is packed with activities. While in the classroom, I got to see all of this in action, and I have to say that it had me questioning whether a similar system could somehow be integrated into the law school curriculum.

The next thing I knew, the departures weekend was among us and it was time to say goodbye. I volunteered to help drive participants back to the airport, which allowed me to spend a few more minutes with the them. I truly hope I will have the pleasure of seeing some of these amazing people again in the future.

After the IHRTP

Returning to the Equitas offices once the internship was completed felt very odd. It was almost like that feeling we got as children when returning home from sleep-away camp. We all missed the participants, and generally the lively atmosphere of the IHRTP. Still, I had a lot left to wrap up in a very short time, so those last few weeks with the interns, back in our old conference room, flew by too. During this time, I mainly finished translating and uploading documents to the Equitas Community.

Looking back

Working with Equitas this summer was an unforgettable experience. Never in my life have I been in such an action-packed, diverse, multi-lingual environment, and I doubt I ever will again. I went into my internship knowing very little about human rights education or its crucial role in the protection of human rights on a global scale, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to learn so much about it. This is a topic I plan to further delve into this semester with my research. And, who knows, maybe one day I will work with some of the amazing human rights defenders and educators I met at the IHRTP.

Here is a photo of all the participants, facilitators, co-facilitators, staff, interns and volunteers at the IHRTP. Photo by Michael Cooper/Equitas.

“What’s it like, up North?”

Jones Rebecca

Rebecca Jones

This post is a reflection of my own personal experiences and it is not my intention to make generalizations about life in the Yukon or in the North.

Before I left for my internship, I received a lot of unsolicited well-meaning advice about what Northerners were like, how expensive my groceries were going to be, and how to handle bear attacks. Luckily, I never had to figure out that last one (although I did have a few close encounters with large foxes). Thinking about the Yukon conjured images of Ted Harrison’s colourful and vibrant artwork[1], a few vague historical facts about the Gold Rush, and the line from Robert Service’s famous poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun…”[2]. People’s reactions when they learned that I would be spending some time up North ranged from surprised and concerned to curious and confused. During my time in the Yukon, I was often asked by friends and family from back home: “So what’s it like, up North?”

I was excited to spend a summer in the Yukon; several years ago, I had travelled across the country for a Canada-wide art project without enough funding to make it to any of the Territories. I knew that the North was unique and that, as “southerners,” we are sometimes guilty of forgetting that it exists. I certainly do not remember learning much about the Yukon, other than a brief history of the Gold Rush, despite growing up in British Columbia.

So here are some of my personal observations during my summer in “the North.”

Interaction with wildlife is often a daily occurrence. The city of Whitehorse is small and the various subdivisions are surrounded by forest. A few steps in any direction will take you on a back-country trail or into the woods. Foxes are often seen roaming the city. There are stories of wolves chasing road cyclists and dog-scaring porcupines. Whitehorse residents are frequently reminded to bear-proof their garbage bins and refrain from leaving out “attractants”. The number of bears that conservation officers have killed this year alone is a stark reminder that this land is not ours and that we are the intruders disturbing the animals’ habitats.[3]

The Yukon River flowing through Miles Canyon.

Many locals that I met were very proud to call themselves “Northerners”. I learned that life up North can sometimes be very challenging and unforgiving due to extreme weather conditions, remoteness, and lack of resources. Early on in the summer, I arrived at the grocery store to discover empty shelves with no fresh produce and a simple note from the staff – it instructed customers to return in a few days because the produce truck had a flat tire and would not make its scheduled delivery time. Several locals explained to me that this was not an uncommon occurrence and that sometimes the trucks can’t make it in because the road is washed out due to weather. That being said, Whitehorse is one of the most Southern communities in the Yukon and quite easily accessible compared to fly-in communities in the Territory, such as Old Crow, where people who visit often bring fresh produce with them as gifts.

I experienced the infamous Northern hospitality from everyone I met – perhaps, due in part to the demands of life in the Yukon and in part to the nature of living in a small community. It started with my new roommate picking me up from the airport at 1:00 am. People were eager to show me around, lend me their outdoor gear, or share a meal. Everywhere I went I was made to feel welcome. During my first few weeks, I was quite taken aback at people’s generosity. I actually remember my big-city roots thinking that “there must be a catch.” After a few weeks, it became my new normal.

About 25% of the Yukon’s population is Indigenous.[4] The Gold Rush, the building of the Alaska Highway during World War II, and the residential school system have all permanently impacted these First Nations in various ways. The Yukon is unique in that the majority of it was never subject to Canadian government treaties until a Final Agreement was signed in 1990.[5] This lack of treaties allowed for Yukon First Nations to work with the Canadian government to negotiate land claims and self-government agreements. 11 out of the 14 First Nations in the Yukon have Self-Government Agreements which allow the First Nations to “make and enact laws in respect of their lands and citizens, to tax, to provide for municipal planning, and to manage or co-manage lands and resources”.[6] I spoke with a few First Nations people working in their Nations’ Justice Departments and they described their association with the territorial government as a “Nation-to-Nation” relationship. The oldest Self-Government Agreements have only been in effect since 1995 which means that devolution processes and capacity-building are still underway.

View from the top of the Venus Mines hike to explore an historic mining structure from an old silver mine.

I had the privilege of meeting with a member of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation Justice Department and she explained some of their current and long-term community justice initiatives, including the development of their own court system, child welfare programs, and community security officers. Throughout this conversation, I was reminded that it is often important for justice initiatives to have a local focus. Canada is hugely diverse in its geography, demography and histories. It is easy to imagine how certain legal instruments developed in other jurisdictions would have different impacts here and fail to take into consideration the distinctiveness of Yukon realities. In my previous blog post, I spoke about my experience at the Re-Visioning Justice conference which provided a forum for Yukoners to come together to discuss systemic discrimination and access to justice issues. These inter-disciplinary initiatives listen to and amplify community voices to promote local participation in forging solutions.

A conference for Yukon lawyers to explore the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Report’s Calls to Action in their law practice.

When locals would ask how long I was in the Yukon, they would chuckle at my response and reply, “That’s what I said 25 years ago!”. Perhaps they are right. There is something magical and captivating in the wild beauty of the Yukon. I hope that I am fortunate enough to return one day and eventually travel to other parts of the North.

At the top of Grey Mountain just outside of Whitehorse.

View of glaciers in Kluane National Park, one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world.

Hiking in Tombstone Territorial Park.

[1] https://tedharrison.ca/

[2] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45081/the-cremation-of-sam-mcgee

[3] http://whitehorsestar.com/News/summer-of-2017-has-claimed-dozens-of-bears

[4] http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-656-x/89-656-x2016012-eng.htm

[5] https://cyfn.ca/agreements/umbrella-final-agreement/

[6] https://cyfn.ca/agreements/self-government-agreements/

the oppression tree

Early in the summer at CLD, I volunteered to write an open letter to the Minister of Public Works and Procurement regarding an “interim prohibitory order” (IPO) she had issued against James Sears, the editor-in-chief of a particularly abhorrent publication called “Your Ward News.” I would suggest you look up the publication (TW: anti-Semitism, racism misogyny, general white supremacy), but I don’t know if you want that in your search history.

The IPO, issued in 2016 and under review in 2017, prevents Sears from receiving or posting any mail. It was issued pursuant to s. 43(1) of the Canada Post Corporation Act, which allows the Minister to step in when they have reasonable grounds to believe that someone is using the postal service to commit a criminal offence. In Sears’ case, Minister Judy Foote’s office stated that it had reasonable grounds to believe that Sears was committing the criminal offences of defamatory libel and wilfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group under ss. 300 and 319(2) respectively of the Criminal Code. The Minister did not identify the specific articles or comments which she and her office considered to be libellous or to constitute hate speech.

When I first read about the IPO, my gut response was “Good. You go, Judy.”

I mean Sears is (in my unprofessional and unclinical opinion) a narcissist. And if not, he is definitely racist and definitely harbours some deeply entrenched and alarming beliefs about male superiority.

In addition to being the “editor-in-chief” of a publication I don’t even want to legitimize by characterizing as rag, he considers himself a professional pickup artist. He goes by the name “Dimitri the Lover” and runs “seduction workshops” through the “Toronto Real Men” club, which he refers to “the world’s FIRST and ONLY Seduction Lair” (emphasis in original).

James is also a former physician but was ultimately stripped of his medical licence in 1992 after a long history of sexual impropriety towards female patients. He, in fact, pled guilty to two counts of sexual assault, though those convictions were overturned and an acquittal entered on appeal.

Needless to say, I was not super comfortable with the idea of writing a letter in support of this dude. So why did I volunteer to write it? Because it’s good practice. By virtue of the nature of their role, lawyers are bound to represent interests that are not their own and argue the law even when they don’t agree with it. This is particularly true of defenders of civil liberties. I’m sure Sukanya Pillay, Executive Director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, has no particular desire to be associated with the views of James Sears, but she has spoken up on his behalf nonetheless. As a student particularly interested in criminal law, I figured I’d better get used to navigating these situations

It was a great learning opportunity. I became familiar with the arguments commonly used in support of “free speech”. One argument that came up time and again was that “people don’t have a right not to be offended”. I have a hard time with this one. Such an argument denies that there are real issues and rights at stake. Further, this argument too often betrays the privilege of the speaker and their failure to understand the self-sustaining character of systems of oppression. The dissemination of prejudicial speech is harmful not because it’s offensive, but because it legitimizes and reinforces the systems of oppression at the root of social inequality and discrimination.

I recently participated in an anti-oppression workshop in which the facilitators analogized various systems of oppression to a tree. The objective of the exercise was to impress upon participants the complexity and rootedness of these systems. I believe (or suspect) that the exercise was inspired by ‘The Tree of Patriarchy’ metaphor, which appeared in sociologist Allan G Johnson “The Gender Knot”. In our adaptation, the leaves of the tree represented discrete moments of discrimination – manifestations of prejudice. The branches were the beliefs and values that underlie these moments and which are in turn supported by institutions, represented by the trunk. Far more than just words, hateful or discriminatory speech is an expression of the values and ideas reflected in our institutions. Ultimately, systems of oppression are rooted in deeply entrenched normative theories and principles about human nature and the operation of society. In the same way that a tree is fed by both its roots and leaves, systems of oppression are self-sustaining

But what happens when we strip away the branches – when we censor harmful expression? Would it just create a “PC culture” – as the facilitator referred to it – or would it have an impact in creating a more just society?

…sounds like a term paper.

Zikomo, Malawi

  By: Julia Bellehumeur

 

Working in Malawi as an intern for the Equality Effect was an amazing experience.  It felt like three months flew by so quickly, yet I was there long enough to develop a strong connection to the country and the people.

Small town at the bottom of our Mt Mulanje hike

 

Poster created for the conference

As noted in my previous blog, one of the main projects I worked on in Malawi was organizing a conference, or as we called it: A capacity building workshop on challenging the corroboration rule for rape.  Quick recap: this “Corroboration Rule” is a discriminatory, colonial rule requiring women and girls to provide additional evidence specifically in cases of rape or defilement. Myself and my co-intern developed the framework for the workshop based on interviews we held with community members involved in sexual offence cases and their perspectives regarding access to justice for survivors of sexual violence, and how the Corroboration Rule factors in.

Following the creation of that framework, I started coordinating every aspect of the conference, including speakers, guests, funding, and logistics.  I learned a lot of unexpected ways to adapt my work habits to be more compatible in Malawi.  For example, Wi-Fi access in Malawi is extremely limited, and scheduling meetings that actually happen even close to on time is very unlikely. It became essential to find new methods of communication so that our work did not remain stagnant.  Instead of sending emails to judges or police officers, I would contact them via WhatsApp, or just simply show up at their offices where we were always warmly greeted.  Once I figured that out, each week I started to plan which days I would devote to taking mini-buses across the city and tracking down everyone with whom I needed to meet.

A few mini-buses driving through Blantyre

Post-yoga morning coffee

In addition to not having Wi-Fi, my office frequently experienced power outages, which meant that I would have to work from home in the evenings to have access to the free (but shoddy) Wi-Fi after 6pm.  Although this seemed like a burden at first, I eventually adapted my schedule to start some work days later after enjoying a morning coffee and a self-directed yoga session in the sun.  I would instead work later into the evening long past the 5pm sunset (until mid-July when evening-long power outages became the norm between 4pm and 9pm).  In Malawi, it became quickly apparent how important (and even sometimes enjoyable!) it is to step outside of my comfort zone and try different strategies when working on any given task.

Working from our Malawian home

The day to day of the “event planning” was so distant from my expectations of what “human rights work” would look like that after getting the hang of things in preparation for the conference, I began to question many aspects of my role.  I never expected to be running around the city between various stationary shops hunting for basic products like nametags, or finding myself negotiating printing prices in the small dingy office of a back-alley building.  I also never expected to be the person meeting one-on-one with young male lawyers who may want to fund our project, or may really just want to chat for a few hours to learn about Canada. And I definitely never expected to be taking the lead on a project as big as organizing this conference for so many people in positions of authority and power in Malawi.  When I was told I’d be heading to Malawi instead of Kenya, I thought I’d be sitting inside at a desk all day researching cases on my laptop with an embarrassing amount of google chrome tabs open. . .   The work I did instead was exciting, but confusing for reasons that I could not understand throughout the rush of it all.

High Court judges among other guests at the conference

On the day of the conference, high court judges, magistrates, lawyers, doctors, social workers, survivors, community members, legal experts, police officers, a psychologist, and a poet all gathered at the Malawi High Court to discuss the Corroboration Rule.  After each local expert’s presentation, I observed engaging group discussions that highlighted the complexities of the topic.  What struck me most was how these conversations evolved from initial discomfort and frustration between sectors, to each sector coming up with creative ways to improve access to justice for survivors of sexual violence in their own respective fields.  This interdisciplinary conversation allowed me to experience how a holistic approach can generate new strategies and perspectives to tackle complex issues.

(See the following link for a local newspaper’s perspective on the conference: http://mwnation.com/challenging-corroboration-rule/ )

Upon further reflection, I began to understand the bigger picture of what I had learned through my internship and my role in planning and attending this conference.  The people of Malawi helped me understand the importance of all the practical aspects, big and small, that go into making legal change relevant in the real world.  Finding ways to engage the community in supporting and understanding any given issue is a huge component of legal change.  Sometimes, that means printing flyers, ordering donuts, and setting up tables.  Other times, it means social workers giving presentations at a school, or to government officials.  But even once the law is changed, there is still a tremendous amount of work that goes into changing community practices and enforcing those laws.  I saw this to be particularly true in the recent banning of child marriages. The constitutional claim my organization is working on needs things like conferences and workshops, education programs, funding, and so much more for the written laws and legal arguments to have any real impact.  We need doctors, police officers, and judges alike to be on board with seeing the law evolve.  By observing the discussions at this conference, I finally understood my role in the project, the skills I developed, and the outcome of my work.

Me and my best Malawian pal, Chimz

While the culture in Malawi is so different from Canada, I realized that the principles of change in this area of law are still very applicable.  Rape myths, social stigmas, and systemic legal barriers are not all that different, although they may be on a different scale. Being open to trying new things and taking a holistic approach to human rights issues through interdisciplinary strategies is also equally important at home.

My experience on this internship was so multifaceted that I’ve been finding it hard to articulate exactly what it is that made it so special.  It’s almost overwhelming to try to dissect and identify the various elements to what I learned and what I am taking away.  I can say, however, that I have never questioned so many things in my life as when I was in Malawi; yet, I have never been so sure that this was exactly where I wanted to be in that moment.  Things came together in a chaotic but ultimately beautiful and satisfying way and I genuinely wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Zikomo & tionana, Malawi <3

 

 

My stay in Dakar

2017-Boily Audrey By Audrey Boily

Many things could be said about my brief stay in Dakar this summer. I could elaborate on the sound of the ocean or the beauty of the nearby beach, I could mention the suffocating heat and the need to sleep under a mosquito net with no fan, or I could simply describe the differing living conditions and scenery from the ones I’ve grown accustomed to in my hometown of Montreal. Truth being said, this is not what I will remember from my internship in Senegal and it is not what I would like people to focus on when describing my trip. I would rather want people to remember things hardest to verbalize; the new emotions that I learned to deal with and situations of which the beauty and power is lost when put into words.

One thing that really stood out from my experience was the loss of bearings I experienced upon arrival and during the entire length of my trip. For example, it took me two weeks to be able to identify what stop I had to get off the bus to get to work (something I do quite easily at home). At first, every building looked the same; it seemed impossible to establish clear landmarks.

It also took me time to understand where my place was within my organization, my host family and with my Senegalese friends. Means that I normally use to avoid or deal with conflicts seemed obsolete. I still had a voice and a desire to express my ideas, but didn’t always know how to do so in a constructive and respectful way. Once I understood the reasoning behind certain Senegalese habits, it became easier for me to accept them and move forward.

Another amazing part of my trip was the many different types of relationships I built with the people I met. A true sense of community existed in my neighborhood. Each family knew the others and every parent looked after the others’ children. When preparing a meal, it was always difficult to assess the quantity to prepare as in the event unexpected guests arrived around meal time, they would invariably be invited to stay and eat. With these relationships came very diverse and interesting conversations about life, religion, family, friendship and culture. The hardest part was nothing experienced during my stay, but having to leave and say goodbye to the many people that made my experience meaningful and memorable.

Human Rights Lawyering in Québec City

By: Sarah Cha

Heading back to Montreal after three months interning at Avocats sans frontières Canada (ASFC), I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the work I conducted as a legal intern and the role played by this Quebec City-based organization in the world of international human rights.

As the sole legal intern for most of my time with the organization, I worked with a small legal team of about five lawyers, primarily carrying out different research assignments on a wide variety of topics, but assisting with other tasks as well. For example, one of my final major mandates involved helping to produce a report or article on the Duvalier case I discussed in my first blog entry. ASFC’s

One of the ASFC meeting rooms

years-long involvement in this case falls within the strategic litigation part of its mandate – a major part of the work ASFC carries out and the projects it implements in different countries in Africa and Latin America. With its expertise in the litigation of emblematic human rights cases, ASFC assists domestic lawyers on the ground to develop a country’s human rights jurisprudence with the goal of building a justice system that can help correct wrongs and promote a real, rather than apparent, rule of law. Other mandates similarly allowed me to explore the legal and human rights frameworks of many different countries, and to delve into the world of international cooperation and human rights from within the ASFC headquarters in this beautiful city so close to home.

In seemingly every single mandate I worked on, I almost inevitably came across more and more organizations, institutions, and contexts in which other IHRIP interns all over the world were placed or on which they were working. One day, I’d be researching domestic violence legislation in Ghana and coming across important work carried out by Equality Effect; the next, I’d be representing ASFC in a conference call with government officials and civil society organizations on Canada’s role in the Inter-American Human Rights system, and learning more than I ever expected to do about this regional human rights mechanism sitting at my desk in Quebec. I might then find myself poring over reports from Human Rights Watch on various transitional justice bodies for a couple of days, in between attending meetings on the mapping of major human rights violations in post-conflict situations. Another week might then be spent putting together a comparative study on the criteria used by domestic, hybrid, and international courts including the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia or the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia to help them decide which cases to select and/or prioritize for prosecution. As the weeks passed by, I was struck by just how interconnected the human rights system really was.

Most human rights internships probably do a good job of illustrating the many shortcomings of the law and human rights discourse when it comes to meaningfully helping individuals access the justice promised by countless international (and other) instruments. This was certainly the case for me. But, this internship proved also to be a source of encouragement in multiple ways. As stated by someone at the office during the bi-weekly team meeting, a lot of the work that’s done at ASFC is about the “demand for justice” (strengthening the capacities of those asking for justice, such as individuals and groups) as opposed to the “offer of justice” (focusing, for example, on courts or government bodies). This rests on the recognition that human rights are of little to no worth if there is a basic lack of access to justice. Many different organizations and actors are in place to push nations and states to sign onto various international law and human rights treaties and agreements. But, when individuals are not feasibly able to access the justice so readily promised by these international instruments, this promise and offer of justice effectively become meaningless and the human rights system becomes far-removed from the realities of the people who may need it the most. While many remedies may be available, at least in theory, under the human rights and international law system, its inherent complexity means that those who are most in need of it are often those with the least access to it. Having a first-hand look at how organizations like ASFC can successfully help to fill this gap, in providing the understanding, resources, and skills needed to help individuals make use of available human rights mechanisms and hopefully obtain some measure of justice, and knowing that I was now also a small part of that, made for a fulfilling summer.

Ultimately, this internship served to highlight for me the many creative ways the law can be used to successfully defend the human rights of individuals all around the world. And, equally importantly, it reminded me of the important role that Canadian law students and lawyers, alongside project managers, accountants, counsellors, professors, and more, can play in international human rights – sometimes even without ever having to leave the country.

Early on in the internship, ASFC’s Executive Director Pascal Paradis remarked to me how lucky he felt today’s law students to be, having so many opportunities to engage in human rights work. He was thinking of the relative lack of similar opportunities back when he had been in law school years earlier.

This echoed almost perfectly the sentiments that my alumni mentor had expressed just a few months earlier. And, after three months working for a Canadian NGO engaging in both international and domestic human rights work, I do feel lucky. As overlooked and underemphasized as I still find human rights work to be in law faculties, I feel privileged not only to be able to study in a place where so many of my colleagues want to pursue human rights work, but also to have been able to work so closely this summer with lawyers who went on and did just that.

 

Les “Gardiens de la Brousse”

Lucas MathieuPar Lucas Matthieu

Le Burkina Faso connait depuis deux ans maintenant l’émergence de milices armées indépendantes dans les quatre coins du pays. Nommées « Koglweogos » (Gardiens de la brousse), ces milices se proposent comme garantes de la sécurité des populations dans les zones du pays que l’armée et la police ne parviennent pas à couvrir. L’émergence de tels groupes relève de la synergie d’un certain nombre de facteurs. Le manque de confiance des populations envers le corps politique, notamment depuis la révolution de 2015 et la période instable de transition qu’il la suivit vient se coupler avec l’incapacité du corps judiciaire à poursuivre les auteurs d’un certain nombre de crimes impunis (entre autres l’assassinat de l’ancien président Thomas Sankara et du journaliste Norbert Zongo). Par ailleurs, l’insécurité extrême à l’Est et au Nord du pays, tant au niveau des attaques à main armée sur les routes que de la menace terroriste grandissante au Sahel, a démontré l’incapacité de l’État à assurer la sécurité des citoyens Burkinabès. Un collègue me racontait l’histoire d’un commissariat de campagne, couvrant une zone immense, et n’ayant pour seul équipement qu’une mitraillette et une moto pour quinze policiers. On comprend dans ces conditions que les populations s’organisent pour gérer leur propre sécurité.

Les Kowglweogos ont le mérite d’avoir rempli leur objectif. L’insécurité dans l’Est du pays a baissé drastiquement, les attaques se font plus rares, et les Burkinabès dorment plus tranquilles. Mais cela se produit au coût du manque total de respect pour les droits des présumés voleurs. Ceux-ci sont ligotés, parfois victimes de torture ou de traitement inhumains et dégradants, et forcés à confesser leurs présumés crimes sans autres formes de procès. Une fois confessés, ils sont maltraités d’avantage , voir parfois trainés à l’arrière d’une moto dans tout le quartier pour servir d’exemple aux voleurs potentiels. Facebook regorge désormais de pĥotos de ce type, postés par les groupes Koglweogos.

 

Un post Facebook du groupe “Koglweogos du Burkina Faso”.

Ainsi, si l’intimidation de ce type est bien une force de dissuasion efficace, elle se produit en désaccord complet avec les droits de la personne. La règle de droit et le droit à un procès équitable passent à la trappe; les Koglweogos se font juges et partis, et les victimes soufrent de traitements inhumains, d’atteinte à leur intégrité physique et morale, et à leurs droits à la propriété.

Le rôle d’organisations comme le Mouvement Burkinabè des Droits des Hommes et des Peuples devient alors paradoxal. Les Koglweogos sont des structures citoyennes qui tentent de défendre leur droit à la sécurité devant la faillite de l’État à le maintenir.  En tant que tel, ils doivent, selon le MBDHP, être encouragés. Mais comment créer un discours permettant à la fois d’encourager les initiatives citoyennes et locales palliant au déficit de l’État, tout en étant forcé d’en condamner les agissant en termes de torture et de violation des droits humains ?

J’ai eu la chance de rencontrer, lors de la visite d’une des antennes du MBDHP à Koudougou, trois Koglweogos qui étaient venus demander de l’aide au MBDHP suite à l’arrestation arbitraire de trois de leurs camarades. Le groupe de Koglweogos était entré en conflit avec la communauté d’un village. L’un des villageois refusait de payer les « frais de corde » (l’amende infligée par les Koglweogos aux voleurs ) et était parvenu organiser son village pour se battre contre les Koglweogos venus réclamer les frais. Une fois sur place, le groupe de Koglweogo refusa le combat et appela la gendarmerie. Celle-ci les incita les Koglweogos à leur remettre leurs armes et à les escorter « en lieu sûr ». Au final, elle en emmena trois directement au poste pour les arrêter, et en livra cinq autres, désormais désarmés, à la population en colère. L’un d’entre eux est désormais porté disparu, et présumé mort.

Un groupe de Koglweogos

J’avais, avant cette rencontre, mis au point pour Équitas l’introduction d’un « Plan d’action » au niveau des Koglweogos. Cela m’avait permis de mettre au point un document d’une dizaine de page, expliquant la genèse de ces groupes, leurs méthodes, et les problématiques qu’ils posent en termes de droits humains. Pourtant il fallut une rencontre directe avec l’un de ces groupes pour avoir l’autre coté de l’histoire; et comprendre les rapports de force, ainsi que le sentiment d’indignation, que ces groupes aussi connaissent devant la faillite de l’État. Lors de la réunion, le premier Koglweogo qui prit la parole nous expliqua selon son point de vue, que le MBDHP et les Koglweogos recherchaient les mêmes objectifs : corriger les individus pour faire une meilleure société. Seulement, selon lui, le MBDHP utilisait les méthodes des « blancs », alors que les Koglweogos utilisaient des médhodes plus « traditionnelles ».  Mon collègue répondit qu’il comprenait, et que seul un dialogue et une compréhension commune pourraient permettre à chaque parti d’attendre ce qu’il voyait aussi comme un objectif commun, la sécurité des Burkinabès.

Cela n’a pas répondu à mes interrogations quand au paradoxes que doivent connaitre les association de défense de droits de la personne devant des groupes de ce type. Mais ce fut une bonne leçon sur l’importance d’entendre toujours les deux côtés du récit, et de savoir appréhender chaque situation dans sa nuance et sa contingence particulière. Et surtout, sur le rôle irremplaçable des organisations grassroots comme le MBDHP. Il apparait que les seuls acteurs capable d’apporter cette nuance sont ceux qui agissent sur le terrain, en connaissent les contradictions, les compromis et les rapports de forces. Rien dans le matériel et la recherche que j’avais accumulé sur le sujet jusqu’à mon entrevue n’aurait pu m’y préparer, ou me permettre de donner une réponse tranchée à un paradoxe comme la réponse à donner aux Koglweogos.

Learning to Sing: A Look Back on my Summer in Peru

Melisa DemirBy Melisa Demir

There are a number of ways that I could describe my fifteen-week journey to Peru –  an amazing adventure which often times all seems like a blur to me now.

“How was your trip?” is the most common question I’ve been faced with since my return – one that I expected, and yet still have trouble answering. “There’s not enough time in the world to tell you all about it,” I say.  Sometimes, I confess that it all went by so quickly – that it feels like I never even left.

Still, I find myself saying that my trip was busy, as I spent most of my days working hard to meet deadlines, or travelling back and forth from airports or bus stations early in the morning to get back to work on time after weekend getaways. When including it on my CV, I will probably write about how this was the summer in which I developed my research skills, perfected my Spanish, and learned about national and international human rights protection through my contributions to reports, events and other projects with the IDEHPUCP. My friends know it as the unforgettable trip where I managed to live by myself in a foreign country, made friends from all over the world, and climbed a countless amount of mountains – both physical and figurative.  

To me, this was the summer where I learned how to sing.

**

In Lima, life is always bustling – cars and busses honk through stop signs instead of actually stopping, bus drivers scream the route out of the window instead of having a formal system like we have here in Montreal, and nearly everyone listening to music fearlessly belts their hearts out as they sing along, no matter where they are.

I was shocked the first time I heard my colleague – who later became one of my best friends – singing her favourite reggaeton music in the middle of the office on my first day. I rolled my eyes and chuckled as the person behind me during the walk to the grocery store sometime early on in my trip sang and danced to his music. In Montreal, this would be seen as obnoxious and disruptive – but in Lima, it was a form of expression that had not yet become taboo or subjected to the social expectation that, in public or at work, one must be discrete. Where I was used to being expected to fit into a set of social standards, to mold into the rest of society and stay in the shadows, they would charge forward in individuality and expression, full of life and heart-warming spirit.

Walking through the streets of Magdalena del Mar on Peruvian independence day

It wasn’t long before I stopped jumping in surprise when someone in the Institute’s academica department broke the concentrated silence of the area with a few words of one of the summer’s top hits, and instead, started smiling and dancing along to their melody. Their voices and music ended up being the soundtrack to my summer, characterizing my walks home, my evening dinners with my Peruvian family as they sang “El gato nero” to their one-year-old son, and, of course, my time at work. As this aspect of Peruvian culture lost its foreignness, my initial role as the young, shy Canadian intern terrified of speaking Spanish at the risk of sounding stupid slowly morphed into one of sociability and confidence. The country that once seemed so distant from everything I knew began to transform into a home – or as my colleagues and I liked to call it, mi patria. On Peru’s independence day, I attempted to belt out their national anthem. I joined in many birthday celebrations at the office in which the entire Institute gathered around to sing “Happy Birthday” in choir around a large strawberry shortcake from the bakery down the street. Eventually, I even found myself humming along to my music as I typed.

What at first glance appeared to be an example of the care-free stereotype we often associate to Latin American culture eventually revealed itself to be a beautiful expression of happiness, confidence, and hope. A life in human rights research, I quickly realized, can be a daunting one. The nine-to-five work days, which often dragged out to nine-to-eight days during busy periods, are a constant realization of the terrible things that occur around the world, sometimes as close as within the city you work or live in. Every hour is filled with reminders that the world can be a terrible place for some, and that having the opportunity to advocate against human rights violations is a product of your privilege to not be on the other side of them. When one project ends, it’s on to the next one, dealing with similar hard realities, only with regards to a different violated right, and rarely with any assurance that the work you submitted will ever make it into the hands of a policy-maker, or even make a dent in the international hardships you are trying to alleviate. Most of the time, all you can do is hope that what you invested your heart and soul into makes a difference, even if by just raising awareness about the issues around you, and keeping pushing forward until the change you work for finally comes. And so, they sing.

**

I had never worked in human rights before my experience in Peru. I now have the utmost admiration for those who do – who dedicate their lives to making the world we live in a better place, if only for some.

On my last day of work, I submitted my final project, took pictures with my friends in the department – who I would see later for a final goodbye party – and emotionally emptied my desk. As I left, I closed the mahogany doors of the Institute behind me for the last time. I hugged Señor Ochoa, the security guard that greeted me every morning, goodbye.

During the walk home, I sang along to Ed Sheeran’s Perfect.

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