Lives on “stand-by”

 Par Nour Saadi


Assise sur ma chaise, les yeux cloués sur mon écran.

They ripped off my pants with a knife and three violated me, one after the other. They pointed their guns at me, saying they were going to kill me, and beat me with their rifles. They beat me in my sex after they had finished. As this was happening, I saw a girl about five meters from where I was being raped. After they got off of her, one of them shot her in the abdomen as she was lying there. They shot her with one of their long guns. I saw the blood running down her body…. I saw this just after they had finished with me, but it wasn’t the same group.

C’est frappant, malaisant, de se retrouver dans une position où, du haut du 35e étage de l’Empire State Building, je lis sur des massacres ayant lieu chez moi, puis, à l’indication de l’aiguille passant les 18 heures, je sors du bâtiment et marche dans les rues, presque comme si de rien n’était. Mettant les cris de ces personnes sur “mute”, la vie de ces personnes en “stand-by”, alors que je rentre, prends une douche, mange et dors, puis retourne à mon écran le lendemain matin.

Voici déjà un mois de ceci.

View from the top of the Empire State Buiding

View from the top of the Empire State Building

Travailler pour Human Rights Watch reste toutefois enrichissant. Entourée de 4 avocat-e-s, aussi occupé-e-s les un-e-s que les autres, j’ai eu l’opportunité de faire de la recherche sur le Moyen-Orient, la Guinée et la Corée du Nord. La présence de 2 autres stagiaires au sein du bureau apporte son propre lot d’apprentissage. J’apprends qu’en voulant être compatissante avec l’expérience négative d’une stagiaire, justifiée ou non, je risque la mienne. Par ailleurs, je développe une certaine conscience de l’impact associé au travail que je produis, et à l’importance de lui donner une couleur qui est mienne.

L’approche de Human Rights Watch en termes de défense de droits humains repose sur l’utilisation stratégique de son influence sur des acteurs clés de la communauté internationale. Le rôle de la Cour pénale internationale ainsi que les défis auxquelles elle fait face commencent à prendre forme, ce qui génère en moi de nombreux repositionnements.

The more I understand how the ICC works, the more I am shocked to see the difference with Canadian domestic courts, the Supreme Court for instance, which writes decision with an air of “the Court has spoken”, while the International Criminal Court, with the mandate to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity, war crimes etc. –the most serious international crimes – needs permission to speak.


In the middle of this organized mess, I ask myself: where do I stand? Where do I start?


As I sat there, no more than three meters away, I saw them shoot an old man dressed as an imam in the head while he was praying. The old man was in the process of praying, because in the Muslim faith, if you are going to die, it is necessary to pray before dying. He was in the process of praying and a red beret walked up to him and shot him in the head with a pistol. Nearby, there was another man who wanted to pray. As he kneeled there, one of the ones wearing gris-gris said, “Don’t say another prayer,” and came up behind him and slit his throat.


On these last nights of Ramadan,

I pray with all my heart. I pray for the people I might not know, for the people I might not see, but for the people I can feel. I pray, because I am confused. What is my role, as a jurist? What can I do as a lawyer, really? What has law ever done for humanity, other than providing a sophisticated knife to deep-pocketed opportunists, other than providing rules conveniently drafted to relieve the anxiety of complicit observers, other than manufacturing hope?


On these last nights of Ramadan,

I pray for a night of peace.

Only one.


Nour Saadi


Air Train

Air Train, New York City


First testimony: A 26-year-old housecleaner who was gang raped by three members of the Presidential Guard on the September 28, 2009 massacre and rapes in the Conakry Stadium.

Second testimony: A 19-year-old student who was beaten by security forces and hid in an area under construction behind the stadium.

Reflections from HRW

2015 Jabir HumeraBy Humera Jabir

Taking the time to reflect on my internship with a bit of distance, I am better aware of the important lessons I learned through this experience.

When I began the internship, I often set out with a mind to finding the limitations of the legal frameworks in question as I have been trained to do through law school courses. However, working closely with the advocates at HRW has shown me that identifying limitations is only the first step in the field of international criminal law, which is constantly developing and moving in new directions.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is how to think through options to move legal frameworks for accountability forward. By experiencing how the lawyers I worked with think through problems, I was able to learn how they identified advocacy options, what areas of the law they abandoned as options, and what others they emphasized as potential persuasive avenues for securing justice and accountability.

I was most impressed by their long-term thinking. On a number of projects, the lawyers I worked with developed their strategies with contingencies in mind. What would happen if a particular state changed its position? What would happen if a particular political context underwent change? And what mechanisms should they as advocates begin to put in place in the event that these changes came about? Most of the human rights work I have engaged with prior to HRW has always been stopgap, seeking to address and remedy immediate violations. While HRW lawyers also do this work, they do so thinking of the future, thinking of the implications on contexts that may develop and cases to come, and with a mind to paving the road for accountability if and when it becomes an international priority in a given situation.

The internship has taught me to think about problems of international criminal justice with flexibility and imagination by taking account of the inherent unpredictability of international politics. I have learned to think through the limitations of existing frameworks but also the limitations of advocating for “something new” or becoming too mired in the specificity of a particular context. I was very impressed by HRW lawyers’ ability to think outside the box. I really learned what it means to make one’s best case for the best available approach, all the while accepting unforeseen risks and limitations. It really is a challenge!

Humera writing from Human Rights Watch

2015 Jabir Humera By Humera Jabir

I am almost two months into my internship at Human Rights Watch and am entering the last third. I have grown very comfortable here and met such interesting colleagues. My fellow interns are fascinating individuals with a great deal of experience to share and learn from. I have enjoyed meeting many of the associates and researchers in my own department as well as in others, particularly those who work on the ground collecting information, as it offsets and adds perspective to the work I do sitting at my desk all day.

In the last two months I have worked on some fairly large research projects to do with civil-criminal law, recent cases before the ICC, and the chemical weapons convention. The work has been challenging and stimulating overall and I enjoy the diversity as I get to do both legal research and a bit of media work as well. I have also been able to learn by attending events. A few weeks ago, I went to see the ICC Prosecutor, Ms. Bensouda, brief the United Nations on the situation in Sudan. I really enjoy going to the United Nations. Despite the diplomatic speech and wrangling, attending meetings of the ICC working group in NYC has been inspiring even in light of the cynicism so many rightfully feel. What has been most intriguing to see is how many less recognized states work to ensure the continued work of the ICC and compliance with its orders against impunity.

The work we are doing here at HRW can sometimes feel abstract. I had the chance to attend a commemoration event for victims of the genocide in Bosnia and that really did bring home for me what the fight against impunity means to victims of mass crimes. Sitting in NYC so far from the victims HRW seeks to help, it can be easy to lose sight of what international justice means to those who have suffered.

Finally, I will say that being in NYC has been a true privilege. I have been learning every day that I walk through these streets and strike up conversations with people from every country and walk of life. HRW facilitated my attendance of arraignment court so I’ve had a chance to learn more about “local justice” and criminal law in the city. I have attended a multitude of talks and events on black history, feminism, social movements from around the world, art and poetry, and the list goes on and on …. Most important to me in the last month has been finding a vibrant and youthful Muslim community with whom I shared Ramadan. Life has been full and I am trying to make the most of each day while also not letting the countdown to the end of my time here stress me out!

Wishing you all safety and happiness on your own adventures.


First Weeks at Human Rights Watch

By Will Colish

“Take the subway to 34th street. Get out at any exit and look up.” These were my directions to Human Rights Watch, located on the 34th and 35th floors of 350, 34th Street—that is, the Empire State Building. The architectural landmark and the relatively benign address mirror the two sensations that one might have working in a major human rights organization: brash labourers of justice on the one hand; and peripheral gadflies of human rights abuse on the other.

Neither of these sensations dominates my workday, although they do occasionally come to mind. The office is usually too busy for me to reflect on what I am busy doing. Before my orientation even began on the first day, a senior counsel of the international justice division pulled me into her office and gave me my first assignment: research the steps taken by the Guinean government and the International Criminal Court to address a massacre that took place in 2009. Two weeks into my internship the pace has remained steady. In spite of this pace, every now and then I pop my head out of the books and wonder who reads the Human Rights Watch press releases, attends its film festival, or follows its members on Twitter. Presumably some very important people do. I do not know otherwise how a charitable organization could grow to this size (280 fulltime staff in 16 offices worldwide), do the work that it does with near global reach, or win a Nobel Prize of all things (which it did in 1997 for its work on banning landmines).  Despite the generally hurried pace of my research agenda, I am still struck by moments where I try to orient myself around these two sensations.

These moments of reflection aside, the work commands my attention and eliminates nearly all distractions. It is genuinely interesting research, and I am often confronting challenging legal questions. Recently I was tasked with research related to the ICC’s investigation in Libya. No easily retrievable answer awaited me. The assignment demanded not just thorough research but also creative legal argument.

Je passe la majorité de ma semaine dans les bureaux de Human Rights Watch, mais la ville m’interpelle aussi vigoureusement. Ce n’est pas ma première fois à New York, mais c’est ma première à y vivre. Ce qui me frappe le plus est la gentillesse et la chaleur de sa population. La première journée dans mon bloc à appartements, j’ai connu plus de ses locataires que pendant le 6 ans passé à mon appartement de Montréal. Ça jase sur le perron du bloc, l’un des locataires m’invitant même à aller à la pêche avec lui la fin de semaine dernière. (J’ai dû refuser en raison des vagues de surf, accessibles à partir du métro, sur lesquelles je me suis amusé en contrepartie.) Le métro est souvent bondé mais les gens s’excusent poliment lorsque ça se bouscule et cèdent même fréquemment leur siège.

La ville est probablement unique dans sa capacité à produire de façon régulière des journées quasi-magiques et de façon spontanée. Un ami m’a invité faire une balade en vélo l’autre jour. Nous avons longé le côté Ouest de Manhattan, tout sur une piste cyclable et doté de plusieurs attraits à savourer. La journée s’est terminée avec un excellent repas cubain et un concert en plein air, gratuit, à Brooklyn, prestation offerte par un groupe qui joue un mélange de sons arméniens, beatbox, et moyen orient. Le lendemain, une journée remplies de plaisirs aussi stimulants et imprévus mais complétements autres.

Tout bien considéré, ce stage promet une belle aventure qui s’inscrit bien dans le programme de stage en droits humains de McGill. Ici on m’expose à une multitude de violations de droit de l’homme qui se propagent aux quatre coins du monde, à la réponse d’un ONG tel que Human Rights Watch, et aussi à la place de ce dernier dans une ville qui grouille d’acteurs internationaux importants tel que les Nations unies. Cette convergence de points d’exposé ne mène guère à une vision simple qui les unit; elle invite plutôt des réflexions continues dont je vous ferai part prochainement.

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