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Just Keep Swimming

By André Capretti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Let’s Talk About Drugs

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

One-Day Post-Canadian Public Health Association Conference Session

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

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

Minister of Health during her speech at the conference.

Minister of Health during her speech at the conference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apprendre autrement !

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

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

Épuisante

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

Électrisante

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

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

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

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

IMG_2542 IMG_4582IMG_4130

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

IMG_5242IMG_9584

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

Amusante

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

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

Advocating Taboo Issues in Health and Human Rights

2016 Moreau Andre  By André Moreau

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

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

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

A bird's eye view of Kampala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Three a Crowd? The Procedural Nature of the Inter-American Human Rights System

2015-lachapelle-kaley By Kaley Lachapelle

Because Canada is not a State Party to the American Convention on Human Rights (also referred to as the Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica), many Canadians are not familiar with the Inter-American System for the protection of human rights.  Having returned to Canada just over a month ago, I have had the opportunity to discuss my experience at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (hereinafter the Court) with a number of fellow law students, family and friends.

When describing the adjudicative body and function of the Inter-American System, I find that people are often surprised to learn that there are three parties to a dispute brought before the Court: the State, the alleged victims (or their representatives) and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (hereinafter the Commission) (Articles 23 – 25 of the Rules of Procedure of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights).

The Courtroom at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

The Courtroom at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

In accordance with Article 33 of the American Convention, compliance by states with the provisions of the Convention is ensured by two supervisory organs: the Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.  Once domestic remedies have been exhausted,  an alleged victim may lodge a petition against a State Party before the Commission (Articles 44 & 45 of the American Convention).  The purpose of the Commission is to amicably reach a settlement between the parties (Article 48(f) of the American Convention).  If, however, the State fails to implement the provisions of the settlement agreement and/or does not comply with the recommendations made by the Commission within the period prescribed, the Commission may submit the petition to the Court, in accordance with Articles 48 – 51 and 61 of the American Convention.  States Parties may also submit a case before the Court.  Alleged victims or their representatives, however, may not bring a claim before the Court; rather, a claim must be brought on their behalf by the Commission.

The procedure for bringing a case before the Court is desirable as it encourages parties to engage in a dialogue with one another in a conciliatory fashion with the purpose of reaching an out-of-court agreement.   Only in cases where the State has not taken action to implement its commitments or the recommendations of the Commission will the adversarial dispute resolution organ of the Inter-American system be engaged.

So, to answer the question, ‘is three a crowd?’, I would say that no, it is not.   Although some may argue that, in essence, the alleged victim is represented twice before the tribunal, by both its own counsel as well as by the Commission, it is important to note that the Commission does not always put forward the same arguments as the representatives.  Furthermore, while there can be cost-efficiency arguments made in favour of a two-party dispute resolution mechanism, as having three parties to the dispute is inherently more costly and time-consuming, I would argue that the Commission is well placed to offer a balanced, informed position before the Inter-American Court and that, therefore, its presence is desirable.

My experience working at the Court this summer taught me that both the Court and the Commission play very important, yet distinct, roles in monitoring compliance with the human rights obligations of states.

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.

#Action2015

#action2015

-       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!

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.

On first impressions and perceptions

2015 Wettstein AnnaBy Anna Wettstein

Africa has some of the most progressive human rights legislation in the world. This is what made me optimistic and hopeful when I came to The Gambia to work as a legal intern for the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA). I was ready to learn more about human rights in the region, and excited to apply this to prospects for human rights development in other parts of the world where such instruments do not even exist.

Indeed, many people seem surprised when I tell them just how progressive human rights are here – on paper. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, for example, which has been ratified by 53 countries (all AU member states except for South Sudan) guarantees that “[a]ll peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development.”[1] Such a collective right would likely never exist in the European or North American context – and indeed, it does not (yet). In addition, the Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on women’s rights guarantees the right to a safe abortion.[2] The African Youth Charter also sets out the duty for the state to “institute comprehensive programmes including legislative steps to prevent unsafe abortions.”[3] No other major human rights instrument even mentions abortions.

The realities on the ground, however, are quite different. I was asked by the IHRDA to draft a document on prospects and challenges for litigation of sexual and reproductive rights in Africa. Despite the codified right to a safe abortion, it has been estimated that only 3% of abortions in the region were safe in 2008.[4] In the same year, 14% of maternal deaths were due to unsafe abortions,[5] and around 1.7 million women in the region are hospitalized annually for complications from unsafe abortions.[6]

Similarly, despite the collective right to a generally safe environment, in addition to the rights to property and housing guaranteed by numerous human rights instruments, many people are forced off their land thus deprived of their entire livelihood. Whether this is in the form of expropriation or the government turning a blind eye to police action or the actions of private parties is irrelevant. Depriving someone of their land is often to deprive a person of every material and non-material good in the world. Children cannot go to school, families have no source of food or clean water, and people lose their right to dignity. The harm is compounded by the lack of possibilities for redress. All of this is tolerated despite clearly and unequivocally violating core human rights instruments.

They call The Gambia “the smiling coast”. I can imagine this name is pretty self-explanatory. People here are in good spirits. Make no mistake, The Gambia is a developing country and there are many problems. But the people I’ve met are kind and happy and incredibly helpful. There are a few phrases that you’ll hear Gambians tell you, repeated as if refrains of the country’s unofficial national anthem. Countless times I’ve been told ‘you are welcome!’, not in response to my ‘thank you’, but as if to usher me into their country and culture. I’ve also heard ‘black or white, it doesn’t matter, we are all people’ and ‘you know, here in The Gambia, we are poor but we are happy.’

I met a friend on my way to the beach the first week I was here. A few days ago I was having a JulBrew (local Gambian beer) with him on that same beach in the evening. He is an autodidactic Gambian from a small village. His life was not easy growing up and he did not have many opportunities, so he taught himself about books and politics by poring over whatever he could get his hands on until he understood every word. In a moment of uncharacteristic despair that night, he told me: “you know, they call it the smiling coast. People seem happy and carefree. But people are hungry. There are a lot of people that you meet who will go home and be sad. Life is not easy here.”

It was a heartbreaking moment of honesty that reflected much of my work experience at the IHRDA. It may seem trite to say ‘not everything is as it seems’, but maybe sometimes we need to be reminded of that, especially in the field of human rights where grandstanding and self-congratulations are rife.

This is not to say that I am pessimistic – far from it. I believe human rights can and has made huge differences in countless peoples’ lives. (For a dash of optimism, check out this article on the reduction of famine around the world.) But I have found that it is important to constantly remind myself that human rights work deals with just that – humans. A legal instrument is only as effective as the people who enforce and respect it. And a human right is only as powerful as the life it has changed.


[1] African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, 27 June 1981, 1520 UNTS 217 art 24 (entered into force 21 October 1986).

[2] Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, 13 September 2000, 1 Afr Hum Rts LJ 40 art 14(2)(c) (entered into force 25 November 2005).

[3] African Youth Charter, 2 July 2006 art 16(2)(i).

[4] S Singh,Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Progress” (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2009).

[5] World Health Organization, “Unsafe Abortion: Global and Regional Estimates of the Incidence of Unsafe Abortion and Associated Mortality in 2008”, 6th ed (Geneva: WHO, 2011).

[6] S Singh, Hospital admissions resulting from unsafe abortion: estimates from 13 developing countries (2006) 368 Lancet 1887.

Learning To Be A Good Lawyer

By Michael Ayearst Ayearst

My time as a Legal Officer at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has given me a glimpse of what it will take to be a good lawyer.  This role was similar in many ways to that of a practicing lawyer: I acted as my clients’ legal counsel, and I used my knowledge of the law, procedures and guidelines to help my clients navigate a legal system and to secure fair and correct outcomes. I was given an incredible amount of responsibility in this role and I learned a lot about essential skills that I will need to continue to work on as I move forward in my legal career. Here are three major lessons that I learned about what it takes to be a good lawyer.

1.  Be organized!

With well over 15 clients at any given time, while also juggling side projects, walk-in clients, daily emergency situations and a growing waiting list for legal services, one of the most important things I could be was organized.  Legal officers have to manage their own case load, and this means dozens of competing deadlines.  Missing these deadlines has serious repercussions on the wellbeing of my clients and so missing anything is simply not an option.  Clients look to you to be a stable and reliable resource for them in the middle of often chaotic situations.  Disorganization affects clients.  For example things like overbooking, rushing an interview, not being prepared and not following up all gives the impression that you don’t really know what you are doing and this can justifiably make a client wary of you and your services.  Also, it helps to prevent the panic of waking up in the middle of the night worried that you missed an important deadline or detail. I think that while all lawyers have to juggle competing priorities and responsibility, good lawyers make sure to do so as efficiently as possible.  There are many ways to accomplish this, but all require strong organizational skills and diligence.

2. Always be improving upon your knowledge and command of your area of law.

It has been very interesting for me to see the level of expertise that I will need to have to be a good lawyer.  The main purpose of my role at JRS was to help our asylum-seeking clients be recognized as refugees as per the 1951 Refugee Convention. I did this by providing advice and constructing legal arguments and submissions on my clients’ behalves. To do this well I needed to know everything I could about international and domestic refugee law, legal procedures and country of origin information to build each case. There is no way around this. When I was assigned a case but didn’t have experience with that type of persecution or a particular profile, I spent a lot of time preparing by doing research and reviewing leading cases in this area. Casework requires significant choices to be made and careful consideration of case details when choosing the direction of your argument.  A good lawyer will be able to quickly identify the major legal issues within a given context and the craft solutions best suited to this situation.

I was fortunate to work under the supervision of an excellent lawyer whose dedication and years of experience made him an invaluable resource on any refugee law related question that I had. He knew it all: He always delivered an instant response to any of my questions, including formulated arguments, reviews of key decisions and verbatim quotes of key passages.  While there is no substitute for experience, being prepared and knowledgeable is essential for being a competent and good lawyer. This experience allowed me to gain an appreciation for the level of mastery that I will need to be a good lawyer and I will always work towards this.

3.  Interpersonal skills are crucial.  Be forthright, truthful and transparent.

My clients were often extremely vulnerable and my job required that I gather extensive details from them about very traumatic experiences and their ongoing daily issues.  I found that strong interpersonal skills were essential for me to do this work well.  I had to listen closely to my clients, work to establish strong working relationships with each one, act as an educator on the laws affecting their lives and wellbeing, and provide them with emotional support.

I found that the key to doing all of these things well was to always be forthright and transparent with my clients. Being forthright is challenging in many cases because it forces you into very difficult conversations. In my role, these conversations included having to tell a client that I didn’t believe their story, that I haven’t worked on a certain case due to time and resource constraints, that I didn’t know how a mother would feed her children, or that some clients had a no chance of being recognized as a refugee at all.  However, being forthright, truthful and transparent during these conversations went a long way to helping my clients to trust that I was always providing them with my honest legal opinion and best work, and in doing so this helped many of my clients disclose sensitive yet essential information to support their cases. By far the most enjoyable part of my internship was developing strong working relationships with clients.  I really appreciated that as a lawyer clients trusted me with the intimate details of their life and with the outcome of their case, and in return I tried to always be transparent and forthright with them. Transparency requires that you explain to clients the ‘why’ of what you are doing during the various elements of your service.  This takes a lot of time.  But I found that it really helps clients to trust you and to be empowered in their legal process.  It also improves your ability to gather targeted information from your clients that you need for effective casework, while also allowing your clients a chance to learn about their case throughout the process of your working together.

 

Drive Through a Legal Labyrinth

2014-Capela-CecilaBy Cecile Capella-Laborde

map-akwesasne-mohawkLearning about the geography of Akwesasne is essential to understanding the daily struggles of the Akwesasne Mohawk Community, and the jurisdictional conundrums that were at the heart of my research this summer.

I will take you through my daily drive to get to work and back, which begins to give you a sense of the complexities underlying the Akwesasne territory. I resided in the City of Cornwall, and was working at the Akwesasne Justice Department in Kanakaton (St Regis). Leaving from Ontario, the first stop is a bridge toll for the Three Nations Bridge, which crosses the St Lawrence River to Kawehnoke (Cornwall Island), connecting Canada to Akwesasne. The Island, as the locals call it, is the part of the reserve situated in Ontario.

st regis mapGetting off the bridge, it becomes clear that you’ve entered a different Nation. You soon see a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy flag, a tax-free gas station, road signalization and advertisement in the Mohawk language, a sign saying “You Are on Indian Land”, and another “Cocaine and crack will cost you more than money”.

Within a few hundred meters, you come to a stop sign, which stands in front of an abandoned Canadian border-crossing checkpoint. The Cornwall Island port of entry was closed in 2009 as a result of protests resulting from the Canadian Government’s decision to arm border agents. The Akwesasronon (the people of Akwesasne) refused to have armed CBSA agents in a residential area.

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After you pass by the abandoned border station, you reach the foot of a bridge, which marks the Canada-US border. On your right you will see the Aluminum Corporation of America plant (Alcoa), which in 2013 negotiated a $20 million with the Mohawks for a more than 60 year legacy of polluting the St Lawrence River Watershed. These seriously inadequate funds are intended for the restoration of recreational fishing, fish and wildlife, and Mohawk traditions and languages. On the other side on the bridge, you soon come to the Massena US border checkpoint, situated on the US-NY state side of Akwesasne.

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photo 2A sign bearing the message “Welcome to the Empire State” greets you at the first traffic light, which leads you on to the prosaically named Road 37 that crosses the Raquette River taking you through “US side” of Akwesasne.

Here one views more tax-free gas stations, both of the operational and abandoned variety, an abandoned Casino, craft-stores, outlets for tax-free tobacco and alcohol, and several Tribal administrative buildings. After ten minutes, you turn left turn just before crossing the St Regis River.

The smaller road that brings you to Kanakaton stretches through a residential area on the US side. Owing to a lack of zoning regulations the houses are aligned in an unconventional way on this part of the road, and properties are rather large. However, the landscape drastically changes once you arrive at Kanakaton, commonly referred to as “the Village”. Streets are smaller, narrower, properties are smaller and it is more densely populated.

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When you arrive at the Village on that small road, it is easy to not realize that you have crossed the Canadian border. Apart from a small seam in the road where the American paving crew stops and the Canadian one begins, and some metric signage, there are no landmarks suggesting that you have entered Quebec.  No border crossing checkpoint, no sign, so surveillance camera, etc. Yet, for non-Akwesasronon, missing the border can very costly.

Although there is no checkpoint in St Regis, there is a border, and it means that since you have entered Canada, as a non-Indigenous person, you have to report at one of the US border checkpoints, be it Massena, Fort Covington, etc… when you leave the Village to go anywhere else in the US or on your way back to Canada. Furthermore, once you leave St Regis, you are not allowed to stop anywhere in the US before “reporting in”. If you fail to report in or stop somewhere on the way, the US border agency can impound your car and charge you $1000 to retrieve it on the first occasion, $2000 for the second, $3000 the third time, after which they will confiscate it permanently.

Returning to the City of Cornwall from the Akwesasne Justice Department, you must first stop at the Massena US border checkpoint. You have to park the car, go inside the building, and show your passport. The first few weeks, I was asked by the border agents whether I had stopped anywhere on US territory on my way back from St Regis, and whether I had bought any goods in Canada. After a month of stopping everyday they ceased to ask me any questions or look at my passport. They would say “Reporting in? You’re set.  Free to go.” You might, as I did, find this attitude upsetting, as Akwesasranon waiting behind you receive a very different treatment from border agents.

Once cleared, you drive back across the bridge to Cornwall Island, and have to make sure to not stop anywhere on the Island as you make your way to the Canadian border check-point. You must head straight to the Three Nation Bridge, cross the St Lawrence to Mainland Canada, pay a $3.25 bridge toll, then pass through the Canadian border checkpoint. It’s only at this point that you may backtrack to Cornwall Island if that is your final destination.photo 2 (1)

Again, it is because Cornwall Island is technically Canada and there is no border crossing on the Island, you are not allowed to stop on your way, and must head straight to the Canadian border checkpoint. If you don’t follow these rules, this time you risk the Canadian officials confiscating your vehicle. However, and importantly, Canada is less flexible than the US, and applies this rule to Akwesasranon and non-Akwesasranon alike.

This has serious implications for the residents of Cornwall Island, and of Akwesasne more generally. It means that whenever someone is going to Cornwall Island from other parts of Akwesasne, they must take the extra step to cross the Island without stopping, cross the toll bridge, get cleared by the border (they are often subjected to discriminatory treatment and other human rights violations, which has spawned several lawsuits), cross the toll bridge again, and across the bridge, before finally reaching their destinations on Cornwall Island.

I will leave it at that for now, and look forward to telling you more about my work at Akwesasne, and hearing about your experience on Friday. Happy Labour Weekend! Oh, and if you’re interested, Akwesasne is having one of its most anticipated events of the year next weekend, check it out at: http://www.akwesasnepowwow.com/. In July, I went to the  Kanhawake Pow Wow, and it’s worth the trip!

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Photos by Neal Rockwell

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