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.

 

Challenging Narratives: Development, Duvalier, and interning at ASFC

By: Sarah Cha

“The solutions to Haiti’s suffering are usually characterized by images of engineers digging wells, construction workers building houses, and especially doctors treating the sick. But the physician most associated with Haiti relief, Dr. Paul Farmer […] places much of his hope for the country in the hands of lawyers. “The current justice system’s shortcomings […] underlie almost all of Haiti’s problems”.[1]  

I came across this passage a couple of weeks ago sitting at my desk at Avocats sans frontières Canada (ASFC), knee-deep in research on the Duvalier case. This was a case that had made international headlines in 2011 when it began and once again in 2014 with former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s (untimely) death. How about since then? For all intents and purposes, the case has more or less been relegated to the shelf.

I had heard little about the case before starting this internship in Québec City. While aware of Haiti’s turbulent political history, Haiti was a country whose name was much more likely to evoke thoughts of earthquakes, poverty, and cholera than it ever would dictatorship, international crimes, or impunity.

Now, given that the 29-year dictatorial reign of the Duvalier father-son duo ended in the mid-1980s and that the legal case has yet to reach trial (after over five years), maybe this isn’t so surprising.

But, this is the story of a dictator who suddenly came home in 2011 after a comfortable 25-year exile abroad – not to face justice for crimes which continue to affect Haitian society today, but instead to live lavishly among many of his former victims and their families. Personal invitations by then-President Martelly to official ceremonies, loosely-enforced house arrest, and talk of amnesty under the guise of reconciliation all effectively served to trivialize the charges of crimes against humanity and financial corruption he officially faced. As aptly remarked by Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch: “Where is the outrage we [the international community] would have if the brutal leaders of Iraq or Serbia were walking around free? We would not allow this anywhere else.”[2] Indeed, there is nothing quite like having the former dictator – the “living embodiment of ultimate impunity”[3]  – freely walking around a nation’s capital to reveal the rule of rule in a country to be little more than a myth. While Duvalier can no longer be personally prosecuted so as to provide a measure of justice to his regime’s victims, his “consorts” (similarly accused of committing countless atrocities) most certainly can.

So, what makes this case (and Haiti) different? Why were we and do we continue to be so willing to provide Haiti with lots of development aid, while distancing ourselves when it comes to prosecuting a former dictator (and members of his regime) whose very lack of accountability for crimes against humanity arguably laid the foundation for Haiti’s current pattern of impunity?[4] Where is the involvement of the U.S., so readily immersed in Haiti’s political matters for two centuries, but all of a sudden unwilling to implicate itself much beyond the provision of humanitarian relief?[5]

Given there is arguably little serious legal controversy surrounding the Duvalier case, scholar Fran Quigley believes that only political controversy is left to explain the lack of political will—both national and international—behind the case. More specifically, a “Duvalier prosecution would inevitably expose embarrassing details of the long U.S. pattern of supporting the Duvaliers financially and militarily despite awareness of the regime’s brutality and thievery.”[6] From this perspective, the lack of Western involvement in the Duvalier case can be better understood by recalling its past complicity in permitting the very same human rights violations targeted by that case to go on for as long as Duvalier was seen as being key in the fight against communism.[7]

Focusing on development aid (and promoting the narrative that features such aid as being the key solution) conveniently helps avoid delving into such messy controversy. In this light, the association of earthquakes with Haiti really couldn’t be better, for the simple reason that, unlike dictatorships, an earthquake can be seen to be a natural, unpreventable, and, most importantly, fault-free, disaster.

Here’s another related example. Both the Haiti cholera outbreak and earthquake happened in 2010, while the Duvalier case about nearly thirty years of brutal international crimes began a year later – and yet, it is the earthquake with which many associate Haiti the most. Why is that? At least part of the reason may have to do with the fact that both the cholera outbreak and the Duvalier case illustrate a crisis of accountability for past abuses in a way that the earthquake simply doesn’t. As many are now aware following the 2016 admission by the U.N. of its role in the cholera epidemic brought in by its peacekeepers, this outbreak wasn’t merely a humanitarian matter, but a human rights crisis that easily might have been and should have been avoided.

And, so, it becomes less surprising to me that earthquakes and poverty easily make it into the dominant Haitian narrative – the one casting it as “the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere”[8] – while impunity and Western complicity in the Duvalier regime’s human rights violations are easily ignored. This narrative is compelling in its simplicity, as perhaps any good narrative should be. But, it is also one that is undeniably distorted if it is meant to be a representation of the whole reality – key if the “solutions to Haiti’s suffering” (as worded by Dr. Farmer in the quote above) are to be found. No narrative that ignores a country’s geopolitical and social history can possibly be accurate. Ahistorical narratives are ultimately uninformed ones, such that representations of Haiti as a poverty-stricken, earthquake-ridden nation frankly serve to allow the same problems to continue: the same lack of accountability, the continued neo-colonial experimentation.[9] While development relief undoubtedly remains important, the aftermath of both the Duvalier regime and the cholera outbreak significantly underscore “charity’s inadequacy as a stand-in for justice”.[10]

The way I see it, by supporting victims of human rights abuses under Duvalier’s regime in demanding justice and insisting that violations not be left in the past, organizations like ASFC are helping to stitch an important but often-neglected narrative into this dominant narrative for a more complete picture of Haiti. The strategic litigation of emblematic cases like the Duvalier case is just one part of the work ASFC carries out in countries around the world, working closely with domestic lawyers on the ground to develop the human rights jurisprudence in a country. In this way, it helps to build a justice system that can help correct wrongs and to allow for a real, rather than apparent, rule of law.

Listening to the voices of Haitians demanding justice for past human rights violations and an end to the cycle of impunity – having them write the narrative of their own country – would be a good place to start.

(Another reason the passage above struck me? Given the seemingly unrelenting reminder of the limits of law as a tool for social justice – and that it just isn’t all about lawyers – that has been my law school experience (only exaggerating a bit here), seeing positive representations of lawyers and law’s potential in human rights work really just never gets old.)

 

[1] Fran Quigley, “‘Judge Him’: Pursuing Duvalier” from How Human Rights Can Build Haiti: Activists, Lawyers, and the Grassroots Campaign (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014) at 41.

[2] Ibid at 41.

[3] Jorge Heine, “Jean-Claude Duvalier Should Be Tried for More than Corruption” The Toronto Star (5 February 2012), online: <https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2012/02/05/jeanclaude_duvalier_should_be_tried_for_more_than_corruption.html>.

[4] Human Rights Watch, “Thirst for Justice: A Decade of Impunity in Haiti » 8:7(B) (September 1996), online: <https://www.hrw.org/reports/1996/Haiti.htm>.

[5] For example, commenting on Duvalier’s return, the spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State P.J. Crowley remarked that “What happens at this point forward is a matter for the people of Haiti … This is their concern, not ours”. See: <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-haiti-duvalier-usa-idUSTRE70H5WN20110118>.

[6] Quigley, supra note 1 at 39.

[7] “It’s a Shame Jean-Claude Duvalier Died a Free Man, Says Ex-UN Prosecutor” CBC News (4 October 2014), online: <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/it-s-a-shame-jean-claude-duvalier-died-a-free-man-says-ex-un-prosecutor-1.2787931>.

[8] This dubious honour may now belong to Venezuela. See: http://www.caribbeannewsnow.com/headline-Venezuela-takes-over-from-Haiti-as-the-poorest-country-in-the-hemisphere-33573.html

[9] See interview with Gina Athena Ulysse: <http://www.aaihs.org/why-haiti-needs-new-narratives-an-interview-with-gina-athena-ulysse/>.

[10] Fran Quigley, “Haiti’s Earthquake Was Devastating. The Cholera Epidemic Was Worse.” The Nation (16 October 2015), online: <https://www.thenation.com/article/haitis-earthquake-was-devastating-the-cholera-epidemic-was-worse/>.

[11] M.R. O’Connor, “The World’s Favorite Disaster Story: One of the Most Repeated Facts about Haiti is a Lie”, Vice News Canada (13 October 2016), online: <https://news.vice.com/story/one-of-the-most-repeated-facts-about-deforestation-in-haiti-is-a-lie>.

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