« Older Entries

Zikomo, Malawi

  By: Julia Bellehumeur

 

Working in Malawi as an intern for the Equality Effect was an amazing experience.  It felt like three months flew by so quickly, yet I was there long enough to develop a strong connection to the country and the people.

Small town at the bottom of our Mt Mulanje hike

 

Poster created for the conference

As noted in my previous blog, one of the main projects I worked on in Malawi was organizing a conference, or as we called it: A capacity building workshop on challenging the corroboration rule for rape.  Quick recap: this “Corroboration Rule” is a discriminatory, colonial rule requiring women and girls to provide additional evidence specifically in cases of rape or defilement. Myself and my co-intern developed the framework for the workshop based on interviews we held with community members involved in sexual offence cases and their perspectives regarding access to justice for survivors of sexual violence, and how the Corroboration Rule factors in.

Following the creation of that framework, I started coordinating every aspect of the conference, including speakers, guests, funding, and logistics.  I learned a lot of unexpected ways to adapt my work habits to be more compatible in Malawi.  For example, Wi-Fi access in Malawi is extremely limited, and scheduling meetings that actually happen even close to on time is very unlikely. It became essential to find new methods of communication so that our work did not remain stagnant.  Instead of sending emails to judges or police officers, I would contact them via WhatsApp, or just simply show up at their offices where we were always warmly greeted.  Once I figured that out, each week I started to plan which days I would devote to taking mini-buses across the city and tracking down everyone with whom I needed to meet.

A few mini-buses driving through Blantyre

Post-yoga morning coffee

In addition to not having Wi-Fi, my office frequently experienced power outages, which meant that I would have to work from home in the evenings to have access to the free (but shoddy) Wi-Fi after 6pm.  Although this seemed like a burden at first, I eventually adapted my schedule to start some work days later after enjoying a morning coffee and a self-directed yoga session in the sun.  I would instead work later into the evening long past the 5pm sunset (until mid-July when evening-long power outages became the norm between 4pm and 9pm).  In Malawi, it became quickly apparent how important (and even sometimes enjoyable!) it is to step outside of my comfort zone and try different strategies when working on any given task.

Working from our Malawian home

The day to day of the “event planning” was so distant from my expectations of what “human rights work” would look like that after getting the hang of things in preparation for the conference, I began to question many aspects of my role.  I never expected to be running around the city between various stationary shops hunting for basic products like nametags, or finding myself negotiating printing prices in the small dingy office of a back-alley building.  I also never expected to be the person meeting one-on-one with young male lawyers who may want to fund our project, or may really just want to chat for a few hours to learn about Canada. And I definitely never expected to be taking the lead on a project as big as organizing this conference for so many people in positions of authority and power in Malawi.  When I was told I’d be heading to Malawi instead of Kenya, I thought I’d be sitting inside at a desk all day researching cases on my laptop with an embarrassing amount of google chrome tabs open. . .   The work I did instead was exciting, but confusing for reasons that I could not understand throughout the rush of it all.

High Court judges among other guests at the conference

On the day of the conference, high court judges, magistrates, lawyers, doctors, social workers, survivors, community members, legal experts, police officers, a psychologist, and a poet all gathered at the Malawi High Court to discuss the Corroboration Rule.  After each local expert’s presentation, I observed engaging group discussions that highlighted the complexities of the topic.  What struck me most was how these conversations evolved from initial discomfort and frustration between sectors, to each sector coming up with creative ways to improve access to justice for survivors of sexual violence in their own respective fields.  This interdisciplinary conversation allowed me to experience how a holistic approach can generate new strategies and perspectives to tackle complex issues.

(See the following link for a local newspaper’s perspective on the conference: http://mwnation.com/challenging-corroboration-rule/ )

Upon further reflection, I began to understand the bigger picture of what I had learned through my internship and my role in planning and attending this conference.  The people of Malawi helped me understand the importance of all the practical aspects, big and small, that go into making legal change relevant in the real world.  Finding ways to engage the community in supporting and understanding any given issue is a huge component of legal change.  Sometimes, that means printing flyers, ordering donuts, and setting up tables.  Other times, it means social workers giving presentations at a school, or to government officials.  But even once the law is changed, there is still a tremendous amount of work that goes into changing community practices and enforcing those laws.  I saw this to be particularly true in the recent banning of child marriages. The constitutional claim my organization is working on needs things like conferences and workshops, education programs, funding, and so much more for the written laws and legal arguments to have any real impact.  We need doctors, police officers, and judges alike to be on board with seeing the law evolve.  By observing the discussions at this conference, I finally understood my role in the project, the skills I developed, and the outcome of my work.

Me and my best Malawian pal, Chimz

While the culture in Malawi is so different from Canada, I realized that the principles of change in this area of law are still very applicable.  Rape myths, social stigmas, and systemic legal barriers are not all that different, although they may be on a different scale. Being open to trying new things and taking a holistic approach to human rights issues through interdisciplinary strategies is also equally important at home.

My experience on this internship was so multifaceted that I’ve been finding it hard to articulate exactly what it is that made it so special.  It’s almost overwhelming to try to dissect and identify the various elements to what I learned and what I am taking away.  I can say, however, that I have never questioned so many things in my life as when I was in Malawi; yet, I have never been so sure that this was exactly where I wanted to be in that moment.  Things came together in a chaotic but ultimately beautiful and satisfying way and I genuinely wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Zikomo & tionana, Malawi <3

 

 

2017-Boily Audrey By Audrey Boily

Many things could be said about my brief stay in Dakar this summer. I could elaborate on the sound of the ocean or the beauty of the nearby beach, I could mention the suffocating heat and the need to sleep under a mosquito net with no fan, or I could simply describe the differing living conditions and scenery from the ones I’ve grown accustomed to in my hometown of Montreal. Truth being said, this is not what I will remember from my internship in Senegal and it is not what I would like people to focus on when describing my trip. I would rather want people to remember things hardest to verbalize; the new emotions that I learned to deal with and situations of which the beauty and power is lost when put into words.

One thing that really stood out from my experience was the loss of bearings I experienced upon arrival and during the entire length of my trip. For example, it took me two weeks to be able to identify what stop I had to get off the bus to get to work (something I do quite easily at home). At first, every building looked the same; it seemed impossible to establish clear landmarks.

It also took me time to understand where my place was within my organization, my host family and with my Senegalese friends. Means that I normally use to avoid or deal with conflicts seemed obsolete. I still had a voice and a desire to express my ideas, but didn’t always know how to do so in a constructive and respectful way. Once I understood the reasoning behind certain Senegalese habits, it became easier for me to accept them and move forward.

Another amazing part of my trip was the many different types of relationships I built with the people I met. A true sense of community existed in my neighborhood. Each family knew the others and every parent looked after the others’ children. When preparing a meal, it was always difficult to assess the quantity to prepare as in the event unexpected guests arrived around meal time, they would invariably be invited to stay and eat. With these relationships came very diverse and interesting conversations about life, religion, family, friendship and culture. The hardest part was nothing experienced during my stay, but having to leave and say goodbye to the many people that made my experience meaningful and memorable.

Human Rights Lawyering in Québec City

By: Sarah Cha

Heading back to Montreal after three months interning at Avocats sans frontières Canada (ASFC), I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the work I conducted as a legal intern and the role played by this Quebec City-based organization in the world of international human rights.

As the sole legal intern for most of my time with the organization, I worked with a small legal team of about five lawyers, primarily carrying out different research assignments on a wide variety of topics, but assisting with other tasks as well. For example, one of my final major mandates involved helping to produce a report or article on the Duvalier case I discussed in my first blog entry. ASFC’s

One of the ASFC meeting rooms

years-long involvement in this case falls within the strategic litigation part of its mandate – a major part of the work ASFC carries out and the projects it implements in different countries in Africa and Latin America. With its expertise in the litigation of emblematic human rights cases, ASFC assists domestic lawyers on the ground to develop a country’s human rights jurisprudence with the goal of building a justice system that can help correct wrongs and promote a real, rather than apparent, rule of law. Other mandates similarly allowed me to explore the legal and human rights frameworks of many different countries, and to delve into the world of international cooperation and human rights from within the ASFC headquarters in this beautiful city so close to home.

In seemingly every single mandate I worked on, I almost inevitably came across more and more organizations, institutions, and contexts in which other IHRIP interns all over the world were placed or on which they were working. One day, I’d be researching domestic violence legislation in Ghana and coming across important work carried out by Equality Effect; the next, I’d be representing ASFC in a conference call with government officials and civil society organizations on Canada’s role in the Inter-American Human Rights system, and learning more than I ever expected to do about this regional human rights mechanism sitting at my desk in Quebec. I might then find myself poring over reports from Human Rights Watch on various transitional justice bodies for a couple of days, in between attending meetings on the mapping of major human rights violations in post-conflict situations. Another week might then be spent putting together a comparative study on the criteria used by domestic, hybrid, and international courts including the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia or the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia to help them decide which cases to select and/or prioritize for prosecution. As the weeks passed by, I was struck by just how interconnected the human rights system really was.

Most human rights internships probably do a good job of illustrating the many shortcomings of the law and human rights discourse when it comes to meaningfully helping individuals access the justice promised by countless international (and other) instruments. This was certainly the case for me. But, this internship proved also to be a source of encouragement in multiple ways. As stated by someone at the office during the bi-weekly team meeting, a lot of the work that’s done at ASFC is about the “demand for justice” (strengthening the capacities of those asking for justice, such as individuals and groups) as opposed to the “offer of justice” (focusing, for example, on courts or government bodies). This rests on the recognition that human rights are of little to no worth if there is a basic lack of access to justice. Many different organizations and actors are in place to push nations and states to sign onto various international law and human rights treaties and agreements. But, when individuals are not feasibly able to access the justice so readily promised by these international instruments, this promise and offer of justice effectively become meaningless and the human rights system becomes far-removed from the realities of the people who may need it the most. While many remedies may be available, at least in theory, under the human rights and international law system, its inherent complexity means that those who are most in need of it are often those with the least access to it. Having a first-hand look at how organizations like ASFC can successfully help to fill this gap, in providing the understanding, resources, and skills needed to help individuals make use of available human rights mechanisms and hopefully obtain some measure of justice, and knowing that I was now also a small part of that, made for a fulfilling summer.

Ultimately, this internship served to highlight for me the many creative ways the law can be used to successfully defend the human rights of individuals all around the world. And, equally importantly, it reminded me of the important role that Canadian law students and lawyers, alongside project managers, accountants, counsellors, professors, and more, can play in international human rights – sometimes even without ever having to leave the country.

Early on in the internship, ASFC’s Executive Director Pascal Paradis remarked to me how lucky he felt today’s law students to be, having so many opportunities to engage in human rights work. He was thinking of the relative lack of similar opportunities back when he had been in law school years earlier.

This echoed almost perfectly the sentiments that my alumni mentor had expressed just a few months earlier. And, after three months working for a Canadian NGO engaging in both international and domestic human rights work, I do feel lucky. As overlooked and underemphasized as I still find human rights work to be in law faculties, I feel privileged not only to be able to study in a place where so many of my colleagues want to pursue human rights work, but also to have been able to work so closely this summer with lawyers who went on and did just that.

 

Perceptions, Misconceptions, and Reverse Culture Shock

by Jillian Ohayon

Perceptions & Misconceptions

Here are some of the things that were said to me in Canada when I told people I would be spending the summer in Uganda:

“What’d you do to piss your dad off?” – My father’s (very loud and rather obnoxious) acquaintance, whom I met in the Montreal airport on my way to Uganda

“Is it for a punishment?” – My Cameroonian Uber driver in downtown Montreal

“If you can’t afford to fund the difference on your own, maybe you should get a real job in the summer instead of doing an internship in Africa.” – McGill financial advisor

***

The first thing that I’ll say is that the general Canadian public’s perception of East Africa, and Uganda in particular, seems to me a little twisted. It’s true that Uganda is one of the least developed countries in the world. There is poverty. It is hot outside most of the time. Police officers regularly walk around carrying machine guns. Most living compounds are surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. That being said, there is not crime, violence, and savagery to be found around every corner like some of my friends and family were concerned there would be. Uganda is not a dry and deathly desert land; Uganda is vibrant, lush, and beautiful.

I have also noticed some western misconceptions with regards to East Africans themselves, in that I get the sense that some people assume laziness on their part. To be clear, very few Ugandans sit around pouting, complaining about living in poverty, and waiting for some wealthy person from some wealthy country to come and dump money into their laps. Everybody is doing something pretty much all the time. I always tell people that there exists a strong sense of vitality in Uganda that I have never quite felt before in any other place that I’ve visited. In fact, Uganda was recently named the most entrepreneurial country in the world. From what I have felt and observed, it is a sense of gratitude, pride, and resilience that fuels this spirit.

I worry that the negative stereotypes about danger and disease in East Africa keep people from visiting, even just for purposes of tourism. Uganda has a lot to see. Among others, I visited Jinja (the town on the source of the Nile), Sipi Falls, Murchison Falls waterfall, and went on a safari in Murchison Falls National Park.

Roasting coffee beans, Sipi Falls

Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls

Murchison Falls National Park

Sipi Falls

Cave by the shore of the Nile, Jinja

Sunset over the Nile, Jinja

Reverse Culture Shock

Everybody expected me to find myself in serious culture shock upon arriving in Uganda. That didn’t happen. This might have been because I had had a few long, in-depth conversations with two expats living in Kampala before leaving Canada. It may have been because I had prepared myself to expect the unexpected. For whatever reason, I arrived in East Africa, took in the warm, sweet air that filled my senses the moment I stepped off the plane, and hit the ground running. Kampala felt like home after only a few days.

My Canadian-Ugandan friends and I at the top of the Gadaffi Uganda National Mosque overlooking Kampala

This is not to say that there does not exist a multitude of significant dissimilarities between Canada and Uganda. There are certainly many cultural and ideological differences between Canada and Uganda that make being a young, white female more difficult in the latter country. I grew used to being incessantly catcalled on a daily basis on my ten-minute walk home from work. I grew used to having locals shout “Muzungu!” at me in their attempts to get my attention to buy their products (actually, sometimes, they didn’t even want to sell me anything – they just wanted the satisfaction of gaining my attention). I also quickly became used to walking around the city hyperaware of the fact that almost everybody assumed I was in possession of deep pockets filled with American dollars. I even learned the hard way not to travel alone after dark. However, just like Uganda’s shoddy internet and temperamental electricity, all of this just became a part of the experience – and because I loved the experience so deeply, I learned to love the bad with the good.

It was the reverse culture shock that hit me the hardest.

Coming home was not easy. My departure from the full and exciting new life that had so quickly materialized before my eyes throughout my three months in Kampala was cushioned slightly by travels to Kigali, Rwanda with my close friend and IHRIP intern, Julia, as well as a four-day stopover in London, England. Nonetheless, I arrived at home in Montreal, spent a few hours with my family, and proceeded to sleep for seventeen hours straight. I think that, combined with the intense jetlag through which I had put my body, this was my subconscious way of avoiding the feelings that I knew were creeping in ever too quickly as I tried to reintegrate into a society and a life that I now felt so far away from.

It wasn’t just that I missed the beautiful friends I had made over there, or the restaurants I had been to so many times that the waiters knew me by name and even brought me a cake with the words “We are going to miss you” written in chocolate on my last night in Kampala. That was undoubtedly a part of it; but there was something more.

I had never anticipated feeling so free. This feels like a somewhat ironic sentence to write. I can imagine that someone reading this may be thinking, “Free? Really? In a country where you were shouted at every time you walked outside in public and felt afraid to walk alone at night?” Yes. Kind of. I will try to explain it as best as I can, but please bear with me, as I’m still trying to figure it all out for myself.

Kampala, with all of the shouting, traffic, pollution, and poverty that it has to offer, is imbued with a vibrant soul that is only felt by those who understand it. I know this to be true both because I have felt it firsthand and because I have spoken to many people who have enthusiastically agreed with this assertion. It probably isn’t the most beautiful city in the world. It’s not on the ocean, nor is it exactly wealthy. It is, however, a city of sunshine, red earth, many hills, and an abundance of palm trees. All of Uganda has a certain vitality to it. Whether it’s a woman braiding her daughter’s hair, a man selling fruit on the side of the road, or a child carrying water to their home in jerry cans, everybody always seems to be doing something. Rarely do they seem exhausted or miserable. In fact, to my mind, they generally seem to be much happier than the average person one might encounter in North America.

There is also a very different mentality in Uganda by contrast to Canada with regards to time. Scheduling and planning – which are essentially second nature in the western world – do not hold the same influence over Ugandans. One might often hear jokes about “Africa time.” Africa time is, for example, when you tell someone you will meet them at 10:00 AM and then only show up at noon, and nobody thinks anything of it. Rarely did a work meeting begin sooner than 45 minutes later than its set time. Again, nobody ever seemed to be particularly stressed over this. If I told a boda boda driver to pick me up in ten minutes, it was because I knew I was only going to be ready to leave in twenty. This was a significant aspect of Ugandan life that helped to feel liberated during my time there. It might have also been a part of why coming back to the western world felt like something akin to suffocation for a while.

There is also a feeling of liberation involved in being a white person in East Africa. As young females especially, whether or not we are always conscious of it, we live under the constant impression that we are being scrutinized. We aim to look a certain way, we dress in a certain way, and we even walk, sit, and stand in a certain way. Being in Uganda, I knew that I was going to be noticed and stared at no matter what I did. There was no way around that. It took me a while to get to this point, but eventually, I came to find this realization very liberating. It didn’t matter what I was wearing, how I looked, or how I walked, because people were going to stare at me either way. Since nobody there knew me previously, I was free to do and act as I pleased, and to let go of some of the unconscious stress and awareness of judgment that governs so much of my behaviour on a daily basis back home.

To be painfully honest, all of this, combined with the facts that I was on a different timezone from everybody who had ever known me and that I had limited internet connection, allowed me the space and freedom to discover parts of myself that I’m not sure I had known existed. It’s a very liberating feeling, to say the least.

***

Well, that’s about what I have to say on Uganda and its gift of reverse culture shock. Thanks for reading my blog! If you’re reading this because you’re considering visiting East Africa, I hope that my experience functions as a helpful push in that direction. Challenges will certainly present themselves from time to time, but I can guarantee that the positive aspects will far outweigh the negatives. You cannot put a price on the self growth from which you benefit when you succeed in making a home out of an unlikely and unfamiliar place. It wasn’t always easy, but it most definitely was worth it.

On Mountains, Skies, and Llamas

by Jessye Kilburn

Suddenly it’s fall, my internship is over, and next year’s interns will soon be perusing this blog as they work on their applications. I didn’t want my last blog post to give prospective interns the impression that all I did was sit around and think angsty thoughts about the ocean! So here is a little glimpse into life outside the office.

South Table Mountain Park is accessible by bus/foot from Denver, with beautiful views into the Rockies.

Chattauqua Park is full of trails accessible by bus from Boulder.

The Royal Arch in Chattauqua: a steep but worthwhile climb!

To really get up into the Rockies, you have to go by car (but it’s so worth it!)


Yes, these are llamas. And, yes, I got to go hiking with them (!)

Colorado’s sunsets are amazing, and I was a little obsessed.

Red Rocks amphitheatre is an outdoor concert venue carved out of Colorado’s red rock formations. Seeing the symphony play Holst’s “Planets” and Mozart’s “Jupiter” out under the stars was a huge highlight.

Even within the big city of Denver there are pretty little lakes: this was my favourite running route.

So, yes, even this BC girl was pretty impressed with Colorado’s natural beauty: combined with fascinating internship work, it made for an incredible summer.

Ana’s Retirement Party

Painter Emily By Emily Ann Painter

It was late Thursday afternoon when Aji, Muzhgan and I, “the IJ interns” as they refer to us around the office, were signalled to join the large crowd that had already formed on the 35th floor. Having spent most of the day glued to my computer, researching the latest updates on the Special Criminal Court in Central African Republic or on Laurent Gbagbo’s trial at the International Criminal Court – whichever it was –  I welcomed the distraction and walked the short distance between my desk and the party. And as I did, it became clear that this would be no ordinary Human Rights Watch celebration: platters of cheese and crackers, champagne flutes and a large cake iced in the true “Human Rights Watch blue” covered the tables around which fifty smiling employees gathered. At the centre of it all stood Ana, one of HRW’s oldest and most beloved family member. Holding a flute and smiling wide, on this Thursday afternoon Ana was celebrating her well-earned retirement.

View from the 35th floor of the Empire State Building where the International Justice Program’s offices are located.

Of course, I recognized Ana. Every day around 5:50 pm, as I signed off and packed my bag for the commute home, she arrived on “our floor” of the Empire State Building, grey cart in hand, and began cleaning the office. Until today, this had been her daily routine for nearly twenty years.

For many like myself, Ana’s arrival signalled the end of the day and our brief interactions – courteous hellos, goodbyes, nods and smiles – reflected this. But as others noted in heartfelt speeches, the office’s night owls – few of which had worked at Human Rights Watch for as long as Ana had cleaned its halls – had often exchanged much more with the beloved custodian. She had offered them words of support during particularly arduous assignments and had shared her motherly wisdom with expecting mothers and parents throughout multiple pregnancies. Most notably, she had encouraged all to promptly adjourn their workday and return home to their loved ones.

I say notably because, as the night owls fondly recounted memories of long nights and early mornings worked alongside Ana, the eyes of a younger Ana began to fill, with soft tears pearling down her cheeks. Explaining her emotions, Ana’s daughter told us that though she was happy to witness the office’s love and appreciation for her mother, she couldn’t help but shed a tear for all the times she and her sisters had returned from school to an empty house, or had left in the morning without the warm greetings and encouragements her mother routinely offered us.

Moments later, as Ana bid us adieu in her own heart-wrenching speech, she confirmed the now teary-eyed crowd’s suspicions: Ana was retiring early so that she could finally spend time with her family.

The celebration I witnessed on this otherwise ordinary Thursday afternoon was heartfelt, beautiful and one I will remember for a long time. I will remember the stories, the tears and the smiles as Ana excitedly shared news about her family’s upcoming move to warmer climates “to be together again.” I will remember how I struggled to hold back my own tears, how I inevitably failed to do so and proceeded to awkwardly fan and cover my flushed face for minutes after the toasts ended.

I will also remember the feeling in my stomach as I recalled all the other women in this gender-biased profession whose tireless work would not be celebrated, whose sacrifices would not be recognized.

I have yet to shake this feeling.

As I sit here, sipping my second coffee and penning this story from the comforts of a far-too-trendy New York City café, I realize I am neither prepared nor willing to do so. After all, I recognize this feeling – a mix of shocked awareness, appalled recognition of social injustices, determination and yes, guilt – the same feeling that motivated me to apply to law school, to enrol in every possible human rights course at the faculty, and that led me to this truly incredible summer at Human Rights Watch.

This post is dedicated to Ana and her family. May you enjoy many mornings and evenings together in your new sunny abode.

A moment of reflection: My work and why human rights work matters

Gillespie TaylorBy Taylor Gillespie

Now that I’ve been home for a few weeks, I’ve had a chance to really reflect on my experience in South America. At the Institute, I had a hand in 5 main projects.

First, a team of us wrote two separate amicus curiae briefs for the Corte Suprema de Justicia de Colombia (the Supreme Court of Columbia). I’m unable to comment on the specifics of each case, but they dealt broadly with issues on legal capacity and the rights of children with disabilities to have access to inclusive education and reasonable accommodations. These briefs were a good taste of how a legal system operates on a day-to-day basis, and how much reading and effort goes into anything that is submitted to a Court.

Second, I was given the task of translating a speech about Latin American Perspectives on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) from Spanish to English that my boss presented at a conference in Galway, Ireland (I’ll add an hyperlink to the translated speech when it is published later this year.) Specifically, the speech provided commentary on how Latin American legislation should be/is being interpreted in light of the CRPD and how the issues faced by persons with disabilities may be better understood through a human rights framework, a shift that was embraced by the Argentine legal system following the 2015 Civil and Commercial Code reform.

Third, myself and a few others wrote the policy handbook for students with disabilities for the University we were working out of. The policy was approved by the University’s administration, which was a huge step forward since students with any kind of disability were not previously guaranteed access to accommodations that we might take for granted at post-secondary institutions in Canada.

Finally, I was able to take a weekly seminar-style course on inclusive education offered by the Institute intended for University faculty members. This was a neat program which gave me the opportunity to network with professors from various faculties and hear about their experiences and strategies to help accommodate students.

Like many students I’ve met at McGill, my ambitions to pursue a career in law are rooted in an interest in human rights. This internship gave me the unique opportunity to explore the field on the ground rather than in a classroom setting, and I made a few key realizations about the human rights work during my time in Argentina. For instance, in my experience, human rights work is not exactly how I pictured it before starting the internship—there is lots of paperwork and administrative processes and the fruits of the hard work by countless individuals take plenty of time to ripen. That said, I found satisfaction in the fact that most of my work and research was geared towards laying a foundation for real human rights related progress. With this in mind, I found that my perspective on what human rights really means shifted from a focus on the macro to an emphasis on the micro—with the individual rather than the collective as the focal point. On the aggregate, individual gains translate to social gains and this type of work (even if the results are not immediately visible) is what I now understand as human rights, and gives meaningfulness to my internship in Argentina.

On the beach for my last evening in Mar Del Plata

 

Airing My Ignorance

2017-Badali JoelBy Joel Badali

For this blog post, I thought I’d talk about the various ways in which I learned to navigate the fact that I come with the emotional baggage of a very openly sensitive man, yet find myself frequently at the centre of conversations where I speak naively about issues I have potentially no business discussing.

In Serbia, this ignorance is manifested through my eagerness to sit down for coffees with anyone willing to speak to me about their personal experiences or the broader political and social issues affecting their lives. Perhaps my intuition, and ease at exposing my ignorance while simultaneously thinking I’m a good listener, comes from my background in psychology and a few years working at a counselling centre with vulnerable populations.

One of the dynamics that I found most interesting is the position of Serbia as a nation readying itself for the long-standing promise to gain accession to the EU. Serbia, as people here have described to me, is no longer considered a “developing country” at least by various funding agencies yet still lags behind on many key indicators of quality of life and economic development, particularly vis-à-vis countries already in the European Union[1].

These conversations quickly turn to the poverty in Serbia, which I myself  have come to understand as being a two-fold construct.

One side is the concept of poverty with which most people are familiar, that being in terms of material deprivation and a lack of financial stability, if any. The second however, I have come to realize is the poverty, or impoverishment of one’s human rights. One might be financially impoverished yet still have for instance basic civil rights, access to labour unions, and protections against systemic discrimination.

As has been suggested to me by some of these “coffee-goers”, living in poverty in Canada and Serbia are two different circumstances, and two different outcomes. I agree that this is true for many people, yet I am also acutely aware (again from personal experience and law school) that this simply does not hold true for far too many back home despite the international reputation that Canada enjoys in the arena of human rights. In fact, almost everyone I speak to here heralds Canada and discusses the amazing life we all must unequivocally live. My very equivocation on this issue is where my ignorance, or perhaps mutual misunderstanding begins to unfold, leading to the interesting conversations I am ironically privileged to have with virtual strangers over coffee, and the reason for me to continue arranging these estranged run-ins.

One way that my conversations about human rights and poverty begins can be as simple as making an order at a coffee shop. When it comes to ordering a drink, a meal, and certainly a second or third drink, I have been questioned on why I hesitate to order more, or even ask for the price. Astonished, the person sitting across from me says, “but everything here is so cheap, it must mean nothing to you to order more”. In some ways this is true I argue, and they are right, food and housing in Serbia is for the most part much cheaper for me here in Serbia than in Canada, but my view is that for most Canadians, this outsider perception of wealth and financial security does not come from material wealth, but from the second kind of wealth—the stability and reliability of my State-protected rights. Indeed, some of the friends I have made recognize that their impoverishment is not directly linked to their financial situation at all times, but rather that their financial situation can change on a whim, for example through the expropriation of property or corporate corruption. The two types of poverty I identified have thus come to be conflated, leading to the erroneous assumption (though often true) that I, as a Canadian, could not possibly need to abide to a financial budget.

The two forms of poverty is evidenced when I attempt to justify my frugality by mentioning the thousands of dollars of debt I owed to provincial government, but that doesn’t phase most people. And it shouldn’t. Here again, the prospect of upward mobility and ample job opportunities make the risk of taking on debt a reasonable trade-off to gain an education and a professional degree. The notion that short-term financial debt doesn’t make me impoverished supports my point that the two types of poverty can be mutually exclusive. Meanwhile in Serbia, many youth are motivated to leave the country for the very reason that the job market is stagnant, that their rights aren’t respected (despite being constitutionally or otherwise entrenched in Serbian and international law), and for some, they simply can’t be themselves (whether because of race, ethnicity, or LGBT status for example). Therefore—at least in my view— material impoverishment aside, the more relevant issue in Serbia appears to be the second kind of impoverishment—that of citizens’ human rights.[2]

Again, I try to naively prode at people’s reasoning for leaving Serbia, asking about their family, about their awareness of social issues in the countries to which they seek to migrate (usually we end up discussing the U.S. given the current circumstances), and the guilt they may experience leaving their home country.

Some choose to stay for the very reasons I point out, however most sadly do not. Of course, I am happy that someone has the opportunity to migrate and find a better life—but that is on the individual level—on a societal level, I understand that leaving the root problems unchanged will not make the situation better for anyone else. As I mentioned in my first blog post, people cynically question why I tell them I enjoy my life in Serbia. Certainly as a foreigner, my life is relatively easy and I do not experience anxiety about my government or even the minority stress associated with people from marginalized groups. But I cannot deny that I do see the capacity and existing infrastructure of a country replete with people willing to make a difference, with stories to tell, and compassion to offer to strangers to their own country. Indeed, with my remaining weeks here, I find that service providers and coffee-goers alike (not that they speak for the general population) share their empathy for refugees and asylum seekers who use Serbia as a transit route to the EU where they will make a claim for refugee status.

People here convey this empathy for refugees through their common experiences of historical (and continued) hardships, and have few qualms about sharing their land and resources with refugees who are increasingly left stranded by the EU in Serbia thanks to Hungary’s fence to the north, and growing anti-refugee sentiment in neighbouring Bulgaria and Croatia, effectively creating a bottleneck effect in Serbia. Of course, the anti-refugee sentiment is likely present among some Serbians as well, but nonetheless from my vantage point, my experiences speak to this country’s capacity and even potential willingness to embrace human rights and a respect for international law.

The exposure to the little nuances that personal relations provide would not have been possible without a program dedicated both to human rights and legal pluralism through an appreciation for diverse learning experiences in legal education. I remain grateful for the experience that McGill and the Mental Disability Rights Initiative Serbia have provided me – from reviewing legal documents, analyzing policy, attending conferences at the UN (and later having coffee with Serbia’s UN Human Rights Officer – which goes without saying at this point, I guess), meeting with service providers ranging from the Red Cross and MSF to local NGOs, I have been fulfilled both academically and socially, coming to terms with my naivety about issues that I am learning to – and hope to—speak about when, and if, I do make the Bar.

And so concludes my final blog post from my time in Serbia. If you made it this far, well, thanks for reading.

Ignorant, or enlightened? Let me know what you thought about this entry, and maybe we can talk about it over coffee.


[1] European Union. (2016). Sustainable Development in the European Union: A Statistical Glance from the Viewpoint of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. pp 164. doi:10.2785/500875

[2] This is of course not to say that the first kind of impoverishment is not quite serious as well, with a median income well below the mean income that is reported indicating a disporportionately large number of people earning below the average wage, which in itself is already quite low. See Average Salary in Serbia: Gap Between Data and Reality http://serbianmonitor.com/en/economy/28266/average-salary-serbia/

On writing a poem – or not

2017-Badali JoelBy Joel Badali

I wanted to write a poem at first.

It’s been five years since my last excursion living abroad and I think I came at this opportunity with less of the wide-eyed enthusiasm I had in my early twenties, and more with the cynicism of law student instilled with a rote way of learning and thinking.

The socio-political and legal circumstances of Serbia seem ripe for an outsider, particularly a law student, to scrutinize in a human rights essay. International law has condemned the Serbian government for war crimes following the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia continues today. Issues at the intersection of race, gender, sexual identity, and disability still pervade legal discourse not only here but are evident in Western media outlets that tout the purported elevated level of social stability found in countries such as Canada through comparisons to Serbia’s recent racist incidents at soccer matches and week-long protests in Belgrade.

“You must hate us” joke some my new friends in Belgrade when they find out I’m from Canada. But amidst all of the vilification the Serbian government from international bodies, the subtlety of personal relations belie the popular narratives of Serbia’s socio-political and cultural situation. The discourse around these issues are, and feel much more complex when you meet the people they affect, instead of reading about the government officials that effected Serbia’s precarious economic situation.

What would writing a poem about this experience have contributed to my understanding of these issues? I thought a poem would capture the emotions and lack of logic behind seeing the reality for what it is and consequently yet inexplicably developing the empathy that I – uncharacteristically for a law student— now have gained. On top of that, a poem might capture the romance and rhythm of Belgrade city life from the pounding basslines of Serbian turbo-folk to Euro-headbanger classics like Abba remixed meticulously to match the hypertrophic emotion of the local weight room I frequent. Meanwhile, emotion captures the confusion of gender dynamics from men acting like they thought Eminem lyrics were meant to be taken literally (you’ll have to ask me about it) to men and women resisting the patriarchy despite the rampant objectification of women on bus ads and billboards (again, ask me about it). My summer placement is with Disability Rights International’s Serbian chapter Mental Disability Rights Initiative-Serbia (MDRI-S) however has to do with forms of the patriarchy which manifest at the crossroads of disability rights and gender-based violence.

Much of MDRI-S’ work is in the area of human rights advocacy for women who are institutionalized in psychiatric facilities across Serbia. In contrast to international standards, provided for in the Convention for Rights for People with Disabilities for example, and legal precedents provided for by European tribunals for human rights, the situation of institutionalized women in Serbia verges on major human rights abuses, if not outright systemic psychological and physical torture. Institutionalized people with disabilities, particularly women are subject to maltreatment and unsafe living conditions as a result of under-staffing and lack of understanding of psychiatric illness. Most women remain institutionalized for life, with few opportunities to be released, a prospect that increases quickly once institutionalized. Women not only experience psychological violence, but physical violence and in some cases forced sterilization and unconsented abortions, effectively negating the legal capacity of women with disabilities.

My understanding of these human rights abuses resonated with the theoretical and historical practical issues in psychiatry made familiar to me in my post-undergraduate work in psychology, studying issues that were (until now) almost considered academic psychology folklore.

Psychiatric asylums, existent for centuries in medieval times originally institutionalized people who were considered to have literal internal demons, and also used for women who were considered to be witches. Although the rationale for the continuation of psychiatric institutions continued to evolve through the centuries, the lack of ethical integrity behind their unjustified use remained. In Canada, their use came to an end in the 1970’s, known as the psychiatric-consumer movement yielding new forms of mental health care, modern facilities such as CAMH in Toronto, and successful community programs such psychiatric peers support groups.

With regard to gender-based violence and depicted in movies such as Girl Interrupted, the effects of institutionalization not only worsens many womens’ conditions, but also prevents any reintegration or inclusion into mainstream society. The psychiatric-consumer movement that ushered in an era of client-centred service, enabling people afflicted by mental disabilities to take care of themselves, is merely an aspiration in Serbia, leaving the current state of psychiatric care something reminiscent of Brittany Murphy’s acting career at its early peak.

Interestingly, the psychiatric consumer revolution has been dubbed using a term emergent from one of the darkest periods of human history through the phrase “nothing about us without us”, a term which gained popularity during World War 2 not only in regard to the Nazi party’s draconian disability laws, but also with regard to the decision-making regarding Europe’s initially permissive attitude towards Germany’s annexation of parts of neighbouring countries.[1]

I was astonished to learn then, that Serbia was still in the midst of institutionalization, replete with apparently common issues of legal capacity deprivation and maltreatment made notorious in the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Tucked away in Serbia’s bucolic pastures, issues related to the rights and well-being of people with disabilities might have remained on the government’s back-burner without the tantalizing prospect of accession to the European Union.

But it’s difficult to reconcile the notion that human rights issues are predicated on political reforms, and not the compassion that one would assume catalyzes most human rights movements. However, from my experience working with counselling services and speaking to mental health service providers, psychologists, and psychiatrists both in Serbia and back home, the issue of institutionalization is still divisive even in Canada. Moreover, I’ve learned to understand that where someone stands on these issues related to human rights is more nuanced than right or wrong.

Morality is influenced by culture, history, economy, and lived experience, and so peoples’  understanding of the dilemma of institutionalization is understandably not uniform. Human rights are not  static, although we like to think they are, necessitating that human rights movements engender discussion from all levels of governance, but especially the groups affected. It seems obvious that decisions about people with disabilities’ rights ought not be made without them. But at the same time, someone’s morality ought not be judged on the basis of their political upbringing. Compassion is dynamic and often involves struggling with our own beliefs in understanding others. This struggle was poignantly real in a two-day training with staff from psychiatric institutions who themselves struggled to relay the efforts they take to provide adequate care and their desire for social reform, yet the issues of funding and systemic issues such as deeply-embedded societal sexism. The notion that people  working in these institutions display such compassionate attitudes drives me to understand what morals underlie the government’s continued, yet costly, belief in institutionalization. Ultimately, finding out what values guide these high-up decisions is the work of civil society organizations on the front lines of advocacy and cross-sectoral dialogue.

Compassion shows itself in not only between humans, but in our interactions with our environment, a life lesson I stress is key to building a prosperous and caring society.  Over the course of my three month visit, I noticed—rather, felt — the familiar conflicting feelings I harbour about my life-long  love for animals. Known among my peers for my free-ganism, or being a vegetarian unless the opportunity to eat  meat “free”ly presents itself, I generally espouse the values of vegetarianism not because of animal rights specifically but because of the impact that moderate meat consumption represents in terms of reducing excessive consumerism, unnecessary local environmental degradation, and increasing detachment of Westerners from mass food production and its effects  on climate change.

Weary of the sense of Western delusion and entitlement that this purported vegetarianism by convenience carries with it, I am open to “meat-eating” experiences when immersed in new cultures.  Meanwhile, my conflicting relationship with animals manifested itself in a second, and perhaps more unsettling, way. I found myself again faced with the familiar task of  balancing the Western stereotype of pandering to stray dogs’ needs while virtually appearing ignorant to the plight of people who are homeless or impoverished in Belgrade. Having lived in rural Korea where eating certain  types of dogs was acceptable (although also illegal), being seen petting dogs on the street looks as asinine as stopping to pet pigs on a Canadian highway (which would never happen, right?[2]). Despite this, my fear of revealing myself to be the naive Western tourist in Belgrade was not so certain of a fate as in Korea (issues of race notwithstanding— here I can pass for Serbian). Indeed, I noticed many people in Belgrade perhaps experienced the same cognitive dissonance that I did— the internal conflict of owning a dog and treating it well in spite of others’ socio-economic circumstances.

Ownership of canine companions is quite common, but strays are equally visible around town or in the city’s many parks. Nonetheless, it was not uncommon for locals to be friendly with stray dogs and cats, and meanwhile denizens’ lay understanding of Serbia’s human rights issues, political situation, and inequality among certain demographics was equally evident. I experienced the reality that some Serbians are equally conflicted about their love for dogs firsthand. Midway through my internship, my best friend, and dog —who I had for twelve years and was deemed perfectly healthy at his yearly check-up only a week before I left to Belgrade— suddenly became seriously ill and had to be put down. I didn’t speak about the event at work but posted a link of Facebook about all the lessons I learned from having my silly dog as a best friend.[3]

A few days later, at the end of the work day, one of my supervisors approached me once everyone had left and, like a scene from All Dogs Go to Heaven, said, “Hey, I saw about your dog on Facebook. And I want you to know I understand how hard it is. People think maybe it’s crazy, and selfish, but when I lost my dog, I went through the same thing.” Yes, I was heart-broken, but stunned by the outpouring I received from friends back home, friends who have owned dogs, friends from many different provinces (and territories), friends from different socio-economic backgrounds, all telling me that I was sane. True, although maybe not in the long term.

But my love for a dog was not as selfish as I had feared, even seven thousand kilometers away from home. All this to say that I truly felt less ridiculous for my lifelong belief that the way we treat dogs is important for the very reason  that the way we treat each other is reflected in the way we treat animals.  It’s been said in other tropes, like that a society is only as strong as its weakest member, but my personal and ‘normative’ assumption comes from my lived experience. My understanding is that a positive relationship to animals fosters compassionate communities, a respect for life, and a sense of humility knowing that we are not above anyone else. Writing this, I have no idea what the relationship between my love for my dog has to do with human rights, much less law. But I think by removing myself from the legal context and returning to my values that brought me to law school is a reminder of the purpose and foundation of law. Law is often predicated, albeit debatably, on normative values, and judges often make law based on values and not pure interpretation of law, as suggested by Justice Kirby, an Australian judge who has sat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.[4]

Human rights legal frameworks thus fundamentally emerge from peoples’ common understandings of justice, empathy, and compassion. Sharing stories of hardship, whether it’s the “pet”ty loss of an animal friend or the abuses facing institutionalized women with disabilities, forms the foundation a society that cares about change, whether merely normative or purportedly ‘strictly legal’. The way we treat each other is reflected not only in the law, but more concretely through societal norms. These reflections sum up my feelings, perhaps inadequately and only insofar as a paper can convey, on my up-close and personal experience working at the cross-sections of international law, human rights and disability.

I may be less jaded now, but I still didn’t write a poem.


[1] Braun, K. (2015). Nothing about Us without Us: The Legal Disenfranchisement of Voters with Disabilities in Germany and Its Compliance with International Human Rights Standards on Disabilities. Am. U. Int’l L. Rev.30, 315.

[2] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/judge-acquits-woman-in-pigs-water-case/article34893404/

[3] The official eulogy: https://www.facebook.com/joel.badali/posts/10102111970846499

[4] “Yet it would also be wrong, and futile, for a judge to pretend that the solutions to all of the complex problems of the law today, unresolved by incontestably clear and applicable texts, can be answered by the application of nothing more than purely verbal reasoning and strict logic to words written by judges in earlier times about the problems they then faced […] Honesty that this is so helps to transform the debate that follows into a consideration not only of the elements of past authority but also of relevant considerations of principle and policy. […] So long as human language remains imprecise and human capacity to predict the future limited, it will fall to judges to fill the gaps in the law’s rules.” (p. 30)

Kirby, M. D. (2004). Judicial activism: authority, principle and policy in the judicial method. Toronto: Thomson Sweet & Maxwell. Retrieved from https://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/schoolofhumanitiesandsocialsciences/law/pdfs/Judicial_Activism.pdf

Safeguards – Regional and International Protections on the Rights of Children

Katerina LagasséBy Katerina Lagassé
The Adhikain Para Sa Karapatang Pambata (AKAP)[1] Child Rights Desk of the Ateneo Centre for Human Rights works with different stakeholders to advocate for children and has contributed to drafting legislation and building programming for the ASEAN region in partnership with Save the Children.

Currently, AKAP is compiling research on children and corporate social responsibility. In the ASEAN region, children are affected by adverse business practices. They may be affected either directly, by working illicitly as underage labourers, or through other means such as being relocated with their families as a result of land expropriation by corporations or the government, through forced migration due to social and or economic pressures and by being exposed to toxic substances from resource extractive industry practices.

Supporting children’s rights requires businesses to continually and diligently assess their potential human rights impacts and mitigate the issues that are identified. All ASEAN member States have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and continue to implement domestic laws that follow the CRC framework.[2]

There are different social, economic, and political environments in the ASEAN States which create obstacles to the effective implementation of the CRC. All ASEAN member States are parties to the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. This convention recognizes the proximity of borders and promotes regional cooperation to effectively “combat trafficking in persons, especially against women and children, and to ensure just and effective punishment of traffickers […]”[3]. However, ASEAN member States are each affected differently by the impacts on children associated to business practices. As mentioned these impacts include exploitative child labour and human trafficking and other factors that result from social and economic disparity that shape vulnerable populations (migration, HIV and AIDS, Natural disasters, emerging diseases and conflict).[4]

Certain provisions of the CRC are particularly relevant to business responsibility and state protection.[5] As per the CRC, State parties  “recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development” and are required to “take legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to ensure the implementation of the present article(s)”.[6] Recognition in particular requires providing a minimum age for employment, regulation of hours and conditions of employment, and imposing penalties or sanctions to ensure the provisions are effectively enforced.[7] States are required to protect children from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse[8], from trafficking[9], and against any form of exploitation that prejudices a child’s welfare.[10] Furthermore, States are required to implement penalties for abuses[11] and to take measures to promote the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of children that are considered victims of “neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts” in order to promote the “self-respect and dignity of the child”.[12] According to the CRC, State parties are required to implement child protection measures to ensure the government fulfills their commitment. As of June 2017, Indonesia is the only ASEAN member State to launch a National Action Plan on Business & Human Rights.[13]

[1] Akap is a Filipino term that means “to embrace”.
[2] “Situation Review of Children in ASEAN: A report by UNICEF to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations” (December 2007), online: UNICEF < https://www.unicef.org/eapro/Asean_book.pdf > [UNICEF, “Situation…”].
[3] ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (entered into force November 21, 2015) at art 1(a), online: Interpol <https://www.google.ca/?gws_rd=ssl#q=asean+convention+on+human+trafficking+interpol >
[4] UNICEF, “Situation…”, supra note 8 at 9.
[5] See CRC, supra note 9 at arts 32, 34, 35, 36, and 39.
[6]Ibid at art 32.
[7]Ibid.
[8]Ibid at art 34.
[9]Ibid at art 35.
[10]Ibid at art 36.
[11]Ibid at art 32.
[12]Ibid at art 39.
[13] FIHRSST, “Indonesia publishes National Action Plan on Business & Human rights; first to launch NAP among Asian countries” (25 June 2017), online: Business & Human Rights Resource Centre < https://business-humanrights.org/en/indonesia-to-develop-a-national-action-plan-on-business-human-rights#c159131 >.
« Older Entries
Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.