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Justice on the Go

Etienne F Lacombe

Étienne F. Lacombe

The administration of justice in Nunavut faces a discrete set of challenges, not the least of which is the territory’s vast expanse and geographically sparse population. In order to reach the majority of residents, the Nunavut Court of Justice must travel on circuit. Last week’s circuit in Pond Inlet serves as an example of how the delivery of legal services in the North often requires creativity and flexibility.

First, some background information:

The Nunavut Court of Justice usually sits in Iqaluit, where there is a permanent courthouse. On most weeks, however, it also sits in at least one other community. These sittings occur in school gymnasiums, community halls or other facilities. The frequency at which the Court visits each community varies from every six weeks to every six months, depending on the location’s needs. Each time, a host of staff and legal professionals travel with the Court, including a judge, a prosecutor, defence counsel, a clerk and a court reporter.

Pond Inlet 1


It’s 6 a.m. Defence counsel arrive at the Iqaluit Airport. Four hours later, the plane touches down on the dirt runway in Pond Inlet. Naptime is over. The lawyers climb down the steps of the aircraft, armed with a stack of files and a healthy dose of patience. This week will be a long one. Efforts to locate clients begin promptly as many of the accuseds do not have a phone. Staff contact the community radio station to advise that lawyers will be meeting all accused persons at the local hotel. Meanwhile, the court worker borrows a relative’s vehicle to locate some of the clients himself.

Saturday and Sunday

The weekend is dedicated to client meetings. Some have made an appointment, others arrive and wait their turn in the lobby. Most of them have never met the legal aid lawyer who will be representing them in a few days. Everyone is forced to share the space. The dining hall becomes a meeting area, as do a few of the hotel rooms. In each meeting, the lawyer reviews the allegations with his or her client and explains the difference between pleading guilty and not guilty. Discussions sometimes come to a standstill as the interpreter must run from one room to the next. At some point during the weekend, the Crown prosecutors arrive with their witness coordinator, and begin conducting meetings of their own. The judge also arrives and meets informally with the lawyers.


Defence counsel continue their meetings with clients. Some are showing up for the first time, others have returned after reflecting on how they will plead. Later in the day, the defence lawyers review each file with the Crown to consolidate their positions and come to joint resolutions where possible. Everyone then attempts to get a good night’s sleep, despite the 24-hour sunlight. The show starts tomorrow.


Court begins at 9:30 a.m. in the community hall. Dozens of people are in attendance, including accused persons, witnesses and family members. The court clerk works through the docket in a roll call fashion. Bench warrants will be issued for absentees in order to secure their attendance. Crown and defence counsel agree to begin with as many simple files as possible. The day therefore consists mostly of guilty pleas. After sentencing submissions, the elder sitting beside the judge is afforded an opportunity to speak to every accused. He offers guidance, and the judge often quotes from his advice in passing the sentence.


The in-custody accuseds arrive in Pond Inlet. They have been flown in from the Iqaluit jails to be tried in their community. This week, they will be housed in the RCMP detachment cells. Guilty pleas continue. Trials begin in the afternoon. It becomes obvious how dated some of the charges are, having been delayed due to the infrequency of circuits, the availability of witnesses, and a variety of other reasons.


The trials continue, interspersed with guilty pleas from files that have been resolved overnight. Systemic pressures become more apparent as the lawyers and the judge speak with increasing candour. Some files must be prioritized while other may not be heard this circuit. By the end of the day, the Court has heard most of the cases. Counsel, the judge and community members dismantle the makeshift courtroom of folding chairs, tables, laptops and mobile internet terminals.


Defence counsel, prosecutors, court staff, the judge, an RCMP officer and the prisoners board a flight back to Iqaluit. It’s naptime again.

Pond Inlet 2

This play-by-play of a court circuit illustrates some of the unique circumstances under which the delivery of legal services operates in Nunavut. While circuit courts offer a number of advantages in the North, namely allowing the accused to be tried in his or her community and facilitating access to witnesses, they also pose a number of issues. The quality of representation may suffer under heavy dockets or strained schedules, and the continuity of counsel from one sitting to the next cannot be assured. These are but a few of the challenges to practising law on the go.

Close to Home

by: Fiona Cooke

My first entry on this blog has turned out to be a lot more personal than I thought it would be. I didn’t expect to feel as emotionally engaged in my work as I did at certain points these past few months, researching at Avocats sans frontières Québec. Because I’m “only” in Québec City, not some exotic, faraway country, I secretly feared my experience would be somewhat less authentic, or carry less meaning – that I wouldn’t feel it.

However, I was starkly reminded with my second research assignment that Québec City is not so far away from big questions of human rights. The office is situated on Rue Saint Joseph Est, right in the middle of a neighbourhood that is undergoing significant gentrification. In the midst of places like Zara and Crudessence (an extremely delicious but ridiculously expensive raw vegan joint) are community kitchens and homeless shelters. People sleep on the benches lining the street on a backdrop of over-lit high fashion shops and overpriced coffee shops, where young people park themselves all day with their Macbooks.

The second research mandate I was given was to write about “Canada’s experience with transitional justice” for an upcoming forum that ASFC will hold in August on Transitional Justice. Canada’s experience is not typical – the “transition” is not referring to a regime change or exiting a time of conflict. However, its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, can be compared to similar settlements in approximately 40 other countries in the world.[1] Canada’s Commission was tasked with collecting the stories, experiences and truths of Aboriginal people all over the country who suffered through the Indian Residential System or its intergenerational effects.

The TRC is based on the principle that true reconciliation cannot come about in the absence of truth. In most transitional justice contexts, this means the right to know “the truth about the abuses they have suffered, including the identity of the perpetrators [and] the causes that gave rise to violations.”[2] In Canada, “truth” has meant more “truth-telling” by the survivors themselves – creating a record that collects their individual experiences so that the magnitude and severity of the violations can be accurately communicated. The TRC’s aim was to communicate to the Canadian public in general the truth of what happened to Aboriginal people in residential schools, and to promote an understanding of the intergenerational effects of this system. The idea is that this will be the first step in healing the relationship between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals in Canada, along with an apology from the government individual payments as part of the Indian Residential School Survivor Settlement.

The Importance of Truth-Telling

Completing this mandate affected me in three very personal ways that I was not expecting. During the exact same two weeks during which I was working on this project, my own life felt like a microcosmic reflection of what I was reading about. Out of the blue, I received an apology for something that happened to me almost two decades ago, from the person who should have prevented it. It was a very sincere, genuine apology, that I believe came from a true place of regret in this person. However, despite this, I still didn’t feel like I could truly forgive or reconcile with him. While continuing my research at work, I realized why. One of the reasons was – he didn’t know the half of what I had gone through. How could he truly apologize when he doesn’t really know exactly what he’s apologizing for? I felt like, in some very small way, I understood the impulse that drove hundreds or thousands of Aboriginal people to tell their stories at the TRC events. The need to feel like suffering has been vindicated, recognized, completely acknowledged – it feels like an essential component of feeling like justice has been done. And I’m just not sure that the TRC had the exposure it needed – every single Canadian needs to read at least the Summary of the Final Report before society can truly transform in a way that will be conducive to righting the wrongs that have been perpetrated for so long.


Another reason for my skepticism about prospects for reconciliation: a true apology is not just words – it is actions, it is changed behaviour in the long term. A true apology can span decades. The apology that I received was followed almost immediately by an excuse, and indications that by-stander behaviour wasn’t over. The apology that the Aboriginals of Canada received not only didn’t address the greater narrative of colonial assimilation, but was also simultaneous to the ongoing destruction of their traditional lands, ongoing funding discrimination, ongoing institutional racism – Matt James refers to it as a “politics of distraction” from the question of restitution of stolen lands.[3] One participant said, “I won’t forgive the government. There’s no way in hell. I’m going to court to protect the land. […] That’s why it’s a lot of bullshit with the government and the apology.”[4] This is why guarantees of non-repetition are fundamentally important in transitional justice contexts – societies cannot let go of their anger if the wrongful behaviour is ongoing, or likely to occur again. I felt/understood the truth of this principle in both theoretical and very personal ways throughout my research on the Canadian TRC.

First Steps

Finally – doing all this research, but especially reading the summary of the final report of the TRC, which is full of survivors’ stories and the history of the indian residential system, had a fundamental impact on my understanding of the current situation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. I wouldn’t have considered myself ignorant before – I knew that the Indian Residential School existed (despite not having been taught about it at school), and I knew that Aboriginal communities had lower health outcomes than non-Aboriginals. I knew that poverty and discrimination abounded. One of my best friends is native, and I had heard of the struggles of her community. However, I don’t think I truly understood the connection between the history of Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal people and the current problems. Reading peoples’ personal stories helped me understand that everything feeds off each other. I experienced a fundamental, if almost imperceptible shift in my reactions to hearing about Aboriginal communities’ difficulties. Before, my reaction would have been one of sympathy and frustration about the current state of things. Now when I think about it, to those reactions is added a recognition of my implication in it – of my duty to try to understand the cause and effects, and to understand and respect the anger and resentment. These are legitimate feelings, on a societal and personal level, that cannot be done away with by a simple apology.

Take the TRC reading challenge -


[1] Rosemary Nagy, “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Genesis and Design” (2014) 29:2 Canadian Journal of Law and Society 199 at 200.

[2] International Center for Transitional Justice, “Truth Seeking: Elements of Creating an Effective Truth Commission” (2013) at 3. Online at : https://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-Book-Truth-Seeking-2013-English.pdf.

[3] Matt James, “A Carnival of Truth? Knowledge, Ignorance and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (2012) 6 The Int’l Journal of Transitional Justice 182 at 189.

[4] Anne-Marie Reynaud, “Dealing with Difficult Emotions: Anger at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada” (2014) 56:2 Anthropologica 369 at 375.

Le complexe de la cafetière

Lorsque le « C’est normal » s’adapte à une réalité changeante


2016 Beauchemin Antoine

Voilà quelque huit mois que j’ai appris, jumelant stupeur et jubilation, que je serais stagiaire au Conseil national des droits de l’Homme du Maroc (CNDH). L’été me paraissait alors très loin. Et pourtant, j’y suis parvenu sans heurts (ou si peu). C’était il y a 10 semaines. Cela aussi me paraît très loin.

L’annonce d’un stage à Rabat a de quoi susciter des réactions d’euphorie. C’est que l’on ne peut se préparer pleinement à ce qui nous y attend; de cet inconnu découle précisément l’extase, source d’attentes qui, nous le souhaitons, seront comblées.

Au fil des dernières semaines, l’attitude que j’ai adoptée quant au stage a néanmoins changé progressivement, tant par la force des choses que par une compréhension renouvelée de ce que le stage représentait à mes yeux.

Retour sur ce cheminement.


[Semaines 1-4]

J’ai appréhendé les 12 semaines de façon volontairement naïve, en me répétant qu’une approche positive était la meilleure façon de contrer les termes « inefficace », « lent » et « inutile » qui entachent souvent les stages dans le domaine des droits humains. En surfant sur ces qualificatifs avec enthousiasme, peut-être en perdraient-ils leur sens.

À cet égard, les premières semaines auront été frappées de désillusions, certes, mais de désillusions prévisibles. Le CNDH est un endroit qu’il faut apprendre à comprendre, tel un chat que l’on doit approcher lentement, avec lequel l’interaction n’est pas initialement aisée. À coups d’enjeux nouveaux et de mandats dont la portée ne demeure, somme toute, que vaguement définie, j’ai patienté plusieurs semaines avant de réellement avoir une idée de mon rôle à l’institution. Traduire une lettre d’invitation, envoyer un courriel à l’ambassade du Canada, faire des recherches sur le rôle du CNDH à la COP 22, etc. En somme, des tâches hétéroclites, indépendantes les unes des autres; des tâches pas nécessairement captivantes, mais qui doivent être faites.

Naturellement, un jeune Québécois, rigoureux étudiant en droit, restait sur son appétit face à cette situation où il se sentait carrément impertinent.

Afin de justifier une telle conjoncture, je me frappais à grands coups de « C’est normal ».

N’étant à Rabat que depuis quelques semaines, plusieurs dimensions de ma vie étaient pleinement déboussolées. L’adaptation serait nécessairement lente. Il faudrait me laisser du temps.

« C’est normal », me répétait-on. « C’est normal », me répétais-je.


[Semaines 5-8]

Alors du temps, je m’en suis laissé.

J’ai appris rapidement, énormément, sur la culture marocaine, ayant entre autres la chance de me retrouver dans ce magnifique pays maghrébin durant Ramadan. Cela était assurément une expérience culturelle comme nulle autre; je me suis même prêté à la pratique en jeûnant pendant 10 jours. La température excessivement chaude, conjuguée à une paresse caractéristique, a malheureusement eu raison de moi.

J’ai également bénéficié de mes samedis et dimanches afin de voyager aux quatre coins du pays. Profitant à la fois de la richesse culinaire et des décors paysagers magnifiquement variés, je désirais m’immerger dans la vie marocaine à tout instant.

Bref, à première vue, mon séjour au pays du roi Mohammed VI était sans embûches.

Sauf en ce qui concernait le stage.

À ce niveau, un constat était évident : je pataugeais encore complètement dans l’ombre. Ne jouant au CNDH un rôle que de façon connexe, en multipliant des tâches toutes plus immédiates et rapides les unes que les autres, je réalisais ne pas réellement avoir de fil conducteur, de projets qui guideraient mon stage et me feraient comprendre la portée et les multiples aléas de la vie d’un activiste en droits de la personne.

Après plusieurs semaines de stage, toutefois, le « C’est normal » initial ne me convainquait plus, ou, à tout le moins, plus de la façon avec laquelle on me l’exposait jadis.

Mon passage au Maroc étant au premier abord centralisé sur ces douze semaines où je passerais mes journées au CNDH, j’étais naturellement assez déçu de la tournure des événements. Et c’était démoralisant, en fait. C’est d’avoir le potentiel et le désir de faire avancer les choses, la détermination de travailler de façon efficace et productive, en étant privé des moyens et du matériel pour le faire.

« C’est normal ».

Cette phrase-marteau me rabattait sans cesse les oreilles, mais ne trouvait plus écho. Et pourtant, elle énonce une vérité élémentaire : que l’expérience de mon stage diverge de mes attentes initiales n’est pas anormal. N’est pas anormal non plus le fait que le premier stage d’un étudiant de 21 ans ne soit pas chargé de projets révolutionnaires. La phrase « C’est normal » n’étant alors pas source de problèmes, c’était peut-être la portée du stage, de même que ma compréhension de cette portée, qui méritait un élargissement.

Déjà, il est évident que l’on ne peut limiter le stage aux journées passées au bureau. Le stage est une expérience qui englobe plusieurs sphères. Dès lors, il faut évaluer l’expérience complète, et non pas uniquement la façon avec laquelle j’occupe mon mercredi après-midi, armé de mon Toshiba 2013. Et c’est sur cette nouvelle perspective que le « C’est normal » initial a pu progresser en accord avec une compréhension renouvelée de ce que le stage signifiait réellement.

Le stage aurait en outre toujours eu l’objectif de me faire découvrir tant ce qui me plaisait que ce qui ne me plaisait pas. De la sorte, les tâches obscures que l’on m’offrait, dont les bénéfices n’étaient pas concluants à première vue, contribuaient tout autant au succès du stage que si j’avais amendé le Code pénal marocain dans son ensemble.

Le stage, c’est le travail au CNDH, certes, mais c’est tout autant le samedi après-midi dans un café avec JC, un bon ami de mon école secondaire, qui s’adonne à être à Marrakech en même temps que moi. Le stage, c’est aussi les sept heures de train (comprendre ici : fournaise roulante) en direction d’une magnifique plage afin d’y passer la journée avec mes colocataires. Le stage, enfin, c’est également de prendre un petit taxi bleu, de manger un tagine délicieusement parfumé, de chercher des hébergements à Amsterdam sur CouchSurfing, d’entendre le puissant appel à la prière à Fès en fin de journée, de boire une pinte de bière avec des amis dans un bar lugubre de Chefchaouen, et d’écouter des films blockbusters en buvant du thé à la menthe.

Et malgré toutes ces belles aventures qui agrémentent et structurent le séjour au Maroc, un Montréalais peine à se distancier du fait qu’il n’a [presque] rien à faire 40 heures par semaine.

Bref, le scénario typique du stagiaire blasé, dans les films hollywoodiens, qui sert le café à ses collègues faute d’avoir un travail palpitant.

Je comprends assez clairement en quoi ce complexe peut peser sur le moral du personnage. C’est d’associer le fait de ne rien faire à un manque de capacités personnelles, ou à un manque de confiance des collègues en soi, plutôt qu’à d’autres facteurs beaucoup plus significatifs (rythme de travail ralenti durant l’été, nombre de stagiaires, phase creuse au niveau des événements, etc.). Cette corrélation, à la fois fausse et inexistante, amenuise, voire annihile, tout le reste, soit tous ces événements qui sont partie intégrante de l’expérience bien plus globale.

Voilà bien le complexe de la cafetière. C’est d’avoir la fausse croyance, complètement irrationnelle, que l’on n’est utile qu’à préparer le café, ou, à tout le moins, que c’est l’unique tâche que les collègues osent nous donner. Confronté(e) à l’absence de travail, le stagiaire, malgré ses innombrables requêtes et ses constants efforts, prend ce mal sur ses épaules, croit en être à la fois la cause et la conséquence. Pour justifier la présence au bureau, le stagiaire tentera de se montrer utile, par tous les moyens.

En servant le café aux collègues, notamment.

Mais bon, il n’y a pas de cafetière au CNDH.


[Semaines 9-12]

La fin de mon stage est imminente : deux semaines de travail, puis le tour est joué.

J’aurai, à vrai dire, appris énormément lors de l’été 2016. Bien sûr, cela est dû à un net changement dans ma compréhension même du stage. Le stage désirait peut-être même n’offrir qu’un contexte à des apprentissages beaucoup plus importants faits à l’extérieur de celui-ci. Il était également utile afin de faire une prise de conscience à la fois sur le type de travail potentiel dans ce milieu et sur la façon avec laquelle un stagiaire peut s’y adapter.

D’une part, au niveau formel, le CNDH m’aura donné une idée assez claire d’une façon [parmi d’autres] avec laquelle le travail en droits de la personne est effectué. Dans un milieu où les droits des femmes, de la communauté LGBTI+ et des populations migrantes sont fréquemment bafoués, le travail doit nécessairement s’effectuer progressivement, à coups de détours. Et il est possible que cela passe par des stagiaires qui se sentiront quelque peu dépaysé(e)s lors de leur passage au CNDH.

De surcroît, l’été 2016 m’aura également permis d’orienter le type de travail en droits de la personne qui m’intéresse. Pour ma part, la réflexion s’arrête présentement au travail en communauté, soit directement avec les populations concernées.

Enfin, je demeure persuadé que mes petites déceptions par rapport au travail entre les quatre murs du CNDH méritent une locution bien sentie, bien méritée :

« C’est normal ».

Il est véritablement normal, ultimement, d’avoir des expériences qui ne sont non pas insatisfaisantes, mais bien en-dehors du cadre de nos attentes initiales. Malgré la difficulté d’une telle entreprise, assurément complexifiée par l’orgueil de l’individu qui désire changer le monde, ce complexe du stagiaire qui a l’impression de ne rien faire n’est parfois dû qu’à un concours de circonstances, totalement en-dehors du contrôle du stagiaire.

Et, bon, il faut rationaliser le tout : ce complexe ne tourne pas réellement autour du fait de ne rien faire, mais bien du sentiment de désirer faire davantage. En tant que futur activiste en droits humains, je suis propice à ressentir ce complexe continuellement.

Finalement, c’est aussi que le complexe de la cafetière ne dérange qu’au degré premier, et dans l’immédiat. Cette fausse impression néglige les apprentissages qui se font par immersion, par symbiose, par la simple force des choses lorsque X se retrouve dans un milieu Y. Ne considérer que mes tâches au CNDH dans mon appréciation du stage ferait fi de toutes les expériences vécues durant les soirées avec les collègues ou sur l’avenue Michlifen avec mes colocataires, et qui m’auront tout autant changé et appris sur les droits de la personne.

« C’est normal ».

Cette phrase n’apparaît donc plus ici dans le sens péjoratif que je lui conférais naguère, mais bien dans le sens prometteur de m’être adapté à un complexe qui me suivra peut-être longtemps dans l’univers passionnant, quoique nébuleux, des droits fondamentaux.

Additional Hurdles in Accessing Justice

By André Moreau

Over the course of my internship at the Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) in Kampala, I’ve witnessed some challenges with some of the cases and petitions we brought forward to the courts.

In particular, one difficulty was caused by the influx of election petitions triggered by the recent Ugandan general election, which was held on February 18, 2016. This was the 6th general election since the Uganda Bush War (1979-1986) where the National Resistance Army, led by current president Yoweri Museveni, overthrew the autocratic and militaristic regime.

February’s election saw Museveni’s controversial re-election ­–his sixth consecutive term as the President of Uganda. The election results sparked protest, arrests and a series of formal election petitions. These election petitions have put much strain on the Ugandan judicial system, which has resulted in an even longer wait before Ugandans and Ugandan organizations can access justice before the court.

This is a photo of the Ugandan Constitutional Court's Registrars Office

This is a photo of the Ugandan Constitutional Court’s Registrars Office– files upon files

Last week, Justice David Batema came to speak to the CEHURD’s staff about his experience working as a judge at the High Court of Uganda. He spoke about the courts’ challenge to process cases in a timely manner, especially during the post-election period.

When I asked him how the High Court prepares for the flood of election petitions, Justice Batema explained that the High Court developed a new strategy to minimize backlog. The High Court’s new strategy consisted of selecting 26 judges (almost two thirds of the High Court Judges in Uganda) and training them on best practices when dealing with the petitions.

To ensure nonpartisan decisions, the judges would then be relocated to a different district where they’d hear the petitions. This process, Batema explained, is designed to address all the submitted election petitions ­–hearing, trial, and judgement– within 60 days. This ambitious plan, however, is expected to exceed that timeframe. Further, if petitions are appealed, the process will take even longer.

Despite the Court’s effort to limit the backlog of cases, law firms, organizations such as CEHURD, and all the others parties involved are left with even more delays in their attempts to access justice.

Furthermore, Justice Batema has been vocal about the Courts being short-staffed: “we have very many cases, but we are few, we don’t want our people’s cases to delay here,” he said to one of the national newspapers, New Vision.

As CEHURD continues to fight for health and human rights in Uganda, this unfortunate influx of election petitions has created an additional hurdle in bringing forward cases and seeing them resolved.

Adventures in the North

Theo Lyons

It has already been six weeks since I arrived in Whitehorse, which means that I’m now about half way through my internship at the Yukon Human Rights Commission. I think this is a good moment to pause to reflect on what I’ve experienced so far, and what I am looking forward to doing in my remaining time here.

When I flew straight north from Vancouver on June 1, passing over seemingly endless mountains and glaciers, I had little idea of what lay in wait for me. As I sat in the loud propeller plane, I leafed through Frances Backhouse’s book, Women of the Klondyke - lent to me by my ex-Yukoner roommate, Suzanne. The stories of the wild women who participated in the gold rush did little to calm my vague feeling of apprehension. I was particularly struck by the words of Georgia Powell who, in an 1898 letter to a friend back home, wrote “Let me say right here, for number, size and ferocity these mosquitoes cannot be exaggerated, and despite leggings, gloves and the inevitable veil we were badly bitten.”

Aside from the mosquitoes, prominent among my sources of stress upon my arrival was the fact that I still hadn’t managed to find a room to sublet in Whitehorse, and town’s only hostel had just been able to offer me two nights of accommodation. These doubts evaporated the moment I walked into the Human Rights Commission and met the team with whom I would be working for the summer. I was welcomed with amazing warmth and enthusiasm, and within minutes I had been offered at least three different places to stay at while I looked for a sublet. It didn’t take me long to find a room to rent, and I’m currently living in a big shared house full of adventure-loving Yukoners and their dogs.

Author taking selfies while scrambling down from the summit of Mount Lorne

Author taking selfies while scrambling down from the summit of Mount Lorne

During my first week in Whitehorse I was given plenty of opportunities to dive into various aspects of the work of the Human Rights Commission. I studied the Yukon Human Rights Act and Regulations and learned about the structure and procedures of the Commission and the Board of Adjudication (the administrative tribunal which makes findings of violations). I was also briefed on all the cases the Commission is currently working on (about 35 different complaints), participated in interviews with several complainants, and began work on a research memo about a complex and particularly harmful form of systemic discrimination against persons with mental disabilities. At this point I have drafted several complaints, conducted interviews, researched and written responses to inquiries, and started work on my own investigation.

I’ve also been making the most of my free time in this amazing place. I’ve been going for three-hour evening rides on the huge network of mountain bike trails that surrounds Whitehorse, have hiked up four different mountains with new friends, have gone camping, and have volunteered with both a theatre festival and a folk music festival, both of which were great. While exploring the forests and mountains of the Yukon I’ve encountered ravens, eagles, friendly foxes, grouse, a huge porcupine, two territorial beavers, and a moose. Although I haven’t yet to run into any bears, I have followed the examples of the local bikers by strapping a can of bear spray to the frame of my bike, just in case!

Panorama view from the top of Monarch Mountain, above Atlin lake

Panorama view from the top of Monarch Mountain, above Atlin lake

Just as I begin to feel accustomed to the 24 hours of daylight that northerners enjoy every summer, the night skies have finally begun to get a little darker. Last weekend, while camping in Atlin, in northern BC, I saw a couple of stars for the first time since I left Montreal. I will take this reminder of the passing time as encouragement to redouble my efforts to contribute and learn as much as I can while at the Human Rights Commission, and to explore and experience everything I can while visiting this beautiful part of the world.

*UPDATE: I saw large black bear while on a bike ride several hours after writing this post… escaped unscathed!

A Nation in Mourning

2016 Capretti Andre

By André Capretti

On Sunday morning, Cambodia lost one of its most beloved sons. Kem Ley was a prominent independent political analyst, a renowned intellectual, an advocate for democratic reform, and an ardent critic of the government. Most importantly, he was a husband, a brother, a son, and a father to four boys, with a fifth child on the way.

The news of his death was made more painful by its senselessness and the callous manner in which it occurred. Ley was just about to have his morning coffee at a gas station café, when he was executed by a gunman at point blank range.

The reaction of the Cambodian public illustrates how respected and revered Kim Ley was by his countrymen and countrywomen. Thousands of Cambodians gathered in a procession, marching to a pagoda on the other side of town, to lay his body to rest. Since then, his funeral was attended by thousands of people wishing to pay their last respects. While a somber moment for all, the event seemed to bring many Cambodians closer together, unified in their mourning and sorrow.

Kem Ley's Funeral

Kem Ley’s Funeral

Today was the tenth edition of the Black Monday campaign. After more than 20 arrests in the past 9 weeks, no protesters were detained today, and yet the day stood out for being much darker than any other Black Monday.

In the days, weeks and months to come, much will be made about the assassin: his identity, his connection to Ley, his motives, etc. Luckily, the suspect was apprehended as he fled the scene. And yet, in the messy aftermath there appears to be little reason to believe that justice will truly be served in this case. Ley’s body had barely turned cold before supporters of both major political parties began blaming the other for his death.

Many people pointed the finger at the ruling party, whose track record of political assassinations and use of scapegoats makes it a prime suspect. While few will question that the man captured by police was the one who pulled the trigger, it remains to be seen whether he was truly the mastermind behind this heinous crime.

One important piece of the puzzle would appear to be an interview that Ley gave to Radio Free Asia just a few days ago, about a groundbreaking report released by London-based international organization Global Witness. The report caused shockwaves across Cambodia, as it detailed the extraordinary levels of wealth held by Prime Minister Hun Sen, his children and his extended family. In a country where nearly 40% of Cambodians still live below or close to the poverty line, the report revealed that the ruling family had substantial control over 114 local companies in 20 different economic sectors, and an estimated net worth of at least 200 million dollars. The report helped to highlight the extreme levels of corruption, nepotism and income inequality that plague the oligarchical Cambodian economy. It also served as a warning for Cambodians about the very real possibility of a dynastic dictatorship holding on to the reins of power for decades to come.

The reaction from Hun Sen and his family was swift and dismissive, as many of his children took to social media to deny claims of wrongdoing and accuse Global Witness of trying to ruin their reputation. Sen’s own response was nauseating, as he posted photos to his Facebook page of him toasting a drink with his children in celebration, seemingly mocking the report. Sen’s poor taste was somehow trumped by a pro-government media outlet, which posted an anonymous reader’s letter titled “Behavior Plunging Cambodians Into a Bonfire of War Because of Foreigners”, which used a doctored piece of Nazi propaganda to attack the English-language Cambodian newspapers which initially published news of the report.

In the aftermath of Kem Ley’s slaying, many of my colleagues spoke in admiration of a man who was fearless, unafraid to die if it meant standing up for what he believed in. Others remembered a man who was outspoken, even in the face of increasing persecution against government critics. It remains to be seen what kind of impact Ley’s death will have on the state of freedom of speech in Cambodia. Many expect it to serve as a chilling reminder of the lengths that the ruling party is willing to take to consolidate its power and eliminate all voices of dissent.

I wish I could end this blog post on a happy note, but there’s really no point sugar coating it. The prognosis appears grim for Cambodia, a country in a deep state of crisis, where the space for civil society keeps shrinking, and human rights are at the bottom of the government’s list of priorities.

Looking ahead at my last few weeks in the country I have four dates highlighted on my agenda. Two are trial dates, one marks a court summons and the fourth the announcement of a verdict. All four cases are political. At this point it’s hard to be optimistic that justice will prevail, when all four outcomes seem clearly pre-determined.

For now, I’m just hoping for a miracle.

Broadening my Perspectives


Me and my first kürtőskalács

Szeretlek Magy. Cette phrase, qui se traduit à “j’aime la Hongrie,” fait partie des dix mots que j’ai appris de la langue Hongroise depuis mon arrivée à Budapest à la début mai. Depuis mon arrivée, la ville me pousse à me poser pleins de questions : pourquoi de la crème sûre sur tout? Comment peut-il y avoir au tant de sortes de paprika? La goulash, le salami, le kürtőskalács, pogácsa, ce n’est pas pour rien qu’on dit que la Hongrie est une “capitale de bouffe.” Je me pose pleins de questions aussi sur l’histoire complexe de ce pays et sur leur culture de bains thermiques.

Parmi tous ces questionnements se trouve un autre genre de réflexion, une plutôt contraire à ce que je viens de mentionner, qui se fait dans un petit bureau sur la rue Hercegprímás au centre de la ville. De l’extérieur, la bâtisse reflète l’architecture riche de cette ville, juste à quelques pas de la fameuse Szent István Bazilika. De l’extérieur, personne ne pourrait imaginer ce qui se passe à l’intérieur, au troisième étage de cet édifice. Nul part n’est-il annoncé qu’une petite équipe passionnée au Mental Disability Advocacy Centre (MDAC) travaille ardument pour les droits des personnes ayant une déficience intellectuelle ou psychosociale.

The work that is done at MDAC cannot be summed up simply. This NGO currently has around 50 pending cases in 7 different countries. It is very interesting for me to cooperate in a different kind of activism for the rights of people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. I usually work directly with children with mental disabilities: teaching them swimming, playing games, or attending to medical appointments with them, all in the context of different organizations with which I am involved at home. However, what I do here at MDAC is different. MDAC uses law as a means of change; as a way to make a difference in the lives of people with mental disabilities.

Right before entering MDAC for the first time

Generally speaking, the way this is done can be summed up in two words: proactive law. Law serves more purpose than the set of rules it outlines for our society; it has the power to promote or limit equality, justice, and fairness. Having laws in place is not the end point, but only the starting point. How can people know about these laws if they are not promoted? How can they be implemented if nobody sees to their enforcement? How can they be respected if no one is given the tools to apply them and ensure they are being respected? It is necessary to proactively work to create an environment in which everyone has the same chances to live a prosperous life. That is what I feel I am a part of this summer. What I do might be little in the big picture, but every single case that MDAC advocates is contributing to provide this prosperous environment for people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. But it is very difficult.

Every day, I read atrocities. Every week, I am responsible for producing a newsletter that reports all the recent relevant jurisprudence and news items that are relevant to our work. I read and I summarise. I read about children being placed in institutions when they are not even a year old. I read about teens confined in solitary wards and I read about people being confined in institutions against their will. Then, I read further about these individuals in institutions that are also having their rights infringed. I read, I read, I read and every day, as I cringe a little more, I become less surprised by the treatment people with mental disabilities are receiving, as it is so frequent. Is this how people become blind to atrocities, by setting standards based on what the norm has become? It is horrifying how our brain works, how it captures information, and how it remembers things. People’s stories become cases and cases become application numbers; people’s belongings become confiscated and they become evidence for trial; personal memories become testimonies and can then be used against you; similar cases are regrouped together and statistics are created. These processes are long, tedious, challenging, and exhausting and it is hard to conceive sometimes that all this started with a story, somebody’s horrible story.


United Nations Peace One Day at American International School of Budapest, where I was a panelist for student presentations and representing MDAC

When I read, I replace the word ‘applicant’ with a name, where there are pictures, I capture faces, I think of cases as stories; I do everything I can to make everything as human as possible and less bureaucratic. Although that makes the read harder, it also makes it more real. These are people’s lives I am reading about and it is very easy to lose sight of that when you are working in an office 9:00 to 5:00 every day. I want to make sure with the case summaries I do, the research I conduct, the newsletters I create, and the meetings I take part in that I don’t lose my human touch with the work I do.

En fait, j’ai récemment réalisé à quel point j’étais influencée par mes lectures et mon travail. Je suis allée au cinéma avec une autre stagiaire de MDAC. Nous voulions aller voir un film léger après une longue journée de travail. Malheureusement, le film que nous voulions voir n’était qu’en Hongrois.  Nous avons donc opté pour une version anglophone du film Me Before You. Pour ceux qui n’ont pas encore vu ce film, je vous averti que je pourrais vous gâcher la fin. En quelques lignes, ce film parle d’un tétraplégique qui souhaite mettre fin à ses jours. Dans ses derniers six mois de vie, sa mère engage une jeune femme pour lui tenir compagnie et bien sûr, ces deux derniers deviennent amoureux. En surface, ce film est peut-être qu’une histoire d’amour et une leçon sur le soutien inconditionnel d’un être un cher. À la fin, l’homme décide tout de même de mettre fin à sa vie afin d’arrêter de souffrir. Certes, pour moi ce film crée tout d’abord une énorme controverse pour les gens en situation d’handicape.

13599620_994527830642381_1396374541_nAt first, I was enraged. How could a movie so bluntly send a message that people with disabilities should consider suicide? No one’s suicide should be viewed as noble and inspirational, which is what I felt the movie was conveying. By doing such, it devalues the lives of people with disabilities whereas the message should really be that their lives are as precious as anyone else’s. I felt like romanticism was influencing our notion of human rights, rights MDAC fights to protect. However, while processing this information, I recalled a sentence that was said by a character in the movie that bothered me. Unsure of the exact words, I decided to retrieve the quote from the book the movie was based on: “[p]eople who are vulnerable should not be given the chance to do something that they’ll…”. Those words reflect the idea that other people should take decisions for people with disabilities, suggesting they lack the judgment to take decisions for themselves. However, the young woman who is in love with him understands the importance of giving him his choice and allowing him to decide for himself: “I’d sleep at night because I trust [him] to know what is right for him, and because what has been the worst thing for him has been losing the ability to make a single decision, to do a single thing for himself.” Then what is the right thing to do in this case? Do you let him take his own decision or not?  13639425_10210133754285059_157356367_o

I do not have a right answer to these difficult questions. I just realized then, when walking out of the movie, how much perspective my work at MDAC has brought me. One of the questions I was asked when applying for this internship inquired on what I hoped to take away from this experience. My answer could be summarised with my aspiration to broaden my knowledge and expertise in the field of human rights. Prior to this internship, seeing this movie would have rather left me mesmerized with the love story. In my application for this internship, I wrote “to best understand human rights, we cannot look only at an individual problem, within one social context, through the eyes of one legal tradition, but rather by looking at the bigger picture.” I acknowledged that often I failed to do that and I had hoped to reverse that this summer, and I think I just did.



Fellow interns and I in the Buda hills during our Staff Away Day

Alternative Lawyering at AHRC

Alexander Agnello

“Those who have less in life should have more in law” – former President of the Philippines, the late Ramon Magsaysay.

It’s a quote that was first introduced to me by my mentor Attorney Anne Manigbas, and it stuck. What it means to provide “more in law” is not evident, although at first glance it seems to propose a transformative or redistributive project. I have spent these two months at Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) grappling with how alternative lawyers set out to provide “more in law” for those who have “less in life”.

The term “alternative” in alternative lawyering is often taken to describe a difference in career choice (corporate law vs. public interest law). This is an erroneous and superficial interpretation, since “alternative” is meant to describe an ethos that can and should be implemented in various sectors, be they commercial or public interest. Alternative lawyers do often take on careers outside of the mainstream, but what differentiates their work is its commitment to a different route to, and conception of, justice. As I’m writing to you, I realize that I cannot give a developed picture of alternative lawyering without delving into my ongoing projects and recent experiences.

I had the fortune of being the first McGill/foreign intern to attend the Orientation Seminar of Ateneo Human Rights Center’s flagship program: The Human Rights Internship. The purpose of the Orientation Seminar is to provide training on human rights advocacy, focusing on the practice of alternative lawyering for marginalized groups. The conference presentations on Statelessness, Agrarian Form, and the Migrant Worker Sector were amazingly detailed crash courses by alternative lawyers. It gave students a glimpse of the way alternative lawyers practice law: they work with clients, and this commitment to a client can go as far as marching over 2000 kilometers from Mindanao to Malacañang Palace with the Sumilao farmers to rightfully reclaim their land. The practice-based workshops on Popular Education, Paralegalism, and Legal Aid were a test of a student’s ability to empathize with a client’s position, master the legal and rhetorical tools at their disposal, and give a client a genuine opportunity to be active participants in justice.

AHRC Interns taking part in a Boodle Fight

AHRC Interns taking part in a Boodle Fight

After orientation, the students move onto their placements across the country to begin carrying out the work of an AHRC intern, captured by the motto: “Learn the Law, Serve the People”. I remain in Manila to work on the ongoing projects of the Women’s and Children’s Rights desks. We are pressuring the government to raise the age of sexual consent, currently set at 12 years of age. We are assisting the European Union with their human rights and democratization strategy in the Philippines. We are part of a consultation group that will propose a Sex Offender Registration and Notification Bill to Senate and Congress. We are one of the alternative law groups monitoring the judiciary. But at the same time, the lawyers here devote a great deal of their time to community service. I participated in their annual campaign to renovate classrooms for the start of the school year. I helped organize a workshop on legal literacy and cyberspace safety for vulnerable youth, with the aim of preparing the students to teach a lesson plan on these topics to their peers.

In all of this, I saw that the alternative lawyer is not part of the isolated technocrat class or a paternalistic figure who sees it as his/her duty to hold a client’s hand all the way to a court victory. An alternative lawyer provides “more in law” by collaborating with other members of society to build a more accessible, inclusive and dynamic justice system. Ideally, this system will recognize that reconciliation, civic education & involvement, indigenous dispute resolution and other alternatives are valuable ways to bring more individuals into the conversation for aims that are far more fruitful to global justice than a day in court.

A fire in Manila Bay

A fire in Manila Bay

Because I have only begun to familiarize myself with the AHRC’s alternate lawyer ethos, I will rely on the words of Sir Marlon Manuel, National Coordinator of the Alternative Law Group and a former AHRC intern:

“Alternative lawyers are swimmers against the tide. They test the water, they dip into the water, and they swim. And while swimming, they call others to join them, even those who cannot swim. They continue to swim, they continue to call others, and they feverently hope (dream) that, with enough swimmers in the water, they can turn the tide… “The objective… is not really to teach swimming, but to simply encourage dipping into the water”[1]

[1] Training Manual for Paralegals, A publication of the Ateneo Human Rights Center (2010), p. 9.

Same, same, but different

Anna Goldfinch
I find that whenever I go somewhere new I play the “same, same, but different” game. I think it is human nature to try to find similarities between new places and home, but we are also quick to spot differences. My first few weeks in Colorado have not been an exception to this human quirk. Everywhere I go, I find myself relating it back to home in some way, while finding strange but subtle differences. For example, all the amenities in kitchens here are obviously the same as at home, except for the fact that all sinks have garburators (which are banned in most Canadian cities). My roommate makes fun of me for how afraid I am to turn it on.

Where I’m from, there are lots of mountains just like there are here in Colorado. However, the mountains at home are little, rolling and green; the tail end of the Appalachians. Here, we are at the height of the Rockies in all their glory; towering and jagged. While I’ve done quite a bit of hiking on the east coast, nothing could have prepared me for the outdoors culture of Colorado. I spend at least one day per weekend scampering up mountainsides, cursing the altitude, and marvelling the views.

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Kitchens and mountains aren’t the only place where things are same, same, but different. Having worked at a student-run not-for-profit organization for two years, working at One Earth Future (OEF) has a comfortable familiarity about it. I am, once again, surrounded by passionate and incredibly intelligent people, working for a cause they believe in. One Earth Future has similar successes and growing pains that most not-for-profits have. In a lot of ways working here is very “same same” as my previous job.

However, the organization I previously worked for was structured much like a union; we recognized that students could not accomplish much individually, but collectively they could advocate for a better world and create change. One Earth Future is the complete opposite. The organization was born out of one family’s generosity and vision for world peace. This is the greatest difference I have noticed so far.

One Earth Future’s unique structure speaks to the reality of a large portion of international human rights work. With a lack of global governance, individual actors who care about specific problems try to make a difference in whatever way they can. The founders of One Earth Future saw maritime piracy as an issue that was receiving little attention, and focused their resources there as a result.

In my first few weeks here, I spent a lot of time thinking about this dynamic. I wondered what the state of maritime piracy would be like if One Earth Future had not chosen to focus its resources in that direction. Would piracy off the coast of Somalia have decreased in the same way as it has under the watch of OEF? I also wondered about all the other important causes that don’t get attention from international human rights organizations. I worry about the “too small” issues, and the “too political” issues. Who is caring about them?

I haven’t stopped worrying and I haven’t stopped wondering about this, but I have forged ahead with my work on piracy. I don’t expect these questions to ever go away. In fact, I expect any time I work in international human rights I will ask similar questions, just maybe about a different topic. Same, same, but different.


Lives on “stand-by”


Assise sur ma chaise, les yeux cloués sur mon écran.


They ripped off my pants with a knife and three violated me, one after the other. They pointed their guns at me, saying they were going to kill me, and beat me with their rifles. They beat me in my sex after they had finished. As this was happening, I saw a girl about five meters from where I was being raped. After they got off of her, one of them shot her in the abdomen as she was lying there. They shot her with one of their long guns. I saw the blood running down her body…. I saw this just after they had finished with me, but it wasn’t the same group.


C’est frappant, malaisant, de se retrouver dans une position où, du haut du 35e étage de l’Empire State Building, je lis sur des massacres ayant lieu chez moi, puis, à l’indication de l’aiguille passant les 18 heures, je sors du bâtiment et marche dans les rues, presque comme si de rien n’était. Mettant les cris de ces personnes sur “mute”, la vie de ces personnes en “stand-by”, alors que je rentre, prends une douche, mange et dors, puis retourne à mon écran le lendemain matin.

Voici déjà un mois de ceci.


View from the top of the Empire State Buiding

View from the top of the Empire State Building

Travailler pour Human Rights Watch reste toutefois enrichissant. Entourée de 4 avocat-e-s, aussi occupé-e-s les un-e-s que les autres, j’ai eu l’opportunité de faire de la recherche sur le Moyen-Orient, la Guinée et la Corée du Nord. La présence de 2 autres stagiaires au sein du bureau apporte son propre lot d’apprentissage. J’apprends qu’en voulant être compatissante avec l’expérience négative d’une stagiaire, justifiée ou non, je risque la mienne. Par ailleurs, je développe une certaine conscience de l’impact associé au travail que je produis, et à l’importance de lui donner une couleur qui est mienne.

L’approche de Human Rights Watch en termes de défense de droits humains repose sur l’utilisation stratégique de son influence sur des acteurs clés de la communauté internationale. Le rôle de la Cour pénale internationale ainsi que les défis auxquelles elle fait face commencent à prendre forme, ce qui génère en moi de nombreux repositionnements.

The more I understand how the ICC works, the more I am shocked to see the difference with Canadian domestic courts, the Supreme Court for instance, which writes decision with an air of “the Court has spoken”, while the International Criminal Court, with the mandate to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity, war crimes etc. –the most serious international crimes – needs permission to speak.


In the middle of this organized mess, I ask myself: where do I stand? Where do I start?


As I sat there, no more than three meters away, I saw them shoot an old man dressed as an imam in the head while he was praying. The old man was in the process of praying, because in the Muslim faith, if you are going to die, it is necessary to pray before dying. He was in the process of praying and a red beret walked up to him and shot him in the head with a pistol. Nearby, there was another man who wanted to pray. As he kneeled there, one of the ones wearing gris-gris said, “Don’t say another prayer,” and came up behind him and slit his throat.


On these last nights of Ramadan,

I pray with all my heart. I pray for the people I might not know, for the people I might not see, but for the people I can feel. I pray, because I am confused. What is my role, as a jurist? What can I do as a lawyer, really? What has law ever done for humanity, other than providing a sophisticated knife to deep-pocketed opportunists, other than providing rules conveniently drafted to relieve the anxiety of complicit observers, other than manufacturing hope?


On these last nights of Ramadan,

I pray for a night of peace.

Only one.


Nour Saadi


Air Train

Air Train, New York City


First testimony: A 26-year-old housecleaner who was gang raped by three members of the Presidential Guard on the September 28, 2009 massacre and rapes in the Conakry Stadium.

Second testimony: A 19-year-old student who was beaten by security forces and hid in an area under construction behind the stadium.

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