A touch of sun with my café con leche: A glimpse into the day-to-day life of an Inter-American Court of Human Rights intern.

2015-lachapelle-kaleyBy Kaley Lachapelle

As I sit sipping on my coffee at a local coffee shop in Calgary, I reflect on my summer spent in Costa Rica.  What an enriching summer it was.

I was selected by the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism to participate in a Human Rights Internship for the summer, 2015 at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.  The Court is located in San José, Costa Rica.

The internship at the Court provides a very comprehensive experience, professionally, culturally and socially.  In order to fully benefit from the experience, fluency in Spanish is a requirement for the position, as it is the working language of the Court.  During the course of my twelve-week internship, I was part of a group of approximately twenty visiting professionals and interns from across the Americas and Europe.

Interns and visiting professionals at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, summer 2015

Interns and visiting professionals at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, summer 2015

The Court is the judicial institution of the Organization of American States responsible for applying and interpreting the American Convention on Human Rights (Art. 1, Statute of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights).  While neither Canada nor the United States of America are state parties to the Convention, twenty-five American states have ratified or acceded to the treaty, thus providing the Court with jurisdiction over Convention related disputes.

During the course of the internship, my day-to-day generally consisted of providing legal research in a number of areas to support a team of lawyers and legal assistants.  The Court’s lawyers largely represent jurisdictions across the Americas.  The diversity of legal knowledge and experience in the area of human rights at Court is arguably unparalleled in the region.

For two and half weeks during my internship, the Court was in session and public hearings were held. I, along with the other interns and visiting professionals, was invited to attend the public hearings of the 109th session.  The hearings are recorded and can be viewed online.  It was a very unique opportunity to work at the Court during the public hearings, as I was able to meet and interact with the Court’s seven judges.

The Court is located in the city of San José at 1200 m (3700 ft) above sea level in the central valley of the small, Central American country.   Surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, San José is the country’s largest city and its political and economic capital.  I travelled to Costa Rica during the rainy season; from May through November, the mornings in the Central Valley are hot and humid (between 25 – 30 degrees celsius), with the temperature often dropping in the afternoon with the tropical, torrential downpours.

The beauty of Costa Rica is that one can travel from a lush, green mountainous landscape (or, more accurately in my case, the bustling city of San José) to the sunny, sandy beaches along the coast in a short drive of a couple of hours.  There is so much to see and enjoy outside of San José, that small getaways form an integral part of the intern’s experience. From pineapples, to bananas, to sugarcane and coffee, Costa Rica has a diverse, breathtaking landscape.  Weekends are spent sightseeing, hiking, swimming and relaxing with colleagues, as there is always someone keen to escape the capital for a few days.

Undoubtedly, the greatest part of my experience in Costa Rica was establishing very positive professional relationships, that evolved into friendships, with lawyers, law students and Court staff from across the Americas as well as from Europe.  Today I feel very connected to the legal and human rights community globally; bonds that will endure well past law school and will undoubtedly shape my legal career.  My experience in Costa Rica this summer taught me that my legal education is not only about the destination; rather I have come to value this unique, unforgettable journey as a McGill law student.

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. July, 2015

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. July, 2015

Schrödinger’s child? The status of children as juridical subject and object

2013 Claire Gunner 100x150

Claire Gunner

For the project I’m currently working on I’ve been relying pretty heavily on the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

My first impression of this instrument was positive. Here is a Convention that recognizes children as subjects of rights, rather than as mere objects of protection. Over and over I have seen the same line of reasoning behind the Convention that children are uniquely vulnerable and so require additional protections.

But these two stated aims of the CRC – to recognize children as subjects, and to extend to them additional protection because of their status as children – actually coexist in significant tension. This might be obvious to most people. But I didn’t realize it until I started reading Mary Beloff’s book, Los derechos del niño en el sistema interamericano.beloff

I could talk about how the idea of the child and childhood is a strange social invention, although one that I don’t think is totally unnecessary. But that’s an issue for a different blog post.

Article 3.1 of the CRC contains the first mention of the “best interests of the child”:

In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

As Beloff points out, the concept of “best interests” is nowhere really defined, either in the CRC or elsewhere. The concept is the modern-day culmination of the traditional legal paradigm that sees children as objects of protection, which makes sense. But what is it doing in a breakaway new international instrument that was supposed to change the conversation and honor children – that is, persons who have not yet reached the age of majority – as juridical subjects in their own right? At the same time the CRC upholds the right of a child to, e.g., participate and be heard in any legal or administrative decision that affects her, it seems to be conspiratorially winking at the (adult) authorities involved in those processes, as if to say, don’t worry, we know that you really know best.

Beloff also highlights the fact that pretty much every State has signed the CRC. (Somalia and the United States have not.) She suggests that this is because the stakes just aren’t that high, and because it makes a State look good – “We signed this Convention because we care about our children.” The Convention doesn’t, for example, create an independent body that would be responsible for monitoring States’ implementation of their treaty obligations.

“So what?” one might ask. Children don’t have the same juridical capacity as adults because they don’t have the same level of maturity. The fact is that they don’t generally make decisions that reflect their best interests. They need those additional protections.

That is all basically true. But, setting aside the (low) frequency with which adults make decisions that reflect their best interests, let alone those of other people, this tension built into the CRC takes on a more sinister aspect when it comes to, for example, guardianship. My understanding of guardianship is not very profound, but what I do know is that unaccompanied children, children removed from the care of their parents, and others in comparable situations must be, absent emancipation, automatically assigned a legal caregiver responsible for making decisions in those children’s best interests. The guardianship framework also persists in the contexts of the elderly and of persons with disabilities. I don’t necessarily want to suggest that we do away with guardianship altogether, but it seems to be a one-size-fits-all solution for a variety of circumstances whose parties might benefit much more from a more nuanced approach. Guardianship is a monolith in the field of psychosocial and intellectual disability and human rights, as people who don’t want to live in group homes have to fight to be able to lead their own lives. Guardianship is the assignment of a person’s rights to someone else. The implications of something like the CRC for other human rights focus areas are significant.


The dark side of “best interests” also emerges upon examination of the origin of the idea of juvenile delinquency. Beloff cites Anthony Platt’s well-known book, The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency, to draw attention to the fact that the original “delinquent children” in the West at the turn of the 20th century were seen as society’s youngest undesirables. The first “children’s rights activists” used the “best interests” justification to jail children and dissolve families who were seen as incorrigible, a social problem whose apparent failure to thrive was in no way connected to a systemic conflation of poverty with moral failing. Perhaps “best interests” needs to be included in an instrument like the CRC. But after reading Beloff I wonder if it doesn’t require some serious reworking before it should be given that honor.


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!

Some thoughts from the IACHR

perri By Perri Ravon

Close to 30 interns are working at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights this summer, assisting the Court’s legal secretariat. Most come from Latin America, where the Inter American system has gained unquestionable political and cultural resonance in the last decades. Others, like myself and a few fellow Americans, are truly discovering a new legal world within the human rights field: case law, judges, advocacy, diplomacy, media…

While working on urgent provisional measures, drafting memos for judgments and monitoring states’ compliance, I have also given thought to the “bigger picture”: the success and the limits of international human rights law, the meaning it has for individuals throughout the Americas… And beyond such theoretical questionings, I am also very interested in the impact such a system can have, today, in a country such as Canada which has not recognized the jurisdiction of the Court, yet which cannot ignore its legal developments. How much can we learn from the Court’s interpretation of the American Convention, from its unique approach to reparations, from its analysis of such issues as gender and economic migrants? How much can be quickly discarded given the immense differences between a regional human rights court and the Canadian legal system? And how much cannot?

Of course, I am fully aware of Canada’s “dualist” nature in terms of its reception of international law, and indeed I am not even alluding to the effects the actual American Convention could have in Canada. Yet, with respect to fruitful influences for future developments in Charter interpretation, the Inter-American Court’s case law may have a greater role to play than would at first appear.

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