Subsidiarity and Complementarity: Guiding Principles in International Human Rights Work

by Renée Lehman

Upon beginning my internship at Avocats sans frontières Canada (ASFC), it quickly became clear that the principles of subsidiarity and complementarity are front and centre to the organization’s operations. Not only was this prioritized during my training, but this has held true during each project I have been involved with this summer. My training in these concepts emphasized that the voices and input of local actors are not merely a factor which must be consulted and considered, but that positive long-term relationships with local actors are crucial to both the existence and success of any project involving western organizations operating abroad. It has been extremely rewarding to work with an international organization which recognizes that success would be impossible without strong local relationships.

History has shown that in the absence of collaboration with local actors, international support organizations risk perpetuating neocolonial dynamics, and consequently heading inefficient or downright counter-productive projects. I have seen how this awareness permeates both ASFC’s strategic planning and daily operations. For example, some of my research mandates this summer have been dictated directly by local partners, meaning that I have served as additional manpower to their own projects. This is very common at ASFC, as centralizing the principles of subsidiarity and complementarity sometimes means that project management is not what is required of ASFC, as a local partner might instead ask simply for additional resources – such as a legal intern to conduct research.

Similarly, one of my very first mandates this summer was to assist in the drafting of an amicus curiae in support of the families of human rights defenders in Colombia. The case in question has been brought before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) by the Jose Alvear Restrepo” Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), meaning that ASFC’s drafting of this brief was done in support of the local organization’s project.

In addition to participating in projects in direct support of local partners, many of my other tasks this summer have related to supporting internal projects. From assisting with the creation of a training program in sexual and reproductive rights for ASFC colleagues working in Mali, to researching the impacts of gender inequality on conflict resolution and transitional justice processes – I have been amazed at the projects I have had the opportunity to work on from my apartment in Montreal.

Keeping the principles of subsidiarity and complementarity in mind has also helped me to feel more connected to the work I am doing, despite working from home. Centralizing the importance of subsidiarity to local actors reminds me of my privilege, which includes being able to work from a safe and comfortable location with reliable wifi and access to innumerable resources while conducting my research. One of the most stark examples of this was perhaps when I was researching international legal mechanisms to address the arbitrary confinement of human rights defenders, and reading case law which detailed the terrible conditions faced by many of those detained – as I sat in my kitchen. There is definitely something very special about doing international human rights work from home, and I already know that this experience will stay with me and inform both my career and life choices going forward.

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