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Reflections on Human Rights Education

By Sara E.B. Pierre

One of the things I loved the most about working at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) was observing and participating in their capacity-building workshops. I am a big believer in education, and I think it is crucial when it comes to human rights work. IHRDA gives presentations and workshops as part of its education mandate. They also have a mandate to defend, which they do by advocating on behalf of victims of human rights abuses, and to inform, which they do by building a comprehensive database of African human rights legislation.

There is one phrase in particular that one of my supervisors said at a capacity-building workshop back in The Gambia which has stuck with me. In our Critical Engagements with Human Rights class, we have had many discussions about the tension and overlap between international, national and regional human rights norms. Are human rights a Western concept? The answer is no. The phrase I remember my supervisor saying was at a capacity-building workshop for police officers/prosecutors and social workers on harmful practices against girls and women. He said that harmful practices against women and girls are not part of African culture; “maybe it was a part of our culture 200 years ago, but if you practice FGM (female genital mutilation) or child marriage in Africa now, you are violating our culture.” I think he was trying to show how culture is fluid, and no one state has a monopoly on the concept of human rights. Yes, we may all have slight differences when it comes to writing laws, and this is a good thing. However, the bottom line is that human rights are universal rights, and nothing, not even claims of practicing one’s actual or alleged culture, should get in the way of that.

The capacity-building workshop was prepared by an NGO called Safe Hands for Girls, in collaboration with IHRDA. The theme of the two-day training was harmful practices against women and girls, and we focused on forced marriage, and especially female genital mutilation, or FGM. This last topic was especially difficult to hear about, as the first speaker went into the painful specifics of the operation, complete with real life images. There were no trigger warnings, but there was a moment of individual prayer before the workshop began. Besides talking about how painful the procedure is for infants, children and women, the speaker also explained that how it is done can lead to complications which affect the health and sometimes the life of the person being operated, especially when/if she becomes pregnant.

 

One of my supervisors at IHRDA spoke about women’s rights in The Gambia. He brought up an interesting point: how even though FGM has been outlawed in the country, and there is extensive knowledge that the practice is still widespread (76% of women in The Gambia have suffered through FGM), there have been no cases brought forward. When he brought up the question of how this can be, something interesting happened. A police officer said there have been no cases brought forward because they do not receive reports or complaints. However, a social worker replied that just the other day someone came to her with a report of FGM, and when they tried involving the local police, the police officer did not want to make an arrest for fear of being targeted by the community. I think this situation is all too prevalent and is very useful for showing the disconnect between the law and practice. To me, it shows that human rights work must be rooted in education, and must be contextual. A top-down approach does not work. If we truly want sustainable change, we must first change the attitudes of the perpetrators of the human rights abuses. In order to change peoples’ minds, we have to get to know them.

 

 

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

 

 

Defining Equality: Namibia’s Supreme Court and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

By Kevin Lee Pinkoski

Equality in Namibia and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

A young country – with a new constitution – needs an active judiciary that takes every opportunity to develop a more nuanced understanding of its constitutional principles. This is the context of Namibia, a country that, in 1990, won independence from South Africa after years of racial division implemented by apartheid, and, in the same year, adopted a new constitution. But many terms in this new constitution have yet to be comprehensively nuanced and defined through jurisprudence. As the case Alfred Mew Visser v Minister of Finance & 3 Others shows, Namibia’s judiciary continues to miss opportunities to describe both the nuances of equality as the term is present in the constitution and its relationship to the rights of persons with disability.

The nuance that is lacking from Namibian jurisprudence on equality is if the term is only limited to formal equality, where the law treats all individuals equally, or if it includes substantive equality, where the law recognizes individual differences in order to make everyone equal. Namibia’s constitution prioritizes equality, yet Namibia’s Supreme Court has failed to provide an accurate explanation of what is meant by the term in the constitution — if it is limited to just formal equality, or if it can be expanded to substantive equality. The judiciary must play an active role in addressing these ambiguities. Consequently, disabled individuals in Namibia are left without true equality.

Alfred Mew Visser v Minister of Finance & 3 Others:

The Alfred Mew Visser case is about the rights of persons with disabilities. Alfred Visser was in a severe car accident and, as a result of his injuries, he was blinded in both his eyes. Because of Namibia’s no fault insurance scheme, he was awarded damages according to The Motor Vehicles Accident FundThe Fund sets caps for damages, and Alfred Visser challenged these caps under the claim that they do not adequately provide the financial support necessary for him to live with a permanent disability. The Supreme Court did not find the case in his favour because of the financial implications of going beyond the caps established in The Fund.

Alfred Mew Visser characterizes a clear problem in the Namibian judiciary; the term equality in the Namibian constitution has not been accurately defined by Namibian jurisprudence. Yet the Supreme Court’s response inAlfred Mew Visser, ignorant of this problem, focuses only on the financial limitations of The Motor Vehicles Accident Fund. My criticism is that, regardless of the outcome of the case, the Supreme Court needs to actively seek out opportunities to elaborate and clarify Namibia’s constitutional principles. Because of this, the Supreme Court’s judgment in Alfred Mew Visser is a missed opportunity to provide a nuanced understanding of what is meant by equality – this is detrimental to Namibia’s most vulnerable populations.

Equality in the Namibian Constitution:

Strong memories of the heroes of the liberation struggle, such as Toivo ya Toivo, continue to inspire Namibians like Fazilla to fight for equality.

Reflective of years of apartheid – when inequality between race was implemented by law – Namibia’s new constitution prioritizes equality for all its citizens. The preamble to the constitution sets this mandate, affirming that “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is indispensable for freedom, justice and peace.” Namibia, as a new country, founded itself on the principle of equality.

Namibia’s standard of equal rights for all is expanded upon in Art. 8: Human Dignity and Art. 10: Equality and Freedom from Discrimination of the Constitution. Art.8(1) states: “The dignity of all persons shall be inviolable”, and Art. 8(2)(a) elaborates: “In any judicial proceedings… before any organ of the State… respect for human dignity shall be guaranteed.” Art.10(1) reads: “All persons shall be equal before the law,” and Art.10(2) continues: “No persons may be discriminated against on grounds of sex, race, colour, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or social status.”

The constitution and current government policy indicate an ambiguity between formal and substantive equality in Namibia. While Art. 10(1) establishes the terms of formal equality before the law, Art. 10(2) creates the potential to use the law to make all individuals equal through substantive equality.  Art 10(2) indicates the potential for substantive equality as it would be discrimination not to make individuals equal who suffer under the prohibited grounds for discrimination in Art 10(2). The emphasis on equality in both the preamble of the constitution and in Art. 8 show Namibia’s prioritization of equality for anyone within Namibia’s borders. Furthermore, Namibia has embarked on clear projects to create substantive equality for marginalized populations, such as economic empowerment initiatives and gender equality programs. There is a clear ambiguity in what is meant by equality that must be addressed by Namibia’s Supreme Court.

Neither Art. 8 nor Art. 10 provide a nuanced understanding of what is meant by equality. Because of this, Namibia’s lower courts have been limited to an understanding of equality that only evaluates the formal equality of all individuals before the law, not the substantive equality necessary to make all individuals equal. Furthermore, as Alfred Mew Visser shows, the Supreme Court has failed to take any opportunity to define any nuances to what is meant by equality as it is presented in the Namibian constitution. Because of this, Namibia has yet to create an environment of true equality for persons with disabilities.

Disability in Namibia and Alfred Mew Visser:

Although empty on the weekend, the Katatura Disability Plaza houses numerous organizations that promote equality for people with disabilities.

Namibian law defines disability as “a physical, mental or sensory impairment that alone, or in combination with social or environmental barriers, affects the ability of the person concerned to take part in education, vocational, or recreational activities.” This definition is elaborated upon to include the “loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on equal level with others due to physical or social barriers.”

The Namibian constitution does not list disability as a prohibited ground for discrimination in Art. 10(2). Thus, for disability to be adequately recognized or discussed in terms of equality, the Namibian judiciary must establish that disability is included under the prohibited grounds for discrimination in Art. 10(2).

Disability has a clear consequence on an individual’s ability to participate in society, it has a detrimental effect on the following grounds prohibited by Art. 10(2) of the constitution: social status, economic opportunity, and personal prosperity. The statistics are clear: 17.7% of urban disable persons do not attend school, 82.3% of rural disabled persons do not attend school, 42.5% of disabled persons work in agriculture and fishers, with 14.6% in elementary occupations. 70% of disabled persons live in homes without a mortgage. The reality is explicit – being disabled in Namibia is a limit on the potential of an individual to achieve success and prosperity.

In the example of Alfred Mew Visser, Alfred Visser has suffered a permanent disability because of the accident: he is blind in both eyes; he has a physical impairment that will impede his potential to participate in everyday activities and in work opportunities; he will need to learn a new system of reading. He is likely to be to be limited, as Art 10(2) of the constitution explains, to a “social status” because of his disability.

Art. 8 and Art. 10 of the Namibian constitution ensure a conducive environment to the full and equal participation for all in society, including those with disabilities. But, as was previously alluded to, because neither Art. 8 nor Art. 10 provide a comprehensive definition of what is implied by equality, the Supreme Court is required to give such an interpretation. The Alfred Mew Visser case is a clear example of a missed opportunity to give a more nuanced explanation of what is meant by equality, a missed opportunity that will be detrimental to disabled people – one of Namibia’s most vulnerable populations.

Formal Equality – Equality as applied by the Supreme Court:

Namibia’s clear wealth disparity, apparent in the village of Hoachana, is continually being addressed in the pursuit of equality.

Namibian jurisprudence has yet to provide a nuanced understanding of what is meant by equality in the Namibian constitution. The problem is that, because of the limited wording of the Namibian constitution, there is no need for courts to expand beyond an understanding of equality that is restricted to formal equality. Formal equality is established only by equality before the law. It applies blind rules to every situation, no matter what social differences may be involved. If the Namibian constitution ensures only formal equality, the Namibian Supreme Court should define that distinction. While it is possible to develop the language of formal equality in Alfred Mew Visser, it is important to recognize that the case turns on the financial limitations of The Motor Vehicle Accidents Fund, and not the issue of equality.

In Alfred Mew Visser, the court employs a view of formal equality before the law, as all claimants are held to the same limits of compensation, regardless of either their individual characteristics or the consequences of an accident. Alfred Visser’s disability can only be taken into account provided it falls under the limits of the caps established in The Motor Vehicle Accidents Fund, and it cannot be adjusted to take into account the particular needs of certain claims. The caps employ the same legal equality to all — the same formal equality before the law — and thus the court can resolve that “No distinction is made between claimants at all” since “all claimants are in the same position when it comes to the capping of their claims and are thus equal before the law.” No differentiation is made between individuals and their needs. If this is what is meant by equality in the Namibian constitution, the Supreme Court should define equality in this way in its decision.

Formal equality could, however, provide the means to address the necessary compensation required to ensure equality for disabled individuals. Since, to establish formal equality, the court adheres to “equality before the law,” it is the actual law itself that would have to change. The Motor Vehicle Accidents Fund would have to be amended to provide for a recalculation of damages for disability, for injuries that cannot be recovered from and that requires an individual to live their life in a different way. In this way, the court could still employ formal equality before the law, but the law itself would have to be expanded to provide for the necessary compensation to an individual who has been affected to a new “social status” (as Art. 10(2) of the constitution establishes) as a result of an accident. The Namibian constitution could imply formal equality in this way, but the distinction would have to be made by the Supreme Court.

The Potential for Substantive Equality in Namibia:

The Katatura Hospital is one of many public hospitals that provides medical services to Namibians.

In Alfred Mew Visser, substantive equality would imply that, because Visser has been placed in a different social status as a result of the disability incurred in the accident, the court could employ a definition of equality that allows for increased compensation. While the court establishes that The Motor Vehicle Fund ensures that “equally positioned persons are treated equally”, it fails to consider that some individuals will require more support in order to be treated equally. The reality is, as substantive equality reminds us, that the results of an accident do not leave all individuals “equal”, and that some, especially those with long term disabilities, will require more compensation. If the court had chosen to establish substantive equality as a part of the Constitution’s definition of equality, the court would allow for the law to be adapted to Alfred Visser’s specific case.

Furthermore, the court would establish the necessary precedent to employ substantive equality when necessary to ensure that the law can be adapted to provide what is needed for any individual to achieve equality. This is the missed opportunity of the Supreme Court, they failed to recognize the reality that equality before the law does not ensure that the law has equal effects on all individuals. Consequently, in order for the law to allow that all individuals can achieve equality as a result of the law, a substantive understanding of equality should be employed. Here, the Supreme Court has failed to provide for a more nuanced, and more just, understanding of equality that takes into account an individual’s unique needs. Alfred Mew Visser is thus a missed opportunity to define equality.

Conclusion:

Namibians, especially Namibia’s most vulnerable population, must again wait for the Supreme Court to develop a nuanced understanding of equality. Namibians are left with ambiguity as to if equality goes beyond formal equality to address substantive equality, thus allowing for the prohibitions on discrimination in Art. 10(2) to be extended to unlisted ground. It is, as Art. 10(1) reminds us, that “all persons shall be equal before the law” – so why stop short of protecting Namibia’s vulnerable populations?

The Supreme Court should be capable of providing the necessary jurisprudence to clarify and develop the constitution. The Supreme Court cannot be limited by state resources or policy in its decisions, it must be capable of balancing these limitations with the necessity of equality. The nuances in the term equality have yet to be defined by Namibia’s Supreme Court, and the Court continues to miss opportunities to add the necessary nuances. Defining these nuances is, after all, the role of the judiciary.

 

Ag Shame! We Can Only Do Law Reform

By Kevin Lee Pinkoski

Law Reform and the Luxury of Legal Research:

“Ag shame!” Exclaimed one of the legal researchers who works with me at Namibia’s Law Reform and Development Commission (the LRDC). “ Wouldn’t it be nice to do legal research that wasn’t just about fixing the laws in a country.” Ag shame, the universal Namibian expression that serves as a useful response to absolutely anything, was this time employed in a negative sense. My co-worker was disappointed by the realization that necessity was ruling out luxury in legal research.

Downtown Windhoek shows how luxury may be sought after, but the colonial heritage has limited many to only necessity.

My co-worker was responding to a presentation by academics from the University of Cardiff during the first week of my internship at the LRDC. The presentation focused on what political biases may influence the decisions of members of the U.K.’s Supreme Court. When asked about the intention of the research, the academics explained that it was to “make it clear who our judges were.” It was clearly beneficial research; to know the biases of the judiciary could help both the public better scrutinize the judges and perhaps even force judges to better scrutinize themselves. But in the eyes of my co-worker, this research was a luxury to pursue. The thought that diversity in legal research is a luxury – that some countries and contexts are limited by necessity to only do legal research that evaluates whether or not the law achieves its intended outcome – is the most preponderant lesson I have learned while interning at Namibia’s LRDC.

The Necessity for Law Reform in Namibia:

Namibia is a young country. It was granted independence in 1990 from South Africa after a racially divided struggle, the consequence of years of apartheid that segregated black and coloured Namibians from the white ruling elite. In the year Namibia gained independence, the first democratic elections were held, a representative constituent assembly was elected, and a new constitution was implemented. The new constitution boldly stated the mandate for the new Namibian republic: “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is indispensable for freedom, justice and peace… regardless of race, colour, ethnic origin, sex, religion, creed or social or economic status.” According to its new constitution, Namibia would never again treat its citizens unequally.

Independence, for Namibians, marked a new chance for a prosperous future that would benefit everyone – a stark contrast from the years of colonial administration.

Namibia’s colonial relationship with South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Germany have had a clear impact on the country’s legal framework. Colonized first by Germany at the end of the 19th Century, Namibia, then known as South West Africa, would come under the control of the United Kingdom during the First World War. After the war, a League of Nations mandate would then grant administration of South West Africa to South Africa. South African administration would continue, even after the United Nations and the International Court of Justice declared the governance illegal according to international law, until independence was won in 1990. The consequence of three separate colonial administrations was three distinct layers of law, each applied one over the top of the other – each layer retaining its applicability unless otherwise stated. Upon independence, Namibia chose to retain the validity of all previous laws unless the laws were otherwise repealed, modified, or replaced.

The colonial legacy of Namibia exposes the need for law reform. It is here where the luxury of doing diverse legal research is lost because of the urgent need for law reform. Not only do many of Namibia’s laws have a colonial legacy, and thus fail to treat all Namibians equally, but Namibia has transitioned since its independence, first attempting to consolidate the nation’s ethnic diversity through the law, then moving towards an attempt to modernize its laws to realize economic success for individuals that were otherwise limited during the years of apartheid. Law reform plays a key role in determining how laws can and should be modernized to promote the equality, prosperity, and peace ensured by the Namibian Constitution.

The Law Reform and Development Commission:

It is in this process of repeal, modification, and replacement that the Namibian LRDC plays its role; it is mandated to repeal obsolete laws, consolidate codification of the law, harmonize customary and statute law, recommend more effective laws, and enact laws to promote human rights. The LRDC exists as an office separate from any other part of the Namibian Government. This independence gives the office the ability to evaluate the potential impact and usefulness of any law from an apolitical perspective.

To achieve its mandate, the LRDC relies on its most useful tool – public consultations. The LRDC’s political independence gives it the ability to reach out to whoever it chooses. But this process hasn’t become limited to specific stakeholders or powerful groups; the LRDC fosters relationships with as much of Namibia’s population and as many distinct groups as it can, to determine the true impact and perception of the law.

Capana, Namibia’s most popular street food, involves a “farm to mouth” process, that connects farmers, meat buyers, butchers, and cooks, all to cook meat, in markets that are open from 8am to 10pm.

In many ways, Namibia is ideal for this type of an office. The country is only 2.3 million people, its small population means the government is interconnected. A large bureaucracy makes the government accessible. Political organizations are populous. People are proud of their heritage, both the places they come from and their own personal history, and as a result, communities are engaged, concerned for their wellbeing, and accountable for their achievements. Still, there are groups that are skeptical of the current political process, groups that struggle to see how their interests are being represented. It is, therefore, necessary to have government organizations, such as the LRDC, that accommodates all Namibians, regardless of their current engagement in the political process.

The LRDC seeks out and fosters relationships with stakeholders implicated by potential laws. The typical political process is reversed; instead of groups pursuing politicians and advocating for specific decisions, the LRDC reaches out to the variety of stakeholders that are needed to determine the effectiveness of the law. The LRDC develops these relationships, with close ties to the University of Namibia, traditional communities, political assemblies, municipal leaders, law reform commissions throughout the world, NGOs in Namibia, and, above all, Namibians themselves.

The LRDC’s Law Reform Process:

Headed by the dynamic Ms. Yvonne Dausab, who has had a career in private practice, in academia, and in government, the LRDC operates in consultation with the Office of the President. Appointed in 2015 directly by the President of Namibia, Dr. Hage Geingob, Ms. Dausab cooperates with the Commissioners, a select group of Namibia’s top legal professionals who, while employed elsewhere in Namibia, manage projects and provide advisory guidance. Projects are requested directly by the Office of the President, the Attorney General, and the Ombudsman. On each project, legal researchers are assigned from within the office to coordinate research and consultations. The final output of each project is an evaluation of a law’s effectiveness, its implications in Namibia, and any possible areas that could be perfected.

The Commission works like a legal consultancy, but because it is Namibian in its staffing and location, it provides a truly Namibian perspective on the law. This is necessary, especially in Africa, where legal recommendations that are deemed to be effective in another part of the world are often prescribed to African countries. While some of the most effective law firms in the world may be able to make recommendations to Namibia about the law should be, few of these recommendations can access how the law should be for Namibia. But by being in Namibia, staffed by Namibians, and connected to Namibia, the LRDC can consult within Namibia and recommend how the laws should be for Namibia.

The success of each project depends on the ability to find and include the necessary interested and implicated parties in Namibia. The New Equitable Economic Empowerment Framework project relied on country wide consultations with Namibia’s poorest citizens, marginalized business owners, and investors from all backgrounds. The Marriage Reform project relied on consultations with traditional communities whose marriage practices were the most divergent from civil marriages, as well as groups that provided support for any detrimental consequences from traditional marriages. The recommendations on Disability Law Reform synthesized the perspectives of Namibian’s with disabilities, organizations that support persons with disabilities, and institutions that struggle to assist persons with disabilities. Around the world, all of these laws exist in a functional way, but only the LRDC is able to determine how they can exist in a way that will work for Namibia and benefit Namibians.

My own work at the LRDC was directly involved in this process. Working with Ms. Dausab, the focus on my work was to prepare for stakeholder consultations, provide initial readings of proposed laws, conduct comparative legal research with other jurisdictions, and consolidate current Namibian court decisions. To support Ms. Dausab’s consultative network, my work included speech writing, analysis of stakeholder recommendations give to the office, and writing both articles and recommendations on behalf of the office. As an editor, I was tasked with editing The Law Reform and Development Commission At 25: A Quarter Century of Social Carpentry, a book on the potential of law reform in Namibia, along with numerous reports and publications. My work was diverse, reflective of the Law Reform Commission’s mandate to address all laws in Namibia.

The Chairperson of the LRDC, Ms. Dausab, addresses the Junior National Council on Child Marriages in Namibia and possible legal solutions, a catalyst moment in law reform.

Because of the Law Reform Commission’s proximity to both stakeholders and groups directly implicated by legal decisions, its influence is direct and consequential. The legislative response to child marriages in Namibia is a clear example. Ms. Dausab was asked to give a speech to the Junior National Council on the consequences of child marriages and what legal solution could be used to ending child marriages in Namibia. While only 7% of children are married before the age of 18, such marriages occur under an exemption within the law that allows children to marry with both parental consent and the approval of an officer of the Ministry of Home Affairs. After delivering the speech to the Youth Council, the Council passed a recommendation to the National Council to remove the exemption provisions. Even though the National Council was on recess, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Children announced in the following week that it would conduct both statistical research to determine where child marriages were occurring, consultations with implicated communities, and research into legal and institutional reform needed to end child marriage. As this example shows, the desire for law reform is evident across Namibia and Namibians are willing to act to ensure true equality.

Necessity over Luxury:

Legal research can be both a social necessity and an academic luxury. Since I started my studies in law, I’ve been exposed to legal research that is as diverse and complex as any academic discipline. There is research that, similar to the LRDC’s work, intends to influence the writing of the law and inform judicial decisions. But the scope of legal research is not limited to only reform. It expands to guidelines on how to support the convergence between law and other academic disciplines, its analyzes the pedagogy of teaching, and it criticizes how the discipline itself exists. This variety is a sign of a healthy academic discipline. But it is important to remember that this diversity and vitality is a luxury – one that can be afforded because of the functionality and success of the Canadian legal system.

In Namibia, the luxury of diverse legal research will only begin when the law itself has developed to a point where it exudes confidence in its own potential. Until then, the brightest legal minds in Namibia are nobly limited to the mission of law reform. Ag shame!

Blog Post 1: First Lessons and Impressions

By: Sara E.B. Pierre

A few months preceding my internship, I saw a news story on my Facebook page about how the President of a small country in West Africa accepted defeat after 22 years of dictatorship, but quickly changed his mind. The President’s name was Yahya Jammeh, and the country was The Gambia – where my internship was taking place in the summer. For a long time after this news, I was not sure whether the internship would happen. In the end, Jammeh was pressured enough to accept defeat and left the country. I did some more research on him before I left for The Gambia. It was only later that I found out how the Gambians I saw on my screen, cheering him in the streets, were forced to do so every time he made a public appearance. Through my work, I started to realize how he ruined the reputation and endangered the health of those he claimed to have personally healed of AIDS, and how terrifying it must have been to live in a place where any member of your family could go missing and be tortured without ever getting any answers.

   

The first week of May I was greeted into the New Gambia. Billboards, T-Shirts and graffiti all proclaimed, “Gambia Has Decided”. I saw people selling smartphone data plans, shoes and fruit on the side of the street, I saw monkeys waiting for a safe time to cross those same streets, and I saw vultures resting on top of the street lights. I ate mangoes every day and soaked in the sun at the beach.

On my first day of work I took multiple taxis which have designated stops, kind like the public transportation system I was used to back in Montreal. After getting lost and telling the taxi driver I was working in human rights, I was dropped off at the African Human Rights Commission. This was not actually my workplace. It was, however, as I would soon come to realize, the place our complaints (“Communications”) would sometimes be sent, seeking redress for those across the continent whose rights have been violated by their government.

Some cases and presentations I have done research for include those advancing the complainant’s right to health, right to work, right to not be tortured, right to education and to freedom of expression. These, and many more, are enshrined in a Charter I have gotten more and more familiar with over the months – the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The part that I find most impressive about this Charter (which was set up in The Gambia itself), is that it not only protects civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, but it also protects group rights (such as the right to a “generally satisfactory environment”), and lays out duties incumbent upon these same individuals and peoples.

After a very friendly Gambian woman helped me find my actual workplace, I realized it was only a short walk away from the Commission. We walked past the roundabout (adorably named “Turn Table”) and found The Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHDRA).

I was impressed with the pan-African non-governmental organization even before I arrived in The Gambia. Besides reading about their mission to defend, educate, and inform, what struck me most was how they included professional pictures of staff members, such as the gardener and cook, on their staff page. The idea that justice and the fight for human rights involves so much more than what superstar lawyers do is a big lesson that I am learning. At our staff meeting, we all had the chance to say what we had been working on, whether this had to do with the organization’s website, a conference someone would be presenting at, or making sure we have clean and running water. When everyone’s voice was heard, I felt there was transparency, accountability and fellowship. The value of these things cannot be dismissed because it reinforces the underlying truth that we, those who work to uplift the dignity of human beings, are not there to “save” or “fix” anyone; we are there to build safer and more just communities, and to empower people. And what a better way to project that vision than by reflecting it in the way we uplift our own neighbours?

Updates from Malawi

  By Julia Bellehumeur

The Surprise Internship:

On May 10th I arrived in Blantyre, Malawi to work with the Equality Effect and the local organization WLSA (Women and the Law in Southern Africa).  Although I had been preparing for months to travel to Africa to work with this organization, this internship came to me by surprise.

My original placement with the Equality Effect was in Meru, Kenya.  A few days before my departure I got an email informing me that my internship in Kenya was cancelled due to concerns about the political climate.  My Equality Effect director and McGill’s IHRP director worked very quickly to arrange my new internship placement and a few days later, I was leaving for Blantyre, Malawi.  I knew very little about Malawi and I knew even less about what I would be working on, or where I would be living.  But I accepted the placement, trusting that this would be an adventure at the very least.

This last-minute switch seems to have foreshadowed and prepared me for my summer in Malawi. It set the tone for the internship in that I’ve had to be very adaptable and ready to take initiative in situations of uncertainty.  The work that I am doing is very different from what I would have been doing in Kenya, and the Equality Effect projects in Malawi aren’t quite as far along as they are in Kenya. Nevertheless, I feel fortunate to have been granted such a wonderful and unique opportunity in Blantyre.

 

The Projects

The Corroboration Litigation 

The Equality Effect together with WLSA has been working on a constitutional claim against the Corroboration Rule in Malawi for cases of rape and defilement (defilement is Malawi’s legal term for sexual intercourse with a child).  Corroborative evidence is defined as any independent evidence over and above the complainant’s testimony that confirms that a crime was committed and connects the accused to the crime.  The Corroboration Rule comes from Malawi’s colonial past and is based on the discriminatory assumption that women and girls tend to fabricate claims of sexual violence, and that these claims are easy to make but difficult to disprove.  An example of corroborative evidence often required is a medical examination of the victim to prove that a rape or defilement did in fact occur. . . Of course, this is often impossible to provide for countless reasons.  The Corroboration Rule requires the judge to warn him or herself about the danger of convicting on uncorroborated evidence.  You can imagine how problematic it is to impose this additional requirement on women and girls when there are already so many other barriers to access to justice for survivors of sexual violence.

My co-intern Michelle and I have been going to court to try to find new claimants for the case, although the bulk of our work for the litigation will pick up near the end of our internship.

 

The Workshops

WLSA has suggested developing a legislative campaign as another route to tackle eliminating the Corroboration Rule.   They’ve suggested that a conference would be a great way to get people talking about this rule and share some of the available knowledge and information within the community.  Michelle and I have taken on organizing this conference, which has proved to be quite a challenge.  Planning these initiatives usually requires a significant amount of time and funding.  Fortunately, we have been meeting with many engaged members of the community and have been coming up with creative ways to overcome these challenges before the end of our short stay in Malawi.

 

The One Stop Centers

We have observed many barriers to access justice for survivors of sexual violence in Malawi.  For example, police corruption, inconclusive or lost medical exams, a lack of education and awareness about the laws and resources, and most notably a lack of funding for fuel and transportation to bring victims into court or to the police stations.  These barriers all contribute to a high rate of withdrawal of cases, and are exacerbated for women and girls living in rural communities.

Michelle and I attended court twice this week and witnessed how some of these challenges come into play.  For the first case, we waited an hour after its start time for the magistrate to arrive.  Once he arrived, he informed the prosecutor that we could not proceed until the victim attended court.  Earlier the prosecutor had told us that the victim could not attend court because she lived too far away and they had no way of getting her.  A couple days later we came to see another case at 10am.  There was a small 7 year old girl waiting with her mother along with a doctor who came from the hospital to testify.  We all waited for over 3 hours for the magistrate who the prosecutor claimed was stuck in traffic.  Eventually the case was rescheduled to a later date.

The Blantyre One Stop Center has stood out to me as a beacon of hope among these obstacles for survivors of sexual violence.  At the OSC, victims and their families can come and report an experience of sexual or gender-based violence.  The OSC has social workers, a police officer, a doctor, a nurse, and a counsellor available onsite. They are all very committed to helping each person get the justice they deserve and the counselling they need to move forward.  They also organize awareness-raising events in local schools.  Unfortunately, these centers do not receive any funding beyond the minimal salaries provided to them by the government.  From what we’ve seen, the work of the OSC provides the most immediate results for individual victims. If they had even slightly more funds, the OSC has the potential to create widespread change. Michelle and I hope to help them create a crowdfunding type of fundraiser, and possibly even a student legal clinic to help them reach their potential.

 

Malawi

When I was told that we would be going to Malawi instead of Kenya, I had to quickly check on a map to find exactly where this tiny country was located.  I am not sure if it would have ever crossed my radar as a place to visit in my lifetime.  Yet now, it’s starting to feel like home.

Although Malawi is one of the continent’s poorest countries, it is known as the warm heart of Africa.  This was immediately apparent, Malawians tend to be very friendly and welcoming.  We have a lot of fun with our co-workers and we’ve enjoyed immersing ourselves in the very welcoming arts community at the weekly poetry nights and at an arts festival/party.

We arrived in their winter time so the landscape is incredibly lush. The fresh air and hilly backdrop makes Malawi feel like paradise.  In our yard, there are two avocado trees from which the best avocados I’ve ever had, measuring about the size of my face, fall almost daily. At night, I could spend hours looking up at the brightest starlit sky you can imagine.  I have found inner peace in Malawi – this country is truly breath-taking.

The first half of this internship has been amazing so far and I have learned so many unexpected things.  Navigating a role where I am encouraged to take initiative in a foreign country with a colonial history can at times be very challenging.  But I have learned a lot about what it takes at the primary stages of a human rights initiative, and I am working hard to ensure that the many skills I develop are appropriately balanced with a positive and sustainable impact on the women and girls in Malawi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Few Words on the Tekaia’torehthà:ke Kaianerenhsera (Akwesasne Court Law) to Commemorate the “Birthday” of the Akwesasne Mohawk Court

2016 Philpott AmeliaBy Amelia Philpott

Over the past months of my placement with the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Justice Department, there have been some exciting legislative developments in the community. In June a referendum was held on the Akwesasne Oién:kwa Kaianerénhsera (Akwesasne Tobacco Law) regulating the manufacturing and distribution of tobacco on the territory,[1]  and this month the community’s Tekaiatorehthà:ke Kaianerenhsera (Akwesasne Court Law) came into force.

The cover page of the Akwesasne Court Law. This is a picture of the crumpled paper copy I carried around with me all summer. A full (less crumpled) version is available on the Akwesasne Law Registry (link at the bottom of the blog post).

The cover page of the Akwesasne Court Law. This is a picture of the crumpled paper copy I carried around with me all summer. A full (less crumpled) version is available on the Akwesasne Law Registry (link at the bottom of the blog post).

I have decided to focus this blog post to the latter. The Akwesasne Court Law coming into force is an event worthy of celebration not only for the Mohawks of Akwesasne, but also for First Nations across Canada, because it marks  the “birthday”[2] of the first ever independent court established by a First Nation.

Background

The Mohawks of Akwesasne have been administering their own justice since well before Jacques Cartier first arrived on Mohawk territory in 1535.[3] As members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, The Mohawks were united with the Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, and later the Tuscarora, under the Kaianerekowa (Great Law of Peace); bringing together the previously warring nations. This law enforced the matrilineal clan system across the Confederacy, based on hereditary leadership.[4]

With Canadian Confederation, however, came a number of obstacles preventing the community from being able to effectively exercise their traditional Haudenosaunee government. Section 91(24) of the Constitution Act 1867 assigning “Indians and Lands Reserved for Indians”[5] to federal jurisdiction was used to justify a number of assimilative policies which had, and continue to have, severe repercussions for all First Nation communities, including Akwesasne.

In Akwesasne, elections were imposed by the Canadian government in 1899 in an attempt to disempower the traditional Mohawk council of chiefs.[6] This imposition, along with the larger assimilative scheme of the Canadian government, ultimately prevented the community from being able to administer their own traditional justice effectively.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle Akwesasne faced in this regard was the drawing of a Canadian-American international border squarely through their territory, and the further quartering of their land into the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. These borders alone have made it virtually impossible for the community to administer one cohesive justice system, since the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne, and the larger Haudenesaunee Confederacy, now have to contend with multiple imposed colonial jurisdictions.

The Akwesasne Mohawk Court

Despite efforts to dispossess the Mohawks of their traditional institutions, the community has never stopped asserting their right to govern themselves and their traditional territory.[7] The Akwesasne Mohawk Court is an example of this.

The court itself, established by the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA), has existed since the 1970s, but its character has evolved substantially since then. For the first twenty or so years of existence, the court operated under the Indian Act, with Minster of Indian Affairs approved justices of the peace adjudicating by-laws passed under section 81 of the Act.[8] The court was therefore under tight control of the Canadian government.[9]

Over the past few decades, a number of interrelated factors made it easier for the community to effectively assert their right to make their own decisions about their judicial institutions.

Firstly, the Constitution Act 1982 entrenched this right by  “recognizing and affirming existing Aboriginal […] rights”[10] under section 35(1) of the Act. This effectively gave the assertion of this right a Constitutional backbone. Furthermore, towards the end of the 1980s the Minister of Indian affairs began rejecting a greater number of by-laws proposed by the MCA. The band council ratified some of the rejected by-laws anyway, marking the beginning of the community passing legislation themselves under their inherent right, as opposed to under the authority of the Indian Act.[11]

An important factor leading to the establishment of an independent court at Akwesasne was a report produced by Bruno Steinke in 1995 (the Steinke Report). The findings of the report indicated that overwhelmingly Mohawks of Akwesasne were in favor of establishing their own independent Mohawk court on their territory. The survey indicated that the community wanted a court to be structured like a Canadian court, with the incorporation of traditional restorative Haudenosaunee principles, presided over by justices from their own community.[12]

A reading of the Akwesasne Court Law clearly demonstrates that the Akwesasne Mohawk Court as it stands today has been modelled directly from the Steinke Report recommendations. The law represents a significant shift from the Court’s earlier days of operation in one very important way:  its source of authority is the community itself, and their inherent right to self-govern, as opposed to the Canadian government via the Indian Act.[13]

The Akwesasne Court Law

This Akwesasne Tekaiarorehthà:ke Kaianerénhsera (Akwesasne Court Law) reflects the values of the Mohawks of Akwesasne and the principles of Sken:en (peace), Kasatstensera (strength) and Kanikonri:io (a good mind), respect, fairness as well as natural justice.[14]

The coming into force of the Akwesasne Court Law on August 12 laid a framework enabling the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne to adjudicate their community laws. The law sets out the principles, powers and authorities of the Akwesasne Mohawk Court and governs the conduct of the institution’s justices. It also outlines the Court’s jurisdiction, which spans across a broad range of civil matters, including contract disputes, matrimonial property, and the regulation of untaxed tobacco products on the territory.[15]

Aside from the symbolic significance of Akwesasne Court Law for Akwesasronon[16] in terms of what it means for the MCA’s assertion of self-government, the law also places the community at the forefront of indigenous self determination efforts in Canada by laying the foundation for the first independent court established by a First Nation.[17]

The mix of legal traditions informing the Court Law is also unique: In accordance with the expressed will of the community,[18] the court is set up to be adversarial; operating in accordance with fundamental principles of Canadian justice.[19] What sets it apart from Canadian courts is the incorporation of traditional restorative Mohawk principles into the institution’s judicial framework.

The distinct blend of traditions in the Akwesasne Court Law is particularly present in its sections pertaining to remedies. While some are in line with what one might expect a provincial or Federal judge to order, others are unique to the Mohawk Court. Illustrating the former, section 9.3  states the payment of fines or ordering injunctions are both within the scope of remedies a Mohawk judge might order.[20] On the other hand, the requirement under section  3.4 that a judge consider “the talents of the [offending party]”;[21] and use these for the benefit of the community to remedy their infraction; is a consideration one would certainly not encounter in a Canadian Court.

The inclusion of Mohawk principles in the Akwesasne Court Law  is important for two reasons: Firstly, it is an affirmation of the community’s cultural identity. Secondly, by employing restorative mechanisms focussed on healing for offenders, the law illustrates an approach to justice which promotes the long term wellbeing of the community.

On a practical level, the Akwesasne Court Law guarantees members of the First Nation that their cases will be heard by a Mohawk Judge from their own community, and that they can choose to have court proceedings conducted in either English or Mohawk.[22] The law will also lessen congestion in nearby provincial courts, as it gives Mohawks of Akwesasne the possibility of referring to their own court to adjudicate community matters.

Concluding Thoughts

At the Akwesasne Justice Department I have been fortunate to work with some of the amazing trail-blazing minds behind the Akwesasne Court Law. I feel being an intern here during the first “birthday” of the Akwesasne Mohawk Court essentially gives me a backstage pass to history-in-the-making. Expressing how much this has meant to me is difficult, but suffice to say I consider myself to be one incredibly lucky law student (and human being).

You can find a digital copy of the Akwesasne Court Law, along with other community legislation on the Kaiahnehronsehra iehiontakwa (Akwesasne Law Registry):

http://www.akwesasne.ca/lawregistry

 


[1] Akwesasne Oién:kwa Kaianerénhsera (Akwesasne Tobacco Law), MCR 2016-2017-#075, Purpose para 2.

[2] Credit to Gilbert Terrance, Court Administrator, who called August 12th “the Birthday of the [Akwesasne Mohawk] Court.”

[3]  Frey, S.L., The Mohawks : An Inquiry Into their Origin, Migrations and Influence Upon the White Settlers, (Utica: Oneida Historical Society, 1898) at p 6.

[4] Joyce Tekahnawiiaks King, “The Value of Water and the Meaning of Water for the Native Americans Known as the Haudenesaunee” (2007) 16:3 Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy 1.

[5] Constitution Act, 1867 (UK), 30 & 31 Vict, c 3, s 91(24) , reprinted in RSC 1985, Appendix II, No. 5.

[6] Rarihokwats, How democracy came to St. Regis & the thunderwater movement, (Rooseveltown, NY: Akwesasne Notes, 1974) at p 8.

[7] Ibid at p 3.

[8] Indian Act, RSC 1985 c I-5.

[9] Anna Gilmer in conjunction with the Akwesasne Justice Department, History of the Akwesasne Mohawk Court (2015) at p 6 [unpublished, archived at the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Justice Department].

[10] Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11.

[11] Ibid note 6 at pp 8-9..

[12]   Bruno Steinke, “Justice Needs in a Mohawk Community: Akwesasne” August 1995  at pp 65-70.

[13]  Akwesasne Tekaia’torehthà:ke Kaianerénhsera (Akwesasne Court Law), MCR 332 2016, Preamble para. 10.

[14] Ibid at Purpose para 2.

[15] Ibid at ss 5.1-5.4

[16] “Akwesasronon” is the Mohawk term for community members of Akwesasne.

[17] While other First Nations have established courts (see the Nisga’a Treaty), the Akwesasne Mohawk Court is the first institution of its kind established under the inherent Aboriginal right to self-government, recognized and affirmed by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

[18] Ibid note 9.

[19] For example, section 7 of the law helps to ensure the principle of judicial independence is upheld by holding the Akwesasne ratiianerenhserakweniénhstha (justices) and teshatiia’toréhtha (appeal justices) accountable to the Akwesasne Review Commission for their conduct. The Akwesasne Review Commission can also be called upon to rule on an alleged conflicts of interest of justices or appeal justices.

[20] Ibid note 13.

[21]  Ibid.

[22] Ibid at s 4.2.

 

 

Additional Hurdles in Accessing Justice

2016 Moreau AndreBy André Moreau

Over the course of my internship at the Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) in Kampala, I’ve witnessed some challenges with some of the cases and petitions we brought forward to the courts.

In particular, one difficulty was caused by the influx of election petitions triggered by the recent Ugandan general election, which was held on February 18, 2016. This was the 6th general election since the Uganda Bush War (1979-1986) where the National Resistance Army, led by current president Yoweri Museveni, overthrew the autocratic and militaristic regime.

February’s election saw Museveni’s controversial re-election ­–his sixth consecutive term as the President of Uganda. The election results sparked protest, arrests and a series of formal election petitions. These election petitions have put much strain on the Ugandan judicial system, which has resulted in an even longer wait before Ugandans and Ugandan organizations can access justice before the court.

This is a photo of the Ugandan Constitutional Court's Registrars Office

This is a photo of the Ugandan Constitutional Court’s Registrars Office– files upon files

Last week, Justice David Batema came to speak to the CEHURD’s staff about his experience working as a judge at the High Court of Uganda. He spoke about the courts’ challenge to process cases in a timely manner, especially during the post-election period.

When I asked him how the High Court prepares for the flood of election petitions, Justice Batema explained that the High Court developed a new strategy to minimize backlog. The High Court’s new strategy consisted of selecting 26 judges (almost two thirds of the High Court Judges in Uganda) and training them on best practices when dealing with the petitions.

To ensure nonpartisan decisions, the judges would then be relocated to a different district where they’d hear the petitions. This process, Batema explained, is designed to address all the submitted election petitions ­–hearing, trial, and judgement– within 60 days. This ambitious plan, however, is expected to exceed that timeframe. Further, if petitions are appealed, the process will take even longer.

Despite the Court’s effort to limit the backlog of cases, law firms, organizations such as CEHURD, and all the others parties involved are left with even more delays in their attempts to access justice.

Furthermore, Justice Batema has been vocal about the Courts being short-staffed: “we have very many cases, but we are few, we don’t want our people’s cases to delay here,” he said to one of the national newspapers, New Vision.

As CEHURD continues to fight for health and human rights in Uganda, this unfortunate influx of election petitions has created an additional hurdle in bringing forward cases and seeing them resolved.

Broadening my Perspectives

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Me and my first kürtőskalács

By Jacinthe Dion

Szeretlek Magy. Cette phrase, qui se traduit à “j’aime la Hongrie,” fait partie des dix mots que j’ai appris de la langue hongroise depuis mon arrivée à Budapest au début de mai. Depuis mon arrivée, la ville me pousse à me poser pleins de questions : pourquoi de la crème sûre sur tout? Comment peut-il y avoir au tant de sortes de paprika? La goulash, le salami, le kürtőskalács, pogácsa, ce n’est pas pour rien qu’on dit que la Hongrie est une “capitale de bouffe.” Je me pose pleins de questions aussi sur l’histoire complexe de ce pays et sur leur culture de bains thermiques.

Parmi tous ces questionnements se trouve un autre genre de réflexion, une plutôt contraire à ce que je viens de mentionner, qui se fait dans un petit bureau sur la rue Hercegprímás au centre de la ville. De l’extérieur, la bâtisse reflète l’architecture riche de cette ville, juste à quelques pas de la fameuse Szent István Bazilika. De l’extérieur, personne ne pourrait imaginer ce qui se passe à l’intérieur, au troisième étage de cet édifice. Nul part n’est-il annoncé qu’une petite équipe passionnée au Mental Disability Advocacy Centre (MDAC) travaille ardument pour les droits des personnes ayant une déficience intellectuelle ou psychosociale.

The work that is done at MDAC cannot be summed up simply. This NGO currently has around 50 pending cases in 7 different countries. It is very interesting for me to cooperate in a different kind of activism for the rights of people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. I usually work directly with children with mental disabilities: teaching them swimming, playing games, or attending to medical appointments with them, all in the context of different organizations with which I am involved at home. However, what I do here at MDAC is different. MDAC uses law as a means of change; as a way to make a difference in the lives of people with mental disabilities.

Right before entering MDAC for the first time

Generally speaking, the way this is done can be summed up in two words: proactive law. Law serves more purpose than the set of rules it outlines for our society; it has the power to promote or limit equality, justice, and fairness. Having laws in place is not the end point, but only the starting point. How can people know about these laws if they are not promoted? How can they be implemented if nobody sees to their enforcement? How can they be respected if no one is given the tools to apply them and ensure they are being respected? It is necessary to proactively work to create an environment in which everyone has the same chances to live a prosperous life. That is what I feel I am a part of this summer. What I do might be little in the big picture, but every single case that MDAC advocates is contributing to provide this prosperous environment for people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. But it is very difficult.

Every day, I read atrocities. Every week, I am responsible for producing a newsletter that reports all the recent relevant jurisprudence and news items that are relevant to our work. I read and I summarise. I read about children being placed in institutions when they are not even a year old. I read about teens confined in solitary wards and I read about people being confined in institutions against their will. Then, I read further about these individuals in institutions that are also having their rights infringed. I read, I read, I read and every day, as I cringe a little more, I become less surprised by the treatment people with mental disabilities are receiving, as it is so frequent. Is this how people become blind to atrocities, by setting standards based on what the norm has become? It is horrifying how our brain works, how it captures information, and how it remembers things. People’s stories become cases and cases become application numbers; people’s belongings become confiscated and they become evidence for trial; personal memories become testimonies and can then be used against you; similar cases are regrouped together and statistics are created. These processes are long, tedious, challenging, and exhausting and it is hard to conceive sometimes that all this started with a story, somebody’s horrible story.

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United Nations Peace One Day at American International School of Budapest, where I was a panelist for student presentations and representing MDAC

When I read, I replace the word ‘applicant’ with a name, where there are pictures, I capture faces, I think of cases as stories; I do everything I can to make everything as human as possible and less bureaucratic. Although that makes the read harder, it also makes it more real. These are people’s lives I am reading about and it is very easy to lose sight of that when you are working in an office 9:00 to 5:00 every day. I want to make sure with the case summaries I do, the research I conduct, the newsletters I create, and the meetings I take part in that I don’t lose my human touch with the work I do.

En fait, j’ai récemment réalisé à quel point j’étais influencée par mes lectures et mon travail. Je suis allée au cinéma avec une autre stagiaire de MDAC. Nous voulions aller voir un film léger après une longue journée de travail. Malheureusement, le film que nous voulions voir n’était qu’en Hongrois.  Nous avons donc opté pour une version anglophone du film Me Before You. Pour ceux qui n’ont pas encore vu ce film, je vous avertis que je pourrais vous gâcher la fin. En quelques lignes, ce film parle d’un tétraplégique qui souhaite mettre fin à ses jours. Dans ses derniers six mois de vie, sa mère engage une jeune femme pour lui tenir compagnie et bien sûr, ces deux derniers deviennent amoureux. En surface, ce film est peut-être qu’une histoire d’amour et une leçon sur le soutien inconditionnel d’un être un cher. À la fin, l’homme décide tout de même de mettre fin à sa vie afin d’arrêter de souffrir. Certes, pour moi ce film crée tout d’abord une énorme controverse pour les gens en situation d’handicap.

13599620_994527830642381_1396374541_nAt first, I was enraged. How could a movie so bluntly send a message that people with disabilities should consider suicide? No one’s suicide should be viewed as noble and inspirational, which is what I felt the movie was conveying. By doing such, it devalues the lives of people with disabilities whereas the message should really be that their lives are as precious as anyone else’s. I felt like romanticism was influencing our notion of human rights, rights MDAC fights to protect. However, while processing this information, I recalled a sentence that was said by a character in the movie that bothered me. Unsure of the exact words, I decided to retrieve the quote from the book the movie was based on: “[p]eople who are vulnerable should not be given the chance to do something that they’ll…”. Those words reflect the idea that other people should take decisions for people with disabilities, suggesting they lack the judgment to take decisions for themselves. However, the young woman who is in love with him understands the importance of giving him his choice and allowing him to decide for himself: “I’d sleep at night because I trust [him] to know what is right for him, and because what has been the worst thing for him has been losing the ability to make a single decision, to do a single thing for himself.” Then what is the right thing to do in this case? Do you let him take his own decision or not?  13639425_10210133754285059_157356367_o

I do not have a right answer to these difficult questions. I just realized then, when walking out of the movie, how much perspective my work at MDAC has brought me. One of the questions I was asked when applying for this internship inquired on what I hoped to take away from this experience. My answer could be summarised with my aspiration to broaden my knowledge and expertise in the field of human rights. Prior to this internship, seeing this movie would have rather left me mesmerized with the love story. In my application for this internship, I wrote “to best understand human rights, we cannot look only at an individual problem, within one social context, through the eyes of one legal tradition, but rather by looking at the bigger picture.” I acknowledged that often I failed to do that and I had hoped to reverse that this summer, and I think I just did.

 

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Fellow interns and I in the Buda hills during our Staff Away Day

Alternative Lawyering at AHRC

2016 Agnello AlexanderBy Alexander Agnello

“Those who have less in life should have more in law” – former President of the Philippines, the late Ramon Magsaysay.

It’s a quote that was first introduced to me by my mentor Attorney Anne Manigbas, and it stuck. What it means to provide “more in law” is not evident, although at first glance it seems to propose a transformative or redistributive project. I have spent these two months at Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) grappling with how alternative lawyers set out to provide “more in law” for those who have “less in life”.

The term “alternative” in alternative lawyering is often taken to describe a difference in career choice (corporate law vs. public interest law). This is an erroneous and superficial interpretation, since “alternative” is meant to describe an ethos that can and should be implemented in various sectors, be they commercial or public interest. Alternative lawyers do often take on careers outside of the mainstream, but what differentiates their work is its commitment to a different route to, and conception of, justice. As I’m writing to you, I realize that I cannot give a developed picture of alternative lawyering without delving into my ongoing projects and recent experiences.

I had the fortune of being the first McGill/foreign intern to attend the Orientation Seminar of Ateneo Human Rights Center’s flagship program: The Human Rights Internship. The purpose of the Orientation Seminar is to provide training on human rights advocacy, focusing on the practice of alternative lawyering for marginalized groups. The conference presentations on Statelessness, Agrarian Form, and the Migrant Worker Sector were amazingly detailed crash courses by alternative lawyers. It gave students a glimpse of the way alternative lawyers practice law: they work with clients, and this commitment to a client can go as far as marching over 2000 kilometers from Mindanao to Malacañang Palace with the Sumilao farmers to rightfully reclaim their land. The practice-based workshops on Popular Education, Paralegalism, and Legal Aid were a test of a student’s ability to empathize with a client’s position, master the legal and rhetorical tools at their disposal, and give a client a genuine opportunity to be active participants in justice.

AHRC Interns taking part in a Boodle Fight

AHRC Interns taking part in a Boodle Fight

After orientation, the students move onto their placements across the country to begin carrying out the work of an AHRC intern, captured by the motto: “Learn the Law, Serve the People”. I remain in Manila to work on the ongoing projects of the Women’s and Children’s Rights desks. We are pressuring the government to raise the age of sexual consent, currently set at 12 years of age. We are assisting the European Union with their human rights and democratization strategy in the Philippines. We are part of a consultation group that will propose a Sex Offender Registration and Notification Bill to Senate and Congress. We are one of the alternative law groups monitoring the judiciary. But at the same time, the lawyers here devote a great deal of their time to community service. I participated in their annual campaign to renovate classrooms for the start of the school year. I helped organize a workshop on legal literacy and cyberspace safety for vulnerable youth, with the aim of preparing the students to teach a lesson plan on these topics to their peers.

In all of this, I saw that the alternative lawyer is not part of the isolated technocrat class or a paternalistic figure who sees it as his/her duty to hold a client’s hand all the way to a court victory. An alternative lawyer provides “more in law” by collaborating with other members of society to build a more accessible, inclusive and dynamic justice system. Ideally, this system will recognize that reconciliation, civic education & involvement, indigenous dispute resolution and other alternatives are valuable ways to bring more individuals into the conversation for aims that are far more fruitful to global justice than a day in court.

A fire in Manila Bay

A fire in Manila Bay

Because I have only begun to familiarize myself with the AHRC’s alternate lawyer ethos, I will rely on the words of Sir Marlon Manuel, National Coordinator of the Alternative Law Group and a former AHRC intern:

“Alternative lawyers are swimmers against the tide. They test the water, they dip into the water, and they swim. And while swimming, they call others to join them, even those who cannot swim. They continue to swim, they continue to call others, and they feverently hope (dream) that, with enough swimmers in the water, they can turn the tide… “The objective… is not really to teach swimming, but to simply encourage dipping into the water”[1]


[1] Training Manual for Paralegals, A publication of the Ateneo Human Rights Center (2010), p. 9.

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