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Look-back on the last day

By Laetitia Yantren

The last day of my internship, I presented my work to my colleagues and external members of CRG. CRG normally hosts Friday Lectures, during which academics present their research to a crown of their peers. Because CRG is a research group focused on migration that attracts academics knowledgeable about various aspects of migration—migration and development, social movements in Bengal, international migration, migration and gender—presenting to this crowd is both rewarding and nerve-wracking.

Nevertheless, I unclenched my sweaty palms and went ahead with the presentation. As my stutter grew into more confident affirmations, I realized my luck at having the privilege to present in front of this knowledgeable crowd.

My presentation focused on the international and national legal frameworks for labour in the Gulf, with a focus on Indian migration to the United Arab Emirates. I concentrate on trade agreements as well as the kafala system, the sponsorship program for foreign workers in the Gulf and other Arab countries. Deeply imbricated in the hierarchal tribal structures of Gulf society, the doctrine originates from Islamic doctrines of adoption. The kafala system separates labour law and immigration law for migrant workers, enabling the state to delegate its immigration authority to employers, who by definition must be Gulf nationals. Employers (kafeel) apply for and obtain work permits for their employees, who delegate to the employer their juridical personality as workers. The conflict of interest is glaring: employers are at once agents of the state in immigration matters, and agents of their employees in labour matters.

Under this system, the worker is caught in a tangled web of authority that resembles the family. My presentation argued that the kafala system makes all labour domestic, establishing an unescapable system of dependency between employer and employee that stands firmly outside the free market in order to promote and protect capital from the demands of labour. It is telling, in this vein, that the reforms to the kafala system have purposefully excluded domestic workers, who remain caught within the webs of responsibility, representation and restraint that are characteristic of the domestic relationship.

First, I described the kafala system in the UAE, its international and national legal components, as well as changes that have been made in response to claims by NGOs and other bodies. My discussion of this system included a substantive legal analysis of the kafala system from the point of view of the migrant worker. Finally, I developed the metaphor of domestic work by leaning on theorization of domestic labour. Drawing on the metaphor of family and nation, I argued that the exception is indeed the rule. Building parallels between foreign domestic and non-domestic workers, I argued that both are caught within the webs of responsibility, representation and restraint that are characteristic of the domestic relationship.

When I finished my presentation, I received important feedback from attendees, feedback which will inform my changes to the paper before publication.

My Ultimate Summer Experience in Budapest

By Jacinthe Dion

In retrospect…

View of Budapest from Gellért Hill

View of Budapest from Gellért Hill

This summer I flew to the unknown. All my family was telling me I would come back a different person. They were right, but I had not realized to what extent travelling and interning abroad would have on me.

I got to discover different ways people live life. I no longer had control over my environment and I was outside my comfort zone 24/7.  It was a challenge at first, but a really nice one. Whether it was struggling at the market to buy some fruits or learning how to use new databases at work, I was constantly learning and growing. During the entire summer, I ended up accidentally acting like a fool multiple times a week. This one time, I was at the grocery store and a lady spoke to me in Hungarian. I replied “nem te,” thinking I was saying “I don’t know.” It was only when I used nem te with a Hungarian friend from work that I realised I was totally off. I should have been saying nem tudom; nem te meant “not you”.

The people

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The last day the four of us were together in the office

I had the opportunity this summer to make friends from all corners of the world. I had the opportunity to work with an incredible and brilliant team at the Mental Disability Advocacy Centre (MDAC). I am also extremely grateful to have developed close relationships with the other interns. From practicing my linguistic skills in Finnish, to comparing weird expressions France has but Quebec doesn’t or vice versa, and climbing Gellért Hill while learning Hungarian History, I cherished every moment I got to share with these extraordinary individuals.

My supervisor, Barbara, and I during my last week

My supervisor, Barbara, and I during my last week

Every day, our lives intersect with people and we do not always know the influence or impact they will have on our life. We will never truly know how these moments will affect us, that is, until they do. Included in these individuals is Zóra, a student completing her Master in Public Administration. Zóra has been in a wheel chair since she was a child and this woman is pretty amazing. My encounter with her changed a lot of preconceived ideas I had without even really knowing I had them. “I don’t like it when people come up to me and tell me that I am an inspiration,” she told me one morning while heading to the office.

 

 

“I don’t go up to them telling them I find it inspiring that they woke up this morning, got dressed, made a coffee and were heading to work. I’m not an inspiration just for doing normal things.”

In some ways I always knew this, but it was after this exchange that it became apparent to me: if people fixate on how inhibited they think people with disabilities are, the emphasis shifts to their obstacles rather than their achievements. Now, I personally know Zóra and as a friend, I do find her inspiring. However, it is not because she does the same things as you and I that I find her inspiring; rather, it is because of who she is.

Zóra and I

Zóra and I

I have the highest esteem and respect for her. She is driven, inspired and passionate. She lives in one of the only accessible apartments in the city and is trying to change how rare they are. She is extremely generous, so patient and remarkably motivated. For two weeks this summer, while interning full time at MDAC during the week, she was also partaking in a training to become an Ambassador for Amnesty International Hungary. After 5 days of working 9:00 to 5:00, she committed to week ends spent in a school from 10:00 to 5:00, studying and receiving training. She is the humblest person I have ever met. She taught me so much without even intending to.

A final reflection

Freedom from torture, right to legal capacity, inclusive education and access to justice are issues I dealt with daily. Litigation meetings, jurisprudence research for ongoing MDAC cases and international standards research are a few ways I contributed to MDAC’s activities this summer.

News review, jurisprudence review, writing summaries and writing newsletters were part of my routine. Last but not least, learning how to express myself in less than 140 characters this summer was a struggle.

Now I am back home and I treasure the familiar so much more than I used to

Now I am back home and I treasure the familiar so much more than I used to

Here’s to not enough sleep and too much walking on the streets.

To late suppers at night and to running on Margaret Island when it’s still bright.

Here’s to the sun, the heat, the fun I had on my summer beat.

An experience I’ll always remember, memories that will stay with me forever.

Wanderlust will always be a part of my life.

Full Circle Moment

By Anna Goldfinch

I started out my internship knowing virtually nothing about maritime piracy, let alone the laws that surround this issue. I had a million questions. After a summer at Oceans Beyond Piracy, I know a lot more, but I have a million and one questions. This is because the issue of maritime piracy is complex, with intersecting issues, lots of gray areas, little precedent, and no concrete answers. As I worked my way through a variety of topics this summer, it all felt a little disjointed.

That was until I started working on the issue of Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs). PMSCs provide armed guards to ships to protect them from piracy. Generally speaking, having armed guards on ships has been found to reduce the number of pirate attacks. This issue is good indicator of what is actually happening in the maritime domain to respond to piracy and also brought all the work that I had been doing full circle.

Initially, the response to a surge in violent pirate attacks was governance. This was the first thing I learned about during my internship. International treaties mandate signatories to pass national anti-piracy legislation. Nations create anti-piracy strategies, plans, and legislative frameworks. However, this is foiled by the fact that the reporting of piracy is actually very low. There is no way to enforce anti-piracy laws if piracy is going completely unseen. Reporting is low because there are major financial disincentives for ships to report that they have been attacked. Costly inspections that would follow a report of piracy hurt the shipping companies’ bottom line and the seafarers’ wallets.

With a lack of reporting comes a lack of prosecution. There are very few cases of countries using universal jurisdiction to prosecute for piracy. While there has been some success in Somalia through a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) project that involves special courts, prisons and transfer agreements for accused and convicted pirates, this has not been seen elsewhere in the world.

Because of this, the shipping industry has looked for alternative ways to protect their workers and their goods. Their solution is hiring privately contracted, armed security guards (PMSCs), which was previously prohibited. As previously mentioned, this has seemingly led to a reduced amount of violence against seafarers. However, anecdotally these armed guards are often poorly trained in the escalation and use of force and will commonly open fire on boats that may try to approach their ship. After having researched PMSCs further, they aren’t necessarily a solution, but rather a simple reversal of those doing the attacking and those being attacked at sea.

From a human rights perspective, this bothered me. Pirates, while engaging in criminal activity, should still have all of their human rights guaranteed to them, including due process and a fair trial. Currently, it seems that a pirate may walk free if it is deemed they would be too costly to prosecute, or killed if an embarked guard feels threatened. This complete unpredictability of punishment is, in my view, unjust.

And this is where my work was brought full circle. My last task at Oceans Beyond Piracy was to research ways of holding PMSCs more accountable for their actions, providing better standards, training, and recourse for wronged parties. Essentially, I was looking into how to use governance to solve the problem of violence at sea.

In this exercise, I realized that so many of the problems that we try to address through human rights work are so intertwined, so complex, that sometimes we end up governing ourselves full circle. My millionth and one question is how do we make human rights focused interventions that break these full circle moments to provide solutions that are just and lasting?

Sad Goodbyes

2016 Awj NigahPar Nigah Awj

Alors déjà je suis à ma dernière semaine de stage avec DRI au Mexique. Ces trois mois ont passé comme une flèche, mais j’ai eu la chance de me bâtir une vie pas mal complète ici. Ah que c’est dure les adieux!

Depuis mon arrivée, je me suis bâti des relations familiales, amicales, spirituelles, d’amour, ainsi que de travail. Les gens autour de moi m’ont constamment choyé avec tant d’amour et d’encouragements, je me sens bénie. De plus, le travail au sein de l’organisme m’a appris énormément et m’a fait grandir. C’est un rêve devenu réalité pour 3 mois, j’ai appris que me battre pour les droits humains pour apporter les changements nécessaire, c’est ce qui me motive dans la vie!

Durant ces trois mois avec DRI, j’ai visité 2 institutions psychiatriques, une pour femmes (CAIS), une pour enfants

Children with disabilities are kept lying down for hours without any activity.

We found cage-like bars around beds in this institution where they lock children.

;  interviewé une victime d’une institution abusive dans sa maison ; participé aux réunions du Colectivo Chuhcan, seul organisation au Mexique constitué de personnes handicapées qui offrent des services de support et guides; participé à une formation d’analyse de sécurité de Peace Brigades International et Coperativa Tierra Commun ; émis des commentaires et suggestions sur la réalisation d’un protocole gouvernemental au sein de la fiscalité national ;  répondu à des évaluations de pays de la commission des droits humains des Nations Unis ; élaboré des analyses légales sur les droits reproductives des femmes handicapées au Mexique pour la Commission Interaméricaine des droits humain ; écris des articles sur l’institualization au Guatemala ; émis des commentaires sur les recommandations de la comité CEDAW des Nations Unis ; et dans mes temps libres escaladé des montagnes, nagé dans l’océan ; visité des musées, vu des villages historiques, dégusté milles saveurs du Mexique et appris à danser.

 

Indeed it is a beautiful life!

My involvement with DRI made me realise that there is a lot of work and change needed to give a life of dignity to people with disabilities. I am impressed by the strategy and impact of DRI in the world. Small offices, but amazing work! DRI Mexico take cares of Mexico and Guatemala’s cases; two people taking care of two nation’s advocacy for disability rights, that is immense!

Across the world, persons with disabilities are abandoned in large segregated institutions, where they often face abuse and torture. DRI report, Abandoned and Disappeared, documented horrific and pervasive abuse and generalized segregation of people with disabilities in institutions across Mexico. Even with good conditions institutions are inherently dangerous places for people with disabilities, where they are segregated for life. Investigators discovered that children with disabilities disappear and are trafficked; within institutions, people are left in permanent restraints which constitute torture; the use of lobotomies and psychosurgeries persist; abandoned people languish in institutions for their lifetimes; there is discrimination against children with disabilities in outplacement and adoption; there is an extreme lack of treatment and rehabilitation; living conditions in institutions are often inhumane and degrading; people are denied legal capacity and access to justice. It also finds that in Mexico there are no alternatives to institutions so, once children and adults are detained in one, they will stay there for life.

DRI report on institutions in Mexico.

With the adoption of the CRPD, there has been an international recognition that institutionalization of people with disabilities is a serious human rights violation and is an outmoded and an unacceptable form of “care” in the 21st Century. However, this outdated model is still prevalent in many countries and people with disabilities’ human rights are still forgotten in human right talks around the world. The life conditions of people with disabilities are still dealt with in a frame of medical perspective, which is most often unfounded or based on eugenic theories, and not seen from a human rights perspective.

DRI is pushing both Guatemala and Mexico’s government to move from a system of institutionalization to community based services for persons with disabilities, in accord with article 19 of the CRPD for the right to community living. For this change to happen through advocacy, awareness and litigation, all three levels have to be involved: the local, the national and the international. DRI works closely at the local level through monitoring and interviews with victims, institution workers, families; also with the government at the national level to report cases, work on policy changes, and recommend the development of community programs; DRI also reports to international bodies with standing such as the IACHR, the CEDAW, the CAT, UNHRC to pressure the unwilling government to fulfill its international responsibilities.

Colectivo Chuhcan during their biweekly meetings with persons with disabilities.

 The local presence is very important to understand the needs of people with disabilities and what impacts the programs might have on them. International models are of great use to help implement much needed programs and elevate the life conditions of persons with disabilities; however each country comes with their limitations and ways of doing things. Without local presence, awareness and understanding the implementation of such development programs might end in disaster. There has to be a change of mentality and understanding within the general society itself to push for respect and understanding of the rights of people with disabilities. As well, persons with disabilities must be present in each level of the planning and implementation of changes as they know best what is needed for them.

At a national or governmental level, I have experienced how difficult change might be when faced with an oppressive and unwilling government. The State of Guatemala, with a lot of international pressure have moved to sit for negotiations and starting many pilot projects to move persons with disabilities in community based programs and help their integration. DRI is involved in negotiations to push the government to fulfill these obligations and hoping to guide the start of these projects. In Mexico, however, DRI is facing oppression, threat and defamation from the government. Even with the ratification of international conventions oriented towards protecting the rights of person with disabilities, Mexico’s government is unwilling to make changes and investigate abuses against this vulnerable group. They have blocked all access to DRI, refuse to process complains and actively threatened DRI workers to not publish reports. In Mexico, these events have forced the workers to seek some kind of legal protection, take classes on security and have created a lot of tension. DRI is working on multiple different strategies to figure out how to continue their mission through international support of United Nations and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights without which it would be almost impossible to hold corrupted unwilling governments accountable.

The Case of Casa Esperanza

In Guatemala, DRI has admitted a petition against the government of Guatemala to the IActHR for the National Mental Health Institution, Federico Mora, one of the most dangerous intuitions in Latin America and hoping to hold the government accountable for the abuses. This year, in Mexico, DRI would like to repeat the same kind of petition in regards to a very dangerous institution where multiple abuses have been reported called Casa Esperanza. I have been working on the legal analysis for this case, especially trying to qualify forced sterilization happening in this institution as torture to hold the government accountable and urge its international obligation to protect people from torture, especially when these practices take place in public hospitals.

It is great to be part of this movement, slow but effective. There is so much more to learn, see and experience within this field of law and I am hoping to continue my involvement with this organization.

 

Same, same, but different

2016 Goldfinch AnnaAnna Goldfinch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Reflections from HRW

2015 Jabir HumeraBy Humera Jabir

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015-lachapelle-kaleyBy Kaley Lachapelle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. July, 2015

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. July, 2015

Justice in an Indigenous Community

2015 Gilmer AnnaBy Anna Gilmer

I have recently completed my internship at Akwesasne, a cross-border Mohawk community near Cornwall, Ontario. I was specifically working for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, which governs the Canadian half of the community and is located partially in Ontario and partially in Quebec.

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When I sat down to write this second blog post, I reflected on my time at the Akwesasne Justice Department, and tried to think of the most interesting thing about it. As I considered everything I had been exposed to at the department, about all the programs and services that they run, I was struck by the huge scope of their mandate.

The Justice Department of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne is made up of only approximately 17 staff. But these 17 people cover a huge range of services. Their lawyer and paralegals provide legal assistance on all legal matters to community members and to the band; they have probation and parole services as well as an early release program in place for community members in both Ontario and Quebec; and they run the conservation and compliance offices. They also draft new legislation, conduct the local elections and referendums, and are currently in negotiations with Canada for a final self-government agreement. The Akwesasne Mohawk Court serves as a community court, addressing matters within a specified mandate. Finally, the Community Justice Program (a program within the department) assists with young offenders, organizes community service work, and runs diversion programs and circle sentencing. It is a huge portfolio, and represents an impressive move towards local control over justice.

Of course, many aspects of justice at Akwesasne are reflective of outside structures, since the system has had to be redeveloped from scratch in the last few decades. In a discussion of the Akwesasne Mohawk Court, the Director of the department, Joyce King, explained to me that when the court was set up, the department brought in Canadian lawyers to train Justices. As such, the court is reflective of the only system those lawyers knew: it is adversarial, with the Justice at the front and rules reflective of Ontario and Quebec procedure. Despite the strong Canadian influence, the Justice Department has worked to incorporate Mohawk traditions, values and laws. Community control has also been prioritized, and is central to law enactment procedures and other processes. It is interesting to see how the community has worked to regain a Mohawk system of justice on the territory.

What is also interesting about the justice department, and especially about the Community Justice Program, is its genuine focus on ameliorating the problems facing the community. Among other things, this means addressing such issues with youth, and helping them stay safe and out of the justice system. Between my research and writing, I had the opportunity to help plan and then attend the program’s Summer Cultural Youth Camp. The Camp was focused on culture, and provided youth in the community (and particularly those in contact with the justice system) with an opportunity to practice their culture, to listen to teachings, and to live Mohawk values. They fished, sang, danced, did crafts, made fires and listened to stories. Programming also addressed issues facing youth in the community, such as drug and alcohol abuse, the large number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and more generally the continued effects of colonialism. I was impressed by how well the participants responded to the camp.

In a small but incredibly complex community, the Akwesasne Justice Department does a lot. It attempts to rehabilitate community members who have been convicted. It works to keep youth safe and away from criminal activity. It incorporates Mohawk traditions and values into the justice system. It passes laws that reflect community priorities and ideas. Of course, it faces its share of challenges, and the structures in place are not perfect. Nonetheless, it is an impressive example of the kind of work that Indigenous communities are doing to regain control and assert self-determination.

Final Reflections and Lessons Learned

2015 Zidel Max 2By Max Zidel

As I write my final blog post, I watch through the big glass windows at Budapest International Airport as the various planes pull out of their gates, accelerate and disappear into the sky. In an hour or so that will be me, boarding an EasyJet flight for Berlin and eventually Italy, where I will spend a couple of weeks with friends before returning to Canada.

As I sit and enjoy my espresso (one of my favourite pastimes), I am conscious of the Hungarian words that hang above me – “felvonók” for lifts, “mosdók” for washrooms – which remind me of the unique culture and kind people that I leave behind. I think about all the amazing nights I spent with friends by the Danube or dancing on Margit Island (it’s a little island-park between Buda and Pest); I think about all the amazing people that I met – through work, family friends or living arrangements.

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Of course, while I have many great stories to share about my short three months in Budapest, I have decided in my final blog post to make some concluding remarks about my experience here as a human rights intern, and some of the key lessons I have learned about law, social justice and even myself.

1. Personal experiences are crucial, but there is a danger in generalizing. Having grown up with a sister with severe intellectual disabilities, I have had many first-hand encounters with the ways in which law and mental disability interact, as well as with trying to live up to the needs and aspirations of someone who was often incapable of verbalizing her thoughts and feelings. This kind of personal connection and experience was essential to my work at MDAC, but I also learned how important it is to keep it in perspective. My sister’s story is really only one among many, and what she may have wanted out of law or life is not necessarily what other individuals with mental disability may want. And this works both ways. For example, while the CRPD’s General comment on Article 12 rightly callsfor an end to guardianship and a move toward supported decision making, I fear that in my sister’s case this would be a step in the wrong direction. Incapable of understanding notions like ‘money’ or performing basic tasks like getting dressed or preparing a meal, my sister’s dignity and autonomy were greatly enhanced by some of the substitute decision making carried out by my parents. But while this may be true for my sister, I have no doubt that it is probably not true for the vast majority of individuals with mental disability.

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2. Legal human rights work doesn’t always feel like human rights work. Legal work can be powerful and impactful, but it can also be highly removed and impersonal. Though I very much enjoyed the various research tasks I was assigned to and am really pleased with the amount of knowledge I acquired in the process, I am aware of how often I simply disconnected from the real world while sitting behind my desk. Just as in law school, I often found myself in a universe of legal jargon – where peoples’ stories were simply fact summaries and fundamental rights a means to some strategic objective or outcome. This is not to say my desk-work was not important – it was and I do believe that it will eventually lead to some real change and impact at a very personal level for some of our beneficiaries. I just thought it important to point out that I sometimes felt like that wasn’t the case, and that maybe there is a better balance that can be struck between engagement and legal work.

3. It is hard to go somewhere when you don’t know where you are going. Over the past few months, I learned that it is much easier to denounce something that’s wrong or unjust than it is to articulate a promising alternative. If guardianship is abusive, invasive and belittling, then what do we propose instead? If institutions are broken and harmful, then what is a better vision based around community care? These are the challenges we faced every single day at MDAC. And rightfully so, because it’s not enough to tell judges and governments that the current ways aren’t working if we don’t have any better ideas. And we don’t just need ideas, but also ones that are affordable and implementable. This is no easy task, and indeed it often felt like we were driving into the abyss without any maps to lead the way. Human rights, it seems, is not necessarily about “immediately realizable” rights, but more so about courage and experimentation, and an acknowledgement that the world we live is and will continue to be – imperfect.

All in all, I am really glad I got the chance to work at MDAC and participate in this amazing internship program. I really look forward to reflecting on all of these issues in greater depth as I begin the process of writing my term paper this fall!

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