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The Best Journeys Are Not Planned, But Discovered

By Elias D León

It has been several weeks since I returned from Costa Rica where I interned at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Shortly after returning to Montreal, I encountered way too many memories floating around my brain, which developed one by one thanks to my 12 weeks once in a lifetime experience at what, I call, one of the most exotic and colourful places on Earth. In this first blog post, I will offer some of my reflections and impressions about my time in Costa Rica representing McGill Law at the OAS’ principal judiciary organ that promotes and protects human rights across the Americas.

Andrea Buitrago & Elias León, McGill Law Representatives at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Latin America’s Flavours: Returning to my Roots

On May 3, 2017 at 6:58 am I woke up in my flat in Montreal thrilled to embark on a journey that I thought would bring me back to the continent of my origin: Latin America. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was nervous, scared, anxious, or just happy. Perhaps a combination of all. Since the political turmoil in Venezuela got out of control, I have not been back to Latin America. I knew Costa Rica would be very different from Venezuela, in terms of political stability, proper access to food, health-care, water (from what my folks would call ‘luxurious goods’ currently non-existent in my homeland, regrettably). However, I was very curious to land in the International Airport of San Jose to discover how similar this small country in Central America would remind me of Venezuela in a particular way. I don’t mean returning to my “real” roots, rather I mean returning to the continent that brings together rich cultures, tasteful gastronomy, vibrant social life, and a devotion for hard work in trying to become a better person every day – that’s what made me think this opportunity was all about: returning to a country that would make me feel, more less, back in Venezuela since, as of today, I cannot seem to be able to do this.

As soon as I arrived in Costa Rica’s capital, my good friend Natalia and her friends picked me at the airport and drove to her house to meet with her family. Immediately, I felt just as if a friend from childhood picked me up in Caracas to then have a home-cooked meal. As the days progressed, I was lucky enough to meet several locals who welcomed me with wide-open arms and invited me to countless journeys with the objective to discover Costa Rica’s diverse biodiversity, the “pura vida” style, appreciation for environmental stewardship, and most importantly, the beginning of new friendships, which is how they take pride in being good Costa Ricans hosts. Interestingly, I also met several Venezuelans. In fact, there were so many Venezuelans who have recently arrived in Costa Rica as political refugees that, overtime, it really felt like returning to my roots (and this time I mean it literally). However, I have to admit, I was sad (and possibly upset) to learn from each Venezuelan’s story about how they had to leave everything behind overnight – including their families, loved ones, professional careers such as practices in medicine, the law, business, and engineering. They all seemed to have to start from zero and worked as Uber drivers or blue collar positions in order to make just enough Colones (Costa Rican currency) to eat, pay a shared room in a flat, and save enough so they could send money for their families who could not escape the current dictatorship Venezuela is facing.

My 89 days in Latin America were extraordinary. These twelve weeks allowed me to reflect upon and cherish all opportunities Canada had given me until now, but this visit also made me feel proud to belong to a continent with such a unique culture. People there are hard-workers, warm, loud, funny, great sense of humour, love to go dancing or to share “arepas” or “gallo pinto” during a lunch break, devoted to faithful groups, constantly staying active through physical activities, and so much more. I am lucky to know we, as Canadians, can do all of these things in Canada as well, but there was something unique about being able to do all of these things over again in Latin America, just like I used to during the first fifteen years of my life in Venezuela. 

Oath of Confidentiality Official Ceremony with 2017 Interns & Visiting Professionals

The Inter-American Court: From exchanges of Conversations with Human Rights Violation Victims to the President of the Court

One of the biggest assets of working at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is definitely the people you meet. As for all of us in the legal profession is social, the nature of the work is grounded on a wide range of different personalities whom you work with and interact at many different levels. Yes, you certainly get to work with some of the brightest and most respected human rights jurists across the Americas. But you also get meet, talk, interview, and listen to the very people who travel hundreds of miles to a architecturally colonial style white house in the historical neighbourhood of Los Yoses, which serves as the premises of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. For confidentiality constraints, I cannot disclose details, but what I can share is my reflection on how powerful the words I exchanged with some of the victims of human rights (who were going to testify during court hearings in the cases I was assigned to) were and how much they motivated me to do my work better in my office at the Court. Most of the time I would be speechless to learn from what they had to say. Other times, I felt powerless by not being able to ‘do more’ or ‘try to assure them that everything was going to be okay’ – when in fact I knew that some of these victims had to return to their home countries, the next day of the court hearing date, where they would sometimes be prosecuted either by volatile governments or organized-crime groups.

Most of the time however, I learned a great deal from the lawyers in my team, fellow law clerks, and most certainly, the lawyers whom I shared my office with. The great advantage about working in such an active and collegial working environment is that each lawyer was from a different country, whose parcour was significantly unique from one another. I remember nourishing excellent friendships with lawyers from Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Cuba, Uruguay, and even Germany. Some of them have done human rights law for 20+ years while others were corporate lawyers who decided to make the transition from business law to human rights law in their mid-level careers. I learned something valuable and unique from each person. At work, we would engage in very transsystemic dialogues doing comparative legal analysis on contemporary issues as climate change, refugees asylum, international security, and same-sex marriage. On a more inter-personal level, we would discover each other’s national gastronomy, customs, traditions, and culture. This special aspect of the Inter-American Court constantly made me think of the fond memories I have working in diplomacy being posted in few different cities. I just think it’s the perfect work environment for any McGill Law student seeking to discover new cultures and ontologies.

 

Advisory Opinion on Gender Identity and Patrimonial rights derived from relationships between persons of the same sex. For more information, please consult: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/solicitudoc/solicitud_17_05_16_eng.pdf

Meeting the Honourable Roberto Caldas, President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Pura Vida: Beyond a Destination to Gain a Superb Summer Legal Experience

So you may be wondering what Pura Vida is. Well, it’s a phrase that essentially encompasses how “ticos” look at the world. It’s how they look at life-work balance, social relationships, family, communication, and frankly anything. Instead of saying buenos días Costa Ricans enthusiastically say “Hey, PURA VIDA!” Instead of apologizing for not submitting a work deadline on time, they say “pura vida.” Instead of responding “I’m good, how are you?” they say “Pura Vida!” This was certainly a highlight in my journey in Costa Rica – and was consistently a joke we had between everyone who wasn’t a Tico in the Court. The point is that Costa Rica is probably one of the countries with the happiest people and as a McGill Law student who had just finished 1L, I certainly took the opportunity to learn from this ‘pura vida’ way of life to think more about work-life balance. I learned that it is important to really make the effort in being patient when something does not happen as quickly – or as efficient in North American parlance. It’s important to take this type of 12-week culturally enriching experience to step outside of our comfort zone or incredibly busy lifestyles to meditate, do yoga, breathe fresh air, take different types of risks – less so professionally inclined and more so learning a different sport like surfing. All to say that the “pura vida” outlook on life, which every Costa Rican seem to experience on a daily basis – and indeed, every staff attorney or law clerk at the Inter-American Court – taught me that you experience the fabric of a place by immersing yourself in the flavours, sites, and sounds of a destination. In my opinion, this is when you have fully experienced Costa Rica and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the way it’s meant to be. Different for everyone, but yet extraordinary for all.

Exploring the Arenal Volcano

Reflections on Human Rights Education

By Sara E.B. Pierre

One of the things I loved the most about working at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) was observing and participating in their capacity-building workshops. I am a big believer in education, and I think it is crucial when it comes to human rights work. IHRDA gives presentations and workshops as part of its education mandate. They also have a mandate to defend, which they do by advocating on behalf of victims of human rights abuses, and to inform, which they do by building a comprehensive database of African human rights legislation.

There is one phrase in particular that one of my supervisors said at a capacity-building workshop back in The Gambia which has stuck with me. In our Critical Engagements with Human Rights class, we have had many discussions about the tension and overlap between international, national and regional human rights norms. Are human rights a Western concept? The answer is no.

The phrase I remember my supervisor saying was at a capacity-building workshop for police officers/prosecutors and social workers on harmful practices against girls and women. He said that harmful practices against women and girls are not part of African culture; “maybe it was a part of our culture 200 years ago, but if you practice FGM (female genital mutilation) or child marriage in Africa now, you are violating our culture.” I think he was trying to show how culture is fluid, and no one state has a monopoly on the concept of human rights. Yes, we may all have slight differences when it comes to writing laws, and this is a good thing. However, the bottom line is that human rights are universal rights, and nothing, not even claims of practicing one’s actual or alleged culture, should get in the way of that.

The capacity-building workshop was prepared by an NGO called Safe Hands for Girls, in collaboration with IHRDA. The theme of the two-day training was harmful practices against women and girls, and we focused on forced marriage, and especially female genital mutilation, or FGM. This last topic was especially difficult to hear about, as the first speaker went into the painful specifics of the operation, complete with real life images. There were no trigger warnings, but there was a moment of individual prayer before the workshop began. Besides talking about how painful the procedure is for infants, children and women, the speaker also explained that how it is done can lead to complications which affect the health and sometimes the life of the person being operated, especially when/if she becomes pregnant.

 

One of my supervisors at IHRDA spoke about women’s rights in The Gambia. He brought up an interesting point: how even though FGM has been outlawed in the country, and there is extensive knowledge that the practice is still widespread (76% of women in The Gambia have suffered through FGM), there have been no cases brought forward. When he brought up the question of how this can be, something interesting happened. A police officer said there have been no cases brought forward because they do not receive reports or complaints. However, a social worker replied that just the other day someone came to her with a report of FGM, and when they tried involving the local police, the police officer did not want to make an arrest for fear of being targeted by the community. I think this situation is all too prevalent and is very useful for showing the disconnect between the law and practice. To me, it shows that human rights work must be rooted in education, and must be contextual. A top-down approach does not work. If we truly want sustainable change, we must first change the attitudes of the perpetrators of the human rights abuses. In order to change peoples’ minds, we have to get to know them.

 

 

Looking back on my summer at Equitas

By: Nathalie Laflamme

The few months I worked as an Education Intern at Equitas went by in a flash. In some ways, the internship almost seemed too short, and yet, as I look back, I realize just how much work we were able to accomplish in such a short period of time during the three-week-long International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP). I thought I could use this blog post to write a little more about exactly what my role was during my internship, and to give you a better idea of what it was like to be a part of the IHRTP.

Before the IHRTP

In the first month of my internship, I worked at the Equitas office, located right by McGill campus. All the interns – 2 Education Interns, 9 Coordination Interns, and 1 Communications Intern – shared one conference room. It goes without saying that we all got to know each other quite fast. The funky ice breakers (or “energizers,” as they are called at Equitas) we did every day after lunch definitely helped our friendships blossom. During this time, my main task was working on a lengthy and fascinating report, which compiled much of the information incoming participants included in their Pre-Training Assignments. Using this information, I was able to write a report which included sections such as most prominent human rights violations, separated by geographic location. While this was a lengthy, often quite technical task, I found myself completely engrossed by the information provided by participants. The 40-page report is one of the things I am most proud of accomplishing during my internship. I learned so much about different parts of the world I previously knew nothing about, and got to learn it directly from the mouths of experts—it was unlike any learning I had ever done before.

All the Equitas interns! Photo by Michael Cooper/Equitas.

This task also allowed me to learn so much about the participants before meeting them. Not only did I learn their names, but I also got to learn about their organizations, the projects closest to their hearts, and their reasons for wanting to take part in the IHRTP. This also turned the first week of the IHRTP into a fun mental puzzle for me—putting faces to names was a neat experience, to say the least!

During the IHRTP

I blinked, and then we were moving to John Abbott College. I must say that it is impossible to list all the tasks I completed during the IHRTP, as there was so many and they were often quite technical. The days were filled to the brim with task after task, making for a very interesting—and definitely never dull—work environment. My main tasks consisted of setting up rooms for plenary presentations and working with resource persons to make sure their presentations went smoothly. During the plenary sessions, the other Education Intern and I would take notes (one in French and the other in English) that we would later publish on the Equitas Community (a forum for IHRTP participants), with translated PowerPoint presentations and other relevant documents. We also worked closely with Facilitators—former IHRTP participants who lead the small group sessions that participants take part in during the day—to make sure they had all the materials they needed. This involved many last-minute runs to the store to buy markers and flip charts. We also did instantaneous translations during many events, which was so much harder than I thought it would be. Additionally, I ran evaluations at the end of every “stream,” which is what Equitas calls the chapters of the program. This involved many hours working with participants in the computer labs, where I assisted them to make sure they completed the surveys.

A photo of me taken for the 2017 IHRTP photo campaign. Photo by Gabrielle Vendette/Equitas.

If this does not seem like much, I can guarantee quite contrarily that the days were packed. At the end of every day, when the intern in charge of driving the van back to Montreal texted everyone saying they were leaving, I was always left scrambling, hoping I had one more hour to finish up. The pace was like nothing I’ve experienced before (and I have worked in very stressful work environments!), but I must say that it was a pace that made me more productive than ever.

The IHRTP allowed me to meet so many incredible, passionate human rights defenders. While I was introduced to the facilitators on the very first day of their orientation during a meeting, I met most participants during meals, or at IHRTP events, and even sometimes while playing soccer! My biggest regret is not spending more time getting to know them. Getting to meet all of these amazing people was by far the highlight of working at Equitas for me.

I also had the privilege of spending some time in the classrooms while assisting a participant living with a disability. This allowed me to see the participative approach Equitas uses in action while also getting an intimate look inside the program. The program does not use a “classic” teaching style where a teacher lectures the class. Instead, a facilitator and co-facilitator facilitate the activities in the classroom. Participation is crucial, as participants are the true experts. The program works so well because participants get to learn from one another. The small groups are also purposely diverse to create an interesting blend of ideas and experiences. Participants learn through various interactive techniques so getting bored is not an option—the schedule is packed with activities. While in the classroom, I got to see all of this in action, and I have to say that it had me questioning whether a similar system could somehow be integrated into the law school curriculum.

The next thing I knew, the departures weekend was among us and it was time to say goodbye. I volunteered to help drive participants back to the airport, which allowed me to spend a few more minutes with the them. I truly hope I will have the pleasure of seeing some of these amazing people again in the future.

After the IHRTP

Returning to the Equitas offices once the internship was completed felt very odd. It was almost like that feeling we got as children when returning home from sleep-away camp. We all missed the participants, and generally the lively atmosphere of the IHRTP. Still, I had a lot left to wrap up in a very short time, so those last few weeks with the interns, back in our old conference room, flew by too. During this time, I mainly finished translating and uploading documents to the Equitas Community.

Looking back

Working with Equitas this summer was an unforgettable experience. Never in my life have I been in such an action-packed, diverse, multi-lingual environment, and I doubt I ever will again. I went into my internship knowing very little about human rights education or its crucial role in the protection of human rights on a global scale, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to learn so much about it. This is a topic I plan to further delve into this semester with my research. And, who knows, maybe one day I will work with some of the amazing human rights defenders and educators I met at the IHRTP.

Here is a photo of all the participants, facilitators, co-facilitators, staff, interns and volunteers at the IHRTP. Photo by Michael Cooper/Equitas.

“What’s it like, up North?”

Jones Rebecca

Rebecca Jones

This post is a reflection of my own personal experiences and it is not my intention to make generalizations about life in the Yukon or in the North.

Before I left for my internship, I received a lot of unsolicited well-meaning advice about what Northerners were like, how expensive my groceries were going to be, and how to handle bear attacks. Luckily, I never had to figure out that last one (although I did have a few close encounters with large foxes). Thinking about the Yukon conjured images of Ted Harrison’s colourful and vibrant artwork[1], a few vague historical facts about the Gold Rush, and the line from Robert Service’s famous poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun…”[2]. People’s reactions when they learned that I would be spending some time up North ranged from surprised and concerned to curious and confused. During my time in the Yukon, I was often asked by friends and family from back home: “So what’s it like, up North?”

I was excited to spend a summer in the Yukon; several years ago, I had travelled across the country for a Canada-wide art project without enough funding to make it to any of the Territories. I knew that the North was unique and that, as “southerners,” we are sometimes guilty of forgetting that it exists. I certainly do not remember learning much about the Yukon, other than a brief history of the Gold Rush, despite growing up in British Columbia.

So here are some of my personal observations during my summer in “the North.”

Interaction with wildlife is often a daily occurrence. The city of Whitehorse is small, and the various subdivisions are surrounded by forest. A few steps in any direction will take you on a back-country trail or into the woods. Foxes are often seen roaming the city. There are stories of wolves chasing road cyclists and dog-scaring porcupines. Whitehorse residents are frequently reminded to bear-proof their garbage bins and refrain from leaving out “attractants”. The number of bears that conservation officers have killed this year alone is a stark reminder that this land is not ours and that we are the intruders disturbing the animals’ habitats.[3]

The Yukon River flowing through Miles Canyon.

Many locals that I met were very proud to call themselves “Northerners”. I learned that life up North can sometimes be very challenging and unforgiving due to extreme weather conditions, remoteness, and lack of resources. Early on in the summer, I arrived at the grocery store to discover empty shelves with no fresh produce and a simple note from the staff – it instructed customers to return in a few days because the produce truck had a flat tire and would not make its scheduled delivery time. Several locals explained to me that this was not an uncommon occurrence and that sometimes the trucks can’t make it in because the road is washed out due to weather. That being said, Whitehorse is one of the most Southern communities in the Yukon and quite easily accessible compared to fly-in communities in the Territory, such as Old Crow, where people who visit often bring fresh produce with them as gifts.

I experienced the infamous Northern hospitality from everyone I met – perhaps, due in part to the demands of life in the Yukon and in part to the nature of living in a small community. It started with my new roommate picking me up from the airport at 1:00 am. People were eager to show me around, lend me their outdoor gear, or share a meal. Everywhere I went I was made to feel welcome. During my first few weeks, I was quite taken aback at people’s generosity. I actually remember my big-city roots thinking that “there must be a catch.” After a few weeks, it became my new normal.

About 25% of the Yukon’s population is Indigenous.[4] The Gold Rush, the building of the Alaska Highway during World War II, and the residential school system have all permanently impacted these First Nations in various ways. The Yukon is unique in that the majority of it was never subject to Canadian government treaties until a Final Agreement was signed in 1990.[5] This lack of treaties allowed for Yukon First Nations to work with the Canadian government to negotiate land claims and self-government agreements. 11 out of the 14 First Nations in the Yukon have Self-Government Agreements which allow the First Nations to “make and enact laws in respect of their lands and citizens, to tax, to provide for municipal planning, and to manage or co-manage lands and resources”.[6] I spoke with a few First Nations people working in their Nations’ Justice Departments and they described their association with the territorial government as a “Nation-to-Nation” relationship. The oldest Self-Government Agreements have only been in effect since 1995 which means that devolution processes and capacity-building are still underway.

View from the top of the Venus Mines hike to explore an historic mining structure from an old silver mine.

I had the privilege of meeting with a member of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation Justice Department and she explained some of their current and long-term community justice initiatives, including the development of their own court system, child welfare programs, and community security officers. Throughout this conversation, I was reminded that it is often important for justice initiatives to have a local focus. Canada is hugely diverse in its geography, demography and histories. It is easy to imagine how certain legal instruments developed in other jurisdictions would have different impacts here and fail to take into consideration the distinctiveness of Yukon realities. In my previous blog post, I spoke about my experience at the Re-Visioning Justice conference which provided a forum for Yukoners to come together to discuss systemic discrimination and access to justice issues. These inter-disciplinary initiatives listen to and amplify community voices to promote local participation in forging solutions.

A conference for Yukon lawyers to explore the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Report’s Calls to Action in their law practice.

When locals would ask how long I was in the Yukon, they would chuckle at my response and reply, “That’s what I said 25 years ago!”. Perhaps they are right. There is something magical and captivating in the wild beauty of the Yukon. I hope that I am fortunate enough to return one day and eventually travel to other parts of the North.

At the top of Grey Mountain just outside of Whitehorse.

View of glaciers in Kluane National Park, one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world.

Hiking in Tombstone Territorial Park.

[1] https://tedharrison.ca/

[2] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45081/the-cremation-of-sam-mcgee

[3] http://whitehorsestar.com/News/summer-of-2017-has-claimed-dozens-of-bears

[4] http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-656-x/89-656-x2016012-eng.htm

[5] https://cyfn.ca/agreements/umbrella-final-agreement/

[6] https://cyfn.ca/agreements/self-government-agreements/

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

 

 

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.

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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