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What Canada can learn from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Kelly O’ConnorBy Kelly O’Connor

My internship at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is now almost over… time flies! In the time since my last post, I have had the chance to get to know even more colleagues from different countries around the Americas and overseas and to think about some of the most pressing human rights issues facing this region, as well as to deepen my reflection of Canada’s relationship with this institution.

One of my favourite parts of this internship has been the opportunity to participate in the rich academic life of the Court and neighbouring institutions. San José has become a hub of human rights law in the Americas, and interns at the Court have been invited to participate in lots of interesting talks inside and outside the Court. I went to a talk about the place of social, economic, and cultural rights in the Inter-American system at the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights. I also went to a talk about Costa Rica’s asylum policy at the University of Costa Rica’s Law Faculty.

Going to a talk at the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights

Despite these enriching experiences, some of the best talks I’ve had have been with other interns as well as the Court’s lawyers over the lunch table. I love that it is part of the organizational culture here for everyone to take a break from their desks in the middle of the day to eat with colleagues. In these lunchtime chats, the interns and visiting professionals really get the chance to get to know each other and to learn about each other’s countries. Our topics cover everything from favourite dishes, to constitutional law, to the most important human rights issues.

On June 3rd the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released, and I mentioned it at lunch that day. The reaction was split: some lawyers knew of Canada’s poor track record in treatment of Indigenous peoples, but others could not believe their ears. “Missing and murdered Indigenous women, in Canada?” they asked me. The word “missing” in Spanish – desaparecido or desaparecida – comes with a lot of baggage.

Enjoying an outdoor lunch with my colleagues at the Court

In Latin America, the word “disappeared” is most commonly used to refer to people who have been forcibly disappeared by state actors in the context of authoritarian governments. Forced disappearance can happen in any part of the world, but its widespread use in Latin America has made it a common topic at the Inter-American Court.[i] Indeed, the Court’s development of the legal concept of forced disappearance, from its very first case in 1988,[ii] has been one of its most groundbreaking bodies of jurisprudence. For example, in the case Radilla Pacheco Vs. México, the Court explains that:

In International Law this Tribunals’ jurisprudence has been precursor of the consolidation of a comprehensive perspective of the gravity and continued or permanent and autonomous nature of the figure of forced disappearance of persons. The Court has reiterated that it constitutes a multiple violation of several rights protected by the American Convention and places the victim in a state of complete defenselessness, implying other related violations, especially grave when it forms part of a systematic pattern or practice applied or tolerated by the State.[iii]

In the same case the Court outlines the main components of forced disappearance, which have been developed through jurisprudential developments since 1988:

a) the deprivation of freedom; b) the direct intervention of state agents or their acquiescence, and c) the refusal to acknowledge the arrest and reveal the fate or whereabouts of the interested person.[iv]

Now, no one is suggesting that the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada can be attributed to the “direct intervention of state agents” as outlined in Radilla Pacheco and other cases. However, the Court’s jurisprudence has expanded beyond disappearance by state agents and has examined disappearances committed by non-state actors. I think that these cases could teach some important lessons to Canada and Canadian courts for responding to the Final Report of the National Inquiry.

For example, the Court has said that state parties to the American Convention on Human Rights have the obligation to guarantee respect for the rights contained in that instrument and to prevent such violations. One part of the need to prevent and guarantee is to diligently investigate human rights violations, regardless of whether the suspected perpetrators are state agents or private individuals. The Court has also identified that states have an accentuated obligation of due diligence in the investigation of disappearances of people who have an accentuated risk of being victimized, including women.

One of the first such cases was the Case of González et al. (“Cotton Field”) v. Mexico (“Campo Algodonero” in Spanish), which deals with a situation of missing and murdered women in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. The decision jointly analyses violations of rights contained in the American Convention and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, known as the Convention of Belém do Pará, of which Canada is also not a signatory. The Court said:

States should adopt comprehensive measures to comply with due diligence in cases of violence against women. In particular, they should have an appropriate legal framework for protection that is enforced effectively, and prevention policies and practices that allow effective measures to be taken in response to the respective complaints. The prevention strategy should also be comprehensive; in other words, it should prevent the risk factors and, at the same time, strengthen the institutions that can provide an effective response in cases of violence against women. Furthermore, the State should adopt preventive measures in specific cases in which it is evident that certain women and girls may be victims of violence. This should take into account that, in cases of violence against women, the States also have the general obligation established in the American Convention, an obligation reinforced since the Convention of Belém do Pará came into force. (emphasis mine)[v]

The Court has also established that States must adopt norms and regulations that allow the authorities to investigate cases of violence against women with the required due diligence. It has suggested that the state can satisfy this requirement through the standardization of protocols, manuals, and expert consulting and judicial services.[vi]

The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

In comparing IACtHR jurisprudence with Final Report of the National Inquiry, I saw an overlap between types of problems identified in cases like Campo Algodonero and the challenges faced by Indigenous Women, Girls, members of the LGBTQ2S community, and their families. The National Inquiry reports descriptions of “police apathy in cases involving violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people”, mentioning that this apathy “often takes the form of stereotyping and victim-blaming, such as when police describe missing loved ones as ‘drunks,’ ‘runaways out partying,’ or ‘prostitutes unworthy of follow-up.’”[vii] However, police services are not the only problem. When the National Inquiry spoke to police services, many cited “insufficient equipment and resources as impeding their efforts to engage in proper investigation, as well as in crime prevention, in First Nations communities.”[viii] It is easy to make the connection between the gaps revealed in the report and the standards called for by the Inter-American Court.

The more I learn about the Inter-American Human Rights System, the more I realize that Canada shares a lot of struggles with Latin American countries. Indeed, a history of colonization and genocide of Indigenous peoples is common to almost every country in the Americas, including Canada and the United States. One could say it’s what brings us together and unites us, our common legacy of colonization.

The Canadian government and Canadian courts should look to the rich jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court for inspiration on how to tackle the problems outlined in the National Inquiry’s Final Report. Although Canada is not a signatory of neither the American Convention nor the Convention of Belém do Pará, human rights are universal and the developments in this regional system could inspire and inform interpretations of Canadian law and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Perhaps one day Canadians will be able to directly benefit from the protections offered in the Inter-American System by bringing complaints directly to the Court.

Not all work: Making new friends of the animal variety on a weekend trip to Manuel Antonio National Park

—-

[i] For more information, the Court publishes Case Law Handbooks on a variety of topics, including forced disappearance http://www.corteidh.or.cr/sitios/libros/todos/docs/cuadernillo6.pdf (available in Spanish only). For the full list of Handbooks, see: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/publicaciones-en.html.

[ii] Caso Velásquez Rodríguez Vs. Honduras. Sentencia de 29 de julio de 1988. (Fondo). Ser. C No. 4 (1988).

[iii] Caso Radilla Pacheco vs. México. Excepciones Preliminares, Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 23 de noviembre de 2009, párr. 139

[iv] Caso Radilla Pacheco vs. México. Excepciones Preliminares, Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 23 de noviembre de 2009, párr. 140

[v] Caso González y otras (“Campo Algodonero”) Vs. México. Excepción Preliminar, Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 16 de noviembre de 2009. Serie C No. 205, párr. 258

[vi] Caso López Soto Vs. Venezuela.Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 26 de septiembre de 2018, párr 131, Caso González y otras (“Campo Algodonero”) Vs. México, supra, párr. 388, y Caso Velásquez Paiz y otros Vs. Guatemala, supra, párr. 148.

[vii] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Executive Summary of the Final Report. June 2019. Available at: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/, p 38.

[viii] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Executive Summary of the Final Report. June 2019. Available at: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/, p 38.

Progress on the One Earth Future Maritime Security Index

By Derek Pace

Words can’t come close to expressing how much I feel I’ve learned in the past eight weeks. I’m still shocked by the extent to which my work at One Earth Future has allowed me to immerse myself in a topic about which I knew exceedingly little. If you had asked me two months ago what “maritime security” entails, I likely would have said something along the lines of “piracy.” To be fair, that’s an important part of maritime security; I don’t think anyone would deny that. It’s so much more than that, though. Maritime security is a complex web of topics that relate to each other in complicated and often overlapping ways, including gas and oil reserves, coastal tourism industries, vulnerability to the negative effects of climate change, maritime border disputes between neighboring countries, sea migration routes, labor trafficking, the strength of a country’s navy, and the ecological balance of a country’s fish stocks, to name just a few. I never would have thought that so many topics, some of which seem unrelated to maritime security at first glance, would be pertinent in my work this summer. I’ve realized that I love seeing how the disparate pieces connect to form a broader picture of maritime security in the dozens of countries that I’ve studied at OEF.

The connection to human rights continues to become clearer, as well, particularly in topics like human trafficking at sea. One of my projects involved combing through the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, which describes in great detail the state of human trafficking in each country. Although I didn’t have to read every page of the 500+ page report, what I did read was sometimes excruciatingly hard to stomach and hard not to mentally take home with me at the end of the day. The work, though, remains important, and the links between human trafficking and maritime insecurity are well documented. Thai fishers, for example, are sometimes tricked into accepting what they often believe to be a lucrative aquaculture job, sometimes in another country. Ultimately, many of these people are forced to fish on fishing vessels for years at a time, rarely, if ever, seeing the shore. They live in abysmal conditions, work against their will, and are constantly vulnerable to physical and mental abuse by the trafficker-captain. Stories like this are overwhelmingly common, and they don’t always resemble this one. Human trafficking can involve a system of debt bondage by which entire families are forced to work in brick kilns to pay off the debts of ancestors, or a domestic worker in Qatar whose family traps her in the house and forces her to work for very little pay. Trafficking takes many forms.

Recently, after spending weeks researching and collecting and coding data, we’ve transitioned into writing. Now that most everything is done on the data side, we’ve begun writing the content for the Maritime Security Index. There will be nine issue reports, one for each of the nine data categories, which include Coastal Welfare, Maritime Mixed Migration, and Piracy & Armed Robbery. The issue reports contain a broad overview of the state of each issue across the countries included in the Index, primarily in Africa and Asia. Each issue report will also dive into the specifics of the issue in each region; I’ve written many of the blurbs for the Middle East and North Africa. I’ve also worked substantially on the country reports, which provide a more focused look on the state of maritime security in each country included in the Index. Specifically, the country reports center on interesting stories from which one can glean broader information about the state of maritime security in each country in 2019. For instance, I’ve written about the effect of the conflict in Yemen on Yemeni fishers in the port city of Hodeida and the potential effects of an increase in coastal tourism in Lebanon this summer.

OEF will disseminate the Maritime Security Index, once completed later this fall, to various stakeholders and government actors around the world, as part of its mission to reduce the factors that lead to various kinds of conflict. I feel proud to contribute to a project in which I truly believe and that I find very exciting. I’m also proud of how much I’ve grown this summer. I’ve discovered a new interest that I didn’t know I had and developed my research and writing skills immensely. I still have about a month left in my internship, but nonetheless, I couldn’t be prouder of the work that I’ve done so far.

Des rencontres culturelles en Gambie

Par Linda Muhugusa

Le commencement de mon stage à l’Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa coïncida avec le début du mois sacré du Ramadan. La population de la Gambie étant musulmane à 90%, je me suis habituée à écouter les hymnes de la mosquée d’à côté et à voir au loin des groupes d’individus s’agenouiller sur leur tapis de prière pour le Asr, me signalant ainsi qu’il sonnait 17h. Je me suis rapidement retrouvée ébahie par les sublimes vêtements traditionnels qui, fabriqués de divers tissus aux couleurs hypnotiques, capturaient mon attention. Je me suis laissée charmer par la hâte des gens se précipitant chez eux juste à temps pour la prière de Maghrib, marquant la fin du jeûne, et au calme paisible qui régnait subséquemment dans les rues alors que tous étaient occupés à se régaler, entourés de leurs êtres chers.

Une mosquée à Banjul

Ainsi, assez brusquement, cette Sénégambie m’apprivoisa. J’y ressenti dès ma première semaine un sentiment de ‘chez moi’. Mais lorsque l’on voyage, tant bien que l’on essaie de se mettre à l’aise dans notre demeure temporaire, on préserve toujours un brin de voyeurisme. C’est pour cela que je m’attendais à ce que des choses et des événements, anodins pour les locaux, piquent ma curiosité ; je prévoyais et j’espérais être surprise. Cependant, je ne m’attendais pas trop à la surprise que j’allais éventuellement recevoir : que des étrangers décèlent un élément d’étonnement et de curiosité en moi.

En effet, il semblait que ma simple présence résultait en une longue ligne de questionnement.

« Hey sister ! Where are you from? »
« What’s your ethnicity? »

Ça, j’y étais habituée. Partout où je m’aventure, et même dans mon Montréal à moi, cette question m’a été posée. J’y réponds toujours, avec fierté, que je suis Canadienne, et originaire du Cap-Vert et du Congo. Cependant, c’est la suite qui me surprend.

« Not the country, I mean which ethnic group? Are you Fula? Or Tutsi? »

J’étais bouche bée. Des 20 ans de mon existence, jamais cette question ne m’avait été posée. Ayant vécu au Canada toute ma vie, mon entourage n’avait jamais accordé d’importance aux divisions fondées sur les ethnies, les peuples ou les tribus. J’étais Canadienne, Capverdienne, Congolaise ; que voulait-on de plus ?

Une plage près de mon appartement

Malgré mon laissez-faire initial, les commentaires sur la chose persistaient. Des étrangers, après un dépistage des traits de mon visage, m’arrêtaient parfois pour me demander si j’étais Fula.

« No… », je répondais.
« Your face really looks Fula. Or maybe Tutsi, are you Tutsi?”
« No..? »
« Are you sure? »

À vrai dire, je n’avais aucune idée. Bien que plusieurs se questionnaient sur mes origines et mon identité, je n’ai jamais ressenti que ces questions avaient pour but de m’exclure, puisqu’elles étaient posées avec l’attitude ‘teranga’ (hospitalière) propre à cette région du monde. Cependant, le groupe ethnique auquel j’appartenais était devenu une énigme autant pour ces étrangers que pour moi-même. Je savais bien qu’étant enfant d’un métissage ethnoculturel, la réponse à cette question n’allait pas être simple. Mais je me suis tout de même amenée à investiguer la chose, pour essayer de décortiquer les multiples facettes de mon identité, et afin de mieux identifier les composantes du créole qui joue en moi.

Mon mélange culturel, alors qu’il attire l’attention des étrangers, me sert cependant d’atout au travail, puisque la nature interafricaine de mon stage valorise le multilinguisme et la compréhension de nombreux systèmes juridiques. Ma connaissance de plusieurs nations et mon désir d’en apprendre plus sur les systèmes juridiques d’origine de mes parents s’étend presque sur tout le continent. Les diverses interactions que j’ai eues à propos de « ce que je suis » m’ont permis de mieux comprendre la complexité des questions ethniques qui se posent, et m’ont donné une meilleure idée du contexte culturel dans lequel opère les droits humains ici. Bien qu’emblèmes de la richesse et de la diversité de l’Afrique, les milliers d’ethnies constituant ce continent font aussi de ce dernier une terre complexe, et dans certains contextes, sont une source de divisions et de conflits.

 

La Commission africaine des droits de l’homme et des peuples, à Banjul

 

En vrai, un mélange de culture est présent dans le système juridique Africain à part entière. Ayant évoluée sous les influences eurocentriques de la structure de l’ONU, mais ayant des valeurs africaines à sa genèse et en son cœur, la structure continentale des droits humains est un amalgame de cultures au sens pur. En ce sens, ce droit est un peu comme moi…

Ces interactions quasi-quotidiennes sur mon ethnicité, comme bien d’autres expériences qui ont eu lieu depuis le début de mon stage, m’ont permis de réaffirmer ce que je savais déjà : voyager c’est apprendre à se connaitre et à connaitre les autres. C’est également une opportunité de mieux comprendre comment les sociétés s’organisent, et ainsi, de mieux comprendre le droit.

Carving a Path Towards Decriminalizing HIV in Canada

By Reeve Kako

Before starting my internship at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, I was completely unaware of the dire consequence that accusations of HIV non-disclosure have had upon thousands of people living with HIV across Canada. Canada remains fifth in the world in criminalizing individuals for not disclosing their status and continues to hold the unfortunate and unique title of prosecuting non-disclosure cases under the severe charge of aggravated sexual assault. Those convicted, including many who may be victims of sexual assault, abuse, or extortion by their accuser, face the threat of life sentences and a mandatory registration on the sex offender registry. Regardless of whether the virus was actually transmitted, and even with the use of a condom, the possibility of being charged and convicted for non-disclosure remains a frightening possibility for many throughout Canada.

Coming to understand this shocking reality faced by those living with HIV in a country I have always been proud to call a champion of human rights was deeply saddening and disturbing.  As an openly gay man who understands all too well the impact that government policy has had upon LGBTQ+ persons and their access to dignity, I was, and will continue to be ashamed of my government until HIV decriminalization advocates are listened to and reform efforts are realized.

Thankfully, despite this grim legal landscape for HIV non-disclosure cases in Canada, last month provided ample reason for me to believe that positive reform may be within reach. As part of my internship, I had the privilege of assisting at the second meeting of the Canadian Coalition to Reform HIV Criminalization (CCRHC) on June 12th and 13th. The day following these meetings, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network also held a larger Symposium focused on HIV criminalization.

As the minute-taker at the CCRHC meetings, I was introduced to the challenging yet rewarding process that is coalition building. It was remarkable to see how a large group of people with a diverse set of viewpoints could share their opinions and work toward a common set of goals for the future. Tough questions were raised, such as the issue of how to reconcile the risks of pursuing legislative reform when it could ultimately lead to a new offence that might come with its own adverse consequences. In the end, however, compromises were struck, and priorities were laid out, while other issues were left to be decided when more information on the future political landscape became available. Being able to witness this valuable work allowed me to realize firsthand how reform efforts are championed and the significance of building consensus to achieve a common advocacy goal.

The Symposium on HIV Decriminalization that followed provided a medium to attract public attention to decriminalization efforts across Canada.  Canada’s Attorney General, David Lemetii opened the Symposium and spoke in support of decriminalization efforts. He committed his government to pushing decriminalization efforts further should his party win re-election in the fall. Survivors of decriminalization shared their sorties in a public forum, bringing an important personalized viewpoint of the issue to the public, and the leading science on the transmission of HIV was presented.  The Symposium was an incredible day that demonstrated to me the importance of public relations and communications strategy in advocacy, as well as the power derived from first-person storytelling.

In the week following these critical meetings, Canada saw yet another watershed moment for HIV criminalization reform. The federal Justice Committee released a report that called for the end of prosecutions of non-disclosure under aggravated sexual assault laws and instead advocated for a new offence that would only criminalize cases where the virus has actually been transmitted. This would significantly limit the current “realistic possibility of transmission” standard. While these findings are positive steps towards achieving the CCRHC’s ultimate goal of complete decriminalization, less favourable aspects of the report included the recommendation that this new offence include other communicable diseases within its scope, as well as the potential for individuals being charged with non-disclosure based on a reckless standard of intent. These recommendations would create a criminalization scheme that would go further than the intentional standard for which the CCRHC has advocated. Yet, despite these drawbacks, a law based on these recommendations would nevertheless be significant progress towards narrowing the ability for the criminal law to punish people living with HIV.

However, despite ample reason to celebrate the report’s favourable recommendations, the CCRHC remains hesitant to do so. The Justice Committee’s report is only a preliminary success in a long legislative process, with several more steps required to pass such recommendations into law. The political uncertainty created by the upcoming October federal election therefore poses a significant potential barrier to this reform being realized. The Justice Committee’s report was not unanimous and was broken into a majority report written by the Liberal majority and two dissenting opinions written by the NDP and the Conservative parties, respectively. The majority findings of the report summarized the findings outlined above, while the dissenting opinion of the NDP proved to be more in line with the CCRHCs goals in rejecting the potential inclusion of a reckless standard. However, the Conservative minority report significantly differed from the CCRHCs proposals, advocating for continued criminalization of a “realistic possibility of transmission,”, as opposed to actual transmission, and a refusal to rule out prosecution for sexual acts where a condom was used, or only oral sex was engaged in. Therefore, the distinct possibility of a federal Conservative majority following October’s election could see the halting of most, if not all, of the positive aspects of the CCRHC’s legislative reform efforts.

The findings of this report act as an illustration to me of the both the rewards and frustrations inherent in human rights advocacy work.  On one hand, in large part due to the lobbying efforts and testimony offered by members of the CCRHC, the government in power has finally acknowledged the harm they are doing to those living with HIV.  However, on the other hand this acknowledgement and its recommendations for change may never be realized due to future political uncertainty. While coming to terms with this reality is difficult, in the end, my internship has taught me that allowing this possibility to deter you or exhaust you from continuing to push for change is about the worst thing an advocate can do. Governments change, however, what remains consistent is the ability for advocacy groups to continue to push for needed reform in spite of resistance. Should the government change in the fall, reform efforts will recalibrate and the fight for justice must and will continue!

Life after the Easter bombings

By Tessa Martin

It was April 21st. My partner came barging into the living room, a look of shock on his face.

“Tessa, there was just a terror attack in Sri Lanka, multiple bombs have gone off.”

 

Thirteen days later, my flight landed in Colombo.

______________

So much can be said about the attack itself…

About the victims.

The 257 people who lost their lives and all the others left behind.

All that has been lost… the families blown apart.

 

About the perpetrators.

The fact that they were only a tiny radicalized group who most likely had outside help.

 

About the fact that this attack made little sense locally,

as there were no prior issues between Muslims and Christians to speak of

– only between Muslims and Buddhists, and Muslims and Hindus.

 This attack did not feed into any pre-existing local narrative.

 

About the Sri Lankan Government’s failure to react to all past and recent warnings

(from the Sri Lankan Muslim community itself

as well as from International Intelligence Agencies & Bodies)

about this specific group and a potential attack.

 

But there have been hundreds of news articles about that…

No, instead I want to talk about what happens after. How does society move on, or not?

I want to talk about what happens when the international eyes have turned away, following the dizzying spin of the news cycle, like flies drawn to the next brightest light. I do not mean this as an insult, as I also tend to fall into this rhythm.

But what happens after we stop watching?

_______________

I wish to talk about three things: Everyday life (locals), Islamophobia and Tourism.

Everything I have to say, of course, either comes from my experiences as an outsider, local news, or from countless Sri Lankans – friends, colleagues, random encounters and a lot of Tuk Tuk drivers – who have shared their thoughts, experiences and knowledge with me. I will do my best to relay what little understanding of the current situation I have gained over a mere two and a half months’ time.

I wish I could say this was my first time going to a city right after a terror attack. It wasn’t.

The memories of Paris in November of 2015 remain all too fresh.

Some parallels will be drawn.

________________

Tourism

I’ll begin with what perhaps, at first, appears most trivial… Tourism.

Only last year, Sri Lanka was rated the best country to travel to in 2019 by Lonely Planet. After a long a brutal civil war which ended in 2009, Sri Lanka had skyrocketed to the top of the travel charts.

The attacks quickly reversed this trend.

It did not take long to fall witness to this… On my second day in Sri Lanka, I decided to make my way to Gangaramaya Temple. While I was immediately dazzled by the peace and beauty of this place, one thing struck me all the more; the temple was completely empty. On the way back home from the temple I spoke to a Tuk Tuk driver/ tourist guide named Geethan, who told me that prior to the terror attacks an average of 800 tourists visited the temple every day. In the midst of our conversation, Geethan told me that he had gone from making 8000 rupees ($60 CAD) to 300 rupees ($2 CAD) a day because of the fall in tourism. He said, “I’m sure that in six months tourists will be back, but until then I don’t know how I will feed my 12-year-old daughter.”

The 70% fall in the hotel occupancy rate tells a similar story. In an effort to attract local tourism, the prices of rooms have dropped drastically. Although big hotels can take the hit, small hostel owners have been placed in a more precarious position.

While I was in Kandy, I found myself as the only occupant in a small hostel. One evening, I joined the owner of the hostel, Ramesh, for a drink and some nice conversation. Ramesh told me that prior to the attacks the place was always fully booked. In anticipation of the influx of tourists following the Lonely Planet rating, he had poured substantial finances into renovating the place. Ramesh is one of the many people now struggling to pay back their investment…

The East Coast, though in peak season right now, is deserted. Given the general upwards trend, many enterprising people from the area took out bank loans to open B&B’s and cafes and now are sitting empty while defaulting on their loans.

I hope this serves as a reminder of how important it is to come and support local economies in times of crisis. To us it’s a vacation; to them it’s a matter of subsistence.

___________________

Everyday life (locals)

My previous experience from being in Paris a week after the terror attacks in 2015 prepared me for one central sensation: the quiet. The feeling that time stood still… the deserted streets… the shock reverberating in everyone’s expressions. A rhythm of life slowed. The weight of the silence. The aura of mourning stagnant in the air.

To be honest, I did not fully grasp this upon first arriving in Sri Lanka. The constant flow of cars passing by and the periodic honking deluded me into a sense of ongoing activity. I was all the more confused when person after person commented on how quiet and empty the streets were. Today, now that the flow of traffic has mostly resumed to its pre-exiting insanity, I realize just how quiet Colombo had in fact been when I first arrived. ‘Quiet’ and ‘deserted’ are relative terms. Standstill looked different in Colombo as it had in Paris, but standstill it was.

In fact, I was not prepared for the level of disruption the attacks would have on people’s daily lives. Sri Lankans’ previous experience with 30 years of civil war – a war that only ended 10 years ago – did not desensitize people to the recent attacks, but rather triggered them. Over the course of my first couple of weeks in Colombo, I slowly came to understand that these attacks had shattered any sense of peace that people had finally acquired over the last decade.

The general feeling in the weeks following the attacks was: “we are back to square one.”

While the sight of the military in Paris felt absurd, almost like a parallel universe, the presence of the military in Colombo was all too familiar. I think this was best expressed by one of my co-workers, who said:

“I was driving my kids to school this morning and there were soldiers everywhere.

For a second, I thought WHAT YEAR IS THIS!? I was transported back to the war.

I don’t want my kids to get used to this… I don’t want this to be their reality too…”

She was one of the few people driving her kids to school that day.

This is where Paris in 2015 serves as an interesting, albeit morose, comparison. You see, the whole of Paris was in shock, but people kept going to work… kids continued to attend school… This was not the case in Colombo.

When schools reopened two weeks after the attacks, student attendance in major cities was reported to be as low as 5%.

In fact, people refused to leave their homes altogether. Supermarkets ran out of food as locals bunkered down in their houses for at least a week or two following the attacks.

The fear was palpable… Driven by a general mistrust in the government, and one another.

Over the past two months, I have watched as things slowly get back to normal.

But back to normal for who?

This brings me to the last and most important point I wish to make: the demonization of Muslims following the attacks…

______________

Islamophobia

Sri Lankan Muslims, representing 10% of the country’s population, are not new to Islamophobic attacks.

Communal violence erupted in 2014, and later in 2018 in Ampara and Kandy, as Sinhala Buddhist hardliners, with complicity of law enforcement agencies, rioted and destroyed Mosques, archeological sites, businesses and properties of Muslims. The reasons for the attacks were: (1) the phobia of a growing Muslim population, (2) the myth of sterilization pills, and (3) economic jealousy and rivalry between Muslims and Sinhalese. The idea of radicalization did not feature into the debate.

The Easter bombings didn’t just bring about a rise in Islamophobia, but birthed an entirely new reason to discriminate: fear of radicalization… of terrorism…

Muslims are not just seen as competitors today, they are seen as dangerous… as a threat to people’s safety.

The international Islamophobic narrative has made its debut in Sri Lanka, galvanizing the fears of the majority. The actions of a few have been held to represent an entire group, casting a dark shadow over Sri Lankan Muslims as a whole, all painted with the same brush. How… classic, I know. The predictability of human irrationality never falters.

It did not take long to see the effects…

The week of the bombings, Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena outlawed the Niqab and Burqa, invoking emergency law. The fact that the suicide bombers had all been men with uncovered faces apparently did not feature into the decision.

In fear of backlash, many Muslim men shaved their beards and women removed their hijabs.

Their fear was not misplaced…

Three weeks after the bombings, a wave of Anti-Muslim riots by Buddhist hardliners broke out across the country. Mosques, Muslim business and homes were burned to the ground. A Muslim man lost his life, stabbed to death in front of his family while trying to protect his carpentry workshop. A nation-wide curfew and a social media ban were imposed, lasting 4 days and a week respectively.

On the evening of the second day of the curfew I walked into the living room to find my housemate sitting on the couch on her phone. I asked her what she was doing.

“Watching my country burn,” she replied.

There was a simplicity in the way she said it… Her tone matter-of-fact, yet conveying all the emotion in the world. The phrase keeps resonating in my head.

Rumour was that the police had done little to stop the mob… The descent into unbridled violence had been sparked by a Facebook post by a Muslim shopkeeper stating, “Don’t laugh more, 1 day u will cry.” It was interpreted by locals to be a warning of an impending attack. The man was arrested. Most of the rioters, were not.

Muslims, activists and politicians have reported a rise in the arbitrary arrest of Muslims and police harassment in Sri Lanka, a reality which has even garnered the attention of the EU. A Muslim doctor, falsely accused of performing sterilization surgeries on Sinhalese women by certain individuals seeking political mileage, has been refused bail because it would cause ‘societal unrest’. Meanwhile, a hardline Buddhist monk convicted of spewing hate speech received a Presidential pardon.

What’s worse? On June 3rd, all of Sri Lanka’s Muslim ministers and their deputies resigned, following demands by hardline Buddhist monks to fire five Muslim provincial governors and a minister from the government. Sri Lankan Muslims have therefore been left largely unrepresented in government, causing warranted apprehension.

While more could be said on the subject, I wish instead to turn to my own encounters with day to day incidents of Islamophobia – incidents that I either witnessed or which were recounted to me by people I met.

A month and a half after the attack, I went on a trip to the South with a Sri Lankan friend of mine named Fadhl. We were in Gall fort trying to rent a motorcycle, but that did not go as planned. After demanding that Fadhl give him his passport, the motorcycle owner blatantly asked Fadhl if he was Muslim. Rather than explaining his mixed heritage (being ½ Moor, ¼ Sinhala and ¼ Tamil), Fadhl simply walked away, refusing to dignify the man’s comment with a response.

Later that day, we met a local coffee shop owner named Kat, who told us that a Tuk Tuk driver had tried to persuade her to go to a Sinhalese shop instead of the Muslim grocer that she always got her groceries from.

Boycotting of Muslim shops is a common occurrence these days. According to a documentary filmmaker who I met last week, 60% of Muslim businesses in Batticaloa (which has one of the highest percentages of Muslims in the country) have been boycotted. Meanwhile, Muslim Tuk Tuk drivers on Pick Me (the local equivalent to Uber) have started warning passengers that they are Muslim, leaving many people to decide to get another Tuk. This, I think, is representative of a greater, perhaps more troubling, trend – A trend which this filmmaker pointed out to me.

When I asked what surprised her most about her interviews with Muslims from across the country, it only took her a second to respond:

“The Guilt,” she said.

I nodded silently, trying to push down my outrage at the thought that victims of discrimination so often internalize people’s misconceptions. Outraged because the world has succeeded in making Muslims feel responsible for the actions of others whose beliefs share no resemblance to their own.

And you know what really scares me most? This isn’t local at all…

What I am witnessing here feels like just another facet to the global rise of Islamophobia.

 

 

Meeting human rights defenders: when one falls, ten will rise

By Natalia Koper

Winter in Lima is a multisensory experience. The streets are dusty and polluted, and the chilly humidity is difficult to get used to. The hustle and bustle of traffic and street vendors continues long after dusk and resumes at full volume from the early morning hours. The sky is murky every day, giving the city a feel of suspense and unease. It’s been over a month since Lima welcomed me and crossing a busy street is still an adventure. Here, the green light is merely a suggestion – never a guarantee. Instead, drivers approach honking, announcing their presence in defiance of traffic norms.

It was a pleasure to hang out with Emilie de Haas, a former IDEHPUCP intern from McGill, while she was visiting her friends in Peru.

Despite its tense and mysterious side, Lima is also lively and passionate. I wake up every day listening to the sweet tweet of the birds. Every household in my neighbourhood has a colourful garden of tropical flowers and plants. And then there’s soccer: I didn’t need to watch Copa América (the South American soccer championship) to know the current score whenever Peru was playing, as the entire city would hold their breaths and then cheer wildly into the streets every time their compatriots scored a goal.

If Lima were a person, she would be a moody rule-breaker, but also creative and spirited.

My amazing colleagues from the Institute. Thank you for being so welcoming!

This is the setting of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (IDEHPUCP in Spanish), a leading Latin American research facility, and it is where I’m spending my summer. The Institute, born in 2004 from the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR), continues to examine the causes and implications of the internal armed conflict, which raged in Peru for two decades between 1980 and 2000. The work of the Institute goes beyond this mandate, by striving to build a stronger civil society through research, publications, and education programmes. I’ve been so grateful for the opportunity to participate in the very diverse initiatives that the Institute is undertaking.

Last week, I attended workshops organized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Together with the only other foreign intern Weronika (who is a third-year political science student at Yale and coincidentally Polish, like me), we reported on the events taking place throughout the week. There were 60 human rights defenders from twenty Latin American states, selected from almost 3000 applications. On the first day, everyone introduced themselves and briefly described their line of work. Among different dimensions of human rights work, the defenders discussed women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, Indigenous and Afro-descendant rights, environmental rights, migration rights, rights of prisoners, freedom of expression, and rights of victims of armed conflicts. I felt honoured to be in the presence of this diverse group of extraordinary individuals who put their lives at risk to defend values and causes worth fighting for. Spending an entire week with them was truly a humbling and inspiring experience.

At the beginning of the IACHR course, participants identified key challenges for the human rights field in Latin America.

I had the pleasure of speaking to a few of these activists, one of whom monitors prison conditions in Venezuela. As she described, prisoners in Venezuela are dying from a lack of the most basic medical care – anything from tuberculosis to ear infections. They are also subjected to torture, with cases of deaths registered as suicides. Prisons are so overcrowded that some people stay in tiny custody cells at police stations for months after being convicted. This phenomenon has led prisoners to establish a rotation system for who will get to sleep on a particular day.

I also met an immigration lawyer from Guadalajara, Mexico who recounted challenges faced by stateless immigrants trying to register their children in Mexico. Some people who arrive in Mexico from rural areas of Central America do not have any documents, no birth certificate, nothing. When they turn to the Mexican authorities for registering their children’s birth certificates, the immigration authorities refuse to process the documentation, which means further marginalization and limited access to public services. This is why Luis’s FM4 Paso Libre is committed to providing comprehensive assistance to those in need, including shelter, psychological help, and social reintegration, and legal advice.

The main objective of the course was to train human rights defenders in accessing the inter-American human rights system, composed of the IACHR (same guys who organized the course) – whose doors you can on knock first if you’d like to denounce human rights violations in an OAS country – and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – the main organ of the inter-American system (where Kelly O’Connor is completing her internship placement right now). The participants engaged in a series of interactive lectures and mock hearings led by the IACHR staff (and recently appointed Commissioner Julissa Mantilla, who is a law professor of some of my colleagues at the Institute). At the end of the course, they were committed to imparting what they learned in their organizations and communities.

The participants tried out different roles during a mock IACHR hearing. The fact pattern concerned the urgency of granting adequate protection measures to the wife of an Indigenous community leader.

A recurring theme of the week was the safety of human rights defenders. Three out of four murders of human rights defenders occur in Latin America, as was emphasized by Commissioner Francisco José Eguiguren during a conference that inaugurated the week. In 2018, Colombia and Mexico alone accounted for 54% of the total killings, according to Front Line Defenders’ report. In addition, the activists face threats, criminalization, harassment, stigmatization, and arbitrary detentions. Some of the participants have already experienced violence or are beneficiaries of precautionary measures, which are granted by IACHR in serious and urgent situations in order to prevent irreparable harm.

Human rights defenders play a critical role in protecting the rights and wellbeing of their communities. Their voice holds governments and businesses accountable to the international community and the public in general. As such, it is disheartening to hear about activists labelled as ‘terrorists’ and peaceful protests equated with ‘inciting rebellion.’ Arguably, it’s in everyone’s interest to keep rights-upholders safe. Am I naïve to think that everyone wins if rights pertaining to each and every one of us are recognized and respected? For some reason, the dynamic of human rights defence has always been binary and adversarial: activists versus the government; the community versus the corporation etc. As a result, the mistaken pursuit of power and wealth has led many private actors to believe that human rights pose a limitation to business. But the way I look at it, businesses thrive where rights are respected because they operate more efficiently in an environment of political and economic stability, transparency, and accountability.

On the last day of the IACHR course, everyone had a chance to reflect on the past few days and to celebrate its diversity of perspectives and cosmovisions. There were many tears and expressions of gratitude for being heard by the IACHR. Within one week, these people exchanged accounts of violence and other challenges they face daily, realizing to their surprise that they shared many of the same experiences. It was very powerful because, simply put, it meant that they were not alone in their fight and that they could look for support among each other. In the end, a participant from Chile shared with the group a Mapudungun message of hope: when one falls, ten will rise.

On the weekends, I try to travel as much as possible. I’ve never been to Peru before and there is so much to see!

A condor at Colca Canyon.

Here, Paracas National Reserve, home to Humboldt penguins, sea lions, and breathtaking landscapes.

The said penguins at Islas Ballestas, in Paracas National Reserve.

Research and Knowledge Theft in Uganda

Katrina Bland

There was a professor from Canada, who every year would take me for coffee, and at the end of every coffee, she would have a chapter written based on my conversation. So, I have decided that I no longer share vital knowledge on the issues we have been working around. As an issue of intellectual property rights, this is my request, don’t let western scholars steal your knowledge. Let us write.”

Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt all eyes in the room turn to me. As the only Canadian present and the intern charged with taking verbatim notes, it appeared that I could be preparing to do the very thing he was warning against. Words that the speaker intended as a call to arms for the native Ugandans in the room would recur to me again and again as they echoed some questions I have been asking myself about my time in Uganda. 

This is the view from my office at RLP. Across the street is Old Kampala Primary School and in the distance the National Mosque is visible. From my office I can hear the sound of children playing, practicing the drums as well as the call to prayer everyday. Old Kampala is no longer the downtown centre of Kampala, but was the centre of the colonial administration before independence.

On my first day at Refugee Law Project (RLP), I sat in my office and read the Compendium of Conflicts put together after years of research by RLP’s Conflict, Transitional Justice and Governance department. I am embarrassed to admit that I was surprised by how complicated Uganda’s history of internal conflict is and how little I knew about the country that would be my home for the next three months. While I was familiar with Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, I knew nothing about the funding of various rebel groups by foreign African governments, the diversity of Uganda’s ethnic make up and the inter-tribal tensions further exacerbated by religious adherence, or the efforts made to have customary, religious and English common law co-exist as parallel and at times equal legal systems. My surprise, however, transitioned into something that resembled exasperation and recognition of my own incompetence. Who am I to be here? What could I possibly offer?

Set up of a psychosocial, medical and legal aid camp hosted by RLP for World Refugee Day. Almost 300 people attended seeking access to one or all of the services at the event. Although the event was meant to end by 5PM, it stretched on due to the overwhelming demand. During the event I tried to help as much as I could, but my ability was limited. While I gained a great deal from witnessing the event, I feel that I was able to offer little in return.

I think internships are often more work for the host organizations than for the interns themselves, no matter where you are in the world. Here, so far away from home and where the perspective on history I had absorbed over my life is out of place, this is exacerbated. I imagine I would need at least a couple years of education in Uganda, on the culture, history, socioeconomic structure and so on, before I could offer anything at all. I am lucky that my colleagues at RLP have been nothing but patient and welcoming with me as I try to catch up.

One of the tasks I have felt I could be useful doing has been editing working papers and other documents written by RLP staff from across Uganda. I am extremely self-conscious while doing it, however. English was forced upon colonized societies and there is still a tendency for people from the Global North to assume that English being different in post-colonial societies is the same as English in those societies being bad. Instead, however, I think that English in Uganda simply evolved differently the same way English in Canada evolved differently from English in the United Kingdom or the way French in Montreal is recognizably different from French spoken in Paris. They are in a way, all different dialects with the same roots. As such, I struggle to understand at times, as the primary connotations of words here are different from those at home. More than this, I think story telling is a deeply personal and cultural practice. The expressions that resonate with individuals vary from place to place, from culture to culture. Is there any objective value to the Global North’s conception of academic English? Or should we all be moving towards accepting more diverse versions of story telling and argument writing?

Inner courtyard of the Parliament of Uganda in Kampala
Kampala was chosen as the capital of the British protectorate of Uganda as it was the centre of the Buganda Kingdom, the Kingdom the British favoured to rule over the conglomeration of other Kingdoms that became Uganda. The same speaker as in the quote above said in another instance, “What is Uganda? There is no such thing. You know, the thief is always in a hurry, so the British forgot the B. On the copy of the agreement signed between the British and Buganda Kingdom in Luganda, the B is still there.”

In my experience, this recognition of lived experiences as a form of truth telling worthy of legitimacy in academic and professional spheres is only emerging in legal scholarship in Canada. In comparison, it seems that Uganda is years ahead. RLP, for example, specializes in organizing events they call memory dialogues, which serve as an opportunity for individuals to describe events as they remember them and contribute to the creation of a collective history. I have edited many documents that draw on these memories, describing surviving mass killings in village squares or witnessing individual murders where the bodies were later skinned or boiled in the street. Who am I to change the words and phrases someone has chosen to relate their experience working with war torn communities in northern Uganda? Still, as the documents are intended for a global audience, particularly future donors and other NGOs looking for best practices to follow, there is some practical need for them to meet the expectations of those readers. As such, I try to find an appropriate balance between what my instincts tell me about academic English and the author’s original voice.

I am reminded of the words of the speaker above during this process. Although I am only editing, it is not hard to imagine the sense of ownership the speaker’s Canadian friend would feel over a chapter resulting from their conversation. Does translating stories into the Global North’s conception of an academic thesis give us the right to call the ideas our own? Or does it simply allow us to remain willfully blind to what the speaker resents? If I consider research and writing about Africa as, at least in part, a self-interested practice, often allowing individuals who participate in it to garner some kind of elite status, it seems that extracting knowledge and experiences as fuel for this process is akin to colonial resource extraction. Unlike physical resource extraction, however, the market in which scholars from the Global North sell their ideas does not buy raw materials. There are so many good reasons and intentions behind this kind of research and writing, but at the same time, I feel it may be complicit in the perpetuation of the Global North/South dichotomy. Have I trapped myself? I am not prepared to celebrate such scholarship wholeheartedly, but I am not prepared to denounce it and walk away either.

The question, then becomes, what can I possibly offer in the future? Will I ever come back to Uganda? Will I work for an international human rights organization somewhere else? Will I ever be able to give anything back to the people who have shaped my experience here by walking me through some of the most complicated and painful issues RLP is trying to tackle through transitional justice?

Petit, a fellow intern at RLP and law student and me at the Wildlife Conservation Centre in Entebbe, known to locals simply as the zoo

Solomy, a transitional justice lawyer with RLP, and me at an event on property rights in post-conflict communities hosted at the Parliament of Uganda

I thought at first that even if I took what I learned here and applied it in Canada or elsewhere, that would be enough. In fact, there is so much that Canada could learn from the transitional justice movement in Uganda. But, then I learned that the resentment against knowledge theft, as articulated by the speaker, is not an isolated opinion. Communities all over Uganda—whether rural or urban, refugee or host—describe people, like myself, coming in, conducting interviews, doing research, and leaving. It feels, understandably I think, exploitative to be asked to share painful experiences and hopes for the future with a stranger who will take your words, translate them into a paper written in academic English and return to their comfortable life somewhere where their families will be happy they survived Ebola. No tangible difference in your life as an individual, often no thank yous and no goodbyes.

My focus on this seems to reinforce that I am from the Global North, a fact that I often instinctively wish I could hide. In contrast, my colleagues seem less concerned. As educated professionals from the capital, they are in some ways removed from the people they are trying to help like me. More than anything, they want me to worry about gaining as much as I can from my internship experience. Just yesterday, one of my coworkers said he was going to talk my supervisor into taking me to the field to see some of what I have been reading about first hand. In response to my discomfort and concerns, he simply said ‘What you learn here could influence what you do for the rest of your life.’ I have no doubt that my time at Refugee Law Project already will, and even though I don’t think I have any answers to the questions I have been asking in this blog, maybe that is enough for now.

Lake Victoria as seen from Ssese Islands where the main economic activities are fishing, logging, and palm oil production for exportation. Prior to colonization, the islands were the spiritual centre of the region.

Navigating the Small Moments in Kampala

By Kirstie Russell

My commute to and from work is, in many ways, the time when I am most reflective on my new life in Kampala. Part of me wonders if this is because it makes up about 2 to 3 hours of my day, but another part of me thinks it is because it gives me time to slow down and really observe the city, its people and the way of life here. Kampala’s exuberance and vibrancy is difficult to put into words. Whatever I write here in this blog cannot possibly do it justice.

I arrived in Uganda nearly two months ago and still, almost every day, I see a passenger riding a boda (the motorcycles that most locals use to get around) while balancing some kind of large object on the end of the bike. For example, last week we saw a passenger transporting what must have been a 4-foot sheet of glass, which if you are at all familiar with Kampala’s traffic, is extremely risky business. The week before that, we saw a boda driver carrying a passenger who was balancing another broken down boda perpendicularly in his hands, clearly on the way to a mechanic. Just yesterday we saw a boda driver transporting what must have been 8-foot tall stalks of sugar cane horizontally through the narrow streets of Old Kampala, just missing other drivers passing by. Each and everyday we see bodas carrying entire families (sometimes up to 3 or 4 people, including small children) to their workplace and to school. Most of the time these small motorcycles narrowly squeeze in between the traffic, which operates relatively seamlessly but on its own accord given that there are barely any stop signs, traffic lights or street lamps. Meanwhile, pedestrians boldly skirt between the vehicles, which move in sudden spurts taking little mercy on anyone who risks getting in the way. Goats and chickens also occupy the roadway, trying to feed on whatever they can find in the grassy patches next to the uneven tarmac ridden with potholes.

Traffic, which is called “jam” in Uganda, is an inevitable part of life here. This is part of the reason why so many locals rely on using boda-boda’s, which are small motorcycles that weave in and out of the traffic in order to get their passengers to their destination on time.

In a way Kampala traffic is utterly hectic and completely overwhelming but from another perspective, it’s quite beautiful. The streets are chock-full of multicolored cars, mostly models from the 1980s to early 2000s, and motorcycles weaving in and out carrying all kinds of people wearing anything from a suit to flip flops to a beautifully patterned kitenge dress. All of this takes place against a backdrop of lush green hills, dotted with red roofs and rich rust-coloured dirt. A friend of mine local to Kampala describes the city as “beautiful chaos” and I think that puts its perfectly.

Kampala sits on seven hills and numerous valleys. It is extremely lush with all kinds of different trees, ranging from fruit trees to pine trees. Virtually anything can grow here because the climate is so amenable to growth.

The smells of Kampala are almost as diverse as the users of the roadway. On a warm sunny day, the air is usually thick and polluted but as you pick up speed you get enough of a breeze to catch the smell of fresh cassava cooking in oil in silver pots set up all along the road. Towards the middle of the day, the “rolex guys” start setting up their small stands typically protected by nothing other than a meager umbrella that is nowhere near big enough to stop them from getting drenched by one of Kampala’s intense but brief rain storms. Rolex’s are a classic Ugandan food consisting of a thin omelet rolled up in chapati, which is a wheat based fried bread, similar in a way to naan. Even later in the evening you can see women and their children setting up stoves along the roadside where they spend the evening roasting maize, which they then try and sell to tired and impatient drivers stuck in traffic (which the locals call “jam”). I’ve learned that food is extremely important to Ugandans. In fact, I find that it is one of the very first topics strangers ask me about when they find out I am visiting from Canada: “…but have you tried Ugandan food?” I’ve even had Uber drivers invite me over for dinner out of fear that the local food I have tasted is not up to standard. I have been lucky, though, because the organization where I interned at the beginning of the summer kindly provided its staff with lunch. Lunch typically consisted of a number of staple Ugandan foods, including: ground nut “g-nut” paste, which is a purple paste that is made out of nuts that taste similar to peanuts; mataoke (the most cherished Ugandan food), which is boiled and mashed green banana cooked in a banana leaf; Irish potato, which is similar to boiled potatoes at home; pumpkin, which is similar to acorn squash in Canada; beans or cow peas; rice; and some kind of stew, typically made with chicken, beef or fish.

A local man making chapati at a rolex stand near the Refugee Law Project. Chapati is a very cheap but filling option for lunch. I think this is the best Chapati out there, but apparently everybody thinks their “rolex guy” makes the best chapati.

For the first week, I tried every single food available at lunch (with the exception of the meat dishes because I am a vegetarian). I enjoyed most of the dishes but I quickly learned that my body was not used to consuming that much starch all at once in a single meal. Perhaps my challenge with digesting rice, potatoes, chapati, etc. all in one sitting is related to the fact that in North America there is an obsession with body image and because of this, often pressure to eat fewer carbohydrates. It’s possible that given my diet at home, I have difficulty digesting such a large amount of gluten all at one time. In the following weeks, I realized that I had to adjust my lunchtime eating habits to include just beans, cowpeas, rice and avocado in order to avoid getting a stomachache. This disconcerted my colleagues a lot. Every day someone would comment that I wasn’t eating “real” food. Ugandan’s love meat so it was difficult for them to understand why I would choose to eliminate this cherished food group from my diet. Initially, I felt really guilty about not eating all of the different foods offered in the buffet because I could tell that my colleagues were proud of their cuisine and eager to share it with me. I also recognized that choosing not to eat meat is a privilege that is not available to everyone. I didn’t want to come across like a picky eater because let’s be honest, nobody likes a picky eater. I tried to explain to my colleagues that in Canada, unlike Uganda, animals tend not to be raised ethically. Upon hearing this explanation, most of my colleagues understood my reasons for being vegetarian. Many of them seemed aware that food in North America is highly processed and they are very much proud of the fact that Ugandans eat real, natural food. And they should be proud. The tomatoes here are a deep cherry red like I’ve never seen before; the avocados, which are literally the size of my face, are a bright shade of green; and the chickens and goats roam around freely until maturation. The freshness and diversity of the food here is truly amazing, so it is unsurprising that it is such a critical aspect of Ugandan identity.

However, after three weeks of receiving commentary on my food intake, I admittedly became a bit tired out by other people’s focus on my personal dietary choices. Sometimes it felt like it’s all anyone wanted to talk to me about. That and the fact that I had a driver, which I admit, is not something that I felt great about either. While I would have preferred to take public transport to work, I was told by my friend who is from Kampala and who knows the city well that the safest and most reliable way for me to commute to my workplace (which is located about 40-60 minutes outside of the city) was to organize a scheduled driver. Before arriving in Uganda, I had many reservations about this set up. I recognized that this was not a typical form of transport and that it would likely be perceived as “privileged” (as it should be). I wasn’t wrong about this. On my very first day, I was asked the normal question of “where do you live?” and then “how do you reach?” which means “how do you commute?” When I explained that I had a driver due to the challenge of using public means from where I live, the next question was almost always “how much do you pay for that?”

In Canada we tend to avoid asking strangers personal questions, especially questions related to money. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case in Uganda, which is a much more collectivist society than North America, where we are typically more private and individualist. In my experience, Ugandans are much more willing to ask questions about money, family and even in some cases sexuality. Indeed, many people, including work mates, seem to have little reservation asking for intimate details about your personal relationships. A common question people would ask me is why I haven’t had children yet given that I have been with my partner for so many years. At first, my immediate internal reaction to these sorts of questions is shock and then, admittedly, some amount of irritation – why is that anyone’s business other than mine? My external reaction, however, is typically to laugh sheepishly and to try and explain how expectations surrounding family planning are different at home. As a “western intern” in Africa I regularly find myself in this confusing position of feeling like an outsider – distanced and alone – while at the same time feeling like I have no personal space whatsoever because my understanding of what is “personal” is so different from that of most Ugandans, who have a genuine curiosity and well-intentioned concern for one another’s personal wellbeing and family life. I wonder if this is a feeling that international human rights workers feel all of the time or if it something that they get used to as time goes on.

I tried to remind myself of these cultural differences each time I was asked about the cost of my driver. I would try and vaguely explain that while the transportation to and from work is a significant cost, a local friend suggested that having a driver was the safest and most reliable mode of transportation for me, given where I lived. Unfortunately, living close to work was not really an option because the office is so far outside of Kampala and there is limited rental housing in the area. Those who found out how much I paid my driver were shocked by the amount (and to be completely honest when I said the amount out loud, I was too). However, many of them tried to hide their surprise by acknowledging that where I lived was particularly challenging to commute from. Others responded by referring to me sardonically as “their rich friend” or their “rich sister.” These comments were uncomfortable, but I had to learn to brush them off and not take them personally. I anticipated this response and to be quite honest, I understood it. I wished that I felt more confident navigating the matutu routes (local taxi buses) and taking bodas into the rural suburbs outside Kampala, but I knew I had to recognize my own boundaries and I chose to prioritize my safety. I had to accept the consequences of that decision and make the best of it. And funnily enough, it worked out. While at first having a driver seemed like something that was going to make me feel like a total outsider (and a privileged one at that), it had the paradoxical effect of bringing me closer to my colleagues because I could pick several of them up on the way to work and drop them off at the end of the day. In a weird way my commute, which I thought might distance me from my co-workers, actually brought us closer together by allowing us the opportunity to learn about one another’s lives outside of the office.

These very brief interactions in Kampala have taught me the importance of slowing down and noticing the small moments, for example the commute to work and lunchtime conversations, which can be easily taken for granted during an internship abroad. Often times, these seemingly insignificant features of everyday life are the things that we learn from the most. My more challenging moments have also served as an important reminder that when things feel difficult, frustrating or uncomfortable, it is important to remain calm and open-minded because things are not always as they seem and, in some cases, if you just hang in there, they even have a funny way of working out for the best. While it is important to prioritize your wellbeing and know your personal boundaries, I’ve learned that letting your guard down (in some situations) has the potential to change your experience for the better.

A view of the hills in Fort Portal, a city in western Uganda near the crater lakes.

A friend paddling along the Nile River in Jinja, Uganda.

Driving back to Kampala from Nakwero, the town where CEHURD is located.

Proud Namibia

By Bianca Braganza

One of the most rewarding aspects of my time with the Law Reform and Development Commission (LRDC) has been the civic outreach and education we have conducted. The Chairperson, as part of the mandate of the Commission, provides legal education to the public and community organizations on various subjects upon request. This summer has been filled with presentations crafted specifically for the legal rights of the LGBTQIA+ community in Windhoek, with a strong vision for the future of a Proud Namibia.

Wings to Transcend Namibia

Pictured with the board of Wings to Transcend Namibia: Left is Jholerina, the founder of the NGO, myself, Princess, Programs Officer, and right, the Chairperson of the LRDC, Ms. Dausab. Not pictured is Teddy, who is the Advocacy and Communications Officer.

In late May, the Board from the NGO Wings to Transcend Namibia, came to visit the Commission to request civic education on the status of the legal rights of transgender persons in the country. Here, Princess tells her story of coming out to her family and the journey to acceptance she has struggled to achieve within her family, community and country at large. What I have appreciated the most about our civic education and legal engagements is the way in which the Chairperson pushes for narratives, and for engaging our personal stories with the legal activism and endeavours we pursue. Ms. Dausab began the meeting not with agenda-setting and running through legal provisions and the report we prepared, but rather by inviting the Board to tell us about themselves, their journey, and the current experiences on the ground of persons who identify as transgender in Namibia.

Community Civic Education: Trans Rights

This led to the presentation we conducted earlier this month to the community at large on the legal rights of persons who identify as transgender in the country. Upon request from the community themselves, we addressed human and constitutional rights of transgender persons with regards to: interactions with the police (and the levels of brutality and discrimination this community faces), health care workers and discrimination in employment. We also presented legal steps that could be taken to change one’s name and pictures on official legal documents. This necessitated a thorough analysis of various birth, immigration and identification acts and informing the community of strong cases that could be made to advance legal recognition of their gender.

As we presented on the Pan African landscape for transgender rights, we were thrilled to discuss the exciting news from two weeks earlier that Botswana has decriminalized sodomy. This has had incredible repercussions for the perception, acceptance and legitimization of the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community at large. Botswana has also led the way for the rights of transgender persons, where in September of 2017, the High Court ruled for the right of a person to change their gender marker on their identity documents as refusing to do so was unreasonable, and violated their right to: dignity, privacy, freedom of expression, equal protection of the law, freedom from discrimination, and freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment.

The LRDC routinely conducts civic education on the history and application of Human Rights in the country. Ms. Dausab’s personal style uses interactive tools such as group discussions and activities to elicit key themes and takeaways from her presentation. For this presentation, she broke the approximately 30 community members into 3 groups, and had them complete an activity about the aftermath of a shipwreck, where we all were tasked with assigning roles (to the male and females in the fact pattern) for fetching wood, cooking, hunting, building, and engineering with the aim of outlining how cultural norms (and even domestically, how different tribes) conceptualize the traditional gender binary and male and female roles in society.

Completing the reflection activity.

One of the most pivotal parts of our presentation to the community included emphasizing not making the same mistakes as our neighbor South Africa, in the quest for equality. Here, legal progress preceded social progress. In the landmark case of Minister of Home Affairs vs Fourie, South Africa legalized same sex marriage in 2006, after a lesbian couple claimed their right to marry in a post-apartheid country. Although making South Africa a leader in the African context for marriage equality and legal protection against discrimination (the country has added protection provisions for discrimination based on sexual orientation in legislation), the case did not cause a nationwide consensus or shift in the social perception of LGBTQIA+ people. In effect, legal protection preceded public acceptance. There is currently more violence and brutality against the community in South Africa, despite the legal framework in place, than in Namibia, which does not have any legal provisions based on sexual orientation (or gender identification for that matter). It was therefore fundamental to provide a holistic account of social change during our presentation, and reinforce that the law is not always the sole answer. There needs to be incremental social change within the country based on: active citizenship (representation in government and the workforce of the community); education; media (using the arts as a powerful way to shift public perception and to foster empathy and compassion towards the community, as well as eradicate stigma related to HIV/AIDS and sex work); business indicators; and advocacy and action.*

#BeFree

The #BeFree Day that the Chairperson was invited to speak at was a very special and moving experience for me. It fused together the worlds I am passionate about of law, health, social justice, the arts and youth empowerment. The movement itself of #BeFree seeks to engage high school students with current topics that are culturally seen to be “taboo” and covers the topics specifically of LGBTQIA+, sex work and HIV/AIDS with the aim of educating youth and eradicating stigma and false information. The messages were beautifully presented, and incorporated a range of ways in which to explore these themes, including dance, comedy, theatre, the high school students themselves presenting a debate (the topic of religion versus culture), a panel discussion (with experts in legal, medical, and community activism), and of course, the open dialogue with the Chairperson, and the First Lady of Namibia (pictured to the right).

High School students from local Windhoek schools, awaiting the start of the programming.

At the #BeFree Day, alongside the Chairperson after her successful open dialogue on same sex marriage, disability rights and access to education with the First Lady of Namibia.

 

Namibia’s Diverse Women Association – UN SDGs and SOGIESC

Namibia’s Diverse Women’s Association (NDWA) requested a presentation from the LRDC to educate leaders in the community on the status of the rights of LGBTQIA+ persons in the country, with the aim of building a national linkage and intersectional human rights equality and inclusivity agenda. This was to be done by drawing upon UN systems and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in order to strategize on how exactly to advance the rights based on Sexual Orientation Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC) in Namibia.

With the framework of the SDGs, we aimed to create a holistic presentation that highlighted the intersectionality of various sectors in the advancement of this community’s rights in Namibia (health protections, the police force, economic advancement, housing and education). We also presented on the language and provisions of the Constitution while drawing upon successful cases made in South Africa and Botswana. There are currently two cases currently going to the Supreme Court of Namibia for same sex marriage (we find ourselves in extremely exciting times!).

We concluded that potential law reform moving forward can take the shape of (foremost) the repeal of the criminalization of sodomy (Criminal Procedure Act of 1977), the amendment of the Combatting of Immoral Practices Act of 1980 (including the repeal of outdated and unconstitutional provisions) and the insertion of protection of the rights of persons from discrimination based on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identification into various acts- from Labour, to Immigration, to Health Services Acts. It can also include the amendment of the Identification Act to allow gender marker changes and pictures for identification to be accepted without proof of gender reassignment surgery (which, in addition to hormone therapy, is currently not covered by insurance nor provided in the country).

Pictured with leaders from various LGBTQIA+ community grassroots organizations in Windhoek.

* “South Africa still hasn’t won LGBTQ+ equality. Here are 5 reasons why”. Retrieved from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/11/south-africa-road-to-lgbtq-equality/

From the Local to the National: A Snapshot of the Human Rights Situation in the Philippines

By Kathleen Barera

It’s already been about five weeks since I began my internship at Ateneo Human Rights Center in the Philippines. I am working at the AKAP/Child Rights Desk. My research project concerns the common children’s rights issues across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states, namely Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. This is part of Ateneo Human Rights Center’s project of “Building a Child-Friendly ASEAN”.

I am having an absolutely wonderful experience and don’t want my time to end! Ever since my first day, I have felt completely welcomed. I am lucky to be surrounded by and to be learning from a group of passionate, kind-hearted, and fun-spirited colleagues every day!

With some colleagues who treated me at a vegan restaurant, Cosmic

Luckily, I also arrived just in time for the basic orientation seminar on human rights, an integral part of the summer internship program, which prepares students for their week-long immersion in an indigenous community and their month-long internship with an NGO. In the span of four days, we participated in a number of informative sessions and workshops on topics ranging from indigenous rights to children’s rights and from alternative lawyering to paralegal training.

Human Rights: A Bad Word?

During the basic orientation seminar’s human rights and drug policy session, an attorney from StreetLawPH, an organization of lawyers and advocates with a mandate to provide access to justice to and protect the human rights of drug users in the Philippines,[1] said that ‘human rights’ has become a bad word here. Sadly, this statement truly does represent the current state of affairs in the country. I am reminded of this chilling reality each day as I read up on recent developments in the news.

Myself and the group at the Basic Orientation Seminar in Tagaytay City

Ever since Duterte’s presidency, the political climate in the Philippines has been far from conducive to human rights. Nearly two weeks ago, a 3-year-old child was fatally shot by a police officer during a drug bust operation.[2] Following this inconceivable tragedy, the words uttered by Senator Bato, a former police chief, were that “shit happens”.[3] This repugnant disregard for human life has been the norm from the moment Duterte became president in 2016. In fact, the human rights situation has rapidly deteriorated, most notably as a result of Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ (read: war on the poor),[4] particularly the extrajudicial killings of at least 27,000 suspected drug dealers to date, even children.[5] Duterte has in the past justified that any child killed in the drug war is ‘collateral damage’[6] and recently, he said that he prefers being connected to the extrajudicial killings than with corruption.[7]

Yet, Duterte has garnered and retained the support of many Filipinos. To my surprise, some people told me that they considered Duterte to be the Philippines’ best president, particularly because he has reduced crime. I learned at the seminar that this is unfortunately a common sentiment. When drug dealers are gunned down, there is a lack of empathy for the plight of the individuals in question. Instead, their tragic deaths elicit the reaction that there will now be less ‘criminals’ and ‘bad people’ on the streets.

Ateneo Human Rights Center-Save the Children Philippines meeting

The complete disregard for the rule of law under Duterte’s administration extends beyond the war on drugs. For one thing, the freedoms of dissenters have been undermined in many ways. There has been a crackdown on media freedom, such that journalists are increasingly targeted and murdered.[8] Duterte even threatened to have individuals who planned to file a case to have him impeached after the exclusive economic zone China-fishermen debacle imprisoned.[9] Furthermore, the rights of children in conflict with the law are under attack. Recently, the Senate refiled the bill to lower the age of criminal liability for children from 15 to 12 years old.[10]

Metro Manila Pride March: Love Conquers Hate

On June 29, I attended the Metro Manila Pride March and Festival, themed Resist Together, in Marikina City. I felt proud to stand as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community in the Philippines. There was a record-breaking crowd of over 70,000 participants, almost triple the number of attendees from 2018.[11]

Metro Manila Pride March in Marikina City, where participant is seen marching on, despite the disruptive opposition from some religious counter-protestors

While Manila has the biggest Pride demonstrations in Southeast Asia,[12] I knew to expect counter-protests from religious groups. I witnessed dozens of people lined up holding signs and handing out pamphlets about how God hates sin, but not the sinners, and that LGBTQ+ people can be saved.[13] An attendee told me that for the most part, nobody confronts the counter-protestors; rather, they continue to celebrate themselves in their march for equality. While I was angered by their disruptive presence, I decided to focus my attention on the laughter, love, purpose, and warmth emanating from the crowd of participants, with “Free Hugs” signs and open resistance to social injustice.

Although there are closed-minded people who don’t believe their fellow human beings deserve the same dignity and human rights as them, and even though the SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression) equality bill is still pending in Congress, the mayor of Marikina City enacted, on the same day and in front of the attendees, an anti-discrimination ordinance.[14] The ordinance ensures equal rights to the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace, education, and government services, and also criminalizes discrimination.[15] In a country where the President claims that beautiful women helped him ‘cure’ himself of being gay,[16] this is a powerful symbol of hope for a better future.

In front of the Rizal Monument at the Rizal Park, which commemorates the executed national Filipino hero Jose Rizal

Pinoy local dish kare-kare (peanut sauce stew with vegetables) made vegan

Halo-halo, a popular Filipino dessert, topped with ube (purple yam) ice cream

The tricycle/trisikad, a common form of transportation, in Intramuros (the walled city)

[1] See: https://www.hri.global/abstracts/abstracthr19/593/print

[2] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1138105/shit-happens-bato-says-after-a-child-got-killed-in-drug-bust

[3] Ibid.

[4] See: https://www.hrw.org/tag/philippines-war-drugs & https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/08/rodrigo-dutertes-drug-war-is-large-scale-murdering-enterprise-says-amnesty 

[5] See: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/philippines#c007ac https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-rights-un/philippines-faces-call-for-un-investigation-into-war-on-drugs-killings-idUSKCN1TZ22M

[6] See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/17/duterte-says-children-killed-in-philippines-drug-war-are-collateral-damage

[7] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1139316/duterte-you-may-link-me-with-ejks-but-not-with-corruption

[8] Ibid.

[9] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1134976/duterte-on-impeachment-proponents-ill-jail-them-all

[10] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1135970/early-18th-congress-bills-lower-age-of-criminal-liability-anti-fake-news-and-terrorism/amp?fbclid=IwAR0g47oS7QPRY9BSAOFfK2v-70WEsgR2dJBWaIpKeGQUB4XT9U-FA_6u5Lc

[11] See: https://www.rappler.com/move-ph/234225-metro-manila-pride-2019-attendees-breaks-record

[12] Ibid.

[13] See: https://www.rappler.com/move-ph/234350-how-religious-groups-clashed-lgbtq-rights-pride-march-2019

[14] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1135560/marikina-mayor-signs-anti-discrimination-ordinance

[15] Ibid.

[16] See: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/world/asia/duterte-gay.html

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