Just Keep Swimming

By André Capretti

In the past few months, Cambodian civil society has made concerted efforts to lobby foreign governments who are among Cambodia’s biggest aid donors, in the hopes of pressuring the government to cease violating human rights and making a mockery of the justice system. By using aid money as leverage, foreign governments can advocate for improvements in the State’s treatment of its citizens and for the respect of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties.

However, for a long time embassies in Phnom Penh were disturbingly quiet about the politically motivated repression of the State’s most ardent critics and high-profile opponents. While activists, opposition politicians and human rights defenders were being thrown into prison one after the other, far too many foreign delegations limited their statements to “expressions of deep concern”. “Concern”, no matter how deep or heartfelt it may be, is not an effective tool for bringing about serious change in the ruthless Cambodian political landscape. It is even less appropriate from actors like the United States EmbassyUN Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon, or the European Union delegation, who have the gravitas and influence necessary to make a difference through their words and actions.

So when the European Parliament voted for a resolution on June 9, which called for the body’s 410 million€ of aid to be made conditional on improvements in Cambodia’s human rights situation, there seemed to be signs for potential rejoicing. And yet the Cambodian government’s response to the EU’s diplomatic move was harsh and dismissive. Prime Minister Hun Sen made a speech in which he stated, “China has never made a threat to Cambodia and has never ordered Cambodia to do something…You threaten to cut off aid; please cut it and the first person who will suffer will be the people who work with NGOs.”

These comments present two worrisome issues. Firstly, what to do when countries like China, who have no qualms about less than stellar human rights records, present themselves as aid partners for developing countries, making withholding aid no longer a viable means of affecting change? Secondly, what to do when a government calls your bluff and appears to relish the possibility of cutting off money from NGOs?

The government of Cambodia has long prioritized economic development and security at the expense of democracy and human rights, without acknowledging that those do not have to be mutually exclusive goals. Cambodia’s recent response to the threats made by the EU is alarming, as it demonstrates that they are not afraid to expand the chasm between development and human rights even further.

Here’s an interesting Op-Ed from the New York Times on the role of human rights in the World Bank’s development policies.

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            Lorsque je lis les nouvelles cambodgiennes sur les réseaux sociaux, il m’arrive parfois de me demander si l’article que je lis est une parodie ou un article sérieux. L’absurdité des propos des membres du gouvernement dans leurs entrevues et dans leurs déclarations aux médias rend la tâche particulièrement difficile.

Prenons par exemple le vidéo intitulé « Using Rights in Anarchic Way », produit récemment par le gouvernement. Dans ce vidéo, le gouvernement avertit les cambodgiens que si ils utilisent leurs droits « de la mauvaise façon », ils risquent de reproduire les mêmes sortes de guerres civiles qu’ont vécues la Libye et la Syrie, après que le peuple s’est opposé au gouvernement. Sans aucun signe d’ironie, le narrateur raconte que l’usage excessif des droits amènera la destruction, des familles éclatées, la perte d’une centaine de milliers de vies et d’habitats, et le carnage. Le narrateur conclut qu’après toutes ces horreurs, il ne restera que des souvenirs douloureux.

Le message transmis au public par le gouvernement dans ce vidéo est clair. Arrêtez donc de manifester, de vous exprimer, de vous plaindre contre la corruption, la répression de l’État, l’abus du système judiciaire et l’harcèlement de la société civile. Si vous ne restez pas en silence, on n’hésitera pas à utiliser la violence et la brutalité pour vous écraser, comme ils ont fait en Syrie et en Libye. Il est encore plus difficile de croire que l’organe du gouvernement qui a publié la vidéo est le Cambodian Human Rights Committee, un organe qui est censé promouvoir les droits humains !

En bref c’est ça la situation des droits humains au Cambodge : la ligne entre la réalité et l’absurde est floue. C’est un pays où le ministre de la défense menace d’emprisonner les gens s’ils manifestent pacifiquement sans demander de permission. Un pays où le passetemps préféré du premier ministre semble être de faire taire ses adversaires et ses critiques avec des poursuites en diffamation. Un pays où le gouvernement déclare que les manifestants doivent demander la permission du gouvernement pour s’exprimer sur les réseaux sociaux. Un pays où le double standard entre les partis critiques du gouvernement et les amis proches du régime est flagrant et injuste. Pendant que le chef député de l’opposition fait face à des chefs d’accusions banals motivés par des intérêts politiques, des haut placés dans le gouvernement sont protégés des regards du tribunal chargé de réprimer les crimes de l’ère des Khmers rouges. Ce type d’impunité est tout simplement inacceptable pour un pays qui prétend respecter les droits humains et la justice.

            Ce qui est le plus absurde dans tout ça c’est de voir comment le droit, le système de justice et le discours des droits humains peuvent être maniés d’une façon aussi grotesque, par un gouvernement qui a si peu de respect pour son peuple.

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            Last summer I followed with great interest Brodie Noga’s blogs, where he recounted his experiences as an intern with LICADHO. In particular, one of his blogs caught my attention, and left a lasting impression in my mind: Monitoring a Trial for Insurrection.  

Recently, I had the chance to witness the second act of this case, as three members of the youth wing of the opposition political party were being put on trial for the same events as their predecessors, accused of leading and participating in an insurrection, for their actions in a 2014 peaceful protest turned violent.

What I witnessed during the two hearings I attended was a shocking display of political theatre. The judge made no effort to conceal that the defendants’ presumption of innocence had been replaced with a presumption of guilt. One of the defendants, Yea Thong, provided compelling testimony which indicated that he had very likely been at the wrong place at the wrong time, and possibly the victim of a case of mistaken identity. Yet the judge made absolutely no effort to probe his claims further, making it clear that the defendants’ guilt had been predetermined.

What was most appalling was the ridiculous case presented by the prosecutor, who brought forth no evidence to corroborate the allegations and barred the defence from calling on key witnesses for additional questioning. The prosecutor made the absurd argument that although the defendants’ actions did not involve the constituting acts of the offence of insurrection, their arrests and prosecutions were justified on the grounds that this offence had to be dealt with pre-emptively.

I felt confident that there was no way a reasonable judge would convict the three men of any crime, much less a crime like insurrection which carries a sentence ranging from seven to 15 years of imprisonment. I soon learned that was naïve of me.

On the day the verdict was handed down, I observed a similar scene to that which Brodie had witnessed a year prior. While waiting for the judges to show up, the three defendants smiled and laughed with their family members in the audience. My eyes lingered on Yea Thong, the defendant whose testimony I had heard and who I was convinced was completely innocent. He seemed relaxed and unworried, laughing along with his fellow defendants. He even gave a reassuring wink to his wife, sitting two rows behind him, as if to say, “Don’t worry honey, this will all be over soon enough”.

And then the judge entered the chambers. Immediately the mood in the room changed. The tension was palpable as the judge began to rattle off the charges and read out the verdicts. My Khmer colleague whispered in my ear, “7 years. All three of them”. My heart sank. I looked over to the defendants, to Yea Thong in particular. From behind I could see that his hands had begun to shake. And then his arms began to tremble as well. As the prison guards took away the three –now convicted – men, their families started to shout and scream, many of them in tears.

In that moment, I was dumbfounded by the verdict. That feeling would slowly be replaced in equal parts by feelings of fury and sorrow. Yea Thong later denounced his verdict, noting that “[n]othing about this is remarkable because the courts in Cambodia are not fair to people.” His wife would go on to add that “[t]here is no justice, brother, because my husband did not do anything wrong. Courts in Cambodia are not fair for the powerless people.”

I didn’t have much time to recover from that disturbing scene before we zoomed off on a tuk-tuk to the Appeals Court. Once there, we waited to hear whether the five human rights defenders who had been in pre-trial detention since May 2 would have their requests for bail allowed. Once again, being a young, naïve and idealistic law student, I thought they might actually be granted bail. Under the law, they certainly qualified for it. Yet as I had just seen in the insurrection case, and as my colleagues had repeatedly reminded me, the law was not a prime consideration in cases like these. Inexplicably, the five were denied bail by the court, which tried providing some semblance of a justification for its decision to mask the clear political motivations behind the case. With a heavy heart, I headed home. In one day I had had a front row seat to two major injustices perpetrated by Cambodia’s justice system. I am beginning to realize that the struggles of human rights work can erode even the most hardened layers of optimism and idealism.

Advocacy material for the Black Monday campaign
Advocacy material for the Black Monday campaign
The beach on Rabbit Island near Kep
The beach on Rabbit Island near Kep

 

Luckily, the LICADHO team held its annual staff retreat soon after in the seaside town of Kep. The idyllic locale, with the calming smell and sound of the ocean, did wonders for my morale. The time spent together, laughing, sharing meals, playing games, lifted everyone’s spirits. It was much needed. No matter how demoralizing, disheartening or depressing human rights work can be, it is far too valuable to ever give up. While we may sometimes lose hope, I was reminded of an important lesson when I recently went to the movie theatres to see Finding Dory.

When life gets you down, you know what you gotta do?

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim.  

Peru’s “Hatun Willakuy”: A Great Story

By Emilie de Haas

My experience in Lima, Peru started just over seven weeks ago, and instantly I was welcomed with open arms into the big academic family here at the Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Peru (IDEHPUCP).

This is the first time McGill University partners with the IDEHPUCP within the International Human Rights Internship Program. I am grateful to be the first McGill intern to travel to Lima and feel it is my duty to give a bit of background information about the purpose of the Instituto and how it came to be.

The IDEHPUCP: Promoter of democracy and human rights in and beyond Peru

 During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Peru fell victim to a violent internal political conflict between guerrilla groups and the State. Roughly 69,000 innocent victims lost their lives to violence primarily instigated by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgents, whose radical communist ideology called for a “people’s war” against the State, the use of terror being its principal tactic to overthrow the existing institutions of power and replace it with a new revolutionary government.[i] However, Sendero Luminoso was only responsible for a little over fifty percent of the fatal casualties as a result of the conflict. While the legal declaration of a state of emergency and the use of military forces quickly became necessary to counter the insurgence, the State and its agents were also found accountable for numerous violations of people’s fundamental rights.

The ethnical dimension of the conflict hardly went unnoticed: most of the violence was concentrated in the Peruvian highlands (departments of Ayacucho, Junín, Huánuco, and Huancavelica). This region of Peru was, and remains today, difficult to access, economically poor and majorly populated by indigenous Quechua speakers, a people said to be modern descendants of the Inca civilization.  Because of their ethnic origins and geographical disadvantage, many victims have recounted feeling disconnected and forgotten by their government during the period of the conflict, one man even stating in testimony “so, my town was a town, I don’t know… a foreign town within Peru”.[ii]

At the beginning of the millennium, a truth and reconciliation commission was established to study the extent of the violence and its effects, produce official statistics and start the reparation process for victims. In 2003, the commission published its official report entitled Hatun Willakuy, a Quechua expression that translates to “great story”.  In its report, the Commission called for the establishment of an institute whose primary mandate would be to strengthen Peru’s democracy and respect for human rights through academic research, professional capacitation, and the fostering of spaces for dialogue and debate between civil society and the State. In 2004, the Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos was born.

 

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Main Hallway of the Institute

Entrance to the Institute

 

Despite being an academic unit of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Peru, the Instituto is not located on the university’s general campus. Rather, it is housed in a beautifully refurbished colonial house, with archways and wooden floors, cast-iron balconies and a lush garden out back. It makes for a very pleasant workplace, an oasis of calm greenery in an otherwise loud, bustling city.

The Instituto’s team is comprised of several legal academics and law students to anthropologists, political scientists and communications majors, all working in more than one of the its six main areas of research: Indigenous rights; business and human rights; anti-corruption measures; disability rights; human trafficking and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the post-conflict era. Finally, the Instituto is headed by its Executive President and Chair of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Dr. Salomon Lerner, as well as its Executive Director and Principal Professor of the Católica’s Law Faculty, Dra. Elizabeth Salmón.

With this knowledge in mind, arriving at the Instituto’s doorstep on my first day was a bit intimidating. Tasked with my first bit of research just hours after being introduced to the team, my jitters were quickly replaced by the impatience to delve into Peru’s past and its progression to this day…

 

The Day-to-Day of an IDEHPUCP Intern

There have not been two days alike at the Instituto so far, except perhaps for my 9 a.m. coffee I help myself to from our little kitchen every morning.

During the first few weeks, I worked on one of the Instituto’s ongoing tasks it performs regularly, the task of monitoring member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) in their compliance with the decisions rendered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). Many cases that reach the IACHR have been tried in their home countries and are appealed to this court, seeking better reparations for human rights violations. Sentences from the IACHR are final and bind the accused state to providing reparations to its plaintiffs. More often than not, states are slow to comply with the Court’s orders. My task consisted of surveying the orders rendered by the IACHR to the State of Ecuador and checking whether the country had provided concrete reparations to the victims of its human rights violations cases. Only then does the IACHR consider a case closed. Sadly, most of Ecuador’s cases before the IACHR remain open – its percentage of compliance to IACHR’s decisions rendered is very low.

I later joined a team of researchers in their work for an upcoming publication on Latin American Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (there have been fourteen in the last few decades following decline of authoritarian regimes in almost every part of the continent). The objective of this research project is to survey and compare the recommendations made by the various commissions, the degree of compliance to these recommendations by the states in question, and the institutional and social factors that may explain varying degrees of compliance to recommendations from state to state. The Instituto is partnering with similar think tanks in Latin American and Europe, as this is a joint project, the scope of which is colossal. As for myself, I am focusing on Peru’s TRC recommendations and looking at whether or not there have been advances on the institutional front to correct the mistakes of the past, and on the reparations front, to determine who has yet to receive monetary, symbolic or other kinds of reparation for the losses caused by past violence.

Apart from that, I regularly assist my colleagues in translating and editing documents from English and French to Spanish and I have been sitting in during a Public International Law class at the Faculty of Law on campus, taught by Doctora Salmón from the Instituto, who, through her energetic teaching, has effectively transferred to me her passion for the subject throughout the semester. Finally, I wrote and published a mini-editorial on the crisis in Brazil following the President’s impeachment last May to the Instituto’s website on their Opinions page. Despite being a challenge at times, working, reading and writing in Spanish every day has been a blessing – my lawyer lingo in Spanish is now up to speed!

 

¡Que chévere!

“Que chévere”, loosely translated to English means “how cool”. Peruvians use this expression for everything. Early on, my colleagues told me I had to incorporate it to my vocabulary if I were to truly integrate into the Peruvian culture and way of life. I’d say I’m well on my way, but some parts of me will forever remain Canadian. For example, I still get confused at the one-kiss-on-the-cheek custom here when I meet someone for the first time. I still lean in for the double-cheek kiss, to the confusion of my new acquaintances. Adding to that, my colleagues get a kick out of my clothes every day, as I come into the office with flats and short sleeves, while they sport their thickest turtlenecks in an effort to stay warm despite the “cold” Lima winter outside (June weather average for Lima, 19° C).

Nevertheless, I have been lucky to experience Peru’s culture, gastronomy and sights. Peru is a diverse country, its landscape ranging from the cool Pacific coast, to the beautiful highlands, to the sweltering and wild jungle. Benefiting from reasonable domestic transportation costs, I’ve been able to experience all three landscapes on three-day weekend trips. I’ve tried surfing off the coast in Lima (it’s as hard as it looks!), taken in the breathtaking beauty of the Peruvian Andes (while nursing a slight headache from the altitude), and swam in the Tambopata River known for its caiman herds in the heart of the jungle. Not to mention the delicious food! Peruvians are very proud of their gastronomy, and rightfully so. There is something for everyone here: meat, fish, rice, exotic fruit, cacao, coffee, spicy, mild, you name it, they’ve got it, and they want you to taste it.

 

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The Andes, Huaraz, Peru

Tambopata River, Peruvian Amazon

 

My experience in Peru comes to an end in a few weeks. But does it really end? I’ve taken a lot away from this internship already in terms of work habits and ideas that I will keep exploring down the road. Until then, I’ll try to keep it chévere.

 


[i] Hatun Willakuy: Abbreviated Version of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2004, p. 70

[ii] Hatun Willakuy: Abbreviated Version of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2004, p. 14

IDEHPUCP Home Page: http://idehpucp.pucp.edu.pe

Mini editorial on Brazil: http://idehpucp.pucp.edu.pe/comunicaciones/opinion/impeachment-a-dilma-rousseff-analisis-de-un-futuro-incierto/

 

 

 

Working Together à la Harambee to Protect and Promote Girls’ Rights in Kenya

By Esther Dionne Desbiens

I am doing my human rights internship with Equality Effect, a Canadian organisation that has developed a strong partnership with Ripples International, a local grass-root organisation in Meru, Kenya.

My stay in Meru has been great so far. I have been picking up some Swahili – Habari ya ko? [1] – as well as enjoying the fresh fruit and vegetables, wild life sightings, lush trees, blooming flowers and the mountains that surround the city.

1. Meru Town Market

Meru Town Market

Meru

Meru

I am assigned to the 160 Girls Project, bringing Ripples International and Equality Effect together to tackle defilement (consensual or non-consensual sex with a child under 18 or child rape) of girls and ensure proper police treatment of defilement cases. To do so, Equality Effect not only keeps track of police treatment, they also provide training to police officers, organize community awareness campaigns and facilitate public legal education seminars. As a legal intern, I help monitor police treatment of defilement cases by contacting police stations, attending court to track the progress of defilement cases and updating the survivors’ files. I also help facilitate public legal education seminars, raise awareness at events and conduct complainant’s evaluation of police treatment of defilement cases.

I have attended hearings in multiple courts so far. I have been to Meru Law Courts, Tigania Law Courts, Githongo Law Courts and Maua Law Courts. In every court room, you can find the Kenyan coat of arms above the Magistrate’s chair (pictured below). I noticed that the word Harambee is part of the Kenyan coat of arms. Ashley Boggild, my colleague from the University of Toronto, and I asked our colleague, who is an incredible social worker at Ripples International, what it meant. He answered that Harambee symbolizes togetherness. After doing some research, I found that it is a philosophy developed by the first President of the independent Republic of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta. Some describe the word as meaning “pulling together” and “invok[ing] the spirit of self-help amongst Kenyans”. [2] What a great word to discover on our first few days of work with Ripples International and Equality Effect here in Kenya! The idea of togetherness really resonated with me as working collaboratively is necessary to tackle such an important human rights issue and protect the rights of the most vulnerable human beings in our society.

Kenyan Coat of Arms

Kenyan Coat of Arms

4. Maua Law Courts

At Maua Law Courts. From left to right: Muthomi Thiankolu (Equality Effect Human Rights Lawyer), myself, Benson Mzizi, Ashley Boggild, and Gilbert Cheptinde (Ripples International Social Worker).

The word Harambee perfectly reflects the work being cooperatively accomplished by Ripples International and Equality Effect in the Meru region. Ripples International’s motto is “Saving Lives, Serving Children”. They run a school, an orphanage (Newstart Babies Rescue Home), an access to justice program, a community outreach program and a shelter (Brenda Boone Tumaini Home) for young girls’ survivors of physical, sexual and/or psychological violence. While at the shelter and in the community, Ripples International social workers and counselors offer the survivors assistance (medical, legal, social) and counselling. Many survivors stay at the shelter while their cases are proceeding in court. I am so happy to see such a strong local organisation offering these survivors a safe haven in Meru.

A National Survey conducted in 2010 by UNICEF found that one in three Kenyan girls under the age of eighteen experience sexual violence. [3] At the request of Ripples International, Equality Effect joined forces with Ripples International in order to tackle impunity in cases of defilement through the 160 Girls Project in Kenya and address this prevalent issue. Together they instigated a constitutional claim in 2012 at the High Court of Meru against the Kenyan government and the Kenyan Police Service regarding police treatment in cases of defilement and they won. The High Court of Meru found that

police unlawfully, inexcusably and unjustifiably neglected, omitted and/or otherwise failed to conduct prompt, effective, proper and professional investigations to the said complaints. That failure caused grave harm to the petitioners and also created a climate of impunity for defilement as perpetrators were let free. [4]

The decision is known as the 160 Girls Decision since Ripples International had sheltered 160 girls, survivors of defilement, at their rescue center when the project began. The project we were tasked to work on, the 160 Girls Project, is the implementation of this very important decision.

While the 160 Girls Decision is a step in the right direction, it does not mean that the road to real change is going to be easy. Addressing defilement and child abuse is something that every society struggles with, from Canada to Kenya. So many forces –social, economic, cultural, religious, legal, etc. –   are at play when it comes to sexual violence against girls. Therefore, to make waves of change, Ripples International along with Equality Effect staff work together and adopt a multifaceted approach to tackle this epidemic of violence against girls in Kenya.

On June 7th 2016, Ashley and I attended the judgment hearing for a step-father accused of defiling his two step-daughters, both under the age of ten at the time of the offense. The two girls were staying at the shelter during the proceedings. The accused was found guilty on two counts of defilement and he was convicted to life imprisonment. This conviction was somewhat of a “happy ending” to a difficult story of abuse. Now we know that these two young girls will be a little bit safer when they leave the shelter as their perpetrator will be behind bars. However, defilement cases, even when they reach a conviction, are never really won by anyone because a successful criminal case does not undo the mental, physical and emotional trauma of defilement and prison time does not guarantee that the perpetrator will be rehabilitated.

The goal is to eradicate violence against girls, but in the meantime, strong legal support is necessary to make sure existing laws protecting girls’ rights are enforced. Hence, convictions are just one part of the puzzle. By piecing together all the different ways to address violence against girls – e.g. legal assistance, social work, education, awareness raising, community outreach and access to justice – we can truly bring about change in society.

Photo taken at a Public Legal Education Seminar for Community Leaders on the 160 Girls Project in Maua, where the members of the group pledged to raise awareness on girls’ rights in their respective communities.

Photo taken at a Public Legal Education Seminar for Community Leaders on the 160 Girls Project in Maua, where the members of the group pledged to raise awareness on girls’ rights in their respective communities.

Ashley and I talking about the 160 Girls Project on the Day of the African Child, June 16th 2016, on the radio in Isiolo.

Ashley and I talking about the 160 Girls Project on the Day of the African Child, June 16th 2016, on the radio in Isiolo.

Finally, we should never give up on fighting -peacefully- for human rights. Seeing the girls at the shelter smile, dance and play together gives me hope for the future. It also puts a face on the epidemic of violence against girls that we must work together, à la Harambee, to eradicate. We must keep the momentum going as the legal and societal consequences of the 160 Girls Decision just keep growing. I believe that by joining forces to tackle serious issues such as defilement, real change can happen. However, patience is key, as waves of change are formed one ripple at a time.

To find out more about the 160 Girls Project: http://theequalityeffect.org/160-girls/

Great video on the 160 Girls Project by The Equality Effect on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBR5lBmR5lI

[1] How are you in Swahili.

[2] A.V. Noreh, “Harambee in Kenya: A Bibliography” (1988) University of Nairobi Library at p.1.

[3] Violence against Children in Kenya: Findings from a 2010 National Survey. Nairobi, Kenya: UNICEF Kenya Country Office, Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2012.

[4] K. (A Child) through Ripples International as her guardian and Next Friend) & 11 others v. Commissioner of Police/Inspector General of the National Police Service & 3 others [2013] eKLR High Court at Meru, May 27th, 2013; Available online: http://theequalityeffect.org/160girlshighcourt2013.html at p.6.

Torture Briefs and Up-river Explorations

2016 Squire MatthewBy Matthew Squire

I have now been in The Gambia interning at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa for over seven weeks now.  So far, my time here in The Gambia has mostly been spent working, working out, and exploring the country.  

Crossing the River Gambia from Barra to Banjul

Crossing the River Gambia from Barra to Banjul

Work at IHRDA

On my first day, I was plunged into the deep end.  IHRDA at the moment has a significant number of projects on the go in French, so there has been no lack of work for the McGill intern!  Jetlagged and disoriented, I was given two dossiers of evidence to sort through and summarize my first day.  As it turns out, I would end up drafting the briefs of these two cases as well.  I just finished the second draft for each, and I have learned a lot in the process about the African human rights system.

My two cases were both from the same African country and dealt with torture and arbitrary extrajudicial killings by agents of the state.  The facts of both cases were strikingly similar and involved alleged horrific acts of torture by police officers, leading to death, permanent injury and disability.  In both cases, the state allegedly tried to cover up the acts.  From what I can tell from the evidence, medical reports and autopsies were not conducted, eyewitnesses changed their testimonies, investigators made no attempt to interview key eye-witnesses, and even after charges were laid, the accused were never brought before the court despite being summoned.  Years onwards from the incidents, the trials have yet to produce any result, and the victims have yet to receive any compensation.

Both of these cases are being brought before the ECOWAS court.  IHRDA is making more use of alternative mechanisms to the African Commission these days – it can take years for the Commission to reach a decision.  Since an amendment to its treaty in 2005, the ECOWAS court can now hear human rights cases brought by individuals.[1]  In theory, judgments of the ECOWAS court are also binding, unlike the Commission. 

The legal arguments of my briefs were built around the legal instruments that the state has ratified.  Using the jurisprudence of the African Commission, the Interamerican and European court systems, and the UN committees, as well as general comments from various UN bodies, I argued that the state was responsible for not exerting the required diligence to prevent, investigate, and remedy the alleged acts of torture and killings. 

In terms of remedies, in addition to demanding individual remedies for the victims, I asked for the strengthening of the country’s laws against torture, as well as for programs to build awareness among the law enforcement agencies and the population at large on human rights to try and prevent these kinds of acts in the future.

I still wonder at the end of the day what impact these cases will have.  From what I can tell, these are going to be the first cases on this issue brought against this state, which is really exciting.  However, the record for human rights cases in Africa, even for cases at the ECOWAS court, is not exactly promising, with very few decided cases compared to the number of violations. 

The ECOWAS court does, however, have an implementation procedure for its decisions, unlike the African commission.  Following a decision against a member state, a “competent national authority” of the state must be designated to receive a “writ of execution.”[2]

In one case, Manneh v. The Gambia, it was found that The Gambia had violated the African Charter for arresting and detaining without a warrant a prominent journalist, Chief Manneh.[3]  In this case, The Gambia responded with denial that it was holding or had ever held Manneh.  In this case, ECOWAS, despite having the power to, declined to impose sanctions on The Gambia.[4] 

In another case, Koraou v. Niger, Niger was found responsible for the actions of its judiciary for not taking steps to stamp out slavery.  Hadijiatou Mani Koraou, who had suffered horrendous sexual abuse for ten years as a slave in the household of an older man, brought an action in a local court to regain her freedom.   In the judgement of March 20, 2006, the local court asserted that she was free.  However, on appeal to the High Court, the judge stated, “The marriage of a free man with a slave woman is licit, in as far as he does not have the means of marrying a free woman, and if he fears falling into fornication.”[5] For this statement, Niger was found responsible, as it did not immediately denounce Hadijiatou’s status as a slave and did not institute proceedings against her captor.[6]  In this case, it has been noted that the government of Niger responded, unlike the government of The Gambia, because the decision gave support to political efforts to eradicate slavery at the domestic level.[7]  

Perhaps there is promise for change with these cases I have been preparing.  The country against which these cases are being brought has been making progress in improving governance and human rights, especially in improving violations committed by the security forces.  Maybe like with the Niger case, a decision from the ECOWAS court could strengthen trends of reform inside the country.  However, even with the ECOWAS court, it will take time.  A case filed by IHRDA last year only just received its hearing date, which is still several months away. 

At the end of the day, I guess you have to stay optimistic if you are working in human rights. It would be so easy to become pessimistic about the prospects for success for many of the projects that IHRDA is working on 

Life as an intern in The Gambia  

Full days of legal research and writing can be draining.  I really have been appreciating making use of my “off-time” to relax and explore the country a bit. 

Sunday afternoon football on the beach

Sunday afternoon football on the beach

Staying fit seems a big part of life here. I run several times a week down on the beach, where it’s normal to see large crowds of guys doing squats and pushups on the beach at any time of the day.  I also joined the local gym near where I am living.  It is in general really overcrowded.  Now that it is Ramadan, the busiest time is around 6-7:30 pm, with people trying to get in an intense workout before breaking their fast. 

There is not a whole lot in terms of things to do in and around Serrekunda, where I am staying, other than the beach and the nightlife, as well as a couple of tourist attractions.  The Gambia is a popular tourist destination for European holidaymakers, but there is a contingent of generally older female and male holidaymakers here for sexual tourism, which makes me very uncomfortable. 

Monkeys at Bijilo Forest Park in Kokoli

Monkeys at Bijilo Forest Park in Kokoli

I have made two trips outside of the city since I have been here.  On my first trip, I went to visit the approximately 2000 year old stone circles of Wassu and Ker Batch.  These monuments, more of which are found in neighboring Senegal, are believed to be ancient burial sites.  On this trip I also unwittingly stumbled into the president’s “Vision 2016” tour of the country, however, where I got a little too close for comfort to the 100 some-odd military vehicles that make up his convoy.  There has been political unrest in the capital Banjul in the past few months, and I was very nervous to suddenly come face to face with the president and his security detail. 

Wassu Stone Circles

Wassu Stone Circles

On my second trip, I visited the Chimp Rehabilitation Project in the River Gambia National Park.  An inspiring project, the original founders rescued chimps from captivity and trained them to survive in the wild.  The chimps are now confined to three large islands in the middle of the River Gambia, and for over a decade have had no human interference with their territory.  Project staff, however, do supplement the diet of the chimps daily.  The project receives very little outside funding, and relies mostly on the income from its very well-run and very comfortable tourist camp, of which I was the only visitor since April.  I was very pleased to see a sustainable ecological project that also provides jobs for the local community in this country. 

Beautiful Chimp in River Gambia National Park

Beautiful Chimp in River Gambia National Park

From what I have seen so far, it seems such a shame to me that so much focus and emphasis has been put on the country’s low-budget beach and nightlife tourism, at the expense of fascinating historical sites like the stone circles, the country’s beautiful ecology, and well-run sites such as the Chimp Rehabilitation Project. 

The end in sight

I have only five weeks remaining here in The Gambia.  I am finding the work at IHRDA fascinating and very rewarding, and I am looking forward to working on several new cases coming up in the final few weeks.   I am also looking forward to the two upcoming long weekends, both of which I plan to make use of to visit neighboring Senegal, a country culturally similar but politically different from The Gambia.   

[1] Frans Viljoen, International Human Rights Law in Africa, 2nd ed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) at 490. 

[2] Ibid at 498. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid at 498. 

[5] Hadijatou Mani Koraou v Niger (2008), ECW/CCJ/JUD/06/08, online : IHRDA <http://caselaw.ihrda.org/doc/ecw.ccj.jud.06.08/> at para 83. 

[6] Ibid at paras 83-84. 

[7] Viljoen, supra note 1 at 498.  

Let’s Talk About Drugs

2016-KohutRachelBy Rachel Kohut

Last Friday, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network co-hosted the conference Chartering the Future of Drug Policy in Canada. The conference had a strong start. Federal Minister of Health Jane Philpott opened the conference by calling Canada’s opioid problem “nothing short of a public-health crisis”.

One-Day Post-Canadian Public Health Association Conference Session

In response to this crisis, the Minister announced that she has ordered an expedited review of naloxone nasal spray. Known by its trade name, Narcan, this nasal spray can be used as an antidote to opioid overdoses. It is currently used in primarily western Canada to combat the ever-increasing number of fatal fentanyl drug overdoses.

[read more about her announcement here in The Globe and Mail]

Minister of Health during her speech at the conference.

Minister of Health during her speech at the conference.

This announcement came at the same time as the B.C. Centre for Disease Control admitted that steep prices are hindering access to naloxone, and authorities across the country are calling for the crisis of the number of opioid overdoses to be declared as a public health emergency. To note, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control has now distributed over 9 700 free “Narcan kits”, of which 1 400 have been used to help people from overdosing, and about 8 900 people have been trained to administer the antidote through a provincial harm reduction program, Toward the Heart.

A drug considered to be 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin, an investigation by the chief coroner of British Columbia found that fentanyl was detected in the blood of 148 people who died of a drug overdose in the first four months of 2016 alone. This is more than three times the number in the same period of last year.

In Vancouver, this translates to one death every five days.

[see more about the use of Narcan in the response to fentanyl overdoses in this article]

Following the Minister of Health’s speech, she gracefully took questions from the audience, including from people who use drugs, many of whom flagged the need to do something about the increase of opioid drug overdoses, particularly in western Canada.

João Goulão—the National Drug Coordinator of Portugal, who is often heralded as the architect of the country’s national drug policy—was also in attendance at the one-day conference to present on Portugal’s experience decriminalizing drugs. That’s right. The country decriminalized every drug, from marijuana to cocaine to heroin.

If you are caught with less than a 10-day supply of any narcotic today in Portugal, the penalty is almost the equivalent of a speeding ticket.

Before decriminalizing drugs, the former physician said that “it was impossible to find a Portuguese family that did not have (drug-related) problems”. But in treating drug-use as a public health problem, and not a criminal one, the theory goes that more people are likely to seek treatment and support.

Instead of heading to jail, it is more likely that the person caught with less than a 10-day supply will be referred a committee consisting of a health professional, lawyer and social worker that determines the best step forward. This multifactorial approach attempts to get to the bottom of the issue. So the national strategy was not just to decriminalize: it was to create a complete package of policies that focus on treatment, prevention, harm reduction, reintegration and methadone treatment, among other avenues.

And even though there has been hesitations and critiques about this strategy, the numbers have illustrated very positive public health outcomes.

Although drug use did appear to climb in the first few years after decriminalization, it has since decreased, with the number of cocaine and heroin addicts steadily decreasing. And with the decrease of intravenous drug use, the number of new HIV and HCV infections due to intravenous drug use has also plunged, falling from 1 000 in 2001 to less than 100 in 2013. And drug-caused deaths? They dropped from 80 to 20 per year, far below the European Union average.

[read more in this National Post article, and in this Toronto Star article]

But what the Canadian federal government is currently proposing is not as broad sweeping. They aren’t going to decriminalize all drugs, instead seeking to legalize one: marijuana. But in ignoring other drugs from this strategy, are they glancing over a more pressing public health emergency? Could Canada learn a thing or two from a country of 10 million people right across the Atlantic on how to create a more complete package of policies? So Canada, let’s start talking about not just one drug, but all drugs.

Fellow UofT intern, Chelsey, and I at the end of the conference.

Captions generated from the #SupportDontPunish photo campaign held during the conference.

Captions generated from the #SupportDontPunish photo campaign held during the conference.

Apprendre autrement !

2016-Saliah-Linteau_Marie-LaurePar Marie-Laure Saliah-Linteau

Il y a maintenant plus d’un mois que j’ai entamé mon stage au sein de

l’organisme Equitas, centre international d’éducation aux droits humains et je me rends compte que le temps passe très… très vite! Après trois semaines de préparation en vue du début du début de la 37ème édition du Programme International de Formation aux Droits Humains (PIFDH), les quelques 90 participants provenant de partout dans le monde sont enfin arrivés et tout ce que nous avons préparé et anticipé commence finalement à se concrétiser! Ainsi, c’est la semaine dernière que le programme a reçu un coup d’envoi! La première semaine a été pour moi : 1) Épuisante 2) Électrisante 3) Amusante.

Épuisante

La semaine a commencé pour moi le dimanche 5 juin : Journée d’inscription. Les participants du programme étaient invités à compléter un circuit à travers lequel ils récupéraient le matériel dont ils auront besoin pour les trois prochaines semaines (manuels, sac, crayons, papier…). Le support de tous les stagiaires était donc de mise à partir de 8h am. Je dis que la semaine a été épuisante parce qu’elle a été très exigeante en termes d’horaire et de tâches à accomplir. Cependant, la fatigue en a définitivement valu la chandelle, comme la suite le démontrera.

Électrisante

Malgré le fait que chaque jour j’ai des tâches fixes répétitives, je peux énoncer fièrement que « les jours se suivent mais ne se ressemblent pas ».

Ayant eu à rassembler et à organiser tous travaux préparatoires des participants de la formation  préalablement au début de la formation, je sentais déjà que je connaissais chacun d’entre eux. De plus, à la journée d’inscription j’étais assignée à un poste qui m’a permis de voir chaque participant recevoir son insigne nominatif d’identification, après quoi les histoires que je connaissais déjà s’associaient aux nouveaux visages que je rencontrais.

Toute la semaine, jour après jour, pause café après pause café, j’ai eu l’opportunité de rencontrer des défenseurs et éducateurs des droits humains provenant de partout dans le monde et ayant des parcours et des histoires extraordinaires. J’ai eu la chance de discuter avec eux et d’en apprendre plus sur différents enjeux reliés aux droits humains.

Le moment le plus électrisant de la semaine pour moi a sans aucun doute été la soirée « vernissage » que nous avons organisée mercredi soir. Parmi les coanimateurs de la formation, nous avons la chance d’avoir Omaid Sharifi. Il s’agit d’un défenseur des droits humains en Afghanistan qui déclare qu’ayant compris que ce n’est pas par les armes conventionnelles qu’il peut combattre les violations des droits humains dans son pays, il s’est armé de pinceaux.“Nous détruisons la laideur des murs de #Kaboul avec de la peinture. Nous visons à faire de Kaboul la capitale du graffiti et à promouvoir la pensée critique” – ArtLords. Il transforme donc parcelle par parcelle les immenses murs entourant la ville de Kabul en des œuvres d’art avec des messages frappants.  Omaid nous a expliqué que pour chacune des murales qu’il a peintes, au moins 100 individus sont invités à participer. Il approche notamment tous les enfants qui travaillent pour quelques sous par jour dans la rue à mettre des gens dans les taxis, il approche aussi les jeunes filles et les femmes, et chacun fait sa part sur la murale, créant ainsi un fort sentiment d’appartenance envers ces œuvres collectives. C’est ainsi à travers ses créations et à travers tous ceux qui participent à leur confection que les messages sont transmis.

IMG_2542 IMG_4582IMG_4130

Après le vernissage, tous les participants et membres du personnel ont été invités à participer à la conception d’une murale collective. C’est donc au son de musique pop au goût du jour que nous nous sommes armés de pinceaux pour représenter une image qui évoque, selon moi, la solidarité, la diversité et l’union de tous vers l’avancement des droits humains.

IMG_5242IMG_9584

Je profites de cette occasion pour partager cet événement qui aura lieu le samedi 18 juin dans le cadre du Festival Mural, vous êtes invités à découvrir ArtLords, un projet unique d’art de rue engagé et d’ateliers artistiques à ciel ouvert dans les rues de Kaboul, en Afghanistan : https://www.facebook.com/events/518048628402702/

Amusante

Finalement, ma semaine s’est conclue le vendredi 10 juin aux alentours de 22h. Dans le calendrier de la formation se trouvait une activité : « Souper en famille ». Quand on m’a demandé si je souhaitais participer à l’activité, j’ai tout de suite sauté sur l’occasion et proposé d’accueillir dans ma famille quatre participants. Cette activité informelle m’a permis de plonger dans la culture des participants à travers nos sujets de discussion variés, alors qu’eux étaient immergés dans la culture canadienne! C’était réellement un moment fard de la semaine pour moi, un moment de partage et de complicité, et toute ma famille a grandement apprécié l’expérience. C’est avec un grand sourire aux lèvres après des étreintes amicales que les participants sont partis ce soir-là.

Cette semaine, j’ai donc eu la chance de voir cette foule d’éducateurs et de défenseurs des droits humains s’épanouir en découvrant l’approche participative qu’Equitas adopte quant à la formation qu’ils reçoivent. Leur formation se passe autant à travers des activités en classe qu’à l’extérieur de la classe. La leçon que je retiens réellement de cette semaine est que l’éducation aux droits humains ne se produit pas à travers des méthodes conventionnelles et des cours formels, mais à travers diverses interactions sociales qui permettent de remettre en question nos perceptions, conceptions et méthodes. Je suis maintenant prête à affronter la suite du programme avec enthousiasme et énergie!

Advocating Taboo Issues in Health and Human Rights

2016 Moreau Andre  By André Moreau

I’ve been in Uganda for a month now and I am really enjoying my experience thus far!

Kampala, Uganda’s capital, is a big bustling city laid out over a series of hills and valleys on the northern shore of Lake Victoria. Kampala appears to be continuously developing. The city is undergoing countless construction projects, which are improving the city’s infrastructure and the art/music/culinary scenes are becoming increasingly prominent.

My internship at the Center for Health, Human Rights & Development (CEHURD) is providing me with an opportunity to learn about some of the issues relating to health and human rights in Uganda in particular and East Africa as a whole. From visiting Uganda’s Constitutional Court, to drafting memos and conducting legal research, I have had the privilege of being exposed to some of the key initiatives of this dedicated organization.

A bird's eye view of Kampala

A view of Kampala taken from atop of the Uganda National Mosque

Recently, I was given the task of conducting research on some of the Sexual Offences Acts that have been implemented in various countries around the world. More specifically, I was asked to compare and contrast these pieces of legislation in order to find out whether the rights of sexual assault victims have been emphasized. Fortunately, of the seven pieces of legislation that I analyzed, only one jurisdiction did not make mention of the wellbeing and protection of victims within its Sexual Offences Act. The purpose of this research is clear: the Ugandan government is currently in the process of drafting its own Sexual Offences Bill and CEHURD is advocating for the inclusion of the rights of victims, notably when it comes to the issue of abortion.

The Ugandan Constitution states: “No person has the right to terminate the life of an unborn child except as may be authorised by law.” As it stands, abortion is only permitted in Uganda when the mother’s life is in danger. As CEHURD pushes to advocate for the rights of victims of sexual assault, the organization hopes to broaden the range of exceptions to include situations of rape, incest, and/or defilement.

This is no easy task. Abortion is a topic that carries a considerable amount of weight in Ugandan society, a taboo. Even lawyers who are advocating for these changes appear to be wary of having their names ascribed to the file.

The Ugandan government made its views regarding abortion heard when it nearly rejected the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (commonly known as the Maputo Protocol). The product of eight years in the making, the Maputo Protocol felt strong resistance from the greater Ugandan society, namely its religious groups.  The main point of contention was subsection (2)(c) of article 14, which seeks to protect the reproductive rights of women by permitting abortion in the cases of sexual assault, rape, incest and where pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. In the end, Uganda ratified the protocol but with a reservation to subsection (2)(c).

Despite the attached stigma and legal ramifications, Ugandan women still resort to clandestine abortions. Roughly a quarter of the maternal deaths in Uganda are from unsafe abortions where roughly four women in Uganda die each day as a result. The gravity of the issue is impossible to ignore. Seeking inspiration from nearby jurisdictions such as Rwanda and South Africa, CEHURD continues to put pressure on the government to draft victim-centric legislation.

Although post-abortion care in Uganda is decriminalized, the health workers who provide medical services to abortion survivors are often persecuted. To help assure the rights of health care workers, CEHURD has formed the Legal Support Network (LSN) ­–a coalition of lawyers throughout the country to provide pro-bono services to help health workers who require legal assistance.

In a society that still presents many barriers, this is one example of how the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development has embarked on the long struggle of protecting and advocating women’s health rights and the rights of health workers throughout the country.

Trouver la balance

2016 Awj NigahPar Nigah Awj

Voilà que cela fait déjà une semaine que je suis au Mexique. Depuis mon arrivée le vendredi dernier, ce fut une semaine intense. Le lendemain de mon arrivée, je me rends au bureau de Disability Rights International (DRI). Nous allons, ensemble avec Colectivo Chuhcan, une organisation conduite par des personnes souffrant d’incapacités mentales qui milite pour une vision renouvelée du handicap et qui partage le même bureau que DRI, visiter un Centre d’assistance d’intégration sociale (CAIS) pour les femmes au nom de CAIS Villa Mujeres.

Nous sommes une équipe de trois personnes de Colectivo Chuhcan, deux de DRI, une photographe en mission pour Médecin Sans Frontières et un journaliste de Vice Media. L’accès à ce genre d’institution s’obtient très difficilement. Nous nous passons pour un organisme charitable qui aimerait distribuer des vêtements et quelques collations aux femmes dans l’institution pour avoir la permission de rentrer et interagir avec les femmes. Le garde de sécurité montre un peu de résistance, mais finalement fini par nous laisser le droit de distribuer les petits biscuits et jus aux femmes.

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Most psychiatric institutions hold people for a lifetime, however there are some exceptions in which cases the patients are discharged to Mexico City’s locked, residential shelter system, the CAIS, due to lack of resources in the community. The CAIS Villa Mujeres is surrounded by tall walls and a solid smell of urine surrounds the place. The conditions are degrading and unhygienic. There are feces and urine on the floors and the whole place is very dirty.  Furthermore, the institution is unequipped for dignified living and incapable of providing adequate treatment to the people under its custody, including lack of professionalized staff. CAIS Villa Mujeres holds around 450 women and only around 20 staff members to take care of them.

It is ironic that this institution is called “Centro de Asistencia e Integración Social”, but the residents have no contact with society and are kept isolated within the walls of the institution. Most stay here for life with no contact with family or friends. When we entered, all the women were surprised to see us and came running to give us hugs and collect snacks. They don’t usually get visits, so they were very grateful and enjoyed interacting with us. Their stories were very sad and all of them wanted to get out.

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One lady who lost her leg during an accident in the metro and lived on the streets before being placed in this institution told me that she has her brother’s phone number and that her family have no idea where she is, but she is not allowed to contact anyone. Most women are abandoned by their families with no contact; some don’t even have an identity. Furthermore, the institution not only holds women with psychosocial disability, but also women from the street and abused women, whom the government should be helping but instead they are also placed in this institution as abandonados.

I saw a young lady with her nine months child, who was crying. Her boyfriend continuously abused her and she ran away on the streets before she was placed in this institution with her child. Many women had bandages around their ankles or arms from falls or accidents. Another woman said that she was sexually abused multiple times by a former staff member. Many were just homeless, living of poverty, and thrown in the institution.

DRI is advocating for the rights and full participation in society of people with disabilities. The goal of these visits is to collect evidence and document abuses in these institutions. In September 2014, DRI took part in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Committee’s evaluation of Mexico’s efforts to implement the CRPD and submitted information contained in their 2010 Abandoned and Disappeared report as well as the preliminary findings of their 2015 Twice Violated report. The UN CRPD Committee urged the Mexican government to reform its institutional system, and expressed concern about the total lack of strategy or plan to de-institutionalize people with disabilities in Mexico, contrary to article 19 of the CRPD.

Most of the week, I have come to the office to read the DRI reports on abuse, torture, human trafficking and problems with institutionalization. In recent years, the conditions in CAIS facilities in Mexico City have been documented by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Federal District Human Rights Commission. In 2014 the UN Rapporteur on Torture reported that individuals at the CAIS live in unsanitary conditions, in a state of abandonment, and lack medical attention or any hope of return to life in the community (Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment).

According to the CRPD Committee, “there has been a general failure to understand that the human rights-based model of disability implies a shift from the substitute decision-making paradigm to one that is based on supported decision making”. (UN CRPD Committee, General Comment No. 1 (2014) Article 12: Equal recognition before the law). In Mexico, the moment a person is diagnosed with a disability, he/she is stripped of all his/her rights and these can be overruled by an appointed guardian (family or director of institution). The violation of the right to legal capacity in Mexico is a grave violation of the sexual and reproductive rights of persons with psychosocial disabilities, especially of those detained in institutions where there may be sexually abused or be subject to forced sterilization, in which cases their consent is substituted by the guardian’s decision.

Reading these documents is emotionally very demanding and hard. All my colleagues have advised me to also go around and look at the city to see the beautiful side of Mexico City as well. Reading about the very inhumane conditions in which people with psychosocial disability live and how society and government treats them is very depressing.

Thus, the first week has mainly been about finding the balance between the very emotionally demanding work and my mental health. Most colleagues exercise, meditate or dance. I have taken walks before and after work around the beautiful historic center of Mexico, Zócalo and Bellas Artes. I also go jogging in the evening to keep active and change my ideas. My colleagues are very loving and I always enjoy going out for lunch and talking about life; it is the happy part of my day at DRI.

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For more information: http://www.driadvocacy.org

 

Avancer à tâtons dans le brouillard

2016 Beauchemin AntoineQuatre semaines de stage plus tard, les brumes commencent à se dissiper.

Par Antoine Beauchemin

***

Depuis plusieurs mois déjà, je planifie mon arrivée à Rabat, capitale du Maroc, en vue de travailler au Conseil national des droits de l’Homme (CNDH). Depuis plusieurs mois déjà, je m’imagine le type de réformes que « je », activiste passionné et fervent défenseur des droits de la personne, pourrais concevoir; à tout le moins, je réfléchis aux influences que ma présence pourrait avoir tant sur le travail collectif du CNDH qu’à plus grande échelle, dans le Royaume du Maroc. Depuis plusieurs mois déjà, enfin, je me montre [en toute connaissance de cause, il faut l’admettre] quelque peu naïf et attends avec impatience de quitter, non sans quelque malaise, le confort de ma vie montréalaise vers les confins d’un État qui m’est inconnu, prometteur de chocs déstabilisants et d’apprentissages enrichissants.

Et c’est au CNDH que je désirais travailler 12 semaines. Le CNDH, organisation merveilleuse et indépendante du gouvernement, assure deux missions primordiales : la protection et la promotion des droits humains. Mon département, la coopération et les relations internationales, se spécialise notamment dans la réconciliation entre la loi nationale et les recommandations internationales en termes de droits humains. Le droit international et les droits de la personne étant deux disciplines éveillant un grand intérêt chez moi, je constate que j’aurai assurément la chance de m’épanouir au CNDH lors des trois prochains mois.

***

Il est vendredi après-midi. Je viens de compléter ma quatrième semaine de travail au CNDH et me dirige vers la station de train en vue de visiter Marrakech durant la fin de semaine. Il fait chaud et ensoleillé constamment, continuellement, perpétuellement. Bref, toujours. J’aime.

Depuis mon arrivée au CNDH, situé dans un quartier huppé de Rabat, je me suis immergé dans la lecture de rapports, de projets de recherche, d’actualités et de législations marocaines. Profitant des longues journées de travail qui s’étalent parfois jusqu’à 18h00, j’ai désiré m’immiscer pleinement dans les grandes thématiques abordées par le CNDH afin de pouvoir y apporter des idées et des réflexions de l’intérieur. Le droit étant une science s’élevant pratiquement à la métaphysique, j’essayais d’en délimiter la portée et de rechercher des voies potentielles d’innovations en termes de droits humains. Une mission laborieuse, certes, mais ô combien gratifiante.

Outre mon accent québécois, c’est mon rattachement au Canada qui a attisé la curiosité de plusieurs. C’est d’ailleurs cet aspect qui a orienté la mission principale de mon stage : cartographier les organisations non gouvernementales, les acteurs étatiques, les institutions de recherche en droits humains, etc., établis au Canada, afin de faciliter de potentiels partenariats futurs et d’amplifier la communication outre-mer. C’est un travail en continu et très pertinent qui me fait découvrir tant l’administration marocaine que canadienne en ce qui a trait aux droits de la personne.

***

Je quitte néanmoins le bureau quelque peu perplexe : bien que les sujets abordés soient d’un intérêt qui ne laisse planer aucun doute (mariages forcés, COP22, femmes migrantes, élections législatives, etc.), le type de travail et la façon de l’accomplir  demeurent, somme toute, assez vagues.

C’est qu’il y a une disproportion bien réelle entre le temps passé à la recherche sur les droits humains et le caractère « tangible » des résultats qui en découlent. Ma mission principale, bien que fort enrichissante, est un travail formel davantage que substantif; les résultats escomptés ne semblent donc pas, a priori, se concentrer au cœur des droits humains. Je recherche ainsi encore ma voie dans cet univers parfois opaque.

Confronté à cette situation, je conçois deux causes potentielles.

Cause première : il n’y a pas de voie toute tracée, de façon optimale d’aborder les droits humains. À vrai dire, les violations de droits fondamentaux étant toutes uniques et ancrées dans une réalité qui leur est propre, aucun schéma « standardisé » n’est convenable. Dès lors, chercher « la » voie, c’est être dans l’erreur dès le départ. Le travail en droits humains ressort ainsi comme un travail d’initiative, d’autonomie, voire d’essai-erreur; il en relève de chacun(e) de conceptualiser, par ses expériences et sa volonté, de nouvelles voies inexplorées, innovatrices. C’est difficile, car incertain. C’est également parfois irritant, car beaucoup de travail s’effectue dans un brouillard dense, sans résultats visibles, saisissables. Le bonheur du résultat en vaut toutefois la chandelle.

Cause deuxième : je travaille au Conseil national des droits de l’Homme. Il ne s’agit donc pas ici d’une organisation non gouvernementale; il ne s’agit pas non plus d’une Commission œuvrant pour le gouvernement. Le CNDH a le délicat, mais essentiel, devoir de concevoir une liaison entre le national et l’international, mais cela doit être fait de façon discrète, afin de ne pas trop empiéter ni sur l’un, ni sur l’autre. C’est de travailler dans cet espace infini entre deux forces qui me dépassent, en sachant que la fusion sera lente et ne s’opérera pas sans compromis, et en n’ignorant pas non plus que plusieurs groupes vulnérables subissent des violations fondamentales de leurs droits quotidiennement. Donc, il faut agir, mais la direction à suivre n’est pas tracée d’avance.

Or, au Maroc, le national et l’international sont parfois antagonistes à un point tel qu’un jeune stagiaire québécois ne soit confronté qu’à un réel sentiment d’impuissance. Cela représente toutefois un beau défi, qui me motive certainement à poursuivre cette avancée à tâtons avec l’espoir d’un résultat prometteur.

***

Extrait d’une conversation fictive :

« Interlocuteur fictif – Antoine, y a-t-il une thématique qui t’attire particulièrement?

Antoine – Oh! Je m’intéresse énormément aux droits de la communauté LGBTI+.

Interlocuteur fictif

Antoine

Interlocuteur fictif

[…]

Interlocuteur fictif –  Non, mais à part ça? »

***

Alors que les libertés et droits individuels sont les pierres angulaires de notre système de justice au Canada, cette perspective universaliste n’est pas partagée globalement. Il s’agit surtout, en fait, d’une conception qui s’applique à un contexte et à une société qui sont uniques; elle ne peut, par conséquent, être calquée sans heurts sur un contexte et une société qui sont tout autres.

Le Maroc est l’hôte de violations de droits humains aberrantes sur, notamment, la communauté LGBTI+. L’article 489 du Code pénal marocain criminalise les « actes… contre nature avec un individu du même sexe », dont la peine peut atteindre trois années d’emprisonnement. Les arrestations sont nombreuses et les « criminels », rapidement condamnés. Ici, plusieurs forces paralysantes agissent de concert et densifient davantage les brumes entourant ma volonté d’améliorer les droits et libertés de cette communauté.

En premier lieu, j’opère au Conseil national des droits de l’Homme. Tel que mentionné préalablement, le CNDH ne peut s’aventurer directement sur des terrains qui ne sont pas chapeautés, ou à tout le moins tolérés, par le gouvernement, sans quoi la crédibilité et le pouvoir du CNDH seront contestés. Bref, son mandat ne peut faire fi des politiques nationales discriminatoires, et ce, bien qu’il doive tenir également compte des propositions faites à l’international. C’est une ligne ténue, fragile, voire indomptable.

Ensuite, il est nécessaire de tracer une ligne distinctive, quoique floue, entre mon activisme personnel, qui est nécessairement enraciné dans le contexte montréalais, et l’activisme qui ressort du mandat du NCDH. C’est de ne pas lutter publiquement pour la communauté LGBTI+ comme on le ferait au Québec, car ce type de manifestation n’a pas d’emprise à Rabat. Ma présence au Maroc implique donc de me dissocier de ce qui m’identifie profondément afin de mener un combat plus efficace dans mon nouvel environnement. Une forme d’abnégation qui me choque, me déstabilise, et à laquelle je n’ai jamais été confronté. C’est de lutter pour les droits humains les plus élémentaires dans un contexte où les miens ne sont pas même assurés. Bref, me retrancher dans le mandat du CNDH, car ce dernier a consolidé ses missions dans la réalité qui l’a vu grandir, donc est à même de constater la meilleure façon de provoquer le changement. Là encore, la zone est grise.

***

En guise de conclusion, voici quelques petites pensées heureuses qui contribuent au succès de l’expérience globale du stage, de la vie au Maroc et du changement d’environnement. En rafale :

  • J’ai intégré rapidement la tradition du couscous du vendredi midi.
  • Mes collègues de travail sont géniaux/géniales; une belle chimie règne dans les rangs!
  • Chansons du moment : Tracy’s Waters (Patrick Watson), El Manana (Gorillaz), Icarus (Bastille) et Holocene (Bon Iver).
  • Films exceptionnels à (ré)écouter : « Les Évadés », « La ligne verte », « La vie est belle », « Laurence Anyways », « Marock ».
  • Se faire arracher une dent de sagesse, ça fait mal avant, pendant, et après, peu importe où on se trouve sur le globe.
  • Je commence à avoir un bronzage assez phénoménal. J’ai toutefois dû passer préalablement par l’étape des coups de soleil lancinants. À suivre.
  • Mes deux colocataires sont deux Françaises fort sympathiques.
  • Les souks sont légèrement plus populeux que les marchés montréalais.
  • J’aime (adore/admire/adule/etc.) Xavier Dolan.
  • J’étoffe mon compte Instagram ponctuellement, mais je constate ne pas être assidu en la matière.
  • Mon aventure marocaine concrétise jour après jour cette flamme iridescente alimentée par ma passion et mon admiration pour le travail relatif aux droits de la personne.

 

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