« Older Entries

Legal information and human rights

Accessing legal information is critical to enforcing rights. This is as true in Canada as it is everywhere else in the world. People need to know what their rights are before they can even think about trying to enforce them. Human rights defenders, and particularly lawyers, also need to be able to access legal information in order to protect and enforce human rights.


Over the past twelve weeks of my internship with Avocats sans frontières Canada, I’ve worked on a few projects related to the legal framework (the justice system and domestic laws) of other countries, particularly Mali. Often during my internship I have found myself frustrated with the lack of availability of basic legal information. For a Canadian law student, the idea of not being able to access legal information online is unthinkable. But when I look for information about Malian law, it can be difficult – often impossible – to find even basic legal texts. Even when information is available online, it’s often out of date or incomplete.

In Canada, it’s fairly easy for lawyers, law students, human rights defenders, and citizens to access vital legal information. The Supreme Court puts all of its jurisprudence online, and laws are accessible through federal, provincial, and municipal government websites. There’s also CanLII, which offers free access to cases and legislation.

There is nothing like CanLII in Mali. A very small number of cases are available online. A few of the most important laws – like the Civil Code and the Penal Code – are available, though generally finding them requires some digging. However, some of my research ended when I was unable to find any relevant legal information online. If this is frustrating for me, sitting in an office in Quebec, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for the people who really need this information. And this isn’t only the case in Mali – in many places, legal information is difficult or impossible to find online.


It goes without saying that it is not enough that legal information simply be available. While lawyers can make use of cases and laws in their original form, they must also be available in a form that is accessible and comprehensible to the people who need the information most. Literacy rates can affect the accessibility of legal information. Language barriers can also exist. For example, almost 50% of the population of Mali speaks Bambara as their first language, and there are a variety of other languages spoken. The official language – the language of the legal system – is French. These factors can make even the legal information that is available inaccessible to the majority of the population.

This is why many projects aimed at reinforcing human rights and increasing access to justice focus on providing legal information in an accessible format – although access to justice is a multi-faceted problem. Even if information is available, making use of the information can be difficult if courts are difficult or expensive to access.

There are no easy solutions to these problems, and many of them exist in Canada as well, albeit to a lesser extent. But what I’ve learned over the course of my internship is that we’re incredibly lucky to have free, easy access to so much legal information.

Human Rights Education: Teaching Right from Wrong

By Victoria Cichalewska

In my last blog post, I made the observation that one of the reasons Human Rights Education (HRE) is important is because laws are not enough to ensure that rights are protected. Mentalities need to change first before laws can be properly enforced. Another reason why HRE is important was highlighted during the International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) at Equitas. HRE instructs people on what their rights are and thus helps them distinguish right from wrong.

During the IHRTP, participants were asked to watch a documentary entitled “A Path to Dignity: The Power of Human Rights Education” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahE0tJbvl78) which explores the positive outcomes of Human Rights Training in India, Turkey and Australia. In the documentary, Navi Pillay, the previous United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, states that the “full realization of Human Rights requires all human beings of being aware of their and other people’s rights and the means to protect their human rights, which is the task of human rights educators.” For example, in the documentary, one girl from India explained the gender discrimination present in her community and then said that HRE helped her understand that being a girl is not the problem. Rather, her human rights have been denied, and the problem is societal. She realized that the way her family and community was treating her was wrong. Such realizations allow individuals to feel more empowered and inspire them to work towards social change. This is something I heard a lot from participants at the IHRTP. Many have also gone through the same journey that led them to understand that their identity did not justify the abuse they suffered.

But who gets to decide where the problem lies, what is right from wrong and ultimately which rights should be protected? How can we convince people of what behaviour is wrong, and what needs to change? This was a huge topic of discussion at the IHRTP.

In fact, this year was the first one in which the thematic session on LGBTQI rights was mandatory for all participants, contrary to other sessions, like the one on freedom of religion, which was optional. This caused a lot of controversy among the participants. Although many of them, especially the LGBTQI activists, were very happy about the mandatory session, other human rights activists were not. Some did not understand why the LGBTQI session is mandatory. Some claimed that LGBTQI rights are NOT rights, and others compared it to bestiality. I was shocked at how many human rights educators and activists from around the world were against LGBTQI rights and did not believe in defending the rights of this minority group.

This controversy surrounding the mandatory LGBTQI session was amplified during the presentation on “Universality and Cultural Relativism” led by Yousry Moustafa. Many participants expressed their ongoing concern that the idea of Human Rights as universal is just another form of western imperialism. However, Moustafa explained that the rejection of the idea of Human Rights as universal and the promotion of cultural relativism usually comes up in discussions on minority and sexual and reproductive rights, including LGBTQI rights. States will rarely turn to cultural relativism when discussing civil and political rights, for example.

So how can we promote the rights of minority groups that are often controversial for many, and resist cultural relativism, without it being another form of western imperialism? How can we convince people of what is right from wrong? The facilitators of the groups (the people that would lead and facilitate the classroom discussions) would often discuss the strategies they would use when talking about LGBTQI rights. The approach that would most often come up is reminding participants that the LGBTQI community, like all other minorities, are human beings and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. But is that enough?

Travailler de concert

Par Michel Bélanger-Roy

Liste de choses que je ne m’attendais pas à faire lors d’un stage en droits humains au Cameroun :

#1 – Organiser un concert

Oh, je vois que vous froncez déjà les sourcils. Pas de problème, je prends les questions.

@FanDuCameroun : Mais Michel, pourquoi un concert? Je croyais que tu travaillais avec une organisation pour les droits des femmes.



-       Bonne question, @FanDuCameroun. Mon organisation participe à une campagne mondiale intitulée Action/2015. Dans le but d’attirer l’attention sur une importante conférence de l’ONU, différents événements étaient organisés partout à travers le monde le 11 juillet dernier. L’idée était d’exposer le soutien populaire à un meilleur financement pour le développement international. Un concert avec des artistes « engagés » était une façon pour nous de rejoindre un large public de façon agréable tout en faisant passer notre message. En effet, il y avait aussi une portion du concert dédiée à discuter avec le public de thèmes chers à Women for a Change, comme la santé sexuelle et reproductive des femmes.

@PetitMalin : Le titre du billet est un jeu de mots?

-       Oui, @PetitMalin. Mes excuses.

@jaimelamusique : Comment on fait pour organiser un concert quand on est dans un nouveau pays et que notre organisation n’a jamais tenu un tel événement?

-       Tu vois juste @jaimelamusique : c’est un défi! Il faut trouver des artistes, des musiciens, une salle de spectacle, de l’équipement de scène, un technicien de son, des bénévoles. Et en quelques semaines seulement. On trouve peu d’information sur internet, alors on utilise le bon vieux « bouche à oreille ». On dit à tous ceux qu’on connaît qu’on veut faire un concert, puis par contacts interposés on fait beaucoup de rencontres jusqu’à trouver les bons partenaires.

@SRHR237 : Et pour la promotion?

-       Même chose! On a été très actifs sur les médias sociaux, mais on est aussi allé rencontrer les gens directement : sur le campus universitaire et même à la messe du dimanche!

@Africaincoquin : Épatant! Et vous aviez de bons artistes?

Dr Sley et Mr Leo interprètent "We Must Survive"

Dr Sley et Mr Leo interprètent “We Must Survive”

-       Oui, excellents! Tiens, @Africaincoquin, écoutes par toi-même leurs vidéoclips:

Dr Sley & The Green Soljas

Mr Leo

Ils sont bien connus dans la région pour leurs chansons qui dénoncent la guerre ou la corruption. C’était donc des choix naturels pour nous. Ils ont même écrit une chanson thème spécialement pour l’événement! Ça s’appelle « We Must Survive ».
(AJOUT : Cliquez sur le lien pour voir un extrait filmé lors du spectacle)

@Junglegirl8 : La soirée a été un succès?

-       Tout à fait! @Junglegirl8, tu peux imaginer qu’avec de tels artistes,  la salle s’est vite réchauffée et le public a beaucoup apprécié. La portion « séminaire » a provoqué de fructueux échanges sur le développement du Cameroun. Je crois que mon organisation a pu rejoindre un nouveau public et passer son message. Et on a terminé la soirée en dansant sur scène avec les musiciens!

@Fascinee : Fascinant! Et quelle a été la clef de ce succès, selon toi?

Musiciens, bénévoles et organisateurs réunis sur scène

Musiciens, bénévoles et organisateurs réunis sur scène

-       Le travail d’équipe! Même si Women For A Change n’avait jamais organisé de concert, mes collègues se sont lancées dans l’aventure et ont fait un travail formidable. Les artistes, les musiciens et l’animateur ont été d’une grande générosité. De nombreux partenaires nous ont aidé à faire la promotion du spectacle. Les déléguées régionales du ministère de la promotion de la femme et de la culture ont assisté et soutenu l’événement. Nous avions une superbe équipe de jeunes bénévoles, les « Iam15 ambassadors » et le public a participé activement au succès de la soirée.

@PetitMalin : Bon, au moins ton jeu de mots avait un véritable double sens alors.

-       Ce n’est pas une question @PetitMalin. Mais merci pour le commentaire. Je travaille fort sur mes jeux de mots, ça fait chaud au cœur.

C’est ce qui clôt la période de questions. Merci et à bientôt!

Measuring Peace: Highlights from the Global Peace Index Launch

By Laura MacLean

This summer, the One Earth Future Foundation (OEF) and the Institute for Economics and Peace co-hosted a very exciting event in Denver: The Ninth Annual Global Peace Index Launch. Academics, activists, politicians, business leaders and religious leaders were invited to a discussion at the Boettcher Mansion to explore recent trends in militarization, safety and security, and ongoing conflict. Specifically, the panelists were tasked with answering some very tough questions: Is the world becoming more peaceful? What are the main factors that build peace? How can we prevent violence?

The questions were asked in the context of the new findings in the 2015 Global Peace Index (GPI), which ranks 162 states according to their level of peacefulness using 23 indicators.[1] This year Iceland was ranked as the most peaceful country, while Syria was ranked the least peaceful. Canada placed 7th, while the United States placed 94th.

2015 Global Peace Index

                                                                                               Map from the 2015 GPI.

The GPI’s definition of peace is quite broad: peace is not the opposite of war, but the absence of violence and fear of violence. This “Negative Peace” is measured by examining on-going domestic and internal conflict, societal safety and security and militarization. Additionally, this year the GPI has introduced a new element of analysis: “Positive Peace”. Aubrey Fox, the Executive Director of the Institute for Economics and Peace, explains that Positive Peace is measured by examining “…the attitudes, institutions and structures [characteristic] of more peaceful nations”.[2] Some of the factors of Positive Peace are a well-functioning government, low levels of corruption, acceptance of the rights of others and equitable distribution of resources, to name a few. In other words, the GPI is no longer simply looking at what causes war and violence but what causes peace and stability.

The GPI includes a report about the trends and conclusions that can be drawn from the ranking. The bad news is that according to the GPI, over the past 8 years the world has become slightly less peaceful. Notably, terrorism has increased “and shows no sign of abating”.[3] Over the past 8 years deaths caused by terrorism have more than doubled. Also, an estimated 50 million people are refugees or internally displaced, which is “the highest number since the end of the Second World War”.[4] The GPI calculated that the Global Economic Impact of violence is US$14.3 trillion, which is equivalent to 13.4% of the World GDP.

As for the good news, expanding the dataset and looking at a longer period of time, the panelists at the GPI launch feel that the world is still on average more peaceful, notwithstanding the increase of violence in recent years. Notably, interstate conflicts are consistently decreasing and homicides have gone down in developed countries. Andrew Mack, Director of the Human Security Report, told the conference that there has been a decline in low-level conflicts, which he pointed out, means there will be fewer high-intensity conflicts down the road.[5] Mack is cautiously optimistic for peace trends in the future.

Looking at the good and the bad, looking at the short-term and long-term trends highlights the bottom line: the world has peace inequality. The decrease the GPI finds in peace over the last 8 years is not evenly spread: 86 countries deteriorated, while 76 improved. Countries with low level of peace are more volatile, whereas countries with level levels of peace are more likely to remain peaceful. Europe has reached record levels of peace, while the Middle East and North Africa has “…experienced more upheaval and uncertainty than any other region.”[6] Even sources of instability that are universal do not effect countries evenly. For instance, although, terrorism has been increasing in recent years, 82% of terrorism deaths have occurred in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria.

2015 Global Peace Index Launch

                                                                                               Photo by Michael Stadulis.

How can we transform peace inequality to peace equality? According to Fox, the answer lies with the factors of positive peace:

…I think for the global community it’s about finding ways to invest in these underlying factors. The three domains that we find the most important are sound business environment, good governance and low levels of corruption. [...N]one of those are easy [to achieve] but unlocking those is really the key. [7]


[1] “Global Peace Index Report 2015”. Institute for Economics and Peace. June 2015. [GPI]

[2] Fox, Aubrey. Interviewed by Lindsay Heger, One Earth Future Foundation. June 22nd, 2015.

[3] Supra note 1 at 45.

[4] Supra note 1 at 51.

[5] Mack, Andy. “The Ninth Annual Global Peace Index Release.” Boettcher Mansion, Denver, USA. June 23rd, 2015. Panel discussion.

[6] Supra note 1 at 57.

[7] Supra note 2.

Pirates and fraternities, Colorado and the high seas

Telling people that I’m spending the summer in Boulder, Colorado while interning at an organization that works to combat piracy usually elicits some surprise. I’ve become used to questions like “Oh, you mean online piracy?” or “…in Colorado?”. And it has been strange in some ways. Boulder is absolutely beautiful, and has a reputation for being a city full of outdoorsy, active hippies. It’s also a place where college students drive shiny new Range Rovers and spend their summers playing beer pong on the lawns of their frats. It’s a place where it took me three weeks to find a store that sold cucumbers for less than 4 dollars apiece. Where, as of the 2011 census, 88 percent of the population were white and only 0.9 percent were black or African American. This is the backdrop for my evenings and weekends here.

My weekdays, on the other hand, are spent in an office full of people who are very passionate about and committed to various development issues. One Earth Future operates with the ultimate mission of preventing armed conflict and promoting peace through better, more effective government. Of the number of different projects within OEF, this summer I’m working with Oceans Beyond Piracy. Despite my background being in international development, before this summer my familiarity with piracy issues was basic at best. That changed quickly though, as I was thrown into the frenzy leading up to the release of OBP’s annual report assessing the economic and human costs of piracy. Everyone in the office was coming in early and leaving late, doing everything they could to make sure the messages were clear and the numbers were adding up. They have good reason to be so diligent: OBP is only a few years old, but in that short time it has become a respected authority on piracy issues. Its State of Piracy reports gather a great deal of attention each year and have solidified the role of OBP as a crucial actor in the maritime community’s efforts to combat piracy.

I work in the West Africa section of OBP, which means that I spend a lot of time sifting through legislation from West African countries, translating them, and pulling out provisions that are relevant to our work. The nature of piracy in West Africa is fundamentally different from that off the coast of Somalia, and therefore requires different solutions. Ships travelling off the coast of Somalia are usually only passing through, and have little reason to stop in Somali ports. As they never enter Somalia’s territorial waters, they are never subject to Somali law. Ships travelling off the coast of West and Central Africa, on the other hand, make frequent stops in ports and must regularly enter territorial waters. As a result, the responses to piracy that have been so effective in Somalia— the use of armed guards has been a key deterrent to pirate activity off the Horn of Africa—are unworkable in West Africa where ships cannot legally bring teams of armed security guards into a state’s territorial waters. Similarly, the prosecution of Somali pirates was delegated to other states in the region, since, as a failed state, Somalia had little capacity or desire to prosecute. West African countries, however, have a more important role in arresting and prosecuting pirates. The problem is that, as far as OBP can tell, there have been no prosecution of pirates in West Africa.

These challenges are the bases for the two projects that I’ve been working on lately. First, I’ve been helping to locate and analyze any legislation relating to a state’s ability to prosecute pirates, either for the crime of piracy or for some other crime, like armed robbery, assault or murder. Second, I’ve been researching private security legislation as part of an effort to help shipping companies and private security companies understand what the actual policies of each West African state are with regard to whether ships can use armed guards.

So that’s how I spend my weekdays: immersed in the legislation of West African countries and discussing the enormous impacts of piracy on seafarers in West Africa. And then I go home, where I spend my evenings and weekends in beautiful Boulder, hiking, camping, and watching a real-life frat movie unfold across the street from my house. It’s weird.

It starts and ends with the community

2015-Cina-Margherita By Margherita Cinà

A few days ago I was visiting Kabarole District in Western Uganda and I was talking to a local man involved in projects for strengthening his community. Being a Canadian interested in development and finding myself in a new, and very different country, I asked him what the biggest challenge was with development initiatives in the area. He responded:

“In Uganda, we have a saying: ‘God gives meat to those who do not have teeth’. This means that many people are given things that they cannot use, and that’s a big problem with development initiatives because many organizations do exactly that. Organizations need to know the local community, their needs, culture, and governance structures before they come and try to help us. For there to be long-lasting success, organizations have to work with the community so that members can take ownership over the project and so that efforts are not wasted. Many organizations don’t do that.”

Since beginning my internship at the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD), I have witnessed the workings of an organization that does not make that mistake. I have had the opportunity of being involved in all three of CEHURD’s programs (Human Rights Documentation and Advocacy, Strategic Litigation, and Community Empowerment) and have been able to witness the importance and the effectiveness of the approach of engaging community members and providing them with the knowledge to demand for their rights. Particularly through the Community Empowerment Program, CEHURD works with local communities to identify specific health issues and work together to address them by creating knowledge and awareness.

At the beginning of June, I went with the CEHURD team to Manafwa District in Eastern Uganda and participated in implementing a project in partnership with the African Rural Development Initiative (ARDI), a Community Based Organization that works closely with CEHURD in that area. Together, our two organizations have been working to advance sexual reproductive health (SRH) in schools in certain districts of Uganda to sensitize students on issue of SRH and to help them make informed decisions about their own reproductive health. The project also involved holding stakeholder dialogues with religious and cultural leaders, the police, and community members, all of whom play essential roles in the topic of SRH.

This community project is a direct response to a study conducted by CEHURD in 2014 entitled “Criminalization of Abortion and Access to Post-Abortion Care in Uganda: Community experiences and perceptions in Manafwa District”. Uganda has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in Eastern Africa with a rate of 438:100,000 live births. Of the over 6,000 estimated maternal deaths that occur in the country every year, about 26% (more than one quarter!) are attributed to unsafe abortions. While common in many districts in Uganda, the study conducted by CEHURD revealed that unsafe abortions are particularly prevalent in Manafwa District. A local health care centre, Bugobero Health Centre IV, reported that they received approximately 25 patients per month who needed post-abortion care (PAC), while a total of 205 abortion cases were registered by public health facilities in the district over a period of 12 months. Given the illegal nature of abortions, it is likely that these numbers do not show the whole extent of the problem, as many cases remain unreported for fear of the legal and social consequences of this criminal act.

Over the three days in the field, one of our main activities was to engage students from four schools, including Lwakhakha Primary and Secondary, Bumbo Secondary, and Kisawayi Primary, to critically think about and discuss SRH issues. During our time at each school, over 500 students were involved in debating the topic: “Should the use of contraceptives be encouraged in schools?


This topic was chosen in order to open dialogue between school children about contraceptive use and the high rates of unsafe abortions that occur in their district. Students between the ages of 8 and 22 were selected ahead of time to debate both sides of the argument. At the end of the formal section of the debate, the floor was opened up to other students that wanted to contribute arguments either for or against the motion.

Overall, the level of debate was very good and the students were all enthusiastic and quite comfortable talking about issues of sex, contraceptives, pregnancy and sexually transmitted illnesses. There were however many misconceptions of the use of contraceptive that were found across all 4 schools. Among the most frequent mistakes were that contraception use damages reproductive organs, causes permanent infertility, produces deformed babies with big heads or the size of small rats, leads to diseases such as hypertension, and that girls will waste the family’s little financial capital on buying these pills, Injectaplans, or condoms.

IMG_3701 copy    IMG_3592 copy 2

Following the debate, a community health worker, a midwife at a Health Centre III, gave the students sexual education by explaining biological basics as well as addressing some of the myths and misconceptions about contraceptive use that arose during the course of the debates. Importantly, she also informed all the students that contraception, such as pills and condoms, are actually free of charge at health centres and therefore can be obtained by anyone. She told the students of the “youth-friendly services” are available in many health centres and that students should begin to start accessing them if they are engaging in sexual activities.

The nurse also brought in the issue of unsafe, self-induced abortions, an issue that had arisen by a few of the students arguing for the use of contraception to be encouraged in schools. Many early pregnancies by young girls who are still in school can lead to the girls seeking unsafe abortions in order to remain in school or the avoid stigma by family or community members. In order to avoid these early pregnancies, it was highlighted that the two best options were abstinence and, if that is not possible, condom use.

The students remained engaged throughout the whole session. At the end of the midwife’s talk, students asked very relevant and interesting follow-up questions and, upon an informal evaluation at the end of the session, students clearly indicated that they had learnt new information about contraception use and were aware that some of their initial ideas were in fact wrong.

image1 (1) copy

My visit to Manafwa District taught me many things and helped me reflect on some of my own conceptions of human rights and development initiatives. Firstly, I began to think deeper about what exact “the right to health means”. The right to health imposes 3 obligations on the government: the obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill. Empowering community members through these dialogues and debates is the beginning of creating an environment where individuals take ownership of their rights and begin not only to understand them, but to also be able to hold appropriate people or institutions accountable. The government always has the three obligations however, when individuals are not aware of their rights, they are not able to demand those rights. By informing individuals on their sexual reproductive health rights, the government becomes accountable for its duty to respect and protect the communities.

Secondly, I had the opportunity to experience and reflect on what it takes to begin to effect real change in a least developed country like Uganda. My personal interests have always been in development issues, particularly around health issues, in low- middle-income countries and yet this is the first time that I have had the opportunity to work with an indigenous NGO and, more specifically, to interact with the community members that many international laws and policies I’ve read or studied are supposed to help. This experience in Manafwa District with the CEHURD team has allowed me to better understand the challenges and barriers that individuals and communities face as well as their specific needs and stories. The Community Empowerment team at CEHURD engages people in a way that directly involves those affected in shaping decision and will ensure sustainable change. International laws or policies can serve as guiding principles, but no change will be effective unless the laws and policies are not based on specific community contexts and the realities on the ground.

When it comes to reducing the number of maternal deaths due to unsafe abortions, the road begins with educating children on the facts of SRH and then including all key stakeholders in the discussion. Sustainable and effective change starts by addressing specific community needs and involving all those in the community in the change process.

“I came too far, I can’t give up.”

- Pirate in Captain Phillips

2015 Meredith Carly

By: Carly Meredith

It’s starting to feel like I’ve been here forever. I am not saying that the time feels long. In fact, the days have flown by. It’s just that I’ve absorbed so much knowledge and experienced so much change in such a short period of time that seems impossible that only two months have passed since I arrived in Colorado

I have become so engrossed in my work that the weeks are passing in the blink of an eye. I have been  extensively researching piracy’s kidnap for ransom model and, more specifically, the “forgotten hostages”  that it claims as its victims; those whose governments and ship-owners have refused to pay the ransoms that stand in the way of their release. The days, months, and even years pass as the hostages gradually lose faith in ever being rescued, while the pirates desperately cling to the hope that someone will eventually fork up the sums they have demanded.

The most famous incident of kidnap for ransom by pirates is the case of Captain Phillips, who was held hostage following the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama back in 2009. Fortunately, the U.S. navy was able to step in and successfully rescue their Captain.

His ordeal lasted 4 days.

Now, imagine the 26 crew-members of the Naham 3; hijacked on March 26, 2012, they have remained hostages since that day.

Today marks their 1200th day in captivity.

Their ordeal isn’t over. Our work has just begun. If and when they are released, the world will have changed, their jobs will have been replaced, their economic situation will have worsened dramatically, on top of the physical and mental repercussions that they and their families will have endured.

This world can indeed be a cruel place, but Colorado serves as a constant reminder of the tremendous amount of beauty that it also contains.

I have completely immersed myself in the “Boulder culture”. Known for its peculiar ways, Boulder County is characterized by its hippie vibe and outdoor lifestyle. As a result, I have become an inspired yogi, a lover of organic produce and an avid hiker.


Keeping busy with all of these new activities has made the transition to Colorado rather seamless, though there have been a few mishaps along the way -

Like the time the hike to Diamond Lake became a hike into Diamond Lake. Wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirt, we hadn’t anticipated the mounds of snow and ice that we would encounter along the way. When we finally made it to our destination, it appeared as though the lake was surrounded by firm, snow-covered ground; that’s until I fell through the snow and into the glacial water.

And, despite my usual aversion to cats, I’ve befriended a cute grey one. Leaving the house in a rush one morning, I found out the hard way that he’d left me a dead mouse offering right by my front door. If he’d only known that if there’s one thing I dislike more than cats, it’s definitely mice.


But, if there’s one place I love, it’s definitely Colorado. If you ever make your way to Colorado, you should know that when you say “sorry” to someone, they won’t say sorry back like Canadians tend to do. Instead, they will kindly tell you “you’re fine” or “you’re okay”.

They’re right. I am okay. More than okay.

Tensions entre droit coutumier et common law

2015 Beaubien OlivierPar Olivier Beaubien

Cela fait maintenant plus de cinq semaines je vis à Lusaka, capitale de la République de la Zambie, pour un stage avec l’organisme « Disability Rights Watch Zambia ». Moi qui n’avait jamais mis les pieds hors de l’Occident, je m’accoutume lentement mais sûrement au rythme, au mode de vie et à la culture riche et complexe de cette nation.

Dès mon arrivée, j’ai remarqué la pluralité des influences culturelles qu’on retrouve ici. Le pays regroupe plus 72 groupes ethniques qui parlent jusqu’à 46 langues différentes. Alors qu’en région la pluralité des coutumes persiste à ce jour, la capitale est un lieu où tous se rencontrent et où se dessine une culture que les locaux qualifient eux-mêmes de « sud-africaine ». À cette diversité locale s’ajoute la forte influence anglaise. L’anglais est très utilisé à Lusaka, mais s’ajoutent aussi des influences plus subtiles, comme la consommation quotidienne de thé et l’engouement pour les clubs de soccer – de « football », pardonnez-moi – anglais.

Ce n’est cependant pas tout! La ville a de nombreuses et visibles communautés arabes et chinoises. Les derniers sont souvent des travailleurs, venus à la suite d’investissements dans le pays. À la télévision, les programmes les plus populaires sont des soaps latino-américains et des productions de Bollywood; les stations de nouvelles alternent entre CNN, BBC et Al-Jazeera. Un court séjour ici rend évident que la culture occidentale, que plusieurs perçoivent pourtant comme multiculturelle et ouverte sur le monde, est paradoxalement fermée sur elle-même et ses productions culturelles.

Arcades Market

Cette multitude d’influences trouve son chemin jusque dans le droit. En Zambie, le droit coutumier a toujours une place importante dans la vie de plusieurs. Le pays compte des dizaines de chefs traditionnels qui exercent un poids politique non négligeable et plusieurs tribunaux appliquent ce droit coutumier pour régler des questions de droit de la succession, de droit de la famille et de droit des biens.

Il existe à plusieurs égards des tensions entre ce droit coutumier et la common law nationale. Le droit coutumier a par exemple tendance à exclure les femmes de l’héritage de propriété foncière et à diminuer les droits aux pensions en cas de divorce. S’en suit le débat sensible et difficile opposant d’une part les traditions de peuples et d’autre part des valeurs perçues comme progressistes et modernes par certains, et comme un héritage colonial occidental par d’autres. Le débat entre tradition et équité n’est pas sans rappeler certains autres débat qui sévissent en Amérique, comme on peut l’observer dans les tensions persistantes avec les Premières Nations ou les réactions mixtes à la décision de la Cour Suprême des États-Unis. En Zambie, cette tension a cependant une toute autre ampleur.

Ces débats éthiques trouvent leur chemin jusqu’au droit des personnes avec handicap. Un problème récurrent est l’abandon par les pères lorsqu’un enfant naît avec un handicap. Bien que le droit donne certains recours à ces femmes pour obtenir du soutien financier, peu réussissent à l’exercer et à exiger des pensions de leur ex-mari. Un autre problème est que les gens avec un handicap sont souvent mis à l’écart lorsque viennent les questions de succession réglées par droit coutumier.

J’ai récemment participé à une conférence de la « Zambia Land Alliance » dans laquelle j’avais le mandat de représenter les difficultés – trop nombreuses – d’accès à la propriété que vivent les personnes handicapées. On m’y a demandé mon opinion sur la mise en place de quotas pour assurer la distribution d’un minimum raisonnable de terres aux femmes et aux handicapés, et ce même dans les terres traditionnelles sous le contrôle des chefs. La question fut toute particulièrement difficile pour moi. L’histoire de la Zambie commande la prudence lorsque vient le temps d’imposer des lois remplaçant celles des peuples locaux, tout particulièrement si on est un étranger caucasien.

Paralegals Training

Alors que j’offrais une réponse nuancée digne du stéréotype de l’avocat, plusieurs membres présents ont supportés la motion. D’autres ont proposé une collaboration avec les chefs et rappelé que certains de ces chefs avaient pris l’initiative de lutter, à l’intérieur même de leur « chiefdom », contre les mariages d’enfants. Cette intervention simple m’a fait chaud au cœur. Elle m’a laissé optimiste par rapport à l’exercice difficile mais important auquel doit se livrer la Zambie : l’articulation des droits humains fondamentaux dans une culture qui est la leur, et non pas par la culture des puissances impériales du passé.

A glimpse at ᐃᖃᓗᐃᑦ (Iqaluit)

By Dominic Bell

Dominic Bell - HR Picture

The North is as vast as it is beautiful.

I am humbled by the immensity of the Arctic and by the remarkable people who inhabit it.


My new home is in Apex which is a small community about 5km Southeast of Iqaluit, accessible by causeway.  Luckily, my host family has allowed me to use their ATV to make my way to and from work each day.  The drive is about 15 minutes which can be quite harsh due to stinging winds.


The temperature in Iqaluit has hovered at -1 since my arrival, with alternating snow and rain.  This pales in comparison to the -70 temperatures (wind-chill included) that the Nunavummiut face during the winter.  Earlier this month, I was able to participate in the sixth annual Yurt Fest which took place out on the massive expanse of ice that is Frobisher Bay.  It was my first time out on the land and I came across teams of dogs near their sleds peering at us with one eye as they slept under the bright sky.  After meeting many new people and partaking in the festivities, I sat with an Inuk hunter who told me a bit about her life and her encounters.  She had traveled down South on many occasions and was familiar with the urban life and modernity as I have come to know it living in a big city.  After telling her a bit about the nature of my work at Maliiganik, she proceeded to inform me that the Inuit do not have a word for “criminal”.  For them, the world is not cast in black/white and neither are people wholly good nor wholly evil.  I recognized that the legal paradigm I have been instructed in has minimal relevance to the old and new Inuit way of life which is built on its own set of premises.


I have been troubled by this realization in my work for legal aid at Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik.  Thus far, my research has been primarily focused in criminal defence and civil (poverty) claims.  The office environment is fantastic and I find much of the work to be very morally rewarding.  However,  I cannot help but wonder if the superimposition of Western legal values is but another form of neocolonialism within a nation which, perhaps falsely, prides itself on multiculturalism.  A few days ago, I read part of the TRC commission as part of a social media movement pioneered by my host who is also a criminal defence lawyer at Maliiganik.  I find it quite timely that I am in the territories at a time when we have begun to peel back a dark layer of Canada’s recent history, the effects of which can still be felt in this gigantic expanse.

So far during my brief stay, I have done my best to immerse myself as much as I can and to learn from those around me.  I have gone jigging for fish out on the melting ice, participated in a local “feast”, volunteered at the annual Alianait Festival, and hiked in the mountains/hills near Apex, inter alia.  Moreover, I have cooked seal, sampled raw narwhal and dried caribou, and eaten Arctic char.  Lastly, I coach youth in soccer on Wednesday nights at the Arctic Winter Games Complex.


I am hesitant to exocitize my experiences further, lest I become the intrepid international intern.  My brief stay in Iqaluit has cautioned me against simple solutions in wake of a truly complex array of institutional and social relations which play out in Iqaluit and the smaller communities of Nunavut.  I am wary of merely echoing the voice of the transient population that is so apparent in the territories; the people who travel here with ulterior motives and fail to truly appreciate this place.  Luckily, I have started to build–what I hope will be–lasting bonds with the locals who are often skeptical of Southerners who are simply here in passing for a couple months or a year and then return from whence they came with fond memories.  I am aware of the profound sense of distrust of “well-intentioned” foreigners–reminiscent of the oppressive colonizer.

As such, I endeavour to remain open-minded and perceptive.

I still have much to learn and see before departing.


Trans*clusivity: a call to action

CW: Conversion Therapy & RPDR7 Spoiler
Hi folks, rain & fog have become my new friends in Toronto. - Jeansil Bruyère

Hi folks, rain & fog have become my new friends in Toronto.
- Jeansil Bruyère

We are all born with privileges & barriers. More often than not, we overlook the privilege we benefit from while denouncing the barriers that hinder us. As a good friend of mine once said, privilege is not something we have per se but rather something we don’t have; it is a lack of barriers that spare us from stigma and discrimination. I am French-Canadian, biracial, male, gay, atheist of Muslim and Catholic decent, enrolled in legal studies at McGill University. Until recently, I never realized that being cisgendered could be added to that list of privileges and barriers that compose my identity. Cis-ness is a privilege because I do not face barriers to the same extent as lived by the trans*  members of our LGBTQ community: health, employment, immigration & education (just to name a few). In light of my cis-privilege and field of interest (i.e. human rights law), I am taking the platform offered by the McGill Centre of Legal Pluralism and Human Rights to call all other human rights activists to be more trans* inclusive, or trans*clusive as I titled this blog post.
Toronto City Hall proclamation of the international day against homophobia transphobia and biphobia.

Mayor John Tory proclaimed May 17th of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia.

Within a week of being at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Network (the Network), I was given the opportunity to meet mayor John Tory and Queer Ontario New Democrat MPP Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo at a City Hall Proclamation declaring May 17th, International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Notably, DiNovo introduced Bill 77, the “Affirming Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Act” and is urging Kathleen Wynne to pass it by Pride in the upcoming weeks. The Act would prohibit conversion therapy for LGBTQ children, and prohibit doctors from billing Ontario Health Insurance for conversion therapy conducted on any patient. That said, Ontario isn’t the only province with groundbreaking trans* developments. Only a few days later in Quebec, amazing activists such as Gabrielle Bouchard, Samuel Singer and Jean-Sébastien Sauvé were speaking to the Committee on Institutions which included the Minister of Justice at the National Assembly at special consultations and public hearings on the draft regulation concerning the Regulation respecting change of name and of other particulars of civil status for transsexual and transgender persons. An issue of great concern for volunteering at the Clinique Juridique Trans* Legal Clinic and many trans* people living in Quebec.

Clinique Juridique Trans* Legal Network held a Barreau du Québec continuing education workshop this past May.

Clinique Juridique Trans* Legal Network held a Barreau du Québec continuing education workshop this past May.

Zomming out to what western-mainstream culture has been depicting of trans* folk, who can omit to mention Caitlin Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, following in the footsteps of more mainstream trans* icons such as Lavern Cox (Time) and potentially Aydian Dowling (Men’s Health Ultimate Guy Search). Be it the finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race (spoiler alert) crowning Violet Chachki as the next Drag Superstar or the fact that I actually live above a drag-crossdressing shop (wildside.org) with the most eclectic and amazing landlady in all of Toronto, LGBTQ developments are in my face and have been garnering more attention than ever. However, more coverage does not mean more understanding and awareness. For this very reason, I call my colleagues within the legal and human rights fields to acknowledge cis-normativity and fight back: attend workshops, get informed.
Yes, my front yard has a bedazzled motorcycle & my living room is an art gallery.

Yes, my front yard has a bedazzled motorcycle & my living room is indeed an art gallery.

In closing, within the various projects assigned by the Network, I have taken the time to integrate trans* oriented statistics and concerns. Did you know that the HIV prevalence rate, (i.e. the proportion of people in a population who have a particular disease at a specified point in time) among male-to-female transgender persons in North America is at 27.7%? Sorry, no Canadian-specific data is available and this is part of the problem. A problem that we can solved by being part of the trans* agenda and working towards a more inclusive environment for all. Whether it be policy analysis, academic research or just plain day-to-day conversation – keep in mind that we live in a heteronormative & cisnormative world where we often forget the benefits and hindrances of our privileges and barriers. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be part of a society where our children can live their lives with dignity and respect be they trans* or cisgendered/seropositive or seronegative/LGBTQ or allies. Honoured to be a jurist of the LGBTQ community, I truly believe that we have a duty to future generations to be more trans*clusive.

A glimpse into my first day as a Policy Analyst Intern at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

A glimpse into my first day as a Policy Analyst Intern at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

« Older Entries
Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.