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Human Rights in Cyberspace: An online internship about human rights online

Niamh LeonardBy Niamh Leonard
This summer, I am working as a Legal Extern at the Citizen Lab. The Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. The lab focuses on research, development, and high-level strategic policy and legal engagement at the intersection of information and communication technologies, human rights, and global security. I am working under the supervision of McGill Law graduate Siena Anstis, Senior Legal Advisor at the Lab (and an ultramarathoner!).

My primary focus is a research project on how regulation of surveillance technology exports can prevent human rights abuses. In particular, I am considering the role of corporate and state transparency practices. Surveillance technologies can have severe impacts on human rights: they can restrict freedom of expression, freedom of association or the right to privacy, but they can also enable unwarranted arrests and detentions, and in some cases torture or extrajudicial killings. Despite these human rights risks, they are often sold to governments with long track records of human rights violations, like Mexico.

I am researching the current legislative frameworks that exporting countries have in place to approve these exports, as well as the human rights obligations of exporting states under international and domestic law. My experience so far has been eye-opening: I have been delving into questions of international human rights law, trade law, national security and technology. I have also been expanding my vocabulary. For example, dual-use technologies are technologies that can have both military and civilian purposes. IMSI catchers (short for International Mobile Subscriber Identity catchers) are essentially fake cell phone towers that let operators intercept mobile phone data and location data. Zero-day exploits are types of cyberattacks that exploit a vulnerability in existing software before it is patched by the company’s developers. Although most of us have never heard about these technologies and approaches, they are becoming increasingly commonplace on the global stage and have direct repercussions on our rights.

A highlight of my internship thus far has been the opportunity to work with an interdisciplinary team that advocates for a more just cyberspace through rigorous, thoughtful research. If you are looking for summer entertainment, I recommend Black Code or The Dissident, two documentaries that illustrate the importance of justice in cyberspace and feature Citizen Lab researchers.

Building a home in government for the Federal Housing Advocate

Kazumi Moore By Kazumi Moore

This summer, I’m one of many interns working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that’s not the only thing making my experience at the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) unique. This is the first year the Centre of Human Rights and Legal Pluralism has partnered with the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate (OFHA), for a simple reason: this is the first full year the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate has existed.

The National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA), enacted in 2019, created the OFHA. The OFHA is so new that a Federal Housing Advocate has not even been appointed yet. The NHSA enshrines housing as a human right and charges the Federal Housing Advocate to monitor the progressive realization of the right to housing and research systemic housing issues. My team’s work is focused on preparing the office for the Advocate so they can hit the ground running. For example, I have been writing a lot of briefs on different housing issues for the Advocate to read once they’re appointed.

I wrote one on Canadian jurisprudence around economic, social, and cultural rights. Economic, social, and cultural rights include rights like the right to housing and the right to healthcare – they impose positive obligations on governments. While there is international consensus that the “positive” and “negative” rights dichotomy is false and not useful, Canadian courts still look at positive obligations as “non-justiciable.” But a right to housing isn’t meaningful unless it can be enforced. This allowed me to apply what I learned taking Public International Law at McGill and sparked an interest in how to make positive rights enforceable in domestic Canadian law and jurisprudence.

It has been a summer of non-stop learning. This is my first time working for a large organization and for government, so even the work flows were a learning curve. I had some experience working from home, so I thought it would be a fairly independent process, but one of the things that surprised me the most was how many meetings we are constantly attending. My teammates generously extended me invites to any meetings I was interested in attending, whether or not it had to do with my work, and sitting on these meetings with all of these knowledgeable and accomplished people has allowed me to learn about so many facets of different housing issues. It definitely made up for missing out on in-person connections. It has been great experience for someone like me interested in a career in government.

Multiple actors will always be involved in fulfilling the right to housing because housing is cross-jurisdictional, not falling squarely within either provincial or federal jurisdiction. Building a new office in government clearly requires connections between federal government departments, and our office is also required to consult with civil society organizations, members of vulnerable groups, and people with lived experience of housing need and homelessness. Having a mandate grounded in international human rights law means that we also need to talk to experts in those areas. These relationships are crucial for the inherently collaborative implementation of the right to adequate housing.

Hopefully, the Advocate will be appointed soon – some team members had even speculated they could be appointed before my internship started. But this way, I was able to see everything that goes into building an office from scratch – an experience that not many people working for the federal government have. If everything goes according to plan, next year’s intern will enter a fully-staffed OFHA and jump into all the projects we teed up this summer. Legislatively, there are many things we can’t even do without the appointment of the Advocate and we have been working within those limitations. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the housing crisis in Canada and many people are looking to the OFHA for action. Housing touches everyone, and helping set the groundwork for the OFHA this summer is a tangible contribution that I’ll be able to look back on.

The Need to Abolish Guardianship – Bulgaria and Beyond!

By: Kendra Landry

This summer, in working with the Bulgarian Center for Non-for-Profit Law, I have been helping to promote their Born Ready advocacy campaign. In line with the principles outlined in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we have been collecting signatures to advocate for supported decision-making to replace the existing guardianship regime in Bulgaria.

Currently, in Bulgaria, PWDs have little agency in their legal decisions, and are deprived of many basic human rights (to marry, to vote, to institute complaints with courts, etc.). Today, guardianship is indefinite, all-encompassing of individuals’ legal activity, and difficult to revoke. It is not subjected to periodic review, and ostensibly transforms PWDs into objects fully subordinated to their guardians. Individuals under guardianship are deprived of all access to the justice system. Guardianship affects all spheres of their public lives; as such, we have been advocating for the dismantling of this damaging regime.

The Born Ready campaign advocates for the enactment of legal tools to ensure equal treatment for PWDs. Supported decision-making has been proposed as an alternative to guardianship in Bulgaria and would allow for PWDs to express their wishes and exercise their legal rights. This regime saw great success in a 2012 pilot initiative and allowed over 150 PWDs previously under guardianship to be self-determining – albeit with a trusted supporting person to assist in making decisions about their private lives, health, finances, and property. Here, individuals control their decision-making, and are protected from undue influence, violence, and abuse in their trusted relationships with supporting persons.

Here is the link to BCNL’s change.org petition, if you’re interested in signing: https://www.change.org/p/let-s-put-an-end-to-the-guardianship-in-bulgaria-now?signed=true. Petitions are an important form of advocacy in Bulgaria, as they garner community support, and will help the campaign gain traction with the National Assembly.

It has been interesting to work on this project with the BCNL, especially as guardianship/conservatorship abuse has been at the forefront of popular media. This summer, news of Britney Spears’ abusive conservatorship has prompted global outrage and engendered the #FreeBritney movement; Spears’ fight to end her conservatorship showcases that PWDs under these regimes are rarely listened to, their disabilities and mental health issues weaponized as justifications to restrict their agency, free will, and self-determination.

Spears’ recent testimony has gone viral in the past few weeks; she pointed out that – despite her ability to work, tour, and generate money for her conservators – she has been subjected to striking restrictions, unable to make decisions about her own body/healthcare, and even barred from riding around in her boyfriend’s car. As she fights to charge her family with conservatorship abuse, she continues to shine a spotlight on injustices that affect PWDs from across the globe. Her case is a high-profile example of the dangers that quietly affect thousands of people in North America, Bulgaria, and beyond; it exemplifies why guardianship/conservatorships must be abolished and replaced with less restrictive regimes that account for the wishes and needs of PWDs.

The Importance of Inclusion: Lessons Learned While Working Remotely Across an Ocean

Taryn WilkieBy Taryn Wilkie

This summer I am working for the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, however, due to the pandemic, I am working remotely from Canada. While the project I am working on does not require being in an office, and is relatively self-directed, the distance has made my work more challenging. For example, I miss being able to easily speak with others who might have valuable feedback about what I am working on. Instead, I am dependent on emails for answers to my questions, and the nearly 12-hour time difference means I usually do not get responses until the next day. Consequently, I have had to be fairly independent in my work and carefully plan my emails to make sure each one is clear, and I can get answers to any questions as quickly as possible.

Working remotely has also made it more difficult to accomplish the goals of my project. I am currently attempting to schedule interviews with women activists in Sri Lanka about their experiences; the distance between Canada and Sri Lanka has complicated this process. I am reliant on email to contact them instead of being able to call or visit organizations where they work. For those who do agree to an interview, I must find a time that not only fits their schedule, but also works with the time difference. Working in Sri Lanka and not having to deal with the pandemic would therefore have made this aspect of my project much easier. Nevertheless, I hope I will be able to interview many of the women activists I have contacted, as I would appreciate the opportunity to speak with them and learn from their experiences.

Yet even without having currently completed any interviews, this internship has highlighted the diversity of issues activists aim to address. When I first learned I would be interviewing Sri Lankan women activists, I thought these activists would focus primarily on women’s rights issues. However, I have found they work in many different areas, including the environment, garment work, tea plantations, health, the legal system, peacebuilding, and the rights of children, youth, minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community, in addition to women’s rights issues.

The diversity of topics reinforces the importance of understanding women as more than just their gender and recognizing they should be included in attempts to solve many different issues as they will make valuable and unique contributions. I am thankful this internship has made me more aware of the diversity present in activism and given me the opportunity to learn about so many different areas of important work from women who are directly involved.

Researching Sri Lanka has also caused me to reflect on the importance of reconciliation. Divisions between the majority Sinhala population and the minority Tamil population, who are the majority in Sri Lanka’s North and East, led to a brutal civil war between 1983 and 2009, as many of the Tamils fought to secede.[1] However, years after the war’s end, and despite a reconciliation commission, it appears the underlying grievances which led to the conflict have not been resolved.[2] Consequently, I have become aware of how difficult it can be to build a lasting peace in a country with deep divisions, and how easy it can be to ignore what are often legitimate issues that have led to conflict, especially when one side has greater power.

Although the situation between settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples is very different, the increased discussion about reconciliation in Canada this summer has led me to think about what is needed for change to occur in both countries. I hope members of the majority communities and governments in both countries will learn to listen to minority communities and work to address their concerns, as otherwise reconciliation and peace may remain elusive.

Overall, I have learned many important things about Sri Lanka, activism, and human rights work from working at ICES this summer, and I am grateful for the opportunity. I look forward to learning even more as I continue my internship and interview women activists about their experiences.

[1] Nithyani Anandakugan, “The Sri Lankan Civil War and Its History, Revisited in 2020” (31 August 2020), online: Harvard International Review <hir.harvard.edu/sri-lankan-civil-war/>.

[2] Anandakugan, supra note 1; Kate Cronin-Furman, “UN Human Rights Council Outlines Sri Lanka Abuses, But Demurs on Action” (26 March 2021), online: Just Security <www.justsecurity.org/75510/un-human-rights-council-outlines-sri-lanka-abuses-but-demurs-on-action/>.

Remote Internship, the New Normal

Mehri GhazanjaniBy Mehri Ghazanjani

This summer, I started my remote internship at the HIV Legal Clinic thinking that it would be an awkward or inconvenient. However, soon I realized that in fact there were a number of advantages to a remote internship. For example, I was quite happy I didn’t have to go through the stressful experience of finding accommodation in Toronto. However, I soon realized that the key to a positive and effective remote experience was having clear and frequent communication. One of the first things that stood out to me when I started my internship was how quick and willing people, and in particular my supervisor, were to join a Zoom/Team call and allocate their time to answering my questions. Despite everything being remote, people still actively communicated ideas on how to improve something, or just fun life stuff. And this really eased the process for me.

This year, I realized how easy it is to lose motivation and stay engaged when you are physically disconnected from people and responsibilities in your life. In terms of interning remotely, there are many things that I learned about staying motivated and productive. For one, the fact that I was working on very interesting projects, including working on a submission to the UN Committee against Torture about criminalization of drugs in Canada and its torturous impacts on various marginalized groups kept me engaged, motivated, and passionately involved.

In particular, punitive drug laws and policies in Canada have fueled deadly stigma and epidemics of preventable illness and death, contributing both to significantly higher rates of HIV and hepatitis C (HCV) among people who inject drugs in Canada than among the population as a whole and to an overdose crisis that has resulted in almost 20,000 overdose deaths between January 2016 and September 2020, with Indigenous Peoples particularly affected.

While the toxic drug supply is largely responsible for these dire numbers, the unregulated market is driven by Canada’s long-standing policy of criminalizing drugs and the people who use them. This punitive approach pushes some people to use their drugs in isolation, compromising their ability to take vital safety precautions, deterring people from essential health care and social supports, and subjecting people who use drugs to increased risk of overdose, HIV and HCV infection, and other harms —constituting a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Moreover, the criminalization of personal possession and trafficking has hampered the scale-up and operation of supervised consumption services (SCS), which are settings that provide a safe, hygienic environment where people can use drugs with sterile equipment under the supervision of trained staff or volunteers to prevent the transmission of infections and overdose-related deaths. Not only have SCS been one key measure to address Canada’s ongoing overdose crisis, they can also provide a refuge from various forms of violence that women who use drugs may experience on the street.

In 2017, Canada replaced some of the onerous legislative requirements to operate SCS with simpler, streamlined requirements, resulting in new SCS being implemented across the country. Yet there remains a need to facilitate the scale-up of SCS across the country and to remove restrictions (imposed by the criminalization of trafficking) on assisted injection administered by SCS staff or peers and on splitting and sharing of controlled substances — restrictions which prevent people from accessing SCS and increase their risk of overdose and criminalization.

Notably, the provision of other harm reduction services — including drug checking — are also hampered by the criminalization of personal possession and trafficking. Drug checking services provide people who use drugs with information on the chemical composition of their drug samples to facilitate more informed decision-making.  Given the extreme toxicity of the unregulated drug market and staggering loss of life due to overdose fatalities, impediments to the implementation of harm reduction services like supervised consumption services and drug checking inflict harm and suffering upon people who use drugs, further constituting a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

I assisted HIV Legal Clinic in drafting a submission to the UN Committee against Torture and argued that Canada’s drug policies are in violation of Articles 1 and 16 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Working on this submission was definitely one of my personal highlights this summer!

More than anything, one thing that I’ve taken away from this experience is how valuable it is to be adaptive. Especially in the times of Covid-19, where we’ve constantly had to adjust ourselves to a “new normal,” I’ve had to come to terms with the idea that it is okay to be uncertain, in doubt, and even confused. When facing uncertainty, I realized, it is important to take a step back every once in a while, before throwing yourself into unfamiliar grounds.

I have to admit that at first I was rather disappointed when I realized I couldn’t experience the in-person version of the internship, something I was very much looking forward to. But everything worked out nicely in the end and I still had a wonderful intern experience. I particular, two things that have made a huge difference for me were support and transparency from my supervisor and helpful feedback on my ideas and work. Complicated times are always full of unique and life-changing opportunities. It’s always important to prepare for the worst and hope for the best!

Zooming, Tweeting, and Slacking for Change: Human Rights Work during a Global Pandemic

Mohammed OdusanyaBy Mohammed Odusanya

At this point in the pandemic, it might feel obvious to state that the past year has changed everything. My first foray into the legal profession has taken place mainly via Zoom and Google Docs. A reality I could have never imagined a year-and-a-half ago.

On one hand, I mourn the irreplaceable experience of working alongside, and learning from, my colleagues in person. And yet, I have found that working remotely has also given me novel opportunities to approach the work I am tasked with in a more creative fashion.

For instance, one of my first tasks at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (RWCHR) was to develop a dossier on an individual whom the RWCHR might represent in the future. As I attempted to find credible sources pertaining to this individual, an (unrelated) twitter notification flashed across my phone screen.

I had a sudden realization: why not search his name on Twitter? It worked. I was able to get on the ground reporting from citizen journalists, and better gauge how the human rights issue that the individual was facing and was being perceived by citizens in that country. Furthermore, using social media allowed me to see which local NGOs – most of whom did not have large digital footprints elsewhere – were raising awareness on the issue. In sum, Twitter allowed me to find sources beyond traditional Western newspapers and human rights organizations.

Of course, this is not to say that the pandemic is the reason I was able to conduct research on Twitter. Rather, I believe that the RWCHR’s approach, one which has fully embraced digital collaboration, made me more willing to consider using non-traditional research channels in my own work. In turn, I learned a valuable lesson, sooner than I might have otherwise: the fight for human rights occurs everywhere, both in offline and online spaces.

As my work with RWCHR continues, I hope to continue to learn how to aid the fight for justice IRL or via Slack, Google Docs, email, Zoom and all the other unique modes of communication that life in the pandemic has brought to us.

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