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Zikomo, Malawi

  By: Julia Bellehumeur

 

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

Small town at the bottom of our Mt Mulanje hike

 

Poster created for the conference

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

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

A few mini-buses driving through Blantyre

Post-yoga morning coffee

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

Working from our Malawian home

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

High Court judges among other guests at the conference

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

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

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

Me and my best Malawian pal, Chimz

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

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

Zikomo & tionana, Malawi <3

 

 

My stay in Dakar

2017-Boily Audrey By Audrey Boily

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

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

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

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

Human Rights Lawyering in Québec City

By: Sarah Cha

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

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

One of the ASFC meeting rooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Les “Gardiens de la Brousse”

Lucas MathieuPar Lucas Matthieu

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Un groupe de Koglweogos

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

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

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

Melisa DemirBy Melisa Demir

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

Perceptions, Misconceptions, and Reverse Culture Shock

Ohayon Jillianby Jillian Ohayon

Perceptions & Misconceptions

Here are some of the things that were said to me in Canada when I told people I would be spending the summer in Uganda:

“What’d you do to piss your dad off?” – My father’s (very loud and rather obnoxious) acquaintance, whom I met in the Montreal airport on my way to Uganda

“Is it for a punishment?” – My Cameroonian Uber driver in downtown Montreal

“If you can’t afford to fund the difference on your own, maybe you should get a real job in the summer instead of doing an internship in Africa.” – McGill financial advisor

***

The first thing that I’ll say is that the general Canadian public’s perception of East Africa, and Uganda in particular, seems to me a little twisted. It’s true that Uganda is one of the least developed countries in the world. There is poverty. It is hot outside most of the time. Police officers regularly walk around carrying machine guns. Most living compounds are surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. That being said, there is not crime, violence, and savagery to be found around every corner like some of my friends and family were concerned there would be. Uganda is not a dry and deathly desert land; Uganda is vibrant, lush, and beautiful.

I have also noticed some western misconceptions with regards to East Africans themselves, in that I get the sense that some people assume laziness on their part. To be clear, very few Ugandans sit around pouting, complaining about living in poverty, and waiting for some wealthy person from some wealthy country to come and dump money into their laps. Everybody is doing something pretty much all the time. I always tell people that there exists a strong sense of vitality in Uganda that I have never quite felt before in any other place that I’ve visited. In fact, Uganda was recently named the most entrepreneurial country in the world. From what I have felt and observed, it is a sense of gratitude, pride, and resilience that fuels this spirit.

I worry that the negative stereotypes about danger and disease in East Africa keep people from visiting, even just for purposes of tourism. Uganda has a lot to see. Among others, I visited Jinja (the town on the source of the Nile), Sipi Falls, Murchison Falls waterfall, and went on a safari in Murchison Falls National Park.

Roasting coffee beans, Sipi Falls

Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls

Murchison Falls National Park

Sipi Falls

Cave by the shore of the Nile, Jinja

Sunset over the Nile, Jinja

Reverse Culture Shock

Everybody expected me to find myself in serious culture shock upon arriving in Uganda. That didn’t happen. This might have been because I had had a few long, in-depth conversations with two expats living in Kampala before leaving Canada. It may have been because I had prepared myself to expect the unexpected. For whatever reason, I arrived in East Africa, took in the warm, sweet air that filled my senses the moment I stepped off the plane, and hit the ground running. Kampala felt like home after only a few days.

My Canadian-Ugandan friends and I at the top of the Gadaffi Uganda National Mosque overlooking Kampala

This is not to say that there does not exist a multitude of significant dissimilarities between Canada and Uganda. There are certainly many cultural and ideological differences between Canada and Uganda that make being a young, white female more difficult in the latter country. I grew used to being incessantly catcalled on a daily basis on my ten-minute walk home from work. I grew used to having locals shout “Muzungu!” at me in their attempts to get my attention to buy their products (actually, sometimes, they didn’t even want to sell me anything – they just wanted the satisfaction of gaining my attention). I also quickly became used to walking around the city hyperaware of the fact that almost everybody assumed I was in possession of deep pockets filled with American dollars. I even learned the hard way not to travel alone after dark. However, just like Uganda’s shoddy internet and temperamental electricity, all of this just became a part of the experience – and because I loved the experience so deeply, I learned to love the bad with the good.

It was the reverse culture shock that hit me the hardest.

Coming home was not easy. My departure from the full and exciting new life that had so quickly materialized before my eyes throughout my three months in Kampala was cushioned slightly by travels to Kigali, Rwanda with my close friend and IHRIP intern, Julia, as well as a four-day stopover in London, England. Nonetheless, I arrived at home in Montreal, spent a few hours with my family, and proceeded to sleep for seventeen hours straight. I think that, combined with the intense jetlag through which I had put my body, this was my subconscious way of avoiding the feelings that I knew were creeping in ever too quickly as I tried to reintegrate into a society and a life that I now felt so far away from.

It wasn’t just that I missed the beautiful friends I had made over there, or the restaurants I had been to so many times that the waiters knew me by name and even brought me a cake with the words “We are going to miss you” written in chocolate on my last night in Kampala. That was undoubtedly a part of it; but there was something more.

I had never anticipated feeling so free. This feels like a somewhat ironic sentence to write. I can imagine that someone reading this may be thinking, “Free? Really? In a country where you were shouted at every time you walked outside in public and felt afraid to walk alone at night?” Yes. Kind of. I will try to explain it as best as I can, but please bear with me, as I’m still trying to figure it all out for myself.

Kampala, with all of the shouting, traffic, pollution, and poverty that it has to offer, is imbued with a vibrant soul that is only felt by those who understand it. I know this to be true both because I have felt it firsthand and because I have spoken to many people who have enthusiastically agreed with this assertion. It probably isn’t the most beautiful city in the world. It’s not on the ocean, nor is it exactly wealthy. It is, however, a city of sunshine, red earth, many hills, and an abundance of palm trees. All of Uganda has a certain vitality to it. Whether it’s a woman braiding her daughter’s hair, a man selling fruit on the side of the road, or a child carrying water to their home in jerry cans, everybody always seems to be doing something. Rarely do they seem exhausted or miserable. In fact, to my mind, they generally seem to be much happier than the average person one might encounter in North America.

There is also a very different mentality in Uganda by contrast to Canada with regards to time. Scheduling and planning – which are essentially second nature in the western world – do not hold the same influence over Ugandans. One might often hear jokes about “Africa time.” Africa time is, for example, when you tell someone you will meet them at 10:00 AM and then only show up at noon, and nobody thinks anything of it. Rarely did a work meeting begin sooner than 45 minutes later than its set time. Again, nobody ever seemed to be particularly stressed over this. If I told a boda boda driver to pick me up in ten minutes, it was because I knew I was only going to be ready to leave in twenty. This was a significant aspect of Ugandan life that helped to feel liberated during my time there. It might have also been a part of why coming back to the western world felt like something akin to suffocation for a while.

There is also a feeling of liberation involved in being a white person in East Africa. As young females especially, whether or not we are always conscious of it, we live under the constant impression that we are being scrutinized. We aim to look a certain way, we dress in a certain way, and we even walk, sit, and stand in a certain way. Being in Uganda, I knew that I was going to be noticed and stared at no matter what I did. There was no way around that. It took me a while to get to this point, but eventually, I came to find this realization very liberating. It didn’t matter what I was wearing, how I looked, or how I walked, because people were going to stare at me either way. Since nobody there knew me previously, I was free to do and act as I pleased, and to let go of some of the unconscious stress and awareness of judgment that governs so much of my behaviour on a daily basis back home.

To be painfully honest, all of this, combined with the facts that I was on a different timezone from everybody who had ever known me and that I had limited internet connection, allowed me the space and freedom to discover parts of myself that I’m not sure I had known existed. It’s a very liberating feeling, to say the least.

***

Well, that’s about what I have to say on Uganda and its gift of reverse culture shock. Thanks for reading my blog! If you’re reading this because you’re considering visiting East Africa, I hope that my experience functions as a helpful push in that direction. Challenges will certainly present themselves from time to time, but I can guarantee that the positive aspects will far outweigh the negatives. You cannot put a price on the self growth from which you benefit when you succeed in making a home out of an unlikely and unfamiliar place. It wasn’t always easy, but it most definitely was worth it.

On Mountains, Skies, and Llamas

by Jessye Kilburn

Suddenly it’s fall, my internship is over, and next year’s interns will soon be perusing this blog as they work on their applications. I didn’t want my last blog post to give prospective interns the impression that all I did was sit around and think angsty thoughts about the ocean! So here is a little glimpse into life outside the office.

South Table Mountain Park is accessible by bus/foot from Denver, with beautiful views into the Rockies.

Chattauqua Park is full of trails accessible by bus from Boulder.

The Royal Arch in Chattauqua: a steep but worthwhile climb!

To really get up into the Rockies, you have to go by car (but it’s so worth it!)


Yes, these are llamas. And, yes, I got to go hiking with them (!)

Colorado’s sunsets are amazing, and I was a little obsessed.

Red Rocks amphitheatre is an outdoor concert venue carved out of Colorado’s red rock formations. Seeing the symphony play Holst’s “Planets” and Mozart’s “Jupiter” out under the stars was a huge highlight.

Even within the big city of Denver there are pretty little lakes: this was my favourite running route.

So, yes, even this BC girl was pretty impressed with Colorado’s natural beauty: combined with fascinating internship work, it made for an incredible summer.

Ana’s Retirement Party

Painter Emily By Emily Ann Painter

It was late Thursday afternoon when Aji, Muzhgan and I, “the IJ interns” as they refer to us around the office, were signalled to join the large crowd that had already formed on the 35th floor. Having spent most of the day glued to my computer, researching the latest updates on the Special Criminal Court in Central African Republic or on Laurent Gbagbo’s trial at the International Criminal Court – whichever it was –  I welcomed the distraction and walked the short distance between my desk and the party. And as I did, it became clear that this would be no ordinary Human Rights Watch celebration: platters of cheese and crackers, champagne flutes and a large cake iced in the true “Human Rights Watch blue” covered the tables around which fifty smiling employees gathered. At the centre of it all stood Ana, one of HRW’s oldest and most beloved family member. Holding a flute and smiling wide, on this Thursday afternoon Ana was celebrating her well-earned retirement.

View from the 35th floor of the Empire State Building where the International Justice Program’s offices are located.

Of course, I recognized Ana. Every day around 5:50 pm, as I signed off and packed my bag for the commute home, she arrived on “our floor” of the Empire State Building, grey cart in hand, and began cleaning the office. Until today, this had been her daily routine for nearly twenty years.

For many like myself, Ana’s arrival signalled the end of the day and our brief interactions – courteous hellos, goodbyes, nods and smiles – reflected this. But as others noted in heartfelt speeches, the office’s night owls – few of which had worked at Human Rights Watch for as long as Ana had cleaned its halls – had often exchanged much more with the beloved custodian. She had offered them words of support during particularly arduous assignments and had shared her motherly wisdom with expecting mothers and parents throughout multiple pregnancies. Most notably, she had encouraged all to promptly adjourn their workday and return home to their loved ones.

I say notably because, as the night owls fondly recounted memories of long nights and early mornings worked alongside Ana, the eyes of a younger Ana began to fill, with soft tears pearling down her cheeks. Explaining her emotions, Ana’s daughter told us that though she was happy to witness the office’s love and appreciation for her mother, she couldn’t help but shed a tear for all the times she and her sisters had returned from school to an empty house, or had left in the morning without the warm greetings and encouragements her mother routinely offered us.

Moments later, as Ana bid us adieu in her own heart-wrenching speech, she confirmed the now teary-eyed crowd’s suspicions: Ana was retiring early so that she could finally spend time with her family.

The celebration I witnessed on this otherwise ordinary Thursday afternoon was heartfelt, beautiful and one I will remember for a long time. I will remember the stories, the tears and the smiles as Ana excitedly shared news about her family’s upcoming move to warmer climates “to be together again.” I will remember how I struggled to hold back my own tears, how I inevitably failed to do so and proceeded to awkwardly fan and cover my flushed face for minutes after the toasts ended.

I will also remember the feeling in my stomach as I recalled all the other women in this gender-biased profession whose tireless work would not be celebrated, whose sacrifices would not be recognized.

I have yet to shake this feeling.

As I sit here, sipping my second coffee and penning this story from the comforts of a far-too-trendy New York City café, I realize I am neither prepared nor willing to do so. After all, I recognize this feeling – a mix of shocked awareness, appalled recognition of social injustices, determination and yes, guilt – the same feeling that motivated me to apply to law school, to enrol in every possible human rights course at the faculty, and that led me to this truly incredible summer at Human Rights Watch.

This post is dedicated to Ana and her family. May you enjoy many mornings and evenings together in your new sunny abode.

A moment of reflection: My work and why human rights work matters

Gillespie TaylorBy Taylor Gillespie

Now that I’ve been home for a few weeks, I’ve had a chance to really reflect on my experience in South America. At the Institute, I had a hand in 5 main projects.

First, a team of us wrote two separate amicus curiae briefs for the Corte Suprema de Justicia de Colombia (the Supreme Court of Columbia). I’m unable to comment on the specifics of each case, but they dealt broadly with issues on legal capacity and the rights of children with disabilities to have access to inclusive education and reasonable accommodations. These briefs were a good taste of how a legal system operates on a day-to-day basis, and how much reading and effort goes into anything that is submitted to a Court.

Second, I was given the task of translating a speech about Latin American Perspectives on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) from Spanish to English that my boss presented at a conference in Galway, Ireland (I’ll add an hyperlink to the translated speech when it is published later this year.) Specifically, the speech provided commentary on how Latin American legislation should be/is being interpreted in light of the CRPD and how the issues faced by persons with disabilities may be better understood through a human rights framework, a shift that was embraced by the Argentine legal system following the 2015 Civil and Commercial Code reform.

Third, myself and a few others wrote the policy handbook for students with disabilities for the University we were working out of. The policy was approved by the University’s administration, which was a huge step forward since students with any kind of disability were not previously guaranteed access to accommodations that we might take for granted at post-secondary institutions in Canada.

Finally, I was able to take a weekly seminar-style course on inclusive education offered by the Institute intended for University faculty members. This was a neat program which gave me the opportunity to network with professors from various faculties and hear about their experiences and strategies to help accommodate students.

Like many students I’ve met at McGill, my ambitions to pursue a career in law are rooted in an interest in human rights. This internship gave me the unique opportunity to explore the field on the ground rather than in a classroom setting, and I made a few key realizations about the human rights work during my time in Argentina. For instance, in my experience, human rights work is not exactly how I pictured it before starting the internship—there is lots of paperwork and administrative processes and the fruits of the hard work by countless individuals take plenty of time to ripen. That said, I found satisfaction in the fact that most of my work and research was geared towards laying a foundation for real human rights related progress. With this in mind, I found that my perspective on what human rights really means shifted from a focus on the macro to an emphasis on the micro—with the individual rather than the collective as the focal point. On the aggregate, individual gains translate to social gains and this type of work (even if the results are not immediately visible) is what I now understand as human rights, and gives meaningfulness to my internship in Argentina.

On the beach for my last evening in Mar Del Plata

 

Airing My Ignorance

2017-Badali JoelBy Joel Badali

For this blog post, I thought I’d talk about the various ways in which I learned to navigate the fact that I come with the emotional baggage of a very openly sensitive man, yet find myself frequently at the centre of conversations where I speak naively about issues I have potentially no business discussing.

In Serbia, this ignorance is manifested through my eagerness to sit down for coffees with anyone willing to speak to me about their personal experiences or the broader political and social issues affecting their lives. Perhaps my intuition, and ease at exposing my ignorance while simultaneously thinking I’m a good listener, comes from my background in psychology and a few years working at a counselling centre with vulnerable populations.

One of the dynamics that I found most interesting is the position of Serbia as a nation readying itself for the long-standing promise to gain accession to the EU. Serbia, as people here have described to me, is no longer considered a “developing country” at least by various funding agencies yet still lags behind on many key indicators of quality of life and economic development, particularly vis-à-vis countries already in the European Union[1].

These conversations quickly turn to the poverty in Serbia, which I myself  have come to understand as being a two-fold construct.

One side is the concept of poverty with which most people are familiar, that being in terms of material deprivation and a lack of financial stability, if any. The second however, I have come to realize is the poverty, or impoverishment of one’s human rights. One might be financially impoverished yet still have for instance basic civil rights, access to labour unions, and protections against systemic discrimination.

As has been suggested to me by some of these “coffee-goers”, living in poverty in Canada and Serbia are two different circumstances, and two different outcomes. I agree that this is true for many people, yet I am also acutely aware (again from personal experience and law school) that this simply does not hold true for far too many back home despite the international reputation that Canada enjoys in the arena of human rights. In fact, almost everyone I speak to here heralds Canada and discusses the amazing life we all must unequivocally live. My very equivocation on this issue is where my ignorance, or perhaps mutual misunderstanding begins to unfold, leading to the interesting conversations I am ironically privileged to have with virtual strangers over coffee, and the reason for me to continue arranging these estranged run-ins.

One way that my conversations about human rights and poverty begins can be as simple as making an order at a coffee shop. When it comes to ordering a drink, a meal, and certainly a second or third drink, I have been questioned on why I hesitate to order more, or even ask for the price. Astonished, the person sitting across from me says, “but everything here is so cheap, it must mean nothing to you to order more”. In some ways this is true I argue, and they are right, food and housing in Serbia is for the most part much cheaper for me here in Serbia than in Canada, but my view is that for most Canadians, this outsider perception of wealth and financial security does not come from material wealth, but from the second kind of wealth—the stability and reliability of my State-protected rights. Indeed, some of the friends I have made recognize that their impoverishment is not directly linked to their financial situation at all times, but rather that their financial situation can change on a whim, for example through the expropriation of property or corporate corruption. The two types of poverty I identified have thus come to be conflated, leading to the erroneous assumption (though often true) that I, as a Canadian, could not possibly need to abide to a financial budget.

The two forms of poverty is evidenced when I attempt to justify my frugality by mentioning the thousands of dollars of debt I owed to provincial government, but that doesn’t phase most people. And it shouldn’t. Here again, the prospect of upward mobility and ample job opportunities make the risk of taking on debt a reasonable trade-off to gain an education and a professional degree. The notion that short-term financial debt doesn’t make me impoverished supports my point that the two types of poverty can be mutually exclusive. Meanwhile in Serbia, many youth are motivated to leave the country for the very reason that the job market is stagnant, that their rights aren’t respected (despite being constitutionally or otherwise entrenched in Serbian and international law), and for some, they simply can’t be themselves (whether because of race, ethnicity, or LGBT status for example). Therefore—at least in my view— material impoverishment aside, the more relevant issue in Serbia appears to be the second kind of impoverishment—that of citizens’ human rights.[2]

Again, I try to naively prode at people’s reasoning for leaving Serbia, asking about their family, about their awareness of social issues in the countries to which they seek to migrate (usually we end up discussing the U.S. given the current circumstances), and the guilt they may experience leaving their home country.

Some choose to stay for the very reasons I point out, however most sadly do not. Of course, I am happy that someone has the opportunity to migrate and find a better life—but that is on the individual level—on a societal level, I understand that leaving the root problems unchanged will not make the situation better for anyone else. As I mentioned in my first blog post, people cynically question why I tell them I enjoy my life in Serbia. Certainly as a foreigner, my life is relatively easy and I do not experience anxiety about my government or even the minority stress associated with people from marginalized groups. But I cannot deny that I do see the capacity and existing infrastructure of a country replete with people willing to make a difference, with stories to tell, and compassion to offer to strangers to their own country. Indeed, with my remaining weeks here, I find that service providers and coffee-goers alike (not that they speak for the general population) share their empathy for refugees and asylum seekers who use Serbia as a transit route to the EU where they will make a claim for refugee status.

People here convey this empathy for refugees through their common experiences of historical (and continued) hardships, and have few qualms about sharing their land and resources with refugees who are increasingly left stranded by the EU in Serbia thanks to Hungary’s fence to the north, and growing anti-refugee sentiment in neighbouring Bulgaria and Croatia, effectively creating a bottleneck effect in Serbia. Of course, the anti-refugee sentiment is likely present among some Serbians as well, but nonetheless from my vantage point, my experiences speak to this country’s capacity and even potential willingness to embrace human rights and a respect for international law.

The exposure to the little nuances that personal relations provide would not have been possible without a program dedicated both to human rights and legal pluralism through an appreciation for diverse learning experiences in legal education. I remain grateful for the experience that McGill and the Mental Disability Rights Initiative Serbia have provided me – from reviewing legal documents, analyzing policy, attending conferences at the UN (and later having coffee with Serbia’s UN Human Rights Officer – which goes without saying at this point, I guess), meeting with service providers ranging from the Red Cross and MSF to local NGOs, I have been fulfilled both academically and socially, coming to terms with my naivety about issues that I am learning to – and hope to—speak about when, and if, I do make the Bar.

And so concludes my final blog post from my time in Serbia. If you made it this far, well, thanks for reading.

Ignorant, or enlightened? Let me know what you thought about this entry, and maybe we can talk about it over coffee.


[1] European Union. (2016). Sustainable Development in the European Union: A Statistical Glance from the Viewpoint of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. pp 164. doi:10.2785/500875

[2] This is of course not to say that the first kind of impoverishment is not quite serious as well, with a median income well below the mean income that is reported indicating a disporportionately large number of people earning below the average wage, which in itself is already quite low. See Average Salary in Serbia: Gap Between Data and Reality http://serbianmonitor.com/en/economy/28266/average-salary-serbia/

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