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Cambodia in Context: Freedom of Assembly + Heavy Clashes Today

The first few months of 2014 were dark in terms of freedom of assembly in Cambodia. Hence, when I arrived for my internship, this was the main topic surrounding us. From January to today, we saw ongoing attempts by the authorities to silence dissenting opinions, often with violence. Today, we can see the somber results of this perpetual constriction of rights.

The issue mostly started with the elections, but culminated with the garment workers strikes. Following the 2013 national, the government promised to increase the minimum wage in the garment sector by 64 percent, from $61 to $95, a number yet under the demanded $160 per month to “stop surviving” [1], researches having confirmed that the current government offer of $100 per month is truly insufficient to satisfy basic needs of workers[2].

While there is a legally entrenched right to strike under the Constitution, on Thursday January 2nd, protesters clashed with soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ elite 911 brigade. At least 15 people were injured while being beaten by sticks and rocks by the 911 brigade and 10 were arrested[3]. Their whereabouts were hidden for 5 days until it was confirmed by the government officials that they had been transported to Correctional Centre 3 CC3) located in a remote area in Kampong Cham province rather than CC1, the usual and closer detention center[4].

Furthermore, the day after the clashes, on January 3rd, 2014, protests continued and so did its violent repression. Security forces in fact used live ammunition against striking workers[5]. At least 4 civilians were shot dead, 38 were injured and a teenager, Khem Sophath, was last seen with bullet wounds before disappearing. He is still missing. 13 more men were arrested on this day[6]. These detainees together would form the 23 (I will speak of them in a further entry).

Then, on January 4, 2014, the Ministry of the Interior issued a media statement announcing a ban on all public gatherings and marches while also expulsing everyone from Freedom Park, the “Democracy Plaza”. The park was fenced with barbed wire.

This reduction of freedom of assembly also occurred the same day military forces were deployed at a number of points throughout the city and followed a statement issued by the Ministry of Defence, saying that it would protect at all costs the results of the July 2013 general elections and the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen[7].

Arrest for gathering continued later in January and February as human rights defenders were often detained as they attempted to demonstrate. They were usually release the same day, signing forms promising that they would not take nor incite any actions prohibited by law, including demonstrations.

This did not stop the protests going on nonetheless. Other demonstrations in fact took place, calling for actions on many issues. The demonstrations were always faced with violent repression.

This ban of public gathering seemed to be a one-way policy however as the ruling party (CPP) still hosted a large public events and tolerated anti-CNRP gatherings[8].

The ban was abolished on February 25, 2014, by the ruling party, with Prime Minister Hun Sen warning of possible violence that could occur under gatherings[9]. Moreover, reference is still being made to the ban as if it was still in place, over its application and the right of freedom of assembly. Similarly, since February 25, protesters continued to face massive intimidation by security guards and police forces in place.

While I monitored some gatherings since my arrival with LICADHO, I must say that the continuous presence of police forces and security guards always increased the tension in place. Nonetheless, I was lucky enough to witness very few acts of violence. Today, however, the population tried to take back Freedom Park in a gathering organized by the opposition party and when security guards tried to repel the protesters, violence emerged like never before on the part of the population who took revenge on the authority after having endured repression for so long.

I invite you to watch this video by the Phnom Penh Post to get the details of it:


The question that remains is what will be the next step to this violence? If the protesters fight back and stop being non-violent, will the increasingly present security guards be equipped with more dangerous weapons and equipment? Will the security guards try themselves to avenge this event?

LICADHO has issued a statement today regarding what has happened (you can read it here: http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=348). As always, the organization is very critical of any form of violence, whether from the authority or the protesters. This kind of events can only lead to the escalation of conflicts.

[1] http://www.cambodiadaily.com/archives/amid-strikes-minister-raises-minimum-wage-to-100-49798/

[2] http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=333

[4] http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/reports/files/192LICADHOTimelineLethalViolence2014-English.pdf

[5] http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=334 – http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=336

[6] http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=336

[7] http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=335

[8] http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/reports/files/192LICADHOTimelineLethalViolence2014-English.pdf

[9] http://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/warns-02252014163146.html

A Light Comment on Small Change

Matthias Heilke

The stuff I have been working on the last couple weeks is a bit intense. Also, I already wrote a blog post about it for CEHURD, which you can (and totally should!) read here: <http://www.cehurd.org/2014/07/from-baby-steps-to-realizing-rights-a-case-of-bamutakudde-and-kiryamuli-villages/>. So Let’s talk about currency instead.

All bills and coins, arranged small-to-large, left-to-right.

All bills and coins, arranged small-to-large, left-to-right.

Uganda has a fairly annoying system of money to handle. The smallest bill is worth 1000/= (“/=” means “shillings”), which is the equivalent of about forty cents. The bills go up to 50,000/= (twenty dollars); they are all different colours, but the actual colour of a given denomination might vary depending on age, the 1000/= and 2000/= bills are often too dirty to see well, and anyway I’m colour-blind. Coins run from the diminutive 50/= to the two-piece 1000/=, though the 1000/= coin is less common than the 1000/= bill. The 100/= and 200/= coin are most common, and annoying to distinguish from each other — they’re just very slightly different sizes.

This is not a wealthy country. If I am walking down the street with 100,000/= ($40) in my pocket, I’m pretty loaded by local standards. Breaking a 50,000/= note is a chore. Any time I have to use the equivalent of a two-dollar bill to pay a fruit vendor, I know she will probably have to run into the nearest shop for change. One of my friends once used a 2,000/= bill (80¢) to pay a fruit vendor, and the vendor commented on what a large bill that is.

I bring this up because of what you don’t see on the street: the 50/= coin. Nobody ever prices anything, down to the tiniest piece of fruit, to divisions smaller than 100/=. In a place where the boda-boda drivers (which is a comparatively well-paying profession) will haggle endlessly over a 2000/= fare, nobody would think to worry about 50/=.  And 50/= is worth twice as much as a penny.

I’m just saying, America.

A First Blog Entry from a LICADHO Intern: Arrival and First Few Tasks

It’s been a little more than a Month since I started my internship at the LICADHO in Phnom Penh. The adaptation to the hectic capital city of Cambodia took some time, but I settled into a nice little routine and now enjoy some of its charms while I focus on my work during week days.

Speaking of work, I arrived in Cambodia during important times and events regarding freedom of assembly in the country. This, as I would find out, would be the major topic of the year with regards to human rights. In fact, the government had issued a ban on public gatherings on early January, following massive protests from Garment workers and human rights activists. This ban has now been set aside, but gatherings and marches are each time met with heavy forces in order to intimidate the people.

I came in Cambodia during the hearings of high profile cases regarding crackdowns that occurred during these marches at the beginning of the year. While this timely arrival delayed my internship, LICADHO not having the human resources to welcome me among its team, the NGO recommended that I followed the events closely, which I did (I will post an entry specifically on the subject shortly).  As I started, we could sense that the organization was recovering from a long struggle the drained its time and energy.

That said, my tasks here since I started mostly consisted of helping the staff to get back on track with most of their activities. This is how I helped LICADHO as of today. I was asked to assist the organization in compiling data and writing different sections for its 6-month report. I also transcribed notes from the testimonies of the trials for the 23 accused of the high profile cases, to be put to use on a later date when we will focus on the defence for the appeal (which will surely happen).

I was also tasked on written a graphic report on the different Police forces, what distinguishes one from the others, and their powers and limitations. This is quite important for people are confused in light of the enormous amount of departments, jurisdictions, and uniforms. More importantly, some forces do not have the power to arrest people unless a flagrant crime is committed in front of them. However, as Cambodians do not know their rights and the limitations of these forces, officers may abuse their power and illegally arrest or detain people.

Other small tasks have consisted, for the moment, on working on the photo database, doing research for land eviction cases, supporting detainees in Municipal court, and monitoring protests.

These are interesting and changing times for Cambodia. My position in LICADHO enables me to learn rapidly and in depths about the occurring events. Hence, through this blog I will be sure to address some issues specifically. Stay tune for the next few entries…

The Refugee Experience in Bangkok

It sucks to be a refugee. And it really sucks to be a refugee in Bangkok.

This summer I am working in Bangkok as a Legal Officer with Jesuit Refugee Service, providing legal representation for asylum seekers and refugees. The huge demand for legal services has our team working as long and hard as we can to serve the backlog of hundreds of people on the growing waiting list.

Each sheet is a asylum seeker waiting for service.

I worked in a very similar role in Cairo with AMERA in 2012. These roles have allowed me to develop an intimate understanding of refugees’ lived experiences in urban settings. Refugees who have fled persecution still face discrimination and struggle to survive in their host countries. I have found that this struggle is shaped by five key factors:

- Domestic legal regimes;
- The regional UNHCR office;
- Support from family, community and diaspora;
- Local attitudes towards refugees; and
- Local civil society.

In this post I’ll talk about the importance of domestic legal frameworks and the UNHCR office, and how these shape the refugee experience.

JRS waiting room area.

The most determinative factor is the host country’s legal refugee regime. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines what a refugee is, their rights, and the obligations that states have to refugees. Thailand is not a signatory to the Convention and so the government does not recognize refugees and considers them to be illegal migrants. While refugees are still able to seek legal refugee status from the UNHCR, obtaining this status does not prevent them from being imprisoned or refouled. Every time refugees leave their homes in Bangkok, even to access legal services, they risk being arrested by police and thrown into Bangkok’s hellish immigration detention centre (IDC) for an indefinite period of time. The fear of the IDC and refoulement is always present among my clients, and these are very real possibilities for all of them. Many of my clients and JRS staff members have family in the IDC, and many have been forcibly returned to their countries to face further persecution. There is no recourse for us to pursue in these cases where refugees’ most basic rights are threatened.

One of the many lizards who hang out on JRS grounds.

The second factor influencing the refugee experience is the local UNHCR office. In many countries in the Global South refugees depend on the UNHCR to enforce international refugee law because many host countries lack domestic legal refugee regimes. The UNHCR’s role in these settings is very important, and they often face serious dilemmas fulfilling this role. As Thailand is not a signatory to the Convention, the UNHCR has no legal basis to support refugees in Thailand. The UNHCR is constantly worried about being kicked out of Thailand and so they walk a fine line between meeting their mandate and giving into Thai government pressure. This impacts refugees’ rights in a number of ways. For example, the UNHCR does not accept refugee status applications from specific groups from neighbouring countries, such as the Hmong from Laos, in an effort to appease the Thai government. As a result, members of these groups, who would normally be considered legitimate refugees under international law, are not protected by the UNHCR because their ethnic group has been blacklisted. The UNHCR also faces budgetary constraints. This results in the rights of refugees being significantly compromised. For example, the needs of unaccompanied children are normally treated with high priority. Unfortunately, in Bangkok there are only two interns at the UNHCR managing all of these cases and they can’t keep up. As a result, more than 100 children who are without guardians are in Bangkok and we have no knowledge of their living conditions unless they come to JRS for support. This leaves them extremely vulnerable to exploitation and arrest. I have 4 of these children as clients and they are very hungry, living in unstable housing situations and are in poor health. There are almost no resources available to these children, aside from legal and pathetic financial assistance.

JRS offices.














Budgetary constraints further impact refugees’ right to a fair legal process. There are not enough resources to meet the growing needs of the refugee status determination (RSD) system in Bangkok. Vulnerable asylum seekers often have to wait over two years for a brief three-hour interview with the UNHCR that determines whether they will be recognized as a refugee and granted legal status. Legal aid is not allowed to accompany refugees to RSD hearings, nor are transcripts of interviews made available. This is particularly unfair to refugees hoping to appeal a rejection. The UNHCR in Thailand often provides generic and unspecified reasons for rejection and because we were not at the interview and do not have access to transcripts, we can’t provide thorough representation on appeal. That appeal can then be rejected with no explanation leaving the refugee fully in the dark.

Our office is right next to Victory Monument, which has been a centre for protest throughout the current military coup.

It really sucks to be a refugee in Bangkok. Most refugees are hungry, sick, scared and are without secure housing. They cannot rely on their most basic legal rights as a tool to improve their outcomes. It’s a situation that has left me feeling demoralized and impotent. But I have been able to seek some solace in small individual wins against a backdrop of massive systemic failure. In my next post I’ll have a chance to talk about how the remaining factors contribute to the refugee experience. Unfortunately, community support, Thai society and civil society can either perpetuate or only partially alleviate the injustices that refugees face here.

 By McLean Ayearst

Do you like football?

“Do you like football?” I asked one of my colleagues at the Institute for Human Rights and Development shortly after my arrival.

“Do I like football?” he answered, surprised. “My passion for football…is outrageous!”

From this moment, I knew I had come to the right place.

Spending a World Cup summer in Africa has been a thrilling experience. ButIMG_4084x my aim is not to comment on topics such as Holland’s thumping of Spain (after all, a 5-1 score line speaks for itself). Rather, I would like to share some anecdotes on football in The Gambia, and highlight the ambiguity of the sport’s relationship to global migration and inequality.

Undeniably, football has the capacity to efface social, racial and economic barriers more efficiently than any ideology or political program.

From time to time, after work, the neighborhood’s kids and the landlord’s grandson knock at my door and invite me to play. The former wear worn-out shirts with holes in them, most of them do not have shoes. The latter collects his favorite teams’ jerseys and proudly wears his Cristiano Ronaldo cleats. I stand in the middle, wondering how a 9 year old managed to dribble past me.

There is no hostility between us. As I watch the kids run, laugh, and emulate their football heroes, I know that the love of the game has taken over.


A few days ago, I decided to try my luck with the big boys at the local football field. Plastic bags litter the edges of the sandy pitch and goats occasionally make a run across the goal line, but this does not stop dozens of athletic young Gambians to practice for hours every day following professional training routines.

I joined one of these exercises and almost fainted after 30 minutes, but my efforts were ultimately fruitful: I am now the second goalkeeper for my neighborhood’s team.

My teammates are very aware that I come from a country where lawyers charge more than three times their monthly salaries – per hour. But on the pitch, I am their goalkeeper, their teammate, and their friend.

So while the World Cup’s song is dreadful, its title “We Are One” has some truth to it.

After the closing prayer ended the practice, one of my teammates introduced himself.

“I am from Scotland, I got deported!” he said.

“Me too, in Morocco!” replied his friend.

The social realities underlying footbalistic dreams suddenly flew in my face. My teammates are the people that drown at sea, a few nautical miles from fancy Italian beach resorts. These are the individuals that leave everything behind in the hope of entering Fortress Europe.

By now, most of the Gambians I have played football with have attempted to migrate to Europe, unsuccessfully, and at a great peril. I asked one of my colleagues why the frequent horrendous drowning in the Mediterranean are not deterring these youths.

“They will not listen to you.” He explained. “If you tell them that they might die in the crossing, they will answer ‘I am dying here anyways, so I might as well try my luck’”. Four years of international development studies did not provide me with an answer.

Then, there are also the “pull” factors. One of my good friends, a talented striker, was showing me Facebook pictures of his cousin posing like a football millionaire with original Adidas wear and a thick silver neck chain. He managed to cross over to Italy.

“But what would you do in Italy? Life is difficult if you are not legal there”, I told him.

“I will play football.” he replied.”

“Isn’t 29 a bit old to start a football career?”

“That’s no problem, I’ll make papers.”

It is no great surprise that The Gambia was recently expelled from FIFA when the organisation discovered that half the players on the team had lied about their age (which is rather easy to achieve, as most young Gambians do not possess identification documents).


Of course, some of those who dream big make it. After all, amidst growing xenophobia, my national team continues to provide the football world with migratory success stories. For instance, midfielder Rio Mavuba was born stateless when he arrived in France as a refugee for the Angolan civil war.

I was happy to find out that many Gambians support Les Bleus. Yet I know that France’s “generous” immigration policy towards talented footballers is offset by the interior ministry’s unyielding efforts to meet his expulsion quota for “illegal” migrants.

“One day I’ll come to Canada, and we’ll play football there.” my striker friend once told me.

I truly wish that he could be right. But I know the governments we elect will be as dogged in preventing his entry as I am committed to stopping the ball from entering the net. Indeed, while football is a great equalizer on the pitch, it is deeply scarred by inequalities on the global playing field, where referees wield police batons.

Initial adjustments in Colorado

by Matthew Millman-Pilon

Compared to many of the other interns, I would imagine that the challenges associated with my acclimatization were negligible. Colorado’s infrastructure is highly developed, and I definitely find transportation here easier to manage than in Montreal. Otherwise, things are pretty similar. More fitness, better beer, worse coffee. Overall, it evens out. Still, I have a knack for complicating the simplest of tasks.

For example, you can attach your bicycle to racks on the front of buses here. If the rack is full, then the bikes go into side compartments. On my second day here, I took off my backpack so that it would be easier for me to crouch down and slide my bike in, then forgot it at the station as I enjoyed the scenic ride, which I realized only upon getting out. It contained my laptop, wallet, passport, and keys. Luckily, I still had my sunglasses. The last thing I needed at that point was to be squinting uncomfortably. I ran to catch the bus headed in the opposite direction, using a convenient tunnel, pictured below, to cross the highway. When I reached my original point of departure some forty minutes later, my bag was right where I left it, along with all its contents. A wave of relief flooded over me, tainted only slightly by the imagined insult. Were they too good for my stuff? But on the whole, I felt great. Boulder is known to be a very safe and friendly city, and empirical evidence of that was immediately apparent to me. Upwards of fifty people must have had the opportunity to avail themselves of my belongings during my absence, but none of them had. At that point, I remembered that my bike was still in the first bus’ side compartment.

Colorado’s infrastructure is highly developed. This roomy and well-lit tunnel allows pedestrians and cyclists to cross under highways. Also, the ball of light bursting from these four walls represents the pure productive energy emanating from my cubicle.

Colorado’s infrastructure is highly developed. This roomy and well-lit tunnel allows pedestrians and cyclists to cross under highways. Also, the ball of light bursting from these four walls represents the pure productive energy that I would like to emanate from my cubicle.

So minor variations like bike racks on buses are capable of throwing me entirely off my rhythm. This is not only a danger in adapting to a new city, but also in adapting to a new work environment. When I was unable to locate the latch to open the dishwasher in the communal kitchen at work, I hand-washed my utensils and place settings, hiding them in my desk drawers because I was too embarrassed to ask for help. It turns out you just have to yank it open.

I’m doing research, so in theory, the same skill set that I’ve been applying in school should carry over. My main challenge is adapting my unhealthy and idiosyncratic study habits into the channeled focus that is required to thrive in a 9-5 office setting. In future blog posts, I’ll talk more about the specifics of my research, but for now I’d like to write about my transition. This is my first career-oriented job, so the topic is of some significance to me.

The current iteration of my research here at One Earth Future is to report on the legal framework surrounding the international extractives industry as pertains to how the revenues it generates go towards exacerbating or mitigating the “resource curse”. The curse, also known as the paradox of plenty, is the phenomenon whereby countries that discover oil or mineral riches beneath their soil actually suffer more than they benefit from these resources if they have weak governance and institutional capacity (which is often the case, with the notable exceptions of Norway and Botswana in the 1960s). There are a combination of factors underlying this phenomenon. Royalties can be funneled into the coffers of the elite, or spent on frivolous projects that do little to improve a country’s standard of living. The sudden influx of income can stoke inflation, rendering basic goods unaffordable and traditional economies such as agriculture and manufacturing uncompetitive. Of course, civil wars can erupt over control of the resources, often fought across ethnic divides and funded by “booty futures”.

Research into the legislative responses to this problem can get really broad, really quick. Keeping it coherently ordered requires an objective perspective of what I’m trying to accomplish. I can lose perspective when I follow an interesting lead too far, past the point of its relevance to my report.  In order to stay on track, I’ve altered my approach. Now, I rotate through a daily research cycle in order to keep me from straying too far. It goes like this: summarize yesterday’s findings in a structured manner, do background reading, choose a specific article from the background reading and read it in detail, and cherry-pick relevant elements from the specific reading that I will summarize tomorrow. If I do it that way, then I can keep a relatively steady pace throughout the day and meet my deadline. I started developing this rotation when I noticed a recurrent post-lunch lethargy in my productivity. It still needs some fine-tuning, so I’m open to suggestions.

With this method, my weekends are free to enjoy the great outdoors. I’m not really into nature, but I figure I might as well give it a shot. A couple of weekends ago, I went camping in Rocky Mountain National Park with my fellow interns. Here’s the view from what I briefly thought was the top of some mountain but actually was not really even close. Our collective goal this Summer is to summit a fourteener, a peak that’s over 14000 feet in elevation. In comparison to the internal transitions outlined above, adjusting to the altitude has been a walk in the park.

2009-01-01 00.00.08-1


I met Indian bureaucracy the other day. She is a large, round woman who was perched on a dark solid wooden chair. Her bright blue sari fluttered gently under the creaky dusty fan swirling above her. Her round silver spectacles complimented her equally silver hair. Her face was smooth, her eyes a dark brown, her mouth slightly curled on one side. Shifting a pile of tattered manuscripts, aged books, weathered notes, and plastic bottles of all shapes and sizes from side to side, the only constant unmoving presence on her desk seemed to be the placard clearly identifying her as The Librarian.

I approached her desk slowly, unsure as to which language I should use to break the silence – English? Hindi? Bengali? I cleared my throat and aligned myself directly in front of the placard. She looked at me. Up and down. Down and up. Her sharp eyes moved slowly. With purpose and conviction. She gracefully raised her hand and lowered it in one motion, directing me to take a seat. I followed her lead, took a seat, and shifted nervously from side to side – like an elementary schoolboy summoned to the Principal’s Office. “Is there a problem?” I asked. “You tell me,” she responded wryly as she handed over the document request form I had dutifully filled out and submitted just moments earlier. [FYI - It took me a good three minutes filling out that form by hand old school style - all of the information for that particular document had to be transcribed word for word, symbol for symbol, number for number from the catalogue card (no, not the electronic catalogue... I'm talking about those vintage wooden shelving units organized by author, subject, and title) to the form.] The sweat that had already stained my shirt was beginning to reform under my neck and around my armpits. The dust caked onto my fingers from the old manuscripts I had been handling all morning began to loosen and form a dark paste.

Unsure as to how to respond to her comment, I shrugged my shoulders and hoped for the best. She slid the form across the table and with her red pen circled a space. “You are missing the word “AND.” With a somber straight face, I slowly spelled out the word in the space she circled. I inserted the A. And the N. And the D. I turned the form around and slid it back to her. “There, that’s better,” she replied. In those few painful minutes, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scream or cry or jump or shake my head or [insert any emotion that encapsulates frustration, anger, annoyance, humour, and confusion all in one]. I opted for none of these. Instead, I smiled. She smiled. In those brief seconds, order was restored and everything seemed right with the world again.

It’s been two weeks since I wrapped up my work at that particular Archive and it seems so silly that this is the one event from that time that has stuck with me (and now forms the basis for this post). Silly yes but there is something serious about it all (the form, the interaction, the people involved), namely the hows and whys and why nots of carrying out research in a foreign and sometimes unfamiliar environment. First, research(ing) abroad requires both patience and flexibility. Libraries and research centres run on different timelines, resources, and sets of expectations. Second, sometimes good research comes down to luck. Three weeks ago, I hit a significant roadblock when I was told I wouldn’t be able to access the secret police reports and security files from the 1970s. A fellow researcher recommended that I try sifting through the files from the 1960s hoping that a file from the 1970s would be misplaced. He happened to get lucky that way although I wasn’t as fortunate. Third, research stands at the intersection of the intellectual and the practical. This one has taken some time to appreciate but the academic argument is not solely a reflection of intellectual imagination; instead, it is shaped by practical considerations that may or may not be within the researcher’s grasp… a missed taxi, damaged books, deleted files, closing time, opening time, and the speed at which you can copy a paragraph by hand. Finally, (and this applies more generally to travel I think) research(ing) abroad requires a healthy dose of humour A.N.D. humility.

In the next blog post, I’ll take you through some of my research on the 1971 refugees but for now I’ll leave you with these archival images featured in Time Magazine:

Refugees crossing the border from then East Pakistan to India.

Refugees crossing the border from then East Pakistan to India.

Concrete pipes (originally meant for the construction of planned suburbs in Salt Lake) were transformed into temporary housing units.

Concrete pipes (originally meant for the construction of planned suburbs in Salt Lake) were transformed into temporary housing units.


L’autre 50%

Lorsque j’ai décidé d’appliquer pour un stage à la CONGEH (Cameroun), plusieurs facteurs sont entrés en ligne de compte. Certains n’étaient que de simples préférences, mais une chose était certaine : je voulais travailler pour promouvoir les droits des femmes. Heureusement pour moi, le stage qui était à la fois le plus accessible, le seul en français et situé dans un pays où ma famille a déjà vécu concernait également les droits des femmes. Plus spécifiquement, les droits fonciers et successoraux des femmes, en particulier celles infectées ou affectées par le VIH/sida. Après presque deux mois de stage, j’en suis venue à la conclusion que ma volonté de travailler pour les femmes n’était pas qu’une simple question de préférences. En réalité, tenir compte du genre dans le contexte du développement est tout simplement incontournable. Comme je le disais hier à un collègue à la recherche de financement, les bailleurs de fonds sont nombreux à exiger que les projets ciblent les femmes. L’industrie du développement a, semblerait-il, enfin découvert cet autre 50% de la population mise de côté depuis… toujours? Quoiqu’il en soit, deux anecdotes vécues cette semaine dans le cadre de mon stage m’ont confirmé l’importance des questions de genre même dans les domaines les plus apparemment « neutres ».

Je suis en train de compléter une (imposante) demande de financement pour un organisme qui appuie des projets visant l’autonomisation économique des femmes et la promotion de leurs droits. La CONGEH (Coalition des ONG et OCB du Cameroun œuvrant dans le domaine des Établissements Humains) conduit justement depuis plusieurs années le projet de Cliniques de Consultation Foncière (CCF) pour la réduction des inégalités envers les femmes infectées ou affectées par le VIH/sida. Ces cliniques offrent des services gratuits d’information, de consultation et d’accompagnement pour les femmes victimes de violations de leurs droits fonciers ou successoraux ou désireuses de mieux les protéger. Dans les communautés où elles sont implantées, les CCF permettent donc aux femmes de connaitre et de faire reconnaître leurs droits, en particulier dans un contexte de VIH/sida. Elles organisent également différentes activités de sensibilisation communautaire et de plaidoyer auprès des autorités locales et traditionnelles.

La CONGEH étant un réseau d’organisations, de nombreux projets sont élaborés par ses membres avec plus ou moins de centralisation. L’un de ces projets « périphériques » consiste en l’assainissement et l’installation de latrines dans une communauté, l’objectif étant de favoriser une meilleure hygiène et notamment de limiter les maladies opportunistes au VIH/sida. Préoccupée par mon application, je constate qu’il ne cible pas spécifiquement les femmes. Mon superviseur me détrompe : ce sont les femmes qui portent le fardeau des soins aux enfants et aux malades. Ce sont elles également qui entretiennent le foyer familial. Ainsi, tout changement dans la sphère dite privée les affecte directement. Une hygiène décente améliore grandement leur qualité de vie, tandis que des enfants ou un mari malade représente un défi supplémentaire à relever dans leur quotidien déjà surchargé. Si elles sont commerçantes ou agricultrices, leurs revenus fluctuent selon l’état de santé de leur famille.

Pour moi qui ai cette préoccupation à cœur, c’est un plaisir de constater que la situation des femmes est prise en compte dans la planification des activités de la CONGEH. Négliger les questions de genre peut faire d’une bonne idée un échec. Cela m’amène à ma deuxième anecdote.

S’immerger dans un pays en voie de développement permet de constater de nombreux problèmes qu’on n’a jamais vécus. D’un autre côté, les pays dits développés ont beaucoup à gagner en prenant pour exemple leurs voisins du Sud relativement à certains enjeux. Les préoccupations environnementales, notamment, semblent intégrées dans le quotidien des Camerounais-e-s. Cela n’est guère surprenant quand on sait que le gaspillage des ressources renvoie à des pertes financières et que les pays du Sud souffrent davantage de l’impact des changements climatiques. Ainsi, l’élimination des emballages en plastique s’est récemment ajoutée à des pratiques respectueuses de l’environnement telles l’alimentation sans gaspillage et la réutilisation des contenants en verre. Plus précisément, « la fabrication, l’importation et la commercialisation des emballages non biodégradables (plastiques) sont interdites sur l’ensemble du territoire camerounais » depuis le 1er avril – mais certain-e-s ne l’ont pas trouvée drôle. L’interdiction s’accompagne de systèmes de surveillance et de sanctions; ainsi, même si les sacs de plastique sont encore parfois utilisés « en dessous de la table », la plupart des commerçant-e-s ont usé d’inventivité pour trouver des moyens alternatifs d’emballer leur marchandise. Les résultats sont parfois assez surprenants. Par exemple, on a empaqueté mon marché dans des boîtes – on aurait dit que je déménageais. Le vendeur que je visite tous les matins « emballe » mon pain dans une feuille manifestement arrachée d’un cahier de rédaction. Il est également populaire d’enrouler d’une bande de papier les tablettes de chocolat : sans attaches, c’est à mon humble avis totalement inutile, mais les vieilles habitudes sont résilientes.

Un pays qui bannit totalement les emballages en plastique, quand on sait le désastre qu’ils représentent pour l’environnement, ça ne peut résonner que comme une bonne nouvelle. Or, il y a bien un hic. C’est la responsable d’une des organisations membres de la CONGEH qui me l’a fait découvrir. Son organisme vise le renforcement des capacités économiques des femmes, dont des veuves et des femmes atteintes du VIH/sida (des personnes vulnérables, donc), par la production et la vente de chips de plantains. Vous savez, celles qui se vendent dans de petits paquets transparents… en plastique? Cette activité, dont dépendaient de nombreuses femmes démunies, a donc dû être interrompue. En raison de la crainte de visites d’inspecteurs environnementaux, les magasins ont interrompu les commandes. Le plus choquant, c’est qu’il n’existe aucune production d’emballages conformes (biodégradables) au Cameroun. Les femmes qui bénéficient des actions de cette ONG sont réellement prises au piège, et elles ne sont pas les seules. Ce sont les femmes qui préparent et vendent la plupart des aliments, et la santé de leurs enfants dépend de leurs revenus. Il semblerait que le gouvernement camerounais ait négligé de tenir compte des femmes dans son plan à la rescousse de l’environnement.

Les gouvernements du monde résistent à l’ADS (Analyse Différenciée selon les sexes), « un processus d’analyse favorisant l’atteinte de l’égalité [en discernant] de façon préventive les effets distincts sur les femmes et les hommes que pourra avoir l’adoption d’un projet ». De leur côté, les mouvements sociaux (socialiste, nationaliste, environnementaliste…) ont tous un jour où l’autre laissé tomber les femmes. On ne peut pas sacrifier les femmes au développement; le développement doit être réalisé par et pour les femmes. « L’avenir de l’homme est la femme » disait Aragon. Je n’ai aucun mal à le croire, quand je vois ces commerçantes déterminées saisir l’ambassade des États-Unis en vue d’organiser l’importation d’emballages biodégradables. Je n’ai aucun mal à le croire quand j’entends parler des initiatives que les femmes prennent au sein des communautés et des sommets qu’elles peuvent atteindre, à condition qu’on croit et qu’on investisse en elles.

Aider les femmes à réaliser leur potentiel n’est définitivement pas une préférence. C’est une obligation.

Commercial Contract Law as a Counter-Piracy Measure

Kyle Best

1,288 days. This is the unfathomable amount of time that 11 crewmembers of the MV Albedo were held hostage since Somali pirates hijacked their vessel in 2010. News of their release surfaced earlier this month, and is accompanied by footage of the crew going on an African safari, an excursion that they had initially planned in 2010 before they were taken hostage. As they traverse the planes of Africa, the expressions on their faces are ones of excitement and elation, expressions that stand in stark contrast to the enduring pain that these individuals suffered for almost four years prior.

MV Albedo Crew, following release. source: http://www.marsecreview.com/2014/06/albedo-crew-and-families-aftercare/

Crew of the MV Albedo, following their release. Source:http://www.marsecreview.com/2014/06/albedo-crew-and-families-aftercare/

The plight of these seafarers provides a human face to the problems that arise from maritime piracy, however, this human element is not always sufficient to elicit a timely response. This was true for the crewmembers of the MV Albedo. The owner of the ship, believed to be uninsured, abandoned his efforts to pay for the release of the crew early in the negotiations (link). While this type of abandonment is not uncommon in hostage situations, many ship owners nonetheless prioritize crew safety. However, even under the guardianship of such a responsible owner, ships are often chartered by larger corporate entities with a financial interest in sending that ship through an area at risk of piracy. Thus, seafarers are left in a particularly vulnerable state, and the question remains as to how they can be protected from piracy. One possible solution may reside in an unexpected area: commercial contract law.

Consider for a moment the CONWARTIME 1993 clause, known within the industry as a “piracy clause”. This is a standard contractual clause drafted by the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), and can be applied when a vessel is ordered to travel through an area that threatens the safety of ship and crew. In short, this clause creates a legitimate means by which an owner of a ship can protect his or her crew when commanded to travel through an area at risk of piracy. Indeed, the clause was recently invoked to protect seafarers in the case of Pacific Basin IHX Ltd v Bulkhandling Handymax AS, heard at the Commercial Court of the High Court of Justice in England.

In this case, Pacific Basin IHX Ltd. chartered a vessel from Bulkhandling Handyman AS, and ordered them to sail through the Gulf of Aden, which was the fastest route to its destination. However, Bulkhandling did not wish to sail this route due to the increased reports of piracy in the area, notably one in which a vessel had been hijacked and its crew taken hostage the previous month. Faced with this legitimate concern, the owner of the Bulkhandling ship was forced to choose between putting workers at risk of being attacked, and going against the orders of its charterer. Bulkhandling chose to protect its workers, and sailed instead through the Cape of Good Hope, incurring an extra cost of $462,221.40 USD. Pacific’s claim in court was that Bulkhandling should incur this cost because it acted against Pacific’s orders. These costs are significant and, under such financial pressure, it is conceivable that Bulkhandling might risk traveling through an area of noted piracy. However, Bulkhandling countered Pacific’s claim by invoking the CONWARTIME 1993 clause, demonstrating how commercial contract law stands to protect seafarers.

The Court’s ruling on this matter provides significant guidance as to when an owner can invoke this clause, and reject his or her charterers’ order to travel through an area affected by piracy.

1)    The owner must first judge that there is a real likelihood that the Vessel will be exposed to acts of piracy.

2)    Secondly, the owner must judge that there is a real likelihood the acts of piracy will be “dangerous” to the Vessel, her cargo, crew or other persons on board the Vessel

3)    The owner’s judgment must be “objectively reasonable”, and the owner is required to make all necessary enquiries before deciding to avoid the risk.

While these requirements are abstract and somewhat meaningless in isolation, a closer look at how the Court interprets the term “real likelihood” provides some clarity. A “real likelihood” risk of piracy would include something that has less than 50% chance of occurring, however the chances of it occurring must be greater than a “bare possibility”. This standard is not overly stringent, and in practice it provides owners with considerably greater leeway to invoke piracy clauses than the comparably rigorous standard of “more likely than not” (which requires greater than 50% chance of occurring). Beyond this, it is crucial, when invoking this clause, to prove that the area in question is in fact “dangerous”, a point that has been noted by BIMCO in its 2013 revisions of the piracy clauses.

Most significantly, this case confirms the possibility to invoke piracy clauses as a means to protect seafarers at risk of an attack. Indeed, a recent case heard by the same Court confirmed an owner’s right to invoke a piracy clause, and further removed a debilitating requirement that precluded certain claims. Despite this progression, the legal community has noted that there is likely to be further judicial development on the subject.[1][2] As the courts move forward on this issue, concerns relevant to the plight of the seafarer include:

  • Piracy clauses require owners to make a decision to ignore a charterers’ order, a decision that courts must deem “objectively reasonable.” However, Oceans Beyond Piracy has noted that there are continuing challenges in both reporting and information sharing with regards to piracy. Such an environment obfuscates both the owner’s ability to make this decision, and his or her ability to prove its objective reasonableness in court.
  • Piracy clauses serve as a strictly preventative tool. Providing owners with this discretion may reduce the possibility of an attack, but it does not eliminate the risk.
  • Owners, not seafarers, exercise the discretion granted by piracy clauses. In an industry where the cost of transportation often amounts to significant sums, financial pressures exerted by charterers stand to outweigh some owners’ concern for the safety of their crews.


[1] http://www.steamshipmutual.com/publications/Articles/conwartime-1993.htm

[2] http://www.nortonrosefulbright.com/knowledge/publications/59912/the-threat-of-piracy-deviation-and-conwartime-1993-war-risk-ruling-to-be-reassessed

The Gambian philosophy of kindness

Stories of dishonest border guards and double counting money changers abound in travel forums and hostel conversations. And yet, my first exchange with Gambians proved to be a powerful counterexample. Most importantly, it was a wonderful introduction to the Gambian philosophy of kindness.

Upon reaching the Gambian border with Senegal after a six-hour ride at the back of an old Peugeot 504, I told myself: “mission accomplished, my destination is just a few kilometers away”.

Perhaps I was a bit optimistic; I still had to complete two taxi rides and a ferry trip across the mouth of the Gambia River. However, this did not seem much compared to my introduction to off-road rallying in southern Senegal.

This would have been true had my last 20 Euros not disappeared from my pocket. Whether I had lost them or a pickpocket had snatched them did not matter: Here I was, standing at the Gambian border, with no money, on a Sunday (all banks are closed), and clueless as to how I would pay the remaining taxis and ferry to Banjul.

I was already thinking of pawning some of my luggage’s content when I met Alieu and Ernest. Alieu was sitting behind the counter of the foreign exchange parlor, and told me he could lend me a few Dalasis. Seeing my hesitation, and sensing a bit of precautionary distrust, he called in Ernest, a young border patrol, to clarify. Ernest introduced himself and explained how I could find Alieu again to pay him back. I suggested to Alieu that I could give him back more than what he had lent me, but he kindly refused, explaining to me that his assistance was free, and commanded by Allah.

After exchanging phone numbers with Alieu, Ernest showed me to a taxi, told the young cab drivers not to overcharge me and to drive me safely to the ferry. He then paid for my cab fare and gave me his number, instructing me to call if anything should happen.

“But don’t worry, here in The Gambia, we are all one”, he explained standing by the cab window. And I was on my way.

Gambians practice what they preach.  After a few days, I realized that such kindness is norm in The Gambia. Every day, newly met friends and perfect strangers provide me with precious help, advice, and good humour. Tips are never asked in return. To the contrary, they are very often refused (a refresher from Montreal’s waiters, dare I remark).

Of course, The Gambia is not a perfect place. I expect that most tourists would find my assessment naïve, as annoyances and rip-offs do occur on the beaches. Furthermore, tensions underlie the country’s peace, and frustrations with the status quo are tangible as the country stagnates at bottom of the Human Development Index list.

Yet, The Gambia’s low human development is no proxy for the moral and spiritual quality of its people. This is why I became a student of the Gambian philosophy of kindness, and hope to spread the word upon my return.



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