The Best Journeys Are Not Planned, But Discovered

By Elias D León

It has been several weeks since I returned from Costa Rica where I interned at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Shortly after returning to Montreal, I encountered way too many memories floating around my brain, which developed one by one thanks to my 12 weeks once in a lifetime experience at what, I call, one of the most exotic and colourful places on Earth. In this first blog post, I will offer some of my reflections and impressions about my time in Costa Rica representing McGill Law at the OAS’ principal judiciary organ that promotes and protects human rights across the Americas.

Andrea Buitrago & Elias León, McGill Law Representatives at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Latin America’s Flavours: Returning to my Roots

On May 3, 2017 at 6:58 am I woke up in my flat in Montreal thrilled to embark on a journey that I thought would bring me back to the continent of my origin: Latin America. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was nervous, scared, anxious, or just happy. Perhaps a combination of all. Since the political turmoil in Venezuela got out of control, I have not been back to Latin America. I knew Costa Rica would be very different from Venezuela, in terms of political stability, proper access to food, health-care, water (from what my folks would call ‘luxurious goods’ currently non-existent in my homeland, regrettably). However, I was very curious to land in the International Airport of San Jose to discover how similar this small country in Central America would remind me of Venezuela in a particular way. I don’t mean returning to my “real” roots, rather I mean returning to the continent that brings together rich cultures, tasteful gastronomy, vibrant social life, and a devotion for hard work in trying to become a better person every day – that’s what made me think this opportunity was all about: returning to a country that would make me feel, more less, back in Venezuela since, as of today, I cannot seem to be able to do this.

As soon as I arrived in Costa Rica’s capital, my good friend Natalia and her friends picked me at the airport and drove to her house to meet with her family. Immediately, I felt just as if a friend from childhood picked me up in Caracas to then have a home-cooked meal. As the days progressed, I was lucky enough to meet several locals who welcomed me with wide-open arms and invited me to countless journeys with the objective to discover Costa Rica’s diverse biodiversity, the “pura vida” style, appreciation for environmental stewardship, and most importantly, the beginning of new friendships, which is how they take pride in being good Costa Ricans hosts. Interestingly, I also met several Venezuelans. In fact, there were so many Venezuelans who have recently arrived in Costa Rica as political refugees that, overtime, it really felt like returning to my roots (and this time I mean it literally). However, I have to admit, I was sad (and possibly upset) to learn from each Venezuelan’s story about how they had to leave everything behind overnight – including their families, loved ones, professional careers such as practices in medicine, the law, business, and engineering. They all seemed to have to start from zero and worked as Uber drivers or blue collar positions in order to make just enough Colones (Costa Rican currency) to eat, pay a shared room in a flat, and save enough so they could send money for their families who could not escape the current dictatorship Venezuela is facing.

My 89 days in Latin America were extraordinary. These twelve weeks allowed me to reflect upon and cherish all opportunities Canada had given me until now, but this visit also made me feel proud to belong to a continent with such a unique culture. People there are hard-workers, warm, loud, funny, great sense of humour, love to go dancing or to share “arepas” or “gallo pinto” during a lunch break, devoted to faithful groups, constantly staying active through physical activities, and so much more. I am lucky to know we, as Canadians, can do all of these things in Canada as well, but there was something unique about being able to do all of these things over again in Latin America, just like I used to during the first fifteen years of my life in Venezuela. 

Oath of Confidentiality Official Ceremony with 2017 Interns & Visiting Professionals

The Inter-American Court: From exchanges of Conversations with Human Rights Violation Victims to the President of the Court

One of the biggest assets of working at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is definitely the people you meet. As for all of us in the legal profession is social, the nature of the work is grounded on a wide range of different personalities whom you work with and interact at many different levels. Yes, you certainly get to work with some of the brightest and most respected human rights jurists across the Americas. But you also get meet, talk, interview, and listen to the very people who travel hundreds of miles to a architecturally colonial style white house in the historical neighbourhood of Los Yoses, which serves as the premises of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. For confidentiality constraints, I cannot disclose details, but what I can share is my reflection on how powerful the words I exchanged with some of the victims of human rights (who were going to testify during court hearings in the cases I was assigned to) were and how much they motivated me to do my work better in my office at the Court. Most of the time I would be speechless to learn from what they had to say. Other times, I felt powerless by not being able to ‘do more’ or ‘try to assure them that everything was going to be okay’ – when in fact I knew that some of these victims had to return to their home countries, the next day of the court hearing date, where they would sometimes be prosecuted either by volatile governments or organized-crime groups.

Most of the time however, I learned a great deal from the lawyers in my team, fellow law clerks, and most certainly, the lawyers whom I shared my office with. The great advantage about working in such an active and collegial working environment is that each lawyer was from a different country, whose parcour was significantly unique from one another. I remember nourishing excellent friendships with lawyers from Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Cuba, Uruguay, and even Germany. Some of them have done human rights law for 20+ years while others were corporate lawyers who decided to make the transition from business law to human rights law in their mid-level careers. I learned something valuable and unique from each person. At work, we would engage in very transsystemic dialogues doing comparative legal analysis on contemporary issues as climate change, refugees asylum, international security, and same-sex marriage. On a more inter-personal level, we would discover each other’s national gastronomy, customs, traditions, and culture. This special aspect of the Inter-American Court constantly made me think of the fond memories I have working in diplomacy being posted in few different cities. I just think it’s the perfect work environment for any McGill Law student seeking to discover new cultures and ontologies.


Advisory Opinion on Gender Identity and Patrimonial rights derived from relationships between persons of the same sex. For more information, please consult:

Meeting the Honourable Roberto Caldas, President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Pura Vida: Beyond a Destination to Gain a Superb Summer Legal Experience

So you may be wondering what Pura Vida is. Well, it’s a phrase that essentially encompasses how “ticos” look at the world. It’s how they look at life-work balance, social relationships, family, communication, and frankly anything. Instead of saying buenos días Costa Ricans enthusiastically say “Hey, PURA VIDA!” Instead of apologizing for not submitting a work deadline on time, they say “pura vida.” Instead of responding “I’m good, how are you?” they say “Pura Vida!” This was certainly a highlight in my journey in Costa Rica – and was consistently a joke we had between everyone who wasn’t a Tico in the Court. The point is that Costa Rica is probably one of the countries with the happiest people and as a McGill Law student who had just finished 1L, I certainly took the opportunity to learn from this ‘pura vida’ way of life to think more about work-life balance. I learned that it is important to really make the effort in being patient when something does not happen as quickly – or as efficient in North American parlance. It’s important to take this type of 12-week culturally enriching experience to step outside of our comfort zone or incredibly busy lifestyles to meditate, do yoga, breathe fresh air, take different types of risks – less so professionally inclined and more so learning a different sport like surfing. All to say that the “pura vida” outlook on life, which every Costa Rican seem to experience on a daily basis – and indeed, every staff attorney or law clerk at the Inter-American Court – taught me that you experience the fabric of a place by immersing yourself in the flavours, sites, and sounds of a destination. In my opinion, this is when you have fully experienced Costa Rica and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the way it’s meant to be. Different for everyone, but yet extraordinary for all.

Exploring the Arenal Volcano

Respect for sexual diversity in Central/Latin America

2013 Claire Gunner 100x150 Claire Gunner

Last Tuesday, I went to a panel sponsored by the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights and the Institut français. Sexual Diversity in Central America: Political, Social, and Juridical Integration was hosted by the University of Costa Rica, just around the corner from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

One of the speakers is a lawyer for the Court, and he presented on the impact of one of the Court’s recent, well-known, and hotly debated decisions, Atala Riffo and Daughters v Chile (Judgment of February 24, 2012).

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Karen Atala Riffo, the petitioner (and herself a Chilean judge), brought a complaint to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights after the Supreme Court of Chile awarded her ex-husband sole custody of their children on the basis that Ms. Atala Riffo was in a relationship with a woman. The Supreme Court of Chile reasoned that Ms. Atala Riffo’s relationship would risk damaging her children’s development.The Inter-American Court ruled in favor of Ms. Atala Riffo, finding that she had been discriminated against in the custody decision on the basis of her sexual orientation, which is incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights (article 1(1), regarding “the obligation of the States Parties to respect and guarantee the full and free exercise of the rights and freedoms acknowledged therein ‘without any discrimination'”, at para 78 of the Court’s decision).

Although Chile has complied with the Court’s ruling, its implications for Central American states are unclear. The Court’s decision is a positive development in international human rights jurisprudence, especially given that international human rights organisms are frequently much more conservative than one might anticipate (see, for example, almost any application of the “margin of appreciation” by the European Court of Human Rights). Atala Riffo doesn’t readily serve arguments in favor of obliging members states to, for example, legalize same-sex marriage.

The first person to speak at the event, Magistrada Eva Camacho Arias, is a member of Colegio de abogados y abogadas de Costa Rica’s Comisión de diversidad sexual. The Comisión was established following the approval of a national policy of respect for sexual diversity in 2011. At one point there were only two constituents because public speculation as to other members’ sexual orientation led to the withdrawal of their participation – a disappointing (to put it mildly) sign for a working group focused on inclusiveness. Now, the Comisión has five members. Despite the slow progress, Magistrada Camacho Arias wants Costa Rica to be the first Latin American country to implement a policy of respect for sexual diversity so that Atala Riffo‘s message of non-discrimination can be felt throughout the Organization of American States.

Observations et impressions sur la 95e session d’audiences de la Cour interaméricaine des droits de l’homme

Par Anne-Claire Gayet

San José, Costa Rica

La 95e période d’audiences de la Cour interaméricaine des droits de l’homme a pris fin le jeudi 28 juin au soir, un jour plus tôt que prévu du fait de la suspension de l’audience publique concernant l’opinion consultative sur les droits des enfants migrants sollicitée par les pays du Mercosur, face aux difficultés politiques au Paraguay (destitution contestée du Président par le Congrès, le 22 juin 2012).

Ce fut une période de travail et de présence à la Cour très intense : deux semaines durant lesquelles les journées ont été rythmées par les audiences, ainsi que l’heure d’arrivée et de départ des juges. Une règle coutumière, qui date apparemment du Juge Cançado Trindade (président de la CIDH de 1999 à 2004, et juge de 1995 à 2008), veut que le personnel de la Cour arrive avant les juges le matin, ne sorte manger à midi que lorsque les juges finissent de délibérer ou de siéger, et ne sorte le soir qu’une fois les juges repartis… L’utilité d’une telle règle aujourd’hui, initialement pour s’assurer que les juges puissent compter sur l’aide immédiate d’avocats, pour faire des recherches sur des aspects précis par exemple, est discutable, étant donné que l’augmentation considérable du personnel de la Cour, et en particulier des depuis son instauration. Cette règle a en plus de quoi surprendre au sein d’une Cour des droits de la personne, mais sa révocation ou sa modification n’est manifestement pas encore à l’ordre du jour…

Pendant ces deux semaines, j’ai pu assister aux audiences publiques de la Cour, et travaillé sur mes autres mandats entre celles-ci.

Les audiences sont souvent, pour les victimes, l’« apogée » d’un processus très long et douloureux de recherche de justice, de vérité. J’ai appris et constaté que la CIDH est une cour principalement écrite, et que l’importance des audiences ne se situe pas tant au niveau de la preuve et des arguments (qui sont tous écrits), qu’au niveau des témoignages qui peuvent être faits dans un cadre formel, auprès d’oreilles bienveillantes. Venir témoigner à la Cour donne l’impression d’être écouté et entendu, et permet aux victimes de sentir qu’elles ont un rôle à jouer dans la recherche de la vérité et de la justice. Le reste de l’audience, et en particulier les « alegatos orales finales » (ou les arguments oraux finaux) constitués d’arguments de droit et de fait et parfois d’éléments très techniques, peut être peu compréhensible pour les victimes dans l’audience et celles dans leurs pays et communauté d’origine qui regardent l’audience par retransmission par internet.

Plusieurs affaires pendant cette 95e session portaient sur la violation de droits de peuples autochtones. La première affaire à être entendue, celle du Caso Masacres de Rio Negro Vs. Guatemala,  portait sur la présumée destruction de la communauté Maya Achi de Rio Negra, par le biais de cinq massacres exécutés par l’armée du Guatemala et les membres des Patrouilles d’autodéfense civile dans les années 1980-82, les violations postérieures des droits des survivants, l’absence d’enquête sur les faits et le refus de justice.  Le contexte de cette affaire est expliqué sur cette page.

Cette audience a été précédée par une cérémonie traditionnelle maya, dans l’enceinte de la Cour. Je l’ai découverte par hasard, sur l’heure de ma pause du midi, en regardant vers le parvis de la Cour. J’ai ainsi pu assister à la fin de la cérémonie. Plusieurs représentants de la communauté maya étaient réunis autour d’un petit feu, en habits traditionnels, très colorés. Un homme faisait balancer un encensoir et prononçait des paroles en langage maya. Autour de la petite quinzaine d’Autochtones, étaient respectueusement rassemblées une trentaine de personnes pour observer la cérémonie, personnes travaillant à la Cour, accompagnant les représentants des victimes (membres d’ONG, avocats) ou membres du public venant assister à l’audience.

L’homme qui animait la cérémonie a invité ensuite quelques personnes du groupe autochtone – celles qui ont témoigné pendant l’audience – à s’agenouiller devant le petit feu, et leur a passé sur tout le corps un rameau de branches qu’il avait brièvement mis dans le feu. Une fois les quelques personnes agenouillées, le flot de paroles s’est tari. La cérémonie, plus courte que d’habitude nous explique-t-on ensuite, a pris fin et deux personnes de la communauté maya ont pris la parole en espagnol pour nous expliquer le sens de la cérémonie. Ils nous ont expliqué que l’homme qui a animé la cérémonie est leur intermédiaire entre Mère Nature et leur groupe, que la cérémonie vise à demander pardon à Mère Nature pour le mal qu’ils lui ont fait, et aussi pour donner aux juges de la Cour interaméricaine comme des autres Cours, la force et la lucidité pour juger de manière la plus juste possible. Ils nous ont aussi dit que dans leur communauté, au Guatemala, les leurs entreprenaient également une cérémonie similaire, au même moment.

C’était surprenant et réconfortant de voir une telle cérémonie dans l’enceinte de la Cour, bâtiment toujours bien surveillé, officiel et formel. J’y ai senti l’ouverture et la sensibilité de la Cour à d’autres réalités culturelles et sociales, et en particulier sa sensibilité aux traditions autochtones. Le photographe de la Cour a pris plusieurs photos qui reflètent très bien l’événement. Ne manquent que l’odeur de l’encens, les mots et les sons prononcés durant la cérémonie, et la chaleur…

L’audience qui a suivi a été très émouvante. Les témoignages de survivants des massacres, arrivés trente ans auparavant, étaient poignants, et révélaient des blessures encore à vif. Dans la salle, l’émotion était palpable parmi ces hommes et ces femmes venus de si loin pour réclamer justice afin de retrouver leur dignité… Vous pouvez regarder et écouter quelques témoignages ou parties de l’audience en ligne.

Une autre affaire qui m’a particulièrement interpellée est celle de l’affaire Nadege Dorzema vs Republica Dominicana. Une histoire de migrants haïtiens traversant la frontière de la République Dominicaine, de nuit, dans un camion, qui se termine tragiquement. La police de République Dominicaine a tiré sur le camion, et continué les tirs alors même que les migrants ont commencé à crier; certains se sont enfuis et ont été tirés dans le dos. Les survivants ont été ensuite expulsés du territoire, sans avoir reçu de soins. Ont témoigné deux survivants, en créole, et de nouveau on pouvait sentir combien cet événement restait douloureux. Le deuxième jour d’audience (à partir de la 5e min, 42s), les représentants des victimes – ainsi que les représentants de l’État et de la Commission – ont présenté leurs arguments oraux finaux. Un des représentants des victimes était Bernard Duhaime, de la clinique juridique internationale de l’UQÀM. La présentation des représentants des victimes met en lumière le contexte plus généralisé de discriminations à l’encontre des Haïtiens en République Dominicaine, et je vous invite à écouteur cette présentation pour vous familiariser avec le sujet, ainsi que le fonctionnement des audiences de la Cour interaméricaine.

Bien que composant un temps limité de mon stage à la Cour, ces audiences resteront un moment fort de mon expérience ici, parce que c’est là où j’ai pris la mesure de l’importance de la Cour pour les victimes, et de l’ampleur de leurs attentes vis-à-vis de cette institution internationale des droits de la personne : elles veulent que Justice soit faite, et que la Vérité soit déclarée.

Je ne suis pas convaincue que la Cour soit en mesure de répondre positivement et pleinement à ces grandes attentes, malgré les bonnes intentions des personnes qui y travaillent, mais j’ai observé que les audiences ont offert aux victimes une reconnaissance de leurs maux, et leur ont permis d’exprimer ce qu’elles ressentaient depuis des années, depuis le temps des violations, par rapport au reste de la population et à l’État : souvent de la discrimination, de la marginalisation, et une absence de soutien étatique. La reconnaissance des maux par les juges et la possibilité d’exprimer des ressentis et des griefs dans un cadre officiel, me semblent deux aspects positifs de ces audiences, qui ont, je crois, le potentiel de contribuer à la réhabilitation des personnes qui viennent demander Justice.

The Various Natures of Costa Rica

By Anne-Claire Gayet

5 juin 2012, me voici à un mois et cinq jours après mon arrivée au Costa Rica, et deux semaines après le début de mon stage à la Cour interaméricaine des droits de l’homme.

Before starting my internship at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, I had the chance to travel a little bit in Costa Rica. This trip has allowed me to familiarize myself with Central America, being my first time in the region. It has also given me the chance to know more about Costa Rica of which I knew few things before my stay here, except that it hosts the Court and that it was the first country to have abolished its army, in 1949.

I was amazed by Costa Rica´s luxuriant nature, its generally warm climate – so enjoyable after a winter in Quebec – and the tropical rains in the afternoons. I fell in love with the local fruits: it is wonderful to pick coconuts directly from the trees, find mangos on the ground, buy excellent pineapples for a very good price (2 or 3 for 1000 colones or approximately 2 dollars, etc.), discover new fruits like guavas. I met nice Ticos (the people from Costa Rica), often through the accommodations where we stayed. On a more personal note, travelling outside San José has allowed me to feel more comfortable and less insecure in Costa Rica: numerous warnings received prior to my stay here had made me somewhat uneasy and caused me to be cautious both regarding my belongings and the people I would meet.

Travelling and meeting with Ticos also gave me a sense of some issues in Costa Rica. I observed, for example, marked demographic, social and cultural differences between the Pacific coast and the Caribbean one. I first observed a difference through the denigrating reactions of Ticos from the Pacific coast when I told them I was planning to travel to the Caribbean coast. When I arrived in Cahuita, I noticed the large presence of Black people, contrary to elsewhere in Costa Rica. Mainly of Jamaican origin, many of them spoke Pidgin English. The music in the bars – so loud that everyone in the streets could hear it – had a clear reggae influence. The food offered was also of Caribbean inspiration (with the traditional sauce with coco milk). The Caribbean coast offers clearly another aspect of Costa Rica.

The current demographic and cultural differences between the Caribbean coast and the rest of Costa Rica today reflect the history of exclusion of the Black people in Costa Rica. Until 1949, Black people were prohibited from going to the West of Costa Rica.   Trains from the Caribbean coast to San José had to stop at Siquirres in order that the Black technicians and drivers would get off the train, to be replaced by “White” workers.  Although abolished a few decades ago, this segregation seems to have left scars as far as I can observe after a few weeks in Costa Rica.

I was glad to start the internship after knowing a little bit more about Costa Rica. Since I arrived at the Court, I have started to work on a team composed of two lawyers, and another legal intern from Seattle. As we mentioned in our training session before departure, as interns we arrive in an environment where there is already work in progress, with specific deadlines and challenges. Actually, the lawyers informed us that it was a particularly tense moment for them, as the next session of the Court would take place from June 18th to June 29th and as they had to transmit to the Judges the projects of decisions before the session. They also informed us that our team would mainly focus on three cases until the end of August, either building on the work of previous interns or investigating new areas of the cases.

So far, I have read in depth the different writings of the cases, from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the victims and the State, and done specific research on two of them. One investigation was related to the duty to consult Aboriginal people in case of exploitation on their lands, in the jurisprudence of other Latin American countries and the Commonwealth. My small exposure to Aboriginal cases in Canada while at McGill has been helpful!  I had to summarize the different criteria developed by the SCC related to the duty to consult, in order to support a possible decision of the IACHR.

My second main task was related to the issue of forced displacement in another case. I had to write a memo on whether or not there has been a violation of article 22 of the American Convention on Human Rights (on the freedom of movement and residence) for a group of people who left their village after a bombing, and who returned there only a few weeks or months after.

Our job will likely be different in the coming weeks, as the atmosphere and the work in the Court seem to very much influenced by the sessions of the Court. I look forward to it!

Working at the Court is also the chance to meet persons from different countries of Latin America, the US and even France. Lunch breaks and post-work events are an excellent opportunity to learn about others’ lives, personal and professional aspirations, and to reflect on my own choices and plans. À suivre!

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