Reflections from HRW

2015 Jabir HumeraBy Humera Jabir

Taking the time to reflect on my internship with a bit of distance, I am better aware of the important lessons I learned through this experience.

When I began the internship, I often set out with a mind to finding the limitations of the legal frameworks in question as I have been trained to do through law school courses. However, working closely with the advocates at HRW has shown me that identifying limitations is only the first step in the field of international criminal law, which is constantly developing and moving in new directions.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is how to think through options to move legal frameworks for accountability forward. By experiencing how the lawyers I worked with think through problems, I was able to learn how they identified advocacy options, what areas of the law they abandoned as options, and what others they emphasized as potential persuasive avenues for securing justice and accountability.

I was most impressed by their long-term thinking. On a number of projects, the lawyers I worked with developed their strategies with contingencies in mind. What would happen if a particular state changed its position? What would happen if a particular political context underwent change? And what mechanisms should they as advocates begin to put in place in the event that these changes came about? Most of the human rights work I have engaged with prior to HRW has always been stopgap, seeking to address and remedy immediate violations. While HRW lawyers also do this work, they do so thinking of the future, thinking of the implications on contexts that may develop and cases to come, and with a mind to paving the road for accountability if and when it becomes an international priority in a given situation.

The internship has taught me to think about problems of international criminal justice with flexibility and imagination by taking account of the inherent unpredictability of international politics. I have learned to think through the limitations of existing frameworks but also the limitations of advocating for “something new” or becoming too mired in the specificity of a particular context. I was very impressed by HRW lawyers’ ability to think outside the box. I really learned what it means to make one’s best case for the best available approach, all the while accepting unforeseen risks and limitations. It really is a challenge!

Dissonance, despondency, surprise – and LGBT rights in Africa

2015 Wettstein AnnaBy Anna Wettstein

About a month and a half after my return from The Gambia, my thoughts about my trip are split in the most profound way. And so maybe my ruminations can only be expressed by a cliché and overused quote:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

I suppose any life-changing event in a person’s life is sure to elicit these sorts of emotions. I met some people who were the most gracious and welcoming I have ever met, yet at the same time some days I couldn’t muster up the courage to leave my apartment because of the dozens of men who felt entitled to my words, my time, and my thoughts. I felt, at once, supreme isolation, and a very real connection to certain people around me. I felt pride and hope about the work I and my institution were doing, and sometimes I felt our work was so hypocritical, counterproductive, and self-congratulatory that I couldn’t believe I had ever considered it worthy of changing the world in even the smallest of ways.

Now that I’m back and, with a bit more distance, truly reflecting on human rights work, I can’t say I’m less conflicted. But it’s important to channel that critical eye into something positive and productive, no matter how daunting that task seems to be.

One of the greatest moments of dissonance for me was hearing my colleagues speak about LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, and the infamous case of the American baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. I knew going there that this was a very touchy subject – homosexuality is criminalized in The Gambia, and certain acts can land you in prison for life. Generally it’s as if it doesn’t exist there, as if the famous words of Iran’s Ahmadinejad: “We don’t have any gays in Iran” actually ring true in The Gambia. So the only time I heard anyone talk about it was when the US Supreme Court decision was published, and I heard my colleagues make some (to put it nicely) very disappointing remarks.

Just a few months earlier, the Coalition of African Lesbians was granted observer status at the African Commission after a 7-year battle. When their application for Observer Status was first rejected, the Commission provided as a reason that “the activities of the said Organisation do not promote and protect any of the rights enshrined in the African Charter.” The reversal of opinion was promising for the possibility of countering discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity in Africa as it seemed to signify that the Commission was open to recognizing that the rights of homosexuals are enshrined in the African Charter. Yet just a few months later, their observer status was rescinded. One step forward, two steps back? If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, it’s heartening to imagine that the Commission would grant such status at all, even if just for a few months.

Yet a colleague of mine was there during the debates at the Commission. He told me he heard some prominent human rights activists referring to ‘gays’ as rats or vermin – I’m not sure on the exact terminology he related, but it was something equally vile. He heard some of the most educated and progressive lawyers fight to deny even the rights to life and to be free from torture based on a person’s sexual orientation. A respected friend of mine said some equally hateful things. This dissonance was striking, but I was used to it at this point.

So in my eternal naiveté and hope, when my Institution tasked me with drawing up an internal memo on litigating sexual and reproductive rights, I decided that this was my prime opportunity to argue that we should be litigating discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The arguments are solid – it would make a great case. Do I think they are ever going to do it? No, not in the foreseeable future. In fact I’m not sure my arguments and research will lead to anything positive at all because they seemed to fall on deaf ears. But I’m glad I tried.

I wish I could end this post on a positive note, but the hate I encountered left too bitter a taste in my mouth. Maybe the silver lining can be found in my surprise at my colleagues’ responses to the issue – that in almost every other way, their dedication to human rights, openness and tolerance taught me many things.

I suppose I think it’s unfortunate more than anything. At the very least, if my colleagues worked on such a case, I think their minds would be changed. I think they would be less apt to dehumanize gay people and others ostracized, beaten, and killed for their sexual orientation or gender identity on a regular basis. But maybe that would be too difficult to them – it’s hard to step out of your comfort zone, after all.

Violence at sea, without consequences

2015 Venney MarilynBy Marilyn Venney

One of the main focuses at Oceans Beyond Piracy is, of course, piracy. But piracy is itself a symptom of a much wider issue – the lack of effective governance over the high seas. This isn’t a new problem, and although there are a number of international conventions in place aimed at filling the gap, the fact is that people and vessels operating in international waters are not usually subject to a great deal of oversight. And part of the problem is that there isn’t much interest in this lawlessness or motivation to address it.

This lack of interest is something that OBP has struggled with in the past. Last year a cellphone video turned up on the internet depicting the brutal murder of four seafarers, filmed by some unknown sailor on board another ship. To watch the video, which is graphic and disturbing, see the New York Times article Murder at Sea http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/20/world/middleeast/murder-at-sea-captured-on-video-but-killers-go-free.html. For those who’d rather not watch, the video shows a group of large vessels surrounding four men in the water, who are hanging on to the floating remains of their small vessel. One by one they are shot to death by a person or multiple people on board one of the larger ships.

When the video surfaced, OBP sent it to mainstream news outlets (in addition to the maritime news sources that OBP often deals with), positive that this would be the incident that pushed seafarer issues and the problem of lawlessness at sea to a wider audience. While the video is now a centerpiece of one segment of the New York Times series The Outlaw Ocean, it took over a year to gain the type of attention that OBP hoped it would attract.

It’s possible that the murdered seafarers were a group of pirates whose attack had just been thwarted. Or maybe they were fishermen from a coastal West African town who got too close to a large international vessel, spooking the sailors and armed guards on board. Unfortunately, pirates don’t actually fly a skull and cross-bones flag, and in practice their small boats are not always distinguishable from the fishing vessels used by fishermen from the region. Sailors on board large international vessels and the teams of armed guards hired to protect them are understandably fearful when travelling through the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Guinea. However, that fear, combined with the knowledge that they enjoy relative impunity, can result in a dangerous propensity to assume that seafarers seemingly approaching them are pirates, and to react accordingly. Although it’s impossible to know what happened before the video begins, in the minutes before their murder it was obvious that they did not pose a threat: their boat was destroyed and they were all hanging on to its remains to stay afloat.

Either way the video is proof of a serious problem: even if the murdered seafarers were pirates, killing them when they were clearly incapacitated would not have been legal. And if they weren’t – if they were innocent fishermen who got a little too close for comfort – their murder is indicative of the danger faced by fishermen operating off the coast of West Africa. There is always the possibility that they could be mistaken for pirates, and there isn’t much protecting them. In this case a video of the incident turned up years later after the cellphone was forgotten in a cab in Fiji and its contents were discovered and released. Normally, though, no one would know. So how many innocent fishermen have faced this end?

The recent NY Times series on lawlessness at sea was definitely a welcome change for organizations like OBP pushing for improved governance over the high seas. Hopefully, it will bring the kind of attention that will make it easier to push for positive change. To read the whole series, go to http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/24/world/the-outlaw-ocean.html?action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article.

A touch of sun with my café con leche: A glimpse into the day-to-day life of an Inter-American Court of Human Rights intern.

2015-lachapelle-kaleyBy Kaley Lachapelle

As I sit sipping on my coffee at a local coffee shop in Calgary, I reflect on my summer spent in Costa Rica.  What an enriching summer it was.

I was selected by the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism to participate in a Human Rights Internship for the summer, 2015 at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.  The Court is located in San José, Costa Rica.

The internship at the Court provides a very comprehensive experience, professionally, culturally and socially.  In order to fully benefit from the experience, fluency in Spanish is a requirement for the position, as it is the working language of the Court.  During the course of my twelve-week internship, I was part of a group of approximately twenty visiting professionals and interns from across the Americas and Europe.

Interns and visiting professionals at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, summer 2015

Interns and visiting professionals at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, summer 2015

The Court is the judicial institution of the Organization of American States responsible for applying and interpreting the American Convention on Human Rights (Art. 1, Statute of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights).  While neither Canada nor the United States of America are state parties to the Convention, twenty-five American states have ratified or acceded to the treaty, thus providing the Court with jurisdiction over Convention related disputes.

During the course of the internship, my day-to-day generally consisted of providing legal research in a number of areas to support a team of lawyers and legal assistants.  The Court’s lawyers largely represent jurisdictions across the Americas.  The diversity of legal knowledge and experience in the area of human rights at Court is arguably unparalleled in the region.

For two and half weeks during my internship, the Court was in session and public hearings were held. I, along with the other interns and visiting professionals, was invited to attend the public hearings of the 109th session.  The hearings are recorded and can be viewed online.  It was a very unique opportunity to work at the Court during the public hearings, as I was able to meet and interact with the Court’s seven judges.

The Court is located in the city of San José at 1200 m (3700 ft) above sea level in the central valley of the small, Central American country.   Surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, San José is the country’s largest city and its political and economic capital.  I travelled to Costa Rica during the rainy season; from May through November, the mornings in the Central Valley are hot and humid (between 25 – 30 degrees celsius), with the temperature often dropping in the afternoon with the tropical, torrential downpours.

The beauty of Costa Rica is that one can travel from a lush, green mountainous landscape (or, more accurately in my case, the bustling city of San José) to the sunny, sandy beaches along the coast in a short drive of a couple of hours.  There is so much to see and enjoy outside of San José, that small getaways form an integral part of the intern’s experience. From pineapples, to bananas, to sugarcane and coffee, Costa Rica has a diverse, breathtaking landscape.  Weekends are spent sightseeing, hiking, swimming and relaxing with colleagues, as there is always someone keen to escape the capital for a few days.

Undoubtedly, the greatest part of my experience in Costa Rica was establishing very positive professional relationships, that evolved into friendships, with lawyers, law students and Court staff from across the Americas as well as from Europe.  Today I feel very connected to the legal and human rights community globally; bonds that will endure well past law school and will undoubtedly shape my legal career.  My experience in Costa Rica this summer taught me that my legal education is not only about the destination; rather I have come to value this unique, unforgettable journey as a McGill law student.

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. July, 2015

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. July, 2015

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