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On Electra & Venezuela

By Natalia Koper

Electra was an angry daughter. No wonder, her mother Clytemnestra, in a vengeful act, had killed her father Agamemnon after he had sacrificed his eldest daughter, the innocent Iphigenia on the altar of war. Being a daughter of a murdered father and a mother-murderer has marked Electra’s identity throughout literary history.

The story of Electra has been recounted many times partly because it exposes the complexity of human suffering; partly because the ease of reproducing violence resonates with our experiences and histories. Electra individualizes and humanizes the different facets of pain: her tragedy in the midst of the Trojan War is not discarded as one of many. At the same time, Electra’s struggle touches on some (perhaps) universally pertinent dilemmas. How to break with the cycle of violence? Where is the line between vengeance and justice? How does an ‘after’ for a survivor of violence even look like?

This year, I experienced this famous product of Greek mythology from a completely unexpected angle. In Lima’s Teatro la Plaza, a group of Venezuelan actors relived Electra’s story, adding to it that of their nation.

Poster, source: Larcomar <larcomar.com/electra-de-sofocles-a-clavier-de-grecia-a-venezuela/electra>

The actors signalled their message early on: the play began by the actors approaching the edge of the stage, introducing themselves, and explaining how long they have lived in Peru. Peru has observed a consistent increase of people arriving from Venezuela since the living conditions there began to deteriorate drastically in 2017. Currently, the country is the second-largest recipient of Venezuelans fleeing the violence of the Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Out of more than 800,000 Venezuelans residing in Peru, about 80 percent – including the actors in front of me – sought refuge in Lima.

The play, however, took us to the modern-day Caracas. It revolved around a family gathering, celebrating the birthday of Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. It was a glimpse into a fallen kingdom of prosperity. “Soon there will be nothing left to sell from this beautiful villa,” noticed one of the party invitees. (Actually, the comment served also as a meta-joke on the minimalist scenography). The purchase of birthday balloons, forming into Aegisthus’s name, met with Electra’s disapproval too.

The scenography

In this reality, Electra’s resentment towards the impunity of her father’s death gets mixed up with quarrels over a chicken missing from the fridge. Not so surprisingly, these two dimensions of the quarrel belong together here. In Venezuela, the aggravation of the institutional order, the restraints on civil rights, and extrajudicial killings go in pair with the economic crisis, extreme hyperinflation, and the consequent lack of access to basic social services. The economic fiasco of Maduro’s politics fuels the public discontent, which, in a strong democracy, would force him out of power. To hold on to his seat, Maduro resorts to the militarization of the public “safety” and the criminalization of the opposition. Extreme poverty also affects crime rates. All these factors combined push people to leaving the country, which further contributes to limiting access to social services and shortages of food and medical supplies. For example, by 2017, more than 40 percent of doctors who have graduated in the last decade decided to emigrate. Of those who remained in Venezuela, 75 percent still intend to leave. In short, Electra’s family perpetual cycle of violence coincides with what Venezuelans experience in real life.

In the play, the Caracas of 2019 finds itself contrasted with other moments from the 20th-century history. In particular, this Greek royal family holds on to the memory of better days, manifested in the abundance of everyday resources and the right to manage them in a carefree, wasteful manner. It’s not exactly clear whether that refers to the 1980s when Venezuela’s elite thrived on U.S-backed oil deals or to the more recent social welfare project of Hugo Chávez. Both of these “happy times” remind us, however, about the unstable foundation of the Venezuelan economy. By relying almost entirely on oil exports, the country is susceptible to economic collapse every time the oil market prices drop significantly. Economists call this phenomenon a natural resource curse, which again brings back the ancient Greek notions of fate and doom.

Electra didn’t manage to escape her family’s cycle of pain. Instead of joining her brother Orestes in Peru and leaving her fate behind in Venezuela, she completes the cycle the moment we hear behind-the-scene shots. Vengeance for her father’s death is executed, turning Electra into yet another murderer. What will be of Venezuela now?

 

Zoning and Human Rights in Toronto

By Reeve Kako

2017 City of Toronto map demarcating licensed Body Rub Parlours in Green, Holistic Centres allegedly offering offering erotic massage in purple, and Holistic Centres not offering erotic massage in blue.

While it is often the goal of human rights advocates to focus on high-level policy reform on a national or provincial scale, the discrimination that human rights advocacy attempts to combat often finds itself manifested in often less visible small scale and local decision-making. This reality was brought to my attention when my internship at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network brought me to Toronto City Hall in preparation for a submission regarding the city’s review of its bylaws for its licensing of Body Rub Parlours and Holistic Centres.

Quickly immersing myself in the issue, I came to learn that the city’s licensing of erotic massage proves to be a complex and dysfunctional regime that is the result of a stalemate between efforts to provide a regulatory scheme for the erotic massage industry and those who do not want sex work permitted in the city. As it stands, the city allows the operation of 25 licensed Body Rub Parlours, who are all sanctioned to provide erotic massage to customers. However, there are also approximately 200 additional establishments allegedly offering unsanctioned erotic massage who operate under the different business license as Holistic Centres.

The 25 Body Rub Parlours are required to abide by strict regulations, including limited opening hours, mandatory medical exams of employees, and extremely restrictive zoning regulations. In comparison, the Holistic Centres, which are not sanctioned to be offering erotic massage but are often doing so anyhow, are permitted to operate under much laxer regulations that are similar to any other commercial business.

For my part in my organization’s advocacy efforts, I was tasked with researching the disparate impact that the zoning regulations have had on the licensed Body Rub Parlours. The zoning restrictions on the 25 Body Rub Parlours only permits their operation in Employment Industrial Zones, as well as mandates that they also must be several hundred metres away from schools, residential lots, places of worship, and other adult entertainment establishments. These restrictions prove to be the most extreme zoning restrictions of any zoning requirement found in the city’s bylaws and effectively zone the sanctioned Body Rub Parlours into unlit, underpopulated, and ultimately unsafe areas of the city.

It was hard to see the logic for such strict zoning restrictions on the sanctioned Body Rub Parlours when erotic massage is happening throughout the city in the hundreds of Holistic Centres offering unsanctioned erotic massage. This demonstrated to me that the city crafted the zoning regulations with a moral objective as opposed to one based in best practice. While the operation of Holistic Centres offering erotic massage in virtually all commercial zoning demonstrates that allowing erotic massage throughout the city does not pose a significant nuisance, the city chose to place extreme restrictions on the licensed Body Rub Parlours out a morally based desire to not directly sanction such activity. My research indeed confirmed this, after an Access to Information Request from the city provided records that confirmed a lack of significant nuisance reported against Body Rub Parlours that would justify the restrictive zoning that they currently face. To provide some perspective, the only other lot type whose zoning restrictions compare to that of Body Rub Parlours is a Propane Storage, Holding, and Transfer facility.

These findings proved frustrating to me, demonstrating the city’s failure to accept best practice and evidence in favour of morally based narratives that demonize sex work and sex workers. Providing sex workers the ability to work in safe and well-lit neighbourhoods was forgotten in favour of often nebulous and unjustified concerns that having these establishments in neighbourhoods would contribute to some kind of moral decay.

Ultimately, my submission indeed highlighted these concerns and will be reviewed before year’s end when the city will decide on how proceed with bylaw reform efforts. It is my hope that the city the will be persuaded by best practice and evidence as opposed to moral imperatives surrounding sex work that often prove arbitrary. Coming to understand the extreme hurdles that employees at Body Rub Parlours must endure in order to stay employed demonstrated to me the insidious impact that local decision-making can have upon vulnerable communities. In applying this to human rights advocacy as a general practice, it is essential that human rights advocacy follow-through on national policy objectives by not stopping short of ensuring that an individual’s rights are protected at the often-overlooked local level.

Live-in Workers

By Tessa Martin

I would like to dedicate my last blog to discussing worker’s rights. More specifically, I wish to briefly discuss workers who live where they work. That is to say, workers who are housed on their employer’s property. My question is the following: Can it ever be ethical?

I will focus on two types of workers: live-in domestic workers and plantation workers living on estates. The majority of my time interning at the International Center for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Sri Lanka was spent researching the laws and policies surrounding Sri Lankan plantation workers living on large-scale tea and rubber estates. Meanwhile, I came across various situations with live-in domestic workers, seen as common place in this part of the world. Something about both of these forms of work felt inherently wrong to me, but it took me some time to figure out why, or what, felt so off-putting.

Much like live-in domestic workers, plantation workers in Sri Lanka’s tea and rubber estates face a lack of separation between their work and their private life. Their time and the spaces they inhabit are highly regulated, allowing employers to exert full control over their lives. This thereby creates the perfect conditions for a system resembling what one may call ‘modern slavery’. The International Labour Organization’s notes on the concept of vulnerability state that “forced labour is also more likely in cases of multiple dependency on the employer, such as when the worker depends on the employer not only for his or her job but also for housing, food, etc.”

Plantation workers live on the estates, far away from everything, secluded, left out of sight and out of mind. They are trapped in the space of their employers 24/7. Outsiders are denied entry to the estates since it is considered the private property of Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs). This made it nearly impossible for me to meet with plantation workers themselves throughout my research, relying instead on the experience of professors and NGOs. In fact, as a result, plantation workers are largely denied the opportunity to become their own agents of change and I question their ability to express their own narratives. This was a huge issue brought up to me by an activist who was highly engaged in the “1000 Rupee movement” (meant to increase plantation worker’s minimum wage), who spoke to me about the issues of creating a movement which largely excludes and is far removed from the people it is meant to impact.

The distinction between public versus private property is also used to exclude plantation workers from local governance. For example, the Pradeshiya Sabha Act excludes the estates from receiving public services provided for by Pradeshiya Sabhas (Divisional Councils). These public services include, but are not limited to, public health services, road maintenance and construction, drinking water, sanitation, electricity, garbage disposal, maternity care, pre-school and child welfare services. Moreover, as expressed in the preamble of the PS Act, the PSs are meant to “provide greater opportunities for people to participate effectively in decision making process relating to administrative and development activities at a local level.” The Pradeshiya Sabha Act has therefore served to ensure that plantation workers in Sri Lanka continue to be governed by companies rather than the state, thereby effectively excluding them from participating in democratic forms of governance.

This level of control is especially problematic given the gendered aspect of plantation and domestic work. The majority of plantation and domestic workers are women, therefore allowing for the continuity of control over women’s lives. If one is to abide by Amartya Sen’s understanding of human rights as freedom, and one is to see control and freedom as inherently opposed, then this form of work fits the very definition of the denial of human rights.

So, can a system wherein workers live where they work ever be ethical?  

Well, in some rare cases yes, but it depends entirely on the individual employers. This is to say the workers are placed at the mercy of their employers so called “benevolence.”

Of course, whether this means that these forms of work should not exist is an entirely different question. The reality of the situation is that this allows many people, especially women, to survive, and at times even to break out of the cycle of poverty. It would be far too naïve to call for the abolition of all forms of ‘live-in’ work. However, it is still worth reflecting on the inherent problems of such a system, and to start thinking of ways to further monitor the circumstances and to limit the power exerted by employers over workers.

 

Summer School in Advocacy

By Jessica Michelin

At the UN for the first time! Notice the giant smile on my face.

A highlight of my summer internship with Human Rights Watch was being invited to attend conferences and meetings held at the UN Headquarters. Sure, anyone can sign up for a tour of the UN and visit the building. But there is something about showing up in a suit, ID card in hand, that feels different than visiting as tourist wearing shorts and a fanny-pack (okay, I’m playing up the stereotype here). Beyond the initial awe of walking through the building and sitting in on meetings, going to the UN was a stand-out experience for me because it was there that I received my first big lesson in advocacy this summer.

On July 17th, the World Day for International Justice, I attended a conference about why #JusticeMatters.

It was at the UN that my supervisor showed me the importance of putting yourself in the right place at the right time. After the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court briefed the Security Council on the situation in Darfur, my supervisor instructed me and a fellow intern to follow her down the stairs to where journalists sometimes wait to interview the Prosecutor. We hovered in a corner. Now, a little known fact about me is that I hate breaking rules. I get so nervous about breaking rules that I don’t even like doing something that could potentially be breaking a rule. This means that I am not usually a hoverer or a loiterer, because I’m always too nervous that some security guard will nicely tell me to please move along. Despite my natural instincts not to hover, I followed my supervisor’s lead, and she eventually caught the attention of a journalist. They made small talk for a bit, and then the journalist asked my supervisor if she had anything she’d like to say about the briefing. Leaning confidently into the tape recorder, my supervisor delivered a concise and clear comment on the briefing. As we walked away, she shrugged “maybe the journalist will use that quote.” Sure enough, the next day my supervisor’s statement was included in the news article. By placing herself in the journalist’s path, my supervisor was able to make her voice heard.

The hallowed halls of the UN Security Council

All second-year students at McGill are required to take a course called “Advocacy”. We learn about many different ways to advocate for a client: demand letters, mediation, and oral advocacy at a mock trial. These lessons were interesting and helpful, and I will carry those skills with me into my career. The advocacy lessons I learned at Human Rights Watch were a bit different, but equally as important. At Human Rights Watch, I learned about the power of using other people to get your message heard. A newspaper picking up a story with a well-placed quote may reach a broader audience than an organization could reach on its own. An idea being pushed forward by one person may go further than if that idea is pushed by another person. My advocacy course taught me how to be a better advocate when I’m the one at the table. But my impromptu advocacy lessons this summer taught me how to be a better advocate behind the scenes. I learned that sometimes being an advocate means getting the ball rolling and letting someone else run with it. Or in some cases, rolling the ball directly into someone else’s path so that they have no choice but to run with it.

I was lucky to work with two fantastic fellow interns this summer. We all agreed that it was pretty awesome to go to the UN.

Trauma and the Practice of Human Rights Law

By Brittni Tee

In the early weeks of my internship at the Yukon Human Rights Commission, I attended a seminar focused on strategies to prevent vicarious trauma, burnout, and compassion fatigue in the workplace. With the exception of myself and my colleagues, the majority of people in attendance were social workers, addictions counsellors, and paramedics. As I listened to other attendees share stories about difficult situations that they had experienced at work, I remember feeling distinctly out of place. Prior to this workshop, the intersection between the practice of law and trauma had not been particularly apparent to me.  Yet, as my internship progressed, I quickly became grateful for the crash-course in trauma that this seminar had provided.

Most of my work with the Commission centers around responding to inquiries from members of the public.  Although the Commission will assist anyone who has a question about the Yukon Human Rights Act, the majority of inquiries I receive are from individuals who believe that their human rights have been violated. Unsurprisingly, conversations about these experiences are often emotionally fraught, both for myself and for the people that I am trying to help. After challenging days at the office, I sometimes find myself feeling drained, thinking about stories I heard at work while trying to relax at yoga or enjoy a drink with friends. Although I have only spent a few months at the Commission, it’s easy to imagine how the cumulative, long-term effect of this type of work could have negative mental health consequences.

The legal profession is somewhat notorious for embracing a competitive, “survival of the fittest” ethos which discourages acknowledging any sign of weakness. Unfortunately (and perhaps unsurprisingly), this culture has led to alarmingly high rates of addiction, depression and other mental health issues within the profession. Although these issues are beginning to be addressed from the perspective of improving work/life balance, the effects of trauma are less commonly discussed. In practice areas such as human rights law where trauma is regularly encountered in the workplace, this has negative repercussions for both practitioners and the people they are trying to help.

In simple terms, trauma is the psychological and emotional response to an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. It is often explained as our body’s response to an event perceived by our nervous system as significant threat, either to ourselves or others (often loved ones). In the field of human rights law, practitioners are also likely to encounter systemic or intergenerational trauma in communities that have been historically oppressed.  In many cases, the negative consequences of these experiences can persist across multiple generations.

While most people recognize that a traumatic event can create long-lasting emotional effects, many people underestimate the severe neurological impacts that trauma can have upon the brain. Research has shown that trauma can create long-term damage to the neurological pathways used for decision-making, resulting in overstimulated “fight, flight or freeze” responses. In addition to changing how a person interacts socially, this can also affect the ability to process thoughts and make good judgments. Taken together, the effects of trauma can significantly impact the way that individuals engage with the justice system and other elements of society.

In recent years, the concept of “trauma-informed practice” has become increasingly mainstream. Fundamentally, this approach focuses on acquiring a basic understanding of the psychological, neurological, biological, social and spiritual impact that trauma and violence can have on individuals seeking support. In particular, trauma-informed practice is centered on creating compassionate relationships built on respect, trust and safety. For practitioners, this means putting the choices of the people you are trying to help at the forefront of your practice, rather than trying to control or micromanage decisions. This is particularly important in human rights law, since individuals experiencing systemic discrimination can often develop a mistrust of authority figures and institutions. In these cases, providing hierarchical services which amplify existing power-dynamics may risk re-traumatizing those seeking assistance. In light of these considerations, trauma-informed practice emphasizes reducing power imbalances and approaching relationships from a position of equality.

In addition to understanding the impact that trauma can have upon individuals seeking assistance, it is also necessary to consider how repeated exposure to trauma can affect legal practitioners. Vicarious trauma, burnout and compassion fatigue are all incredibly common in the legal profession, particularly in practice areas such as human rights law. It is important for people working in these roles to keep an eye-out for signs which may indicate that their mental health may be suffering as a result of their work. Common recognizable signals of vicarious trauma and burnout include feelings such as sadness, anxiety, isolation, irritability, disturbed sleep, fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Many practitioners also experience something called “compassion fatigue” which results in a lack of empathy and loss of faith in humanity.

Increasing trauma-awareness is an important first-step to preventing and treating vicarious trauma and burnout in the legal profession. Workplaces should also strive to build healthy work environments, which include scheduled breaks and opportunities for employees to “step-away” from work when they feel overwhelmed. On a personal level, there are a number of strategies which individuals can use to reduce the negative mental health repercussions of repeated exposure to trauma. These include exercising regularly, eating healthy, maintaining personal support systems, and generally maintaining a balanced lifestyle.

Yet, while these techniques may be helpful, systemic and institutional changes are also necessary to truly reduce the prevalence of these issues. As trauma scholar Vikki Reynolds has noted, “individualizing” solutions to vicarious trauma obscures the context of social injustice in which this work occurs.[1]  The cause of the harm experienced by people working in helping professions is not clients, but the endless struggle and frustration of working within the confines of an unjust systems.  Although self-care is an important element of preventing burnout and vicarious trauma, ultimately the solution to these problems requires a collective commitment to justice and social change.

My internship at the Human Rights Commission has been incredibly rewarding, both personally and professionally. While this summer has reinforced my longstanding aspiration to work in this field, I have also realized that human rights work presents unique challenges. For those interested in building a career working in the public interest, understanding trauma and its effects is crucial to building a successful and sustainable practice. Moving forward, the legal profession must work harder to educate students and practitioners about the intersections between trauma and the practice of law. Ultimately, this will improve both the mental wellness of practitioners and the quality of service that they are able to provide to the public.

[1]https://vikkireynoldsdotca.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/reynolds2011resistingburnoutwithjustice-doingdulwich.pdf

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