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On Being a Human Rights Intern:

By Daniel Powell

When a bright-eyed colleague of mine asked me why I had decided to spend a summer pent up in the Foundation’s off-highway suburban headquarters, I offered the only response that I could possibly muster to justify the cosmological happenings that had brought me there. My presence at the One Earth Future Foundation, like the presence of the other two McGill Law interns whose desks sandwiched my own, was the product of a well-ordained coincidence. As the saying goes, I never chose to end up at the Foundation; it chose me, as a matter of circumstance, and I willfully obliged. The circumstances were, to be fair, a product of my own making. I attended the one-and-a-half hour information session on the Faculty’s international human rights program and prepared an application, quickly modifying an existing resume and writing out answers to short essay questions. And when I had finished preparing the application, I submitted my application to the human rights program address over an email server. However, even as these actions were of my own doing, I never really believed that they would lead to anything. I certainly never expected that my application would be the cause of a professional experience as rewarding as the one that I experienced.

Of course, when I received an email inviting me to interview, I accepted with delight, remembering the seemingly inane words of advice that I once received from a human resources staffer to the effect that one can never secure a job without attending the interview, words which I have never managed to forget, precisely because their epistemological truth is cocooned as a stark and deceiving tautological absurdity.

The coincidence that had brought me to Broomfield for the summer was concretized in an interview before a four-person committee in a dimly lit seminar classroom. I remember entering the interview room and feeling immediately that I was under the thralls of a civilian inquisition. And although I appreciate that this imaginary portrait may now seem to be nothing more than a preposterous posture of literary excess, understand that the idea did occur to me. The imaginative invocation was not a completely absurd one either. At the time of my interrogation, I had just begun to study the origins of civil law and judicial institutions. The image of a panel of adjudicators sitting in a dark, cloistered law school seminar room had enough eidetic relation to the civilian investigation figured as a secretive Church affair that I could not resist the analogy. Indeed, if you will permit a hint of psychoanalysis, it seems then that the all too recent dream I once held of becoming an historian, now repressed by the necessity of assuming an identity as a law student, had resurfaced from the interpretative depths and taken its form in the real world.

At least I brought flowers. The day of my inquisition, I wore a collared floral shirt, a style choice which I then believed to reflect a comfortable balance between quirk and professionalism. The inquisitorial meeting was short, and though I left with a sense of nervous incapacity at my failure to communicate a clear vision of my interest, I found out later that this inquisitorial committee had nevertheless chosen to select me, in the same way that it had selected the rest of the twenty-something person cohort, to participate in the program. More than a mere offer to work at One Earth Future for the summer, the program director, Professor Ramanujam, offered me, as she offered all interns, an opportunity to participate as a human rights intern: a learning experience which included both a real-world clinical and academic component.

Back in Broomfield, while recounting with strategic brevity the series of coincidences that had brought me to intern there, I realized fairly quickly that something I had said was out of line. The moment that I associated human rights with the One Earth Future Foundation, a reaction registered on the face of this bright-eyed colleague. By the time I had finished sharing the story, its meaning had registered dominantly in her facial expression. The reaction was not the kind of reaction easily suppressed by an intentional grin of the jaw leftwards or rightwards, as if some jocular jiggle could eliminate true feelings from the facial repository. The reaction was crystal clear, quite distinct from the acutely acned skin that once occupied my adolescent face.

When I stopped speaking, she gave words to these emotions: “This is not a human rights organization.” These words were spoken clearly and declared with so much clarity that I was made to feel like some embarrassed and disoriented mouthpiece stuck stumbling over words which had become alien to him. She added that she had done human rights work previously and this organization, the one for which I was supposed to be a human rights intern, was not and could not actually be a human rights organization. She knew  this too because she had brought “relevant work experience” when she joined the Foundation, had even been recruited because of it, and that experience was of course definitive.

However, for all the certainty, it never seemed to dawn on her that maybe what she was now doing, though not conventional human rights work, had some important or at least remote connection with human rights. Instead, she held that because she was not directly working with the subjects of human rights, and the mandate of the organization was not directly related to human rights, the organization could not be engaged in human rights work.

This exchange might have been a dandy one, easily repressed by memory or rationalized into irrelevance, if it had been singular. But the view of my colleague was not singular. She was not the sole soul of colleague who shared this all too similar opinion about the work of the Foundation. It was shared by many, including my own supervisor, who suggested so nonchalantly that One Earth Future was not really a human rights organization that when he said it I nearly choked haphazardly on a mouthful of air.

For quite some time, I lingered doubts about my work as a human rights intern stationed in what I had been told firmly was not a human rights organization. My doubt manifested as a burning desire to make sense of my experience and to justify that the organization was somehow connected to human rights. However, even as I inclined towards this mindset, I was confused as to what human rights work consisted in. One Earth Future Foundation never proclaimed to be a human rights foundation. Its mandate was to eliminate the root causes of organized political violence, not to fight human rights battles through direct advocacy.

In retrospect, as I reflect on my experience, for all its extraordinary learning and professional development, it has occurred to me that perhaps the problem is that the category of human rights intern has been circumscribed too broadly or at least that the category of human rights has lost effectiveness for the type of work that I have an interest in pursuing and for which the Human Rights Internship Program provides. The meaning of human rights has become associated with so many ideas. The status of human rights has been debated just as their politics have been challenged. Increasingly, the substantive commitments of human rights have also been subject to uncertainty. Some believe human rights include a basket ranging from basic political and social rights to economic, civil and even environmental rights.

Debates over rights are really debates over justice. Rights are presumed and invoked because the world continues to be a place which fails to provide the necessities of its citizens and a world which absent governance structures and institutions incites violence between people rather than facilitates peace.

In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen recognizes that the discourse of human rights had come to appear weak and frail. For one, rights without substance are meaningless. Sen also recognized that even as an ideal the framework of rights was impoverished. Although he does not go so far as to attack the language of human rights, he does suggest that there is more value in thinking about capabilities rather than focusing on rights. Implicit in Sen’s attention to capabilities rather than human rights is a vision of justice: a political philosophical project to ground a commitment to lives of others. More than writing about human rights, Sen has sought to create a theoretical framework for how to achieve substantively just outcomes in a world which fails so often to provide for the most vulnerable. In such a world, he make clear, the negative freedom of rights can often mean little. If one does  not have the capability to exercise rights, then what good is it to banter on about human rights? Not good at all.

Reading Sen has been an important way for me to begin thinking about human rights within the context of justice and development. I have come to terms with and embraced my work over the summer as a human rights intern not because I have attempted to ram my experience into some pre-conceived idea of what human rights must be about. I have come to terms with my work because I have come to appreciate the opportunity that I learn about the importance of governance for creating justice, to witness an organization committed to building governance structures in their absence, and even to appreciate the challenges of governance instantiated as those encountered by the organizations which seek to devote their own human capital in the most efficient and effective way possible towards achieving the aims of justice.

In this way, my human rights internship, like some of the other human rights program internships, was not so much a mechanism for achieving an exotic human rights experience. It was also not an experience which I took to stand out on my resume, though it may nonetheless come with residual benefits. For me, the internship was an opportunity to realize that if the world is to achieve substantive justice, a desire which I hold true and axiomatic, it will only achieve such justice if it can develop the systems of governance and institutions required to render moot the very function of the exotic human rights advocate.

I am grateful for what I have learned, most importantly the institutional knowledge that I now carry with me. Tonight, as I sit in Montreal and reflect on the privilege of having had an education, let alone the privilege of having had an extraordinary legal education, I am reminded of the true value of a human rights program in our time and place. Achieving justice is and will continue to be, in all its fronts and manifestations, a perpetual struggle, one that has no conclusion. Justice must be achieved, but it also must be defended.

I long for the day when I have the privilege to share the knowledge that I have learned and put it to use so as to ensure that justice is made real and brought to life. For if indeed I can someday reflect on my experience as a human rights intern with the recognition of the human capital that has been vested in me and which I deem responsible to share, then I will have succeeded not merely in being a human rights intern in its most blasé formalism: a notation on a school resume. I will have succeeded as an agent and contributor of our shared world. And this agency will not assume the seemingly glamorous struggle of human rights. It will assume the placid face of an administrative struggle.  Because it is through institutional and governance reform that visions of a fair and just society came be made into a contemporary reality.

On being “American”

By Sara Gold

My last day in San José, Costa Rica – September 8, 2018

“Along the way we have even lost the right to call ourselves Americans […]. For the world today, America is just the United States; the region we inhabit is a sub-America, a second-class America of nebulous identity” (Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America, 1971, p.2)

What does it mean to be “American”? In the English language, this word often refers to the United States rather than to the continent, whose name it derives from. Frustration with this idea has been publicly expressed as early as 1971 by Galeano in Open Veins of Latin America. The concept remains part of present day discourse in the English-speaking world.

No individual better exemplifies this line of thinking than President Donald Trump. Throughout his campaign and in his published foreign policy, he explicitly stated that his “foreign policy is putting the interests and security of the American people first”. [1] Informally, this notion bleeds in our day-to-day speech; I myself have often carelessly referred to the people of the United States as “Americans” or to my travels to the United States as a trip to “America”.

“Being an American, for me, is being born or living in the United States. I’m not sure if it’s because of geography or intention, but firstly, the word South America represents me the best and secondly, Latin America, but not America”.Colleague from Argentina (translated from Spanish)

But what does it mean to be “American”? [2] Interning at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights this summer, working with colleagues from all over the Americas, and then subsequently travelling by land and sea through Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia allowed me to reflect on this question.

“Being American is a commitment. A commitment of having to bear the burden of unfairness, from the past and the present, but always worrying how to help. Being American is being proud of the mixture of races, ways of thinking and belief systems that constitute the American continent. Being an American is to live life’s hardship and trying your best in dealing with it”.Colleague from Colombia (translated from Spanish)

First, my experience at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica showed me the implications of a regional human rights protection system. In my opinion, this institution interprets “being American” as being a member States of the Organization of American States (OAS) and as being located on the continent. After all, it is the Inter-American system; all countries are considered as part of the Americas. The decisions issued by this Court have often been tailored accordingly to regional considerations.[3] Unfortunately, they have also reflected the consequences of the tragic side of this continent’s history, which has been marked by conflict, exploitation, and inequality.

Being American is not limited to being born in this great continent, it implies belonging to a great multicultural heritage, full of traditions, and thousands of different ways of seeing the world and living life. Americans enjoys a rich history that continues to be written every day, in which we are all its characters. – Colleague from Mexico (translated from Spanish)

Second, my experience working with colleagues from all over the Americas allowed me to realize that “being American” cannot be defined in one singular way. I worked with individuals from the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. I learnt about their legal systems, their customs, their slang, their prejudices, their food, their realities. I learnt that everyone’s preoccupations are different, but that many are concerned about things that I take for granted, like their country’s democratic process, like their right to safe and free abortion, like their job security, like their future as a young lawyer in their countries, just to name a few. These concerns reminded me of how privileged I am, which is easy to forget in the daily grind of McGill Law and Montreal.

For me, “being American” has a double meaning which, despite the political rhetoric coming out of my country lately, is not mutually exclusive. In one respect, I am American because I am from the United States. I probably think of this aspect of my identity fist when I hear the word “American”, not because I believe that only people from the US are Americans, but because we do not have another word to describe our nationality, and this is the aspect of my identity with which I come into contact most regularly. However, and equally important, I am American because I am also from one of the many rich cultures of the Americas. This aspect of my identity locates me on a global scale and ties me in a much larger community. Colleague from the United States of America

Third, following my internship, I furthered reflected on what it means to be American throughout my travels by land and sea in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. In these countries, I witnessed the inequalities that are very much part of the Americas. I listened to individuals tell their stories, list their concerns, reflect on their history, and debate their place in the world today.

These stories led to two current issues that have strongly impacted me. Both are related to migration. The first is the influx of migration of Nicaraguans into Costa Rica, and the extreme racism they face on a daily basis. Second, is the mass exodus of Venezuelans into neighbouring countries. While in Colombia, I encountered many Venezuelans who had left the country, in search of safety and stability. I learnt about what actions countries like Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are taking in order to try and alleviate the crisis. I wondered what the role of other Americans was in order to help our fellow citizens.

Finally, I realized that being American means sharing your culture with others. On several occasions, I was welcomed into people’s homes (such as my former colleague), shared life stories, and was invited to discover what made their country unique. This generosity allowed me to realize that “being American” does not only mean living in and being from the Americas, but also means being part of a larger community, that shares, that supports, and that helps. Ultimately, as my colleague from Costa Rica put it, maybe the term that should prevail is “human”.

“For me being “American” is a label that is useful for expressing a distinct cultural process that took place in the past. However, it is often used merely for reasons of discrimination, criminalization, stigma, etc. Nowadays it seems to me that the label “American”, “European”, “African”, etc. loses legitimacy as we mix more and more, it is social myopia to deny multiculturalism. In my opinion, the label that must ultimately prevail is “human”. Colleague from Costa Rica (translated from Spanish)

 

My colleagues from all over the Americas 🙂

 

[1] See: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trumps-foreign-policy-puts-america-first/

[2] Note: I asked five colleagues from the Inter-American Court, all from different countries, to reflect on what it means to be American. Their reflections can be found in the Italic portions of this text.

[3] The Inter-American Court (alongside the Inter-American Commission) were created to “safeguard the essential rights of man in the American continent”. See: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/index.php/en/about-us/historia-de-la-corteidh

 

Pour conclure…

Par Guillaume Lebrun Petel

J’aimerais conclure ma contribution au McGill International Human Rights Internship Blog par une courte réflexion sur ma première expérience de travail en droit et sur ma vie en Afrique. Je souhaite ainsi informer et, peut-être, inspirer les étudiants qui souhaitent se lancer dans l’aventure des stages internationaux.

Ce n’est un secret pour personne que les études à la Faculté sont principalement axées sur la maîtrise des concepts théoriques du droit. Sans chercher à critiquer cette orientation pédagogique, mon expérience m’amène à soutenir qu’un étudiant a fort à gagner en confrontant cesdits concepts aux réalités de la pratique en droit. Ainsi, le savoir qui naît de la rencontre entre la théorie et le réel peut avoir un impact considérable sur la façon dont nous approchons les problèmes juridiques.

Dans mon premier billet, j’ai décidé de vous parler de Maryam, de son travail et, plus largement, de l’impact que celui-ci avait sur mon quotidien durant mes trois mois au Sénégal. Au cours de mes dernières semaines à la RADDHO, je me souviens avoir lu un texte de la professeure Adelle Blackett où celle-ci mentionnait que le travail domestique – celui effectué par ceux qu’on appelait au Sénégal les « employés de maison » – avait une market-enabling function dans nos sociétés.

Si cette caractéristique m’avait paru audacieusement énoncée et intéressante en théorie, ce n’est qu’aujourd’hui de retour au confort de la bibliothèque Nahum Gelber que la formule me semble prendre tout son sens. En y réfléchissant bien, les tâches ménagères entreprises par Maryam rendaient possible l’envoi d’un foyer entier sur le marché du travail, de sorte que dans mon cas, elles me permettaient de me consacrer entièrement à mon stage et aux intérêts nouveaux qui en émergeaient.

Bien sûr, je comprenais pendant mon séjour que son travail facilitait le quotidien de ma famille d’accueil, mais c’est l’importance économique de son rôle qui, toutefois, me demeurait invisible. Malgré la proximité avec laquelle je bénéficiais de l’aide de Maryam, je ne perçois qu’à présent le grand décalage qui existait entre ma compréhension des concepts théoriques du travail domestique et le véritable impact que celui-ci a eu sur la qualité des apprentissages retirés et des expériences que j’ai vécues pendant mon stage.

Mes trois mois à Dakar m’ont enseigné l’immense savoir qu’il y a à gagner quand la théorie se fond au réel : les problèmes de droits de la personne s’en trouvent plus vrais, plus précis, plus complexes, et habitent plus rapidement l’esprit qui sait que leurs solutions n’attendent qu’à être traduites de concept au concret. Pour ma part, il me semble que c’est à ce niveau que réside toute la force du programme de International Human Rights Internship de McGill, et il s’agit du principal enseignement que je retire de mon été 2018.

La Saskatchewan, un mois plus tard

Par Rose Adams

J’ai rédigé mon dernier billet de l’appartement que je louais à Saskatoon. Ça me fait drôle, maintenant, de retour à Montréal, d’écrire à propos de mon expérience en Saskatchewan. Ayant retrouvé depuis un mois mes habitudes, ma routine, mes amis et la langue de Molière, j’ai l’impression que c’était dans une autre vie. Cependant, bien que les Prairies canadiennes me semblent bien loin déjà, les problématiques à la base de la sur-incarcération des populations autochtones sont malheureusement bien présentes ici aussi.

En effet, en accompagnant ma patronne et collègue Michelle Brass à deux séminaires du Gladue Awareness Project, dont j’ai parlé dans mon premier billet, j’ai eu l’occasion d’entendre la voix de nombreux participants au système de justice criminel sur la cause de ces chiffres aberrants, mentionnés précédemment. Les séminaires se veulent effectivement des outils pour, entres autres, initier une conversation entre ces différents participants sur les effets de l’application de Gladue et Ipeelee en Saskatchewan. Je m’explique.

Le premier séminaire auquel j’ai participé s’est déroulé à La Ronge, un village d’une population d’environ 2700 habitants, dans le nord de la Saskatchewan, à environ trois heures et demie de route de Saskatoon. Il est intéressant de noter que le village de La Ronge est également entrecoupé de terres appartenant au village nordique d’Air Ronge, ainsi qu’à deux réserves de la Première Nation de Lac La Ronge. Michelle et moi nous sommes donc dirigées vers le Lac La Ronge un matin cuisant de mi-juin, armées de nos statistiques et extraits de décisions, révisant notre présentation, pour l’instant très académique. (En chemin, Michelle m’a fait remarquer que nous arrivions au Nord puisque la prairie cédait la place à la forêt : en Saskatchewan, le Nord commence où les arbres commencent à pousser. Cela m’a paru absurde, parce que d’où je viens, Kuujjuaq, le Nord commence où les arbres s’arrêtent : c’est la toundra.)

Lac La Ronge

Notre très petite audience était néanmoins moins formelle que ce à quoi je m’attendais – j’ai pu observer une avocate de la défense blaguer avec un ancien procureur de la Couronne dès les premières minutes. En discutant avec les participants, nous nous sommes vites aperçues que tous, bien que jouant des rôles très différents dans le système de justice, étaient du même avis : la sur-incarcération des populations autochtones découlait de l’absence de services et de problématiques sociales plutôt que de l’application de Gladue et Ipeelee.

Tous s’accordaient pour dire que les juges comprenaient les réalités autochtones des communautés nordiques et les prenaient en compte. Le problème se situerait, selon les participants, plutôt dans le traumatisme vécu suite aux écoles résidentielles, causant les nombreuses dysfonctions dans les communautés.

Ces dysfonctions se perpétueraient en l’absence de services sociaux, menant à l’abus d’alcool, qui sert alors de déclencheur à la criminalité. De plus, les effets de cette absence de services sociaux se feraient sentir également sentir en prison provinciale, où certains détenus disent préférer aller en prison fédérale pour accéder à des services. Ce serait aussi le cas à la sortie de prison, où d’anciens contrevenants peuvent être tentés par l’abus de substances après avoir été sobres en prison : n’ayant pas accès à des services pour continuer leur traitement, retourner dans un milieu où l’alcool est omniprésent les plongeraient à nouveau vers le crime.

Selon un intervenant dans notre présentation, les contrevenants autochtones dans le Nord de la Saskatchewan, grandissant dans une culture « jailhouse » en l’absence de la leur, perdue suite au colonialisme, vivent dans un milieu où la prison et l’abus d’alcool sont normalisés, contribuant à augmenter constamment les taux d’incarcération des populations autochtones.

Notre deuxième présentation, qui s’est déroulée à Prince Albert, une ville d’environ 35 000 habitants, à une heure et demie de route au Nord de Saskatoon, a révélé des commentaires similaires. Tous pointaient l’absence de services du doigt comme cause de la sur-incarcération des populations autochtones.

J’ai trouvé intéressant de pouvoir discuter avec tous ces participants au système de justice. Alors que je ne remets pas en question leurs expertises respectives, et que j’admets qu’il est trop simple de considérer que le manque d’application de Gladue par les juges en Saskatchewan comme l’unique cause de ces problèmes, je crois que l’absence de services ne l’est pas non plus. Si c’était entièrement le cas, pourquoi les chiffres seraient ils considérablement plus hauts en Saskatchewan que dans les autres provinces? Il est effectivement possible d’argumenter que ces mêmes problèmes sociaux et cette absence de services se retrouvent également dans de nombreuses communautés autochtones au Québec, en Ontario et en Colombie-Britannique. Les chiffres y sont néanmoins plus bas, ce qui coïncide avec une plus grande application de Gladue et une plus grande standardisation du processus. Cependant, je crois que je n’ai ni l’espace, ni le temps pour trouver ici la réponse.

J’aimerais toutefois terminer mon billet sur une note plus positive. Comme expliqué dans mon premier billet, j’ai eu l’occasion de rencontrer des gens extraordinaires lors de mon stage, que je n’aurais probablement jamais rencontrés si je n’avais pas passé mon été au Native Law Centre. Je suis infiniment reconnaissante de cette opportunité d’avoir fait leur connaissance et d’en avoir tant appris en un court été. Ce que j’ai exploré cet été ne tient toutefois pas qu’entre quatre murs. J’ai effectivement pu voir des paysages extraordinaires, et voir un peu plus de notre beau pays. J’ai eu la chance de me rendre aux Rocheuses, en Alberta et un peu en Colombie-Britannique. Il est difficile d’exprimer avec des mots le sentiment que j’ai eu en les apercevant. C’est pourquoi je termine ce blog avec quelques photos.

Moi-même, parmi les montagnes de Banff

 

La vue du haut du Lac Agnès

Green and Blue Bandanas

A group of young activists wearing green bandanas blocks an intersection in MDP.

By Francesca Nardi

I am writing this as my summer in Argentina starts to come to a close. This week is significant not only for me as my internship ends, but also for Argentina and many of those I have met throughout my time here.

From the moment I arrived and started walking around the city, blue and green banners and bandanas caught my eye. At first, I had no idea what they were for, thinking that maybe they were related to the World Cup.

I could not have been more wrong.

Throughout my time here, a national bill that would legalize abortion has been debated and voted on by the lower house of Congress. It passed through Congress in June, and tomorrow it faces a final challenge in the Senate. The debate surrounding this bill has been a feature of my summer in Argentina, and I feel lucky to have been here during such a fascinating time legally and politically.

It would be a massive understatement to say that this bill has been polarizing. Abortion in any context is incendiary, especially in a very religious country that is the birthplace of the Pope, in a very religious and conservative region of the world. There have been widespread protests since I arrived, as well as massive rallies organized by both sides. Men and women wear coloured bandanas, (green signifying support for legalized abortion, and blue signalling opposition) to work, school, and around the city during the day. The graffiti on the walls around the city contains political messages about this issue. Every party on Friday and Saturday nights descends into heated dinner conversation about the future of this bill and what it will mean for Argentina. For some, it represents Argentina moving into the future and joining the rest of the developed world in allowing women to make essential choices about their own bodies. For others, it represents an unacceptable departure from religious and moral values. For some, it simply means recognizing the reality that hundreds of women are dying in Argentina from dangerous underground procedures.

Being here during this time has turned every assumption I had about the abortion debate in Latin America completely on its head. Reading about the debate in Latin America, I always assumed that the opposition to abortion was fueled predominantly by men and by the Machismo culture that is so pervasive. I have been startled to realize that there are lots of women, including lots of young women who oppose legalizing abortion. Among my female friends, almost all of whom are lawyers or in their final year of law school, approximately half oppose legalizing abortion in Argentina. This realization has prompted some of the most interesting and challenging dinner conversations I have ever had with young women and friends my own age, and has served as such an important reminder that I am here to learn and to listen, not to impose my views or perspectives on the people I meet here.

It has been inspiring to see so many young people mobilizing to make their voices heard, on both sides of the debate. Argentina has a long history of a highly engaged political culture and consciousness and I feel lucky to have been here to see that in action. Regardless of what happens during the vote tomorrow, being here during such a time of dialogue and mobilization for change has been eye-opening both within my work and outside of it. I will be watching this debate closely, even once I am back home.

It is crazy that I leave in two days. Somehow this summer has been simultaneously nothing like what I expected, and exactly what I needed at the same time. I absolutely fell in love with Mar del Plata, and will be so sad to say goodbye to this beautiful city I have called home for the past three months. This opportunity has been so beautiful, and I will carry the lessons and the friends from my summer in Mar del Plata with me back to Canada with me.

 

For anyone curious about this debate: https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/americas/100000006031377/argentina-a-nation-divided-on-abortion.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fworld&action=click&contentCollection=world&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=5&pgtype=sectionfront

 

Final Days, Final Thoughts

By Caroline Schurman Grenier

As my internship comes to an end, I have so much to say yet I am struggling to put my thoughts into coherent sentences to produce a decent blog post. A form of writer’s block if you will which just makes my challenge sound so much more glamorous, don’t you think?

Despite my constant wondering if I would make it to the end, I did it. I have completed my internship at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa in Banjul. What have I learned over the summer? More than I could have imagined.

I learned that transitional justice is much easier to write about in academic journals than to implement in real life.

I learned that it’s so very frustrating to have ideas and goals for a project when there is not enough money to put those same ideas and goals into tangible change.

I learned that it’s ok to change your mind, which to me is one of the most important realization I have come to over the course of my internship.

I took a class on restorative justice during the last year of my undergraduate degree and found it fascinating. It was my favorite class, the readings were incredible, and the discussions awoke in me a vehement desire to learn more. I aced the final and I thought to myself: “If I get into law school, this is what I want to focus on”.

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Isn’t it wonderful to be 22 and to be convinced you have found your calling in life? Well, time goes on, and you turn 23 (a small time frame but after all we change more between 18 and 25 than at any other time in our lives, frontal lobe and all) and you realize maybe it’s not for you.

I started to work at IHRDA just months after the Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission Act was passed. I don’t believe in flukes so it was meant to be for me to be here at this time. Former president Jammeh was urged out of office in December 2016 following a vicious 22 year dictatorship and the population wants to be heard and wants financial reparations for their sufferings. It means that The Gambia is still at the brainstorming stage, gathering ideas on how to implement the commission and to apply for funding. It’s the drawing board stage where you try and downplay the chaos of beginnings. They’re doing great at that. Newspaper articles are written on the matter, there are many roundtable discussions where the guests range from ministers to EU delegates to civil society members. But it’s always easier to gather men in suits in boardrooms and draft reports than to go on the streets or in the villages and ask citizens, “and what would you like in this process? What are you looking for?” I did not follow Gambian news as closely as locals but from what I gathered, there is lots and lots of talk but so very little real action on the grounds.

I’m forever grateful to have gone behind the scenes of the academic papers, to understand that the needs of the people are rarely met, that there is hope, but unfortunately hope does not pay for the societal changed needed. The TRRC could still very well take place and could be successful but it will need to learn from the mistakes of other West African states who have undergone a similar process. Gambians pride themselves on their uniqueness and on the uniqueness of their situation, but even unique people must learn from those they deem to be not so unique.

I did not only learn about transitional justice. I learned about the African human rights system in depth. There is so much that has been done but there is so much left to do. There are very little enforcement mechanisms in African courts when decisions are rendered. The African Court, the court with the highest enforcement mechanism, has been ratified by only a handful of African countries. The mountain to climb seems insurmountable to me, but I have been lucky enough to be in a work environment where my colleagues don’t feel the same way. They trust they are doing their part, they want to fight the beast of injustice and although they may not live to see substantive change in African human rights law, they will pave the way which will hopefully allow the next generation to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They love their work and even if they know it is not producing the change they would like to see, they will keep fighting for what’s right.

It’s been an honor to witness such passion and perseverance in my workplace.

Do I not care about human rights law merely because I don’t want practice it? Please do not be so naïve.

I do care deeply about human rights and transitional justice and I greatly admire the men and women who dedicate their lives to such a noble career. There is a spark in their eyes when they engage in ardent discussions on the topic and that spark will stay with them throughout their career. It’s not the same as the interest of a young student reading about something she finds “super interesting”. This is their life, this is their passion.

Living in The Gambia is in itself a tremendous learning experience. I recommend to anyone who feels lost and confused to let yourself feel even more lost and confused and to strip yourself of your sources of comfort, allow yourself to reflect and watch the reflection change your life.

Will I be the next Amal Clooney? Doubtful.

Does that make my experience less pertinent? Does it make my internship useless? Of course not.

Thank you to IHRDA for the work experience and to the Smiling Coast of Africa for the life experience.

Human rights law may not be for me. So what is for me?

Time will tell.

Caroline

For the moment this is the only picture that accepts to upload on my blog post. It’s pretty random, am aware.

Abortion Laws and Blue Tape

By Catherine Labasi-Sammartino


During my last month interning at the Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development (CEHURD), I focused on access to safe abortions in Uganda. I am grateful for having been given opportunities to explore this topic in depth, as it was my biggest interest at the beginning of my internship. I engaged with Ugandan abortion laws in my work, including legal research, a community visit to the district of Mukono, and a staff presentation on the Harm Reduction Model as a legal defence for health care providers. Through these experiences I acquired an understanding of the current constitutional and legislative provisions framing access to safe abortions in Uganda as well as the associated social and cultural barriers.

Uganda addresses the issue of abortion under Article 22 of the Uganda Constitution 1995, which protects the right to life of all individuals. Article 22(2) provides that no person has the right to terminate the life of an unborn child except as may be authorized by law passed by Parliament. However, the duty to legislate and legitimize abortion under justifiable circumstances has yet to be fulfilled. Access to abortion is currently dictated by the Penal Code Act under Sections 141, 142, 143 and 212, which criminalizes abortion and penalizes any person, including mothers and health workers, who enables the termination of a pregnancy. Consequently, women risk undertaking clandestine and unsafe abortions without any professional health care out of fear of being prosecuted for murder.

On the other hand, the Uganda National Policy Guidelines and Service Standards for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights 2012 recognizes justifiable circumstances for the completion of safe abortions. It states that when a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life and requires the use of a safe abortion, it is admissible. Since the Penal Code Act has yet to be amended to decriminalize justified abortions, it remains inconsistent with the new policy and the intention set in the Constitution. This uncertainty in the law makes it so that women continue to die while conducting clandestine and unsafe abortions and that health workers risk being prosecuted when providing care. Hence, CEHURD advocates for Parliament to amend the Penal Code in order to align it with the Constitution by clearly stating the conditions under which women can legally obtain safe abortions services and under which health professionals can treat them without risking prosecution or stigmatization.

One of the most interesting discussions I participated in regarding access to safe abortions in Uganda was in the context of a Value Clarification and Attitude Transformation exercise (VCAT) led by CEHURD staff as part of a one day sensitization conference with police officers. The exercise was simple and yet effectively created a safe environment for each participant to discuss their perspectives on a variety of questions touching on abortion. Blue tape was placed on the floor to divide the conference room in two equal parts. As the participants all stood on one side of the room, CEHURD staff members explained that they would read a statement out loud and that each individual should move towards the blue line proportionally to their agreement with the statement. Those that fully identified themselves with the given statement were to cross the blue line. Statements included “I have kept someone’s abortion a secret” and “I believe that all women should have access to safe abortions.”

After everyone positioned themselves according to their feelings towards each statement, CEHURD staff gave an opportunity to individuals on both sides of the line to explain their position. Personal stories, political ideas, and religious references were shared and no judgmental or aggressive responses followed. It was a simple mediated conversation that left me surprisingly content and seemingly hopeful. This does not imply that all interventions were ones I agreed with. On the contrary, ideas I consider as distressing, such as that giving all women access to safe abortions would be dangerous because women would surely use this new right to threaten men, were many. I was satisfied by the exercise because of its effectiveness in creating a dialogue where I felt that both sides were actually listening to each other in a way that I had not witnessed in several years. Overall, Uganda’s alarming maternal mortality rate and CEHURD’s incoming cases on women maltreatment have left me impatient to see change in Uganda’s health and legal system. However, I have learned that processes that bring immediate and tangible change in both these systems are practically obsolete. Small and effective exercises that require only an open mind and blue tape, such as the VCATs organized by CEHURD, ought not to be overlooked in the process of changing social mindsets and reducing the maternal mortality rate in Uganda.

Namibian Law: in Progress and in Flux

By: Eleanor Dennis

Living in a country whose independence dates to the decade you were born in can be a reminder of both how quickly development can happen and how long institutionalized ways of thinking can take to change. Namibia’s democracy is still relatively young, having passed through several distinct stages of English, German and South African rule before becoming the Republic of Namibia in 1990. Now an independent republic, Namibia is in the process of reforming many of their laws enacted during apartheid and determining exactly what Namibian constitutionalism will look like well into the twenty-first century.

Day to day life in Windhoek is fast-paced, cosmopolitan and hectic. The downtown core is often jam-packed with taxis and private vehicles moving people to and from work inside the city centre and to some of the towns outside. There are huge avenues with six car laneways and street names like Independence Avenue and Sam Nujoma Drive which serve as almost frequent reminders of the hard-fought liberation struggle that is never far from people’s minds.

Work at the LRDC

Members of the Hoachannas Traditional Leadership with representatives from the Ministry of Justice

My work at the Law Reform and Development Commission (LRDC) is another reminder of how young Namibia’s constitutionalism really is. The Commission came into operation in 1992 and its core mandate is to examine all branches of Namibia’s laws and make recommendations for their review, reform and development. A typical work day involves the review of bills that are making their way through the Commission before being discussed at the Cabinet Committee on Legislation (CCL) and being passed on to the Attorney General, the National Assembly and eventually the National Council.

As an intern, I also work side by side with the Chairperson of the LRDC Ms. Yvonne Dausab and often accompany her to community meetings, town halls and workshops. What this meant for me was diving head-first into Namibia’s constitutionalism and getting a rare opportunity to see a law come to life almost from start to finish. What I’ve begun to develop in my six weeks in Namibia is a bigger picture of how a country’s laws shape both its present and its future—and some of the barriers that legislation can encounter in effectuating real change on the ground.

Town hall meeting in Hoachannas with the Minister of Justice

Racial Hate Speech in Namibia

Namibian society has come a long way from its racially-charged past. Every Namibian now enjoys the equal protection of his or her constitutional rights regardless of age, sex, colour, race, tribe, disability or any other of the enumerated grounds for discrimination under Article 10 of the Constitution. On the other hand, Namibia is at a crossroads with regards to one of its fundamental post-independence values—protection against racist hate speech.

Many violations of human dignity during apartheid in Namibia have been removed through legislation and policy, however there has still not been a total break with the racialized social order. This is evidenced by the inconsistent distribution of land and resources in Namibia and also in the social sphere where racial and tribal tensions continue to result in unequal treatment of individuals.

Racialized structures and racial language have survived apartheid in spite of a modern, liberal Constitution and a profound will to break with the past. Use of words making racial distinctions between people are still strongly embedded within people’s minds and discrimination continues to occur across both racial and tribal lines. Stereotypes based on tribe are particularly harmful, and continue to impact on an individual’s access to employment, land, shelter and equal treatment.

Freedom of Expression and Anti-Hate Speech Legislation

Other countries which have similar racial histories have enacted very strict legislation to protect individuals from racial hate speech in order to address past injustices and initiate a strong break from the past. These protections must be balanced with an individual’s right to express themselves, and countries like South Africa have restricted this balance to make the perpetuation of hate speech a serious crime where prosecutions have led to jail time. [1]

Namibia has followed suit and in 1991 enacted the Racial Discrimination Prohibition Act [2] to protect the gains of the long struggle against colonization, racism, apartheid and the right to non-discrimination. Few cases have been brought before the High Court, however, and as of 2018 there have been no successful prosecutions made under this Act.

One of the landmark cases that led to a 1998 amendment of the Act is the 1996 Smith v State and Others case [3] where an advertisement in a Windhoek newspaper congratulating a famous Nazi on his birthday was challenged under Section 11 prohibiting racist speech. The constitutionality of Section 11 was challenged for derogating from the protection of freedom of expression set out in Art. 21(1) and (2) of the Constitution. The Supreme Court of Namibia used the Oakes test and while the advertisement failed on every requirement, the Court deemed that the infringement did not justify restrictions on freedom of speech under the Act because the groups of persons concerned (Jewish people) had “never featured or suffered in the pre-independence era in Namibia”. The Act’s objective was deemed to be the prevention of apartheid-type racism and while the advertisement was harmful to Jewish people, it did not espouse apartheid values and therefore the Act could not justify infringing upon the advertiser’s freedom of speech in that situation.

Former Dean of the University of Namibia Faculty of Law Nico Horn criticizes the Smith case precedent, [4]  arguing that the Act should not only offer protection to previously disadvantaged groups in a country where racism has many forms and minority groups continue to face discrimination today. Horn argues that a broad interpretation of the term “racial” group in the Racial Discrimination Prohibition Act is needed to cross the bridge from a racist to a non-racist society and the Smith case failed to further this. Alternatively, the former Ombudsman Clement Daniels argued [5] that laws that prohibit racism are not enough to curtail racist expression. Laws that promote national unity and anti-racism promotion campaigns are equally needed in order to change one of the roots of the problem—people’s mindsets.

Moving Forward with the Racial Discrimination Prohibition Act

The fact that only few cases have ever come to Court under the Act has led many to question its effectiveness. There are a myriad of reasons for this, ranging from victims having inadequate information concerning their legal rights, lacking the resources to enter into the complex judicial process, and fearing social censure if they come forward.

An article that Ms Dausab and I published in The Namibian on hate speech legislation

This puts Namibia in a particularly important position when it comes to determine which direction the country will take on freedom of expression and what hate speech regulation will look like. Legislation exists protecting individuals from discrimination and racist hate speech, however as long as the Act remains unarticulated by the Courts confusion will remain in terms of what legal protections exist to combat racism in a judicial context in an independent Namibia.

Moving Forward at the LRDC

Like Namibia’s constitutional law maturing case by case and bill by bill, I’m learning to take my experience here at the LRDC step by step. Namibia’s past and present is more complex and nuanced than I can manage and at times I fear I am only scratching the surface of the real-life issues a country must grapple with in the first decades after its independence. Like Namibia, I too am developing an understanding that takes two steps forward before falling one giant step back when faced with issues like racism that legislation has not be effective at combatting.

The perspective the LRDC is restricted to is a legal one, but that perspective need not be the only one. Namibian law is a work in progress and so is building a constitutional democracy. That much, at least, I understand. 😉

 

[1]   https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-43567468

[2]  http://www.lac.org.na/laws/annoSTAT/Racial%20Discrimination%20Prohibition%20Act%2026%20of%201991.pdf

[3] https://namiblii.org/na/judgment/high-court/96/16

[4] http://www.kas.de/upload/auslandshomepages/namibia/Namibia_Law_Journal/09-1/horn1.pdf

[5] https://www.namibian.com.na/index.php?page=archive-read&id=147374

 

 

 

 

 

Settling in on the Smiling Coast of Africa

No matter how you many countries you visit or live in, moving to The Gambia is a whole different experience. Nothing quite prepares you for the change, the weather, the people, the men, the poverty and the adjustments you have to make. The friendliness on the “Smiling Coast of Africa” definitely helped but I still found it difficult to adjust in my first few weeks.

Things don’t work when you want them to, the power goes off when you really don’t want it to, goats scream in the middle of the night and it’s terrifying, sidewalks are a luxury, it takes 4 hours to get something done when all you need is 30 minutes, you sweat in places you didn’t know existed, seeing cows walking by your side as you try to tan on the beach is normal, you fear the bathroom, you accept you will never be as well dressed as West African women, you’re convinced the mosquito in your bedroom is going to give you malaria, you feel a special bond with your electric fan at work, you try to learn to appreciate instant coffee (I haven’t), and you actually begin to answer when people call you toubab on the street (the Wolof word for white).

If you do not learn to be flexible and to take things with a grain of salt, you won’t like it at all.

Some of the more frustrating aspects of day to day life grow on you with time. I came to enjoy the freezing cold wakeup call of my morning bucket shower making it oh so clear that it was time for work.  I found my evening feet rinse quite therapeutic even if it was because the lack of sidewalks and the abundance of dirt roads make your feet turn a whole new colour. Sometimes the fridge would stop working, meaning it was a reason to go out and eat Gambian cuisine, which is actually fantastic, unless you’re allergic to peanuts, in which case you’d die just by stepping out of the airport of the country where peanuts are the ONLY export.

One ritual I’ve come to thoroughly enjoy is to walk down to the local market after work to pick up my vegetables and mangoes (a food group in itself in The Gambia when they’re in season). There, I get to chat with Ara, a lovely Gambian woman, always beautifully dressed (I could stare at these outfits forever) who runs the fruit and vegetable stand with her brother. I was drawn to her stand on my first day after work and have been going since. A few days in, she asked if I liked parsley and gave me some for free. I was so touched by her gesture; that’s what Gambians are like. They’re happy, they’re generous yet they have so little. It’s incredibly humbling and we can all learn from their wonderful nature.

Some of it doesn’t grow on you and makes you so frustrated you could just scream into a pillow for hours on end. I’m a very independent person, I do things on my own and I’m used to going where I want to solo. As a white woman, even though the country is very safe, I can’t do whatever I want without being disturbed. Going to the gym or for a run? Men will try to run next to you. Go for a leisurely stroll? Have lunch in a restaurant? Go to the beach? Get a taxi? Walk around local markets? Someone is going to introduce themselves to you and propose to you. If you find a Black man to join you, you’re fine. But that still means I have to spend time with someone if I want to venture out anywhere. We all have days where we don’t want to interact with humanity, where we just want to be lost in our thoughts, read, write, drink coffee, listen to music and just be on our own. When I feel that way, I find myself forced to stay home because there is literally no way I can find that peace if I leave my compound.

Some of it doesn’t grow on you but you learn to tolerate it. Cat calling isn’t fun, but some men are more imaginative than others at complementing women. One said I was as pretty as A flower in A garden (no one told him beauty lies in precision), a nice change from the whistles or the ones screaming from the other side of the street, BOSS LADY HI YOU LOOKING GOOD TODAY, I was offered romantic rides on donkey carriages, was proposed to by taxi drivers and was expected to give out my phone number in the same way you throw fish to a hungry crocodile; freely and with no restraint. Many men confessed their love to me, a nice ego boost from my love life back in Montreal. Of course I rarely answered but often took mental notes of what was being said and write it down for entertainment. If you can’t laugh about it, you’ll cry of frustration because it happens so often. Every man wants to shake your hand. WHAT IS WITH THAT? I don’t know you and quite frankly have no desire to know you, so please, save the hand shaking and just wave hello.

It’s not always fun and I often times find myself thinking “I’m The Gambia, what the actual fudge” (censored for academic integrity) and then I remind myself that this is a once in a lifetime experience, that most people never leave their comfort zone and that I am growing so much from my time in The Gambia.

That being said, I’m only human so if I’m having a rough day, that’s ok too. It’ll pass.

 

There is no schedule

By Francesca Nardi

“Horario no hay”.

“There is no schedule”.

This was one of the first phrases that I heard on my first day at my new job in Argentina and asked what time I should be expecting to arrive and leave the office every day.

After finishing 1L exams, and leaving 12 hours later for a grueling 36 hour journey to Mar del Plata, Argentina, this was the last sentence I ever expected to hear. Like many law students, our lives are governed by strict class and study schedules, with many of us often having to schedule in time to do basic things like eating and sleeping. This was my first introduction to a completely different sense of time that would shape much of my Argentine experience.

I had never realized the extent to which schedules shape cultures until I arrived in Argentina and was forced to reflect on the way I think about time. In Canada, and especially in the legal profession, time is money. In my experience in Argentina, things move much more slowly, people arrive late to almost everything, and deadlines are merely a suggestion. At first, I took this as a frustrating indication that my time wasn’t valued. How was it that things could seem to move so much more slowly here?

The last six weeks have taught me that the laissez-faire approach to time and schedules in Argentina is not a sign of disrespect for other people’s time, but precisely the opposite. The laid back approach to scheduling here comes from a recognition of how valuable time is, and the importance of making space in life for the things that are important. In Mar del Plata, people are extremely physically active, spending time outside walking and running on the beach, dancing, or working out in a gym. This is seen as an indispensable and important part of life. Argentinians are also incredibly social and family oriented, always setting aside time to get together with friends and family for an asado on the weekends, or to go and enjoy a coffee and conversation somewhere together. The relatively relaxed approach to time in my workplace reflects a recognition that while work is important, there are so many other things in life that warrant time and energy. A flexible schedule expresses this, and acts as a reminder that it is up to all of us to prioritize the things in our lives that truly matter, while still getting things done in the workplace.

Since arriving in Argentina, I have been able to explore a variety of areas of the law, including disability and fertility law, while also collaborating with the legal clinic on issues of disability rights in the context of public transport. Mar del Plata has a long way to go to making the city accessible for people with disabilities, the elderly, and parents with young children. Working on this project has allowed me to look more critically at the structures of the cities I have lived in, and become more aware of the architectural and attitudinal barriers that prevent everyone from enjoying the city and accessing essential services.

I have also been working on a project exploring the implications of prenatal and preimplantation genetic testing on the disability community. This project has forced me to think more deeply about the complex reality of technological development, and the challenges presented by technologies that may seem benign and even positive. Finally, I collaborated with a group of students at the faculty on an international research paper examining the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities throughout other UN committees and oversight bodies.

In my spare time, I have been taking advantage of the truly spectacular beaches in Mar del Plata to spend time outside, learning to dance tango, and making friends at the local gym. On the weekends, I have been travelling and getting to see some of the incredible corners of this beautiful country! Like any new experience far from home, there have been challenges, but the Marplatense community have embraced me with open arms, and have already made this summer an unforgettable part of my law school experience!

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