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5 final lessons from my work this summer

By Rebecca Clayton

 

 

I wrote my first blog as five lessons from my early days in Uganda, so I figured I would conclude with five more lessons from the end of my internship (and in the space since returning home). I would be lying if I said that my reflections since returning to Canada have been easy – translating what I have been feeling into words has been an uphill battle. A steep one. I’ve wrestled (probably for longer than I should have) with what to say on the tail end of an experience like this one. I think my reflections can best be summed up in the following five lessons:

 

Sunset in the Ssese Islands

 

  1. Language is a key player in human rights work.

An obvious (but perhaps underestimated) truth in human rights work. Even though English is common, in many of the circumstances where I assisted with client intake or mediation, Lugandan was the language spoken. I appreciated being a part of this work, but felt at times disappointed that I couldn’t offer more. It was an important reminder about the role of language, and how central it is to everything we do. The best of intentions and the most in-depth knowledge of the legal system don’t mean anything if you can’t communicate with someone – if you can’t learn about them and their experiences. I think this lesson is important to keep in mind as we navigate the world of human rights and public interest law.

 

 

A bunch of the CEHURD staff and I, out for a drive during the staff retreat

 

  1. There is magic in an organization that creates space for its employees to connect with one another.

 

My second last week at CEHURD, the entire staff went on their bi-annual staff retreat. Twice a year, the staff spend a week somewhere in Uganda (in this case, it was the Ssese Islands) to report to one another, teach one another about new topics in their work, and receive feedback from management on their work over the past six months. Most significantly, though, I noticed that a key outcome for this retreat week is how it provides a space for CEHURD staff to connect with one another. Outside of work hours through meals, exploratory trips, and evenings filled with dancing (and maybe some alcohol), CEHURD staff get to unwind and enjoy each other’s company. All summer, though there was often not much overlap between teams as everyone was busy and focused on their own work, I noticed that staff members were well connected with each other. After participating in a staff retreat, I think I figured out why. The work at CEHURD is serious, and expectations are high for their employees. It is challenging in more ways than one to work in the human rights field, but carving out space for their teams to feel connected to one another changes the entire workplace culture. I was impressed with much of what CEHURD does, but this was one of my favourite of those things. Having worked in the non-profit sector, I know that organizations need to choose their priorities, as time and funding are always limited. Prioritizing this chance to invest in their work culture makes a huge difference in the work that they do, and I felt so fortunate to get to experience it firsthand.

 

A lioness in a tree! QE National Park is famous for tree-climbing lions

 

  1. Predictably, a lion lounging in a tree is pretty cool.

 

When Somaya and I went on a safari trip on a long weekend in June, we were on a mission to see lions. Having come all the way to Western Uganda to Queen Elizabeth National Park (famous for tree-climbing lions), we were adamant that seeing lions was nonnegotiable. After a disappointing morning game drive, we lucked out in the late afternoon, and proceeded to spend the rest of the day passing binoculars between us to watch the sleeping lioness in a tree. And it was exactly as cool as we thought it would be.

 

City Hall in Jinja, on a day we went for a mediation between a client & hospital.

 

  1. Being a cultural outsider can hinder at times, rather than help.

 

On June 13th, CEHURD went to court to argue Petition 10 in the Constitutional Court. This case was a challenge against the government for failing to produce any legislation that outlined the exceptions for the criminalization of abortion. The Constitution allows for such exceptions – but Parliament had not passed sufficient parameters about what these could be (sexual assault, incest, and danger to a woman’s health being among the most common exceptions in other countries that criminalize abortion). This gap in legislation creates a grey area, causing many women in these circumstances to seek unsafe abortions, and many healthcare providers not to know what their role is in responding to the needs of their patients. CEHURD was taking the Attorney General to court, arguing that it violates the constitution for Parliament to continue to allow this legislative gap.

A week before the court date, we had a legal experts meeting with the entire Strategic Litigation team, as well as other lawyers and community organizations to talk about our case and what it entails. We discussed strategy, anticipated counter arguments, asked questions and, importantly, discussed public messaging. The way that we wanted to appear in court was carefully weighed – do we pack the courtroom with lots of bodies, trying to control the energy and drawing the public’s attention? Or do we fly under the radar to minimize coverage, and as such, minimize the amount of pressure that the judiciary might feel? Ultimately, the decision was made to do the latter. Weighing out how the public would inevitably respond to a case about such a sensitive issue was a careful undertaking – not even our entire team went to watch the case be argued. When I asked my manager if I might go with those who were going to attend, she gently explained that my presence might hinder rather than help. Abortion can often be seen as linked to Western culture, and its imposition on Uganda by Western organizations can cause leaders, lawmakers, and judges to be extra sensitive against it. My face in the courtroom might have sent a message, my manager feared, about “external cultural influence” guiding this case. Perhaps unlikely, but we weren’t taking any chances on such an important issue.

This decision, however, reminded me of a whole line of challenges against human rights work. Sometimes, the human rights structures that have originated in the West can cause more harm than benefit through their origin and rigidity. By imposing specific ideas about how rights manifest in all circumstances – these specific ideas being tied up in Western values and perceptions – there are groups that have dug in their heels to resist this imposition and some people have become more marginalized because of it. As with all human rights work, it is important to be aware of our impact in different circumstances, and this court case was a good reminder for me about this. Sometimes, it is best for everyone to sit back and hear about how things went the next day.

 

Somaya at the equator!

 

  1. I am a super sensitive person – and I need to remember this in my work.

 

Quite honestly, I was not expecting to find working in Uganda as challenging as I did. Having lived abroad, travelled extensively, and worked in the non-profit sector, I had enough related experiences that I thought I would transition rather seamlessly into my life there. I’m not sure whether it was a post-COVID mental health slump, the work itself, or (most likely) a mix of the two, but this summer was incredibly emotionally taxing for me, and I am still trying to figure out how I feel about the experience that I had. I have always known that I am a deeply sensitive person, but I was more exhausted than I ever anticipated at the end of every workday. Progressively throughout the summer, I retreated deeper into books and other sources of comfort in my downtime to avoid thinking too much about the human rights violations I was reading about all day. I missed my security networks – my partner, my family and my friends – in ways I had not expected to. And, by the time I returned home, I felt entirely drained. This feeling was made all the more challenging by the fact that it was entirely unexpected for me, and I was wholly underprepared to respond to it. The lesson here for me is one that I am still unpacking, but requires me to look seriously at what I need to do to better prepare myself for human rights work in the future, as well as what that work looks like for me to be able to partake in it without having it take over my entire capacity. This personal learning is hugely valuable as I navigate law school and try to figure out a prospective career path. The object of this program, I believe, is not just to learn about human rights practice, but to explore how you fit into it. I am grateful for this opportunity to have looked a bit deeper into my own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to human rights, to give me more reference points as I plan for my future.

 

Tea plantations in the countryside!

 

All in all, there is no one way to sum up my experience in Uganda this summer. The learning was deep and significant. The work was beautiful and challenging. Living was both fun and hard. It was exhausting, amazing, sad, intense, and so very many more adjectives. I am grateful, however, for the complexity. I don’t think that one can successfully seek simplicity in human rights.

 

The End to a Remote Experience

Blog 2: 30/09/22

When I applied to the McGill Human Rights Internship, I hoped to travel somewhere far, experience a different culture, and work in a large team. My internship at the Clinic, however, was remote and accompanied by various challenges: Zoom links that didn’t work, difficulties accessing online platforms, and feelings of isolation. While this was not what I envisioned, what I learned went far beyond what I could’ve expected.

A large portion of this internship involved following an upper-year law course on disability law. Every class was accompanied by fruitful conversations about students’ preconceptions and beliefs about disability, the ethics of working in disability and human rights, and honest conversations about the work they want to do moving forward and the principles learned from the course that can be applied in different fields.

While I was far away from the students and professors, these conversations and the work I was assigned pushed me to not only gain more knowledge about Peruvian perspectives on disability, but different Latin American perspectives more generally. I learned more about my own Latin American country of origin than I ever pushed myself to within this legal context. This experience sparked a desire in me to speak with family members, friends, and peers about their conceptions of disability and the implications of such, bringing me closer to them. I have come to appreciate that the physical distance with the internship ended up fostering feelings of closeness with those around me.

The Importance of Interdisciplinary Approaches

Blog 1: 27/06/22

My internship is with the Legal Clinic of Disability and Human Rights of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. Much of the focus of the internship has been course-based, with a light shed on disability law in the mental health arena. With an undergraduate and graduate degree in psychology in hand, I thought there would be quite an overlap with what I have learned and what the course might offer. Wrong I was. Instead, I take with me that greater collaboration is needed among professionals in different spheres, working with the same goal of pushing human rights work forward.

“Does having a disability warrant limiting someone’s freedom?” asked the Professor to the class. I stared at my camera on Zoom blankly, realizing this was never discussed in any course I had taken prior. I thought back to the cases of petty crimes that resulted in the criminalization of people living with mental health. I tell myself the answer should be no. But what if they are a danger to themselves? Is it fair to allow authorities to make such a determination?

These thought-provoking discussions occur weekly. I am pushed to challenge my own beliefs about disability and the negative associations related to it. Through this experience, I have also seen the importance of an interdisciplinary approach in human rights work. I look back and wish I had been exposed to such questions throughout my prior academic training. I look forward and see the benefits of having lawyers work with other professionals, including psychologists in disability law, to strengthen their arguments. When trying to push Courts to adopt a social model of disability consistent with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), for example, I now more clearly see the benefit of an interdisciplinary approach. When hearing parents talk about the struggles of accessing inclusive education for their children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, I want to form a team of lawyers, psychiatrists, psychologists, and mental health advocates to find solutions.

This experience has gifted me many gems. One of the most meaningful is the need for collaboration.

Truth, Memory, and Reconciliation

Hay futuro si hay verdad” – there is a future if there is truth. This was Colombia’s Comision de la Verdad’s (Truth Commission) slogan for their Final Report. The report, released on June 28, 2022, consisted of interviews from victims, armed actors, law enforcement officers, and former presidents, among other stakeholders, about the causes and consequences of Colombia’s armed conflict.

This release was among one of the major events that happened this summer. Coincidentally, I came to Colombia at a time when there were many changes. This year marked the first time that a left-wing president was elected in Colombia. Erring on the side of caution, I was asked to stay home when the first and second round of elections occurred in May and June, before Gustavo Petro was elected and came into office in August.

In June, the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) rejected the petition to reopen the preliminary examination on allegations of human rights abuses in Colombia. This preliminary examination was closed in 2021 when the ICC Prosecutor, Kharim Khan, came to Colombia and determined that the country’s government did not lack volition to look into these crimes. Therefore, the cases during the armed conflict should be best dealt with internally. This led to a change in my assigned research to summarize the reasons for the rejection rather than to find reasons to invite Prosecutor Khan to Colombia for the appeal.

Prior to this internship, I only knew about drug trafficking issues in Colombia. Only after arriving did I realize that drugs formed part of a bigger conflict – the armed conflict. This conflict has been ongoing since 1964 and primarily involves the Colombian government, far-left guerilla groups such as ELN and FARC, far-right paramilitary groups that arose to “protect themselves” from the guerillas such as AUC, and illegal criminal organizations that participate in drug and human trafficking.

In 2016, the Colombian government and FARC signed the Final Agreement, which focuses on six main areas: ending the armed conflict; truth, justice, and reparation for victims; fighting drug trafficking; better rural opportunities; more political participation and democracy; and implementation of the Final Agreement. In 2017, FARC demobilized and transitioned into a political party. Nevertheless, government negotiations are still ongoing with ELN, and FARC dissidents have been responsible for several attacks in the country.

The Final Agreement created three institutions for transitional justice: the Truth Commission, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (“JEP”), and the Search Unit for Disappeared People (“UBPD”). The JEP is a tribunal that specifically deals with cases from the country’s armed conflict. One of the goals of ASFC’s JUSTRAM (Transitional Justice for Women) project, was to increase confidence in the country’s transitional justice institutions.

JUSTRAM aimed to reinforce this by going into communities most affected by the armed conflict, and working together with leaders of women’s groups. ASFC members taught these women about the possible recourse they had for the violence they encountered during the armed conflict. At the time that I came to Colombia, JUSTRAM was set to end in June, and it had been a five year project ever since the Final Agreement was signed in 2016.

One of my most memorable moments was during the closure event for JUSTRAM. An indigenous woman from one of the groups that ASFC worked with asked me if there was a Unit for Displaced Victims (Unidad de las Víctimas) in Canada. I responded no, we don’t have such a victims unit, but we still have many displaced Indigenous peoples in Canada, similar to Colombia.

This question made me deeply reflect on our Indigenous issues in Canada. Although we do not have an ongoing armed conflict, we have displaced our Indigenous peoples. Our government forced them into residential schools, relocated the Metis in the 1800s, and relocated the Inuit in 1950. Even the fact that Indigenous peoples do not comprise the majority of the population in major Canadian cities points to how they have been forced to move onto reserves. In JUSTRAM, Indigenous, Black, and rural women were the focus groups, and I found that this demographic did not differ greatly from Indigenous and racialized groups who are also significantly disadvantaged in Canada.

Outside of the office, I was also able to learn more about the issues in Colombia. One of the buildings in Bogota’s historic centre had a temporary photo exhibit on the armed conflict. I found it much easier to grasp the information I was reading at work with the presented visuals as the thick books felt impersonal at times. The photo exhibit discussed multiple atrocities committed by the state and armed groups, but what caught my eye the most was a series of graphs showing the number of victims for different types of violence (forced disappearance, kidnappings, displacement, sexual violence). Most of the graphs showed that civilians were the largest group affected by this violence; however, for attacks on civilians, combatant victims were almost as many as civilians.

Pie chart showing the responsibility of attacks from various groups

Exhibit at another museum – “Public Participation – when do you feel that your opinion matters?”

This graph reminded me that although civilians are the focus of human rights, armed groups can also be the victims and will have different points of view. This was further reinforced when I went to the Centre for Memory and Reconciliation, which exhibited items from members of the M-19 armed group who had forcibly disappeared.

What I did find lacking in the reports and exhibitions were stories from family members of those who had forcibly disappeared. The truth of the incidents was not incorrectly remembered as it included militant victims, but rather, it was incomplete.

Story of a son’s enforced disappearance by the country’s military forces

The Centre also had a children’s section where events were regularly held. I saw many books along the wall, and asked one of the curators what they were for. She told me that they were books to teach children about the armed conflict. Curious as to how it would be taught, I read one related to displacement and found that the concept was explained in a rather abstract way. The story begins with the child remarking that one day, they woke up and everything seemed different. However, nobody around them seemed to notice. The story ends with the child accepting their new home and the differences.

Personally, I felt that the story didn’t differentiate between a family moving for work purposes or immigrating on their own volition from a case of forced movement. However, I suppose that this would be discussed with the children in the events that were held in the Centre. The curator also told me that war was easier for children to understand than concepts such as their internal conflict or enforced disappearances, as children were more exposed to war through media such as video games. I found this interesting in that a more local issue was less in the minds of children. Conversely, Canadian children are rarely taught about Indigenous issues in the country but rather learn about events such as the Holocaust which happened a continent away.

Needless to say, whenever I was told by a Colombian that Canada as a “first world country” must have better rights than a “third world country” like Colombia, it was quite unsettling to me. Canada’s human rights issues kept circling back, and in some areas such as LGBTQ rights, I found Colombia to be quite progressive and arguably on-par with Canada in some areas.

For instance, there were ample pro-LGBTQ messages posted by the government on streets, advertisements telling people to denounce discrimination against LGBTQ communities, and LGBTQ media was readily available in cinemas and bookstores. The LGBTQ community was also identified as one of the target groups to work with in the Final Agreement, and even if progress is still to be made, at the very least LGBTQ people were not forgotten as a stakeholder.

Bogota Pride

Advertisement on building – “Hi, I’m Laura. Call me by my name”

There was also progress in the area of migrants’ rights when I heard about Yolanda’s case, known formally as Sentencia T-236/21, in events that ASFC held about human trafficking. Yolanda was a Venezuelan migrant who was falsely lured to Colombia. She was unable to obtain protection as a human trafficking victim, and fought for her rights to be recognized as such. With the help of an organization called Women’s Link, Yolanda’s rights as a human trafficking victim were recognized by the Constitutional Court, and better protection for human trafficking victims was achieved. A victim identification protocol was to be designed along with better training for public officials to identify human trafficking victims.

In terms of the armed conflict, a historic moment that happened this summer was an acknowledgment hearing held by JEP. This hearing was the first time that ex-FARC members admitted responsibility for crimes such as kidnapping. Families of victims attended the hearing and attended restorative justice meetings with the ex-FARC members. In addition to the Centre for Memory, another Memory museum was to be built and originally planned to open in 2022. This museum will have permanent exhibits, unlike the Centre for Memory, which is more focused on events and school education.

All of these positive aspects made me doubt whether Colombia was really as “undeveloped” as Colombians framed it to be, but it was not until we had one of our class discussions that I realised the key to this issue.

Rather than comparing Colombia with Canada or European countries, it is better to look at Colombia in the context of other Latin American countries with similar income and development. Time and time again, I saw progress in the country during this internship, and I see how much hope the country is filled with for a better future. Time will tell the effects of the ongoing change, but the reconciliation attempts underway and the efforts to recognize rights of diverse groups such as LGBTQ people and migrants seem to point towards a positive trend.

Although it may be tempting to point out the flaws in the reconciliation process or what has yet to be achieved, people are seeking the truth, reconciliation, and remembrance of those who have been lost. True to the Truth Commission’s slogan, there is a future, if there is truth.

Reflection on Refugee Resettlement Process

by Somaya Amiri

Working with the Refugee Law Project (RLP) in Uganda exposed me to various challenges migrant communities face in the country and how local and international organizations mobilize to address them. One of these challenges is the lack of information and transparency in the refugee resettlement application process, which I attempt to dissect in this blog by discussing a case involving the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a refugee family.

For those new to this topic, ‘resettlement’ is the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another State that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent residence. UNHCR is mandated by its Statute and the UN General Assembly Resolutions to undertake resettlement as one of the three durable solutions.

Image1: City Hall Court – minutes before hearing.

The criminal law case involving UNHCR and a refugee family was my first encounter with the resettlement process in Uganda. The story began when a refugee family became frustrated with their resettlement application and decided to protest against UNHCR by camping in front of their offices. Rather than de-escalating the situation, UNHRC security officers reported the family to the local police and demanded their escort back to their refugee settlement. The police involvement led to a scuffle and damage to a UNHCR vehicle. The family was detained for three months before RLP lawyers were contacted to represent their case. For me, it was ironic to see a prominent international organization lay a complaint against the same individuals they are commissioned to aid and protect. Unfortunately, in this adversarial court process, the family’s initial concerns regarding resettlement were quickly forgotten, and the assault of police officers and UNHCR property damage became the focal point at the trial.

This family is amongst many refugees I encountered in Uganda whose dissatisfaction with the UNHCR’s resettlement process is completely dismissed. For instance, I was told by a refugee client that she had received no update on the status of her application, which she had filed over 17 years ago. In her own words, the application went into a “black hole.” Although implementing partner organizations like the Norwegian Refugee Council, Danish Council, and designated UNHCR offices are theoretically responsible for providing an update on refugees’ applications, this work is not followed through diligently by staff due to the high number of applications and responsibilities beyond resettlement. This is why many refugees resort to other UN offices or UNHCR headquarters to advocate for themselves in hopes of justice.

When I asked a partner organization why a more efficient and transparent process is not in place to provide updates on resettlement applications, the response I received was that “resettlement is a humanitarian act and not a human rights issue.” In other words, resettlement is merely a kind gesture by the international community and should not result in any expectations. In my opinion, this line of thinking creates more harm and prevents further dialogue, criticism, and feedback from improving the resettlement process.

My supervisor, a human rights lawyer, took on the case and tried to help the family with the charges against them. However, the chance of success was low because he was grappling with broader international and local policies outside his control.

Image 2: City Hall Court – the blue bus at the far back transported prisoners and detainees to the court every morning for hearings.

As we drafted cross-examination questions for witnesses and brainstormed our defence arguments, the following questions lingered at the back of our minds:

  • What is the reason behind the lack of transparency in the resettlement process?
  • Why are refugees not provided with a status update on their application?
  • What causes a family to become so frustrated with the process that they end up protesting outside UNHCR offices and scuffling with police officers?
  • Would this case even get to court had UNHCR staff tried to de-escalate the situation?

 

Legislate First, Define Later

by Sophie Bisping

The views expressed in this blog are my own.

The Global Observatory on Academic Freedom, where I worked for a part of the summer, is hosted by the Central European University in Vienna. Primarily a private research university, the CEU was founded by philanthropist George Soros in 1991 in Budapest, with the mandate to provide high-quality free education in English for students from Eastern Europe and beyond. In 2019, CEU was forced to relocate to Vienna from Budapest after Viktor Orbán’s government passed a bill prohibiting its ability to issue internationally recognized degrees, nicknamed “Lex CEU”. This law and other governmental pressures (such as forbidding the existence of gender studies departments) were taken as direct moves to oust the university.

The move from Budapest to Vienna prompted the creation of the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom. This organisation conducts research not only on the status of academic freedom around the world, but also on different conceptions of this right as contextualised in different jurisdictions. I worked on the creation of a global mapping of regulatory frameworks on academic freedom at the international, regional, national, and intra-national level. This comparative exercise allowed me to gain an understanding of how this right has been conceptualised in legislation in Canada and beyond.

In 2020, LEX CEU was struck down by the European Court of Justice as violating Hungary’s obligations as a member of the WTO, and as infringing the provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union relating to academic freedom. The judgment relies heavily on trade law, and only slightly on Article 13 of the European Charter which protects academic freedom. This is partly because there is little litigation that uses “academic freedom” specifically, as distinguished from freedom of speech or freedom of conscience. Whether it is in national or regional courts, the concept remains legally polymorphous.

Yet this does not prevent more and more countries from trying to legislate academic freedom, often in reaction to a political discourse. This was seen in Quebec’s recently passed Bill 32, “An Act respecting academic freedom in the university sector”, championed by the right-wing party in government, Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ). The bill has been criticised as itself harming academic freedom, as it forces universities to install a watchdog council of sorts, which will report back to the government the number of complaints made concerning academic freedom.

Based on the political debates around it, the law aims to protect the academic community from dangers it harbors within itself. There is a sense that a participatory censorship is threatening some members of the academic community, who are in dire need of help from a benevolent CAQ. But the government is not part of the academic community. Academic freedom is a right vested in a professional community; it is both an individual and collective right, unlike freedom of speech, which is simply an individual right. This is a crucial distinction (as explained here by lawyer Robert Post in the United States’ context) that should be taken into account in the legal definition and reach of this concept. As a collective right, it is also collectively defined by the academic community. Its definition has been evolving, and exploring different perspectives of academic freedom helps to understand why Bill 32 seems so mistaken to many members of the academic community.

Bill 32 relies on the commonly cited definition of  the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel. The latter defines academic freedom as the right to freely teach, carry out research, and publish results. The definition also includes the freedom to express one’s opinion about the institution or system in which one works, the freedom from institutional censorship, and the freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies. This might be seen as a minimum core understanding of what constitutes academic freedom, but it is only a starting point. Since 1997, many other aspects of the concept have gained traction.

First, perceptions of academic freedom vary depending on what kind of member of the academic community one is. Few people would disagree that students are part of the academic community. Yet their academic freedom is different from professors’: some students have argued that the restraint on the number of admissions constituted a pressure on their freedom to choose what to study. For teaching staff, the increasing precarity of the academic work environment has also become part of the larger conceptualisation of academic freedom: it is questionable if one is really free to do research if employment conditions are so unstable that they must gear all of their research towards what is seen as profitable and immediately applicable.

Definitions of the obligations that come with this right have also been evolving. As a right vested in a professional community, many see academic freedom as having to be supported by the quality of academic work, as defined by peers. Along the same lines, the European Higher Education Area states in its 2020 Ministerial Communiqué that this right is bound to professional and social responsibility, accountability for public funds, and equitable access.

If academic freedom is a collective right, it is important to look at who has access to this group. This community has constituted itself along lines of colonial power that still structure the way we approach knowledge. The movement Decolonize your Curriculum (which started with the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Cape Town) is an attempt at creating ruptures in those lines, to works against the invisibilisation of marginalised communities in academia. Increasing their representation in school curricula recognises that a wide variety of actors have always participated in the creation of knowledge, though the credit was most often attributed to people in positions of power. For many, creating equitable access to this community is an integral part of a meaningful protection of academic freedom in society, and thus logically includes working towards epistemic justice. Epistemic injustice denotes precisely the exclusion of certain communities from what is perceived as valuable knowledge production. The bias that many people might have in giving higher value to the opinion of a professor from an American university than from a Nepalese university is an example of epistemic injustice. In Canada, this injustice is often expressed in the lack of consideration given to indigenous ways of knowing.

This is why movements to decolonise curricula, and in some cases create a different pedagogy altogether (see Indigegogy for example) are crucial: the current academic community needs to include previously excluded groups, and to be held accountable to them too when it comes to deciding the obligations that come with the right of academic freedom. If different perspectives are not included in defining what it means to be socially responsible as a researcher, or accountable to public funds as an administor, I doubt that these obligations can be fully understood and fulfilled.

Yet we should not conflate academic freedom with epistemic justice and see the latter as the only obligation members of the academic community have. Different aspects might resonate more or less strongly depending on one’s perspective, and they are all part of the definition, whether it is the independence of institutions from states, the freedom of research, or the importance of creating a stable work environment that is inclusive and resilient to debates.

It is precisely because this concept needs to remain open to a variety of perspectives that legislating it amounts to an over-judicialization of public life. Bill 32 enshrines a definition of academic freedom without understanding the societal phenomenon that needs to be addressed. This seems not to be the fear of censorship so much as the fear of losing a common ground for discussion within the community, thereby losing a common framework to establish the obligations that come with the right of academic freedom. Legislation antagonising the universities from the provincial government is not the solution to protect this common ground.

By contributing research on this concept, its instrumentalisation, and politicisation in different local contexts, the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom participates in preventing the erosion of this common ground. It is from there, in Vienna, that I could reflect upon Bill 32 and wonder how it will shape the community that I am entering as I begin my second year of law school.

Living and Working at a Frontier

The views expressed in this post are my own.

One day, in July, I went to the grocery store and the fresh produce was almost entirely picked over. In the dry foods aisle, the only pasta shape left was macaroni. It reminded me of March 2020 and when I checked the local news, I found out that the empty shelves were indeed caused by supply chain issues but in this case the reason was flooding, not Covid-19. Whitehorse (and, by extension, Yukon as a whole) is supplied by one main trucking route, a two-lane highway that winds its way up to the territory from British Columbia. A section of that road had been washed away, spurring people to rush to the grocery stores.

 

That same week, Yukon was experiencing the peak of its wildfire season, with fifty or so wildfires burning in the territory. The sky was hazy, and you could smell the smoke when the wind picked up in the evenings. One of my coworkers at the Commission pointed out that because of Yukon’s geography and climate, its mountain ranges and sharp seasonal shifts, there can be avalanche and wildfire risks simultaneously in the summer. Climate change’s growing impact on the region will probably only exacerbate Yukon’s dramatic seasons.

 

While the washed-out road was being repaired, the internet was suddenly knocked out across the whole territory. The repair crew had broken a key fiber-optic cable. Yukon, like many regions in Canada, is supplied by a single internet provider. In their efforts to restore the physical supply chain, the repair crew had knocked out its digital counterpart. Debit and credit machines stopped working. I went to the bank to take enough money out to buy lunch and as I was walking in to try the ATM, a bank employee intercepted me, asking how much money I was planning to withdraw. He allowed me to carry on once I had assured him that I was only taking out $20. That day at work, there was an unexpected fire drill, just to add to the commotion.

 

Ask locals about this week and they’ll probably remember it but not as all that exceptional. Apparently, there was a similar week of drama the summer before. And the internet goes down regularly, my coworkers told me. It’s all characteristic of living on the settler-colonial frontier, where the margin is still being actively connected to the centre. When the Rogers Outage impacted large swathes of Canada just a few days later, Yukon was unphased.

 

The legal system I was working within also felt like a frontier. Because Yukon is such a small jurisdiction, its judges hear relatively few cases. The Yukon Supreme Court and Territorial Court have three full-time judges each, and the Court of Appeal for the territory only releases a handful of decisions per year, many of which are criminal appeals. As a result, the territory’s own laws are not interpreted and judicially scrutinized as often as they might be in more heavily populated jurisdictions. Yukon’s population is only around 40 thousand people — just a couple thousand more than McGill’s total student body. In my research memos, I often turned to caselaw from other Canadian jurisdictions, especially BC, since that province’s precedents are generally considered the most persuasive in the territory.

 

Naturally, concepts in Yukon’s Human Rights Act (the “Act”) are explained by case law that did not originate in Yukon itself, such as Supreme Court of Canada jurisprudence like Moore v British Columbia, which lays out the three-step test for establishing discrimination (“ground-area-nexus”) that helps interpret sections 7 and 9 of the Act. Other concepts, however, are vaguer and have not been clarified in case law. One of my memos looked at section 11(2) of the Act, which establishes an exemption that permits individuals to give preference to members of their family but, unlike parallel provisions in other human rights legislation in Canada, does not specify whether this protects nepotism in any potential area of discrimination (public services, employment, union membership, housing, or public contracts) or only in certain types of situations, like renting an apartment to a family member. This raised the question of whether section 11(2) protects, for example, public servants who want to hire family members for government jobs.

 

Human rights legislation across jurisdictions in Canada is relatively similar when it comes to major concepts like the test for discrimination and the protected areas, but the differences are amplified in a place like Yukon. The answer to a legal question may not be as readily available.

International Criminal Justice, what’s it good for?

By Poonam Sandhu

The views expressed in this blog are my own.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the entry into force of the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) founding treaty. The anniversary was celebrated during my time working for Human Rights Watch (HRW), which inspired a different kind of reflection on my part as I learned about International Criminal Law (ICL).

The project of global accountability for the gravest crimes is a tremendous project and a work in progress that must continue in order to promote justice and reconciliation. Working in this field, however, it is hard to not sometimes feel discouraged and disheartened by long delays owing to factors such as outstanding arrest warrants or the ICC’s budgetary constraints.  At the same time, accountability has been unevenly addressed with certain situations being allocated more media attention, and ultimately more resources, while other investigations have been stalled.

The politicization of responses to atrocity crimes and double standards was something that I found frustrating while learning about the international criminal justice regime. For example, the situation in Ukraine was referred to the ICC Prosecutor’s office between March and April 2022 by 43 states parties to the Rome Statute. An investigation was opened almost immediately on March 2, 2022 and shortly after, the ICC deployed its largest ever team of experts (42 investigators) to Ukraine to investigate alleged war crimes. This has been accompanied by various states making donations to the ICC following a call for voluntary contributions by the Court’s Prosecutor. Although these contributions are to be used to support the work of the Office of the Prosecutor across all situations, the messaging around them has often been misleading, with some states linking them to the investigation in Ukraine.[1] Civil society groups vocally denounced this approach. Contrast this with other situations, such as Afghanistan, for example, where a request to open an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed since 2003 was only made by the ICC Prosecutor in 2017 and the situation has faced various challenges, including strong politicized opposition by the United States, and prolonged delays.

The problem of double standards in international justice is an issue that many civil society organizations, including HRW, have been active in exposing and denouncing. It is not just a matter of principle but also an issue that has serious implications for public confidence in the Rome Statute system and in turn, has implications for victims’ access to justice. It goes without saying that international justice cannot be achieved unless it is evenly applied to all situations and contexts where allegations of serious crimes are raised.

Notwithstanding the issue of double standards, it is important to remember that the Rome Statute system is still relatively new and continues to develop. Many of my colleagues at HRW and other organizations working on international justice emphasized to me that when they started their careers, the concept of ICL did not exist on the scale that it does now; in the last 20 years the justice landscape has radically transformed in a way that they could not have imagined.

The growth of hybrid and domestic accountability mechanisms has been something that I have learned about this summer that has given me renewed hope in the international justice project. One particularly inspiring example was the first trial at the Special Criminal Court in Central African Republic, which I followed closely this summer.

The case concerns three accused who are facing war crimes and crimes against humanity charges in relation to the 2019 massacre of civilians in the villages of Lemouna and Koundjili, Central African Republic. Regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming verdict, the existence of a domestic court to prosecute serious crimes with closer proximity to victims, and its ability to foster trust between the public and state institutions, is an achievement that must not be understated.

This leads me to one of the key takeaways from this summer, which is the fact that ‘international justice’ can be a somewhat misleading term as domestic justice developments are just as important, if not more so, than developments at the international level. Being an effective practitioner in international justice requires a nuanced understanding of domestic judicial systems, capacities, and socio-political and cultural contexts. Working at HRW has solidified my understanding of human rights as a continuum between the domestic and international levels, which is a lesson I will center in my future professional endeavours.

[1] See e.g. German Embassy The Hague, Germany voluntarily contributes one Million Euro to Prosecutor’s Khan’s indispensable effort to fight impunity in #Ukraine and other ICC situations. We need to support the rule of law NOW.” (28 June 28 2022 at 11:08am EST), online: Twitter: <twitter.com/GermanyinNL/status/1541800819355533312>; AP News Wire, “UK to contribute money, experts to ICC’s Ukraine probe” (24 March 2022), online: The Independent <www.independent.co.uk/news/ukraine-ap-icc-dominic-raab-netherlands-b2042911.html>.

Coming Full Circle in Sofia

by Aliya Behar

The views expressed in this piece are my own.

An afternoon in late July, I sat in the company of a Jewish historian and human rights worker on the Etz Hayyim synagogue’s sunny terrasse – the only remnant of the previously booming Jewish life in Chania, Crete. He told the story of his grandfather’s immigration from Moldova to California, describing the shock many Jews felt when given the liberty to no longer have to reside in ghettos, nor face daily persecution. He described, “It felt like a luxury – choosing where you want to live without fearing hatred or violence… That’s when he knew he had to stay.”

Commemorative plaque inside the synagogue

One of the four graves in the synagogue’s backyard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I applied for the IHRIP program nearly one year ago, without having a clue where I might be placed. The first question on the application package asks, “What does human rights work mean to you?” My response from last year reads, in part, that it is “work for which I feel a personal responsibility to undertake.”

In the weeks leading up to my internship, a few family members approached me. They shared that my grandfather was born in Sofia, having lived the first ten years of his life there before fleeing Bulgaria, along with many of the remaining Bulgarian Jews, in the 40’s. This part of my family history had been, aside from those general facts, quite unknown. I had no real connection to Bulgaria; no one in my family considers themselves as Bulgarian. Had I not been assigned a placement in Sofia, I likely never would have visited.

Upon arrival to Sofia, however, it felt like everyone was in on a secret that I had unknowingly been blind to. My first day in the office, a colleague asked if I had family in Sofia because my name was, apparently, obviously Bulgarian. After my first week, I visited Sofia’s synagogue – the largest Sephardic synagogue in the Balkans, and one of the three largest in Europe. I noticed plaques commemorating religious and community leaders with versions of my family name. To say the absolute least, I was perplexed. I visited the only kosher bakery in the city center, where one of the employees described the frequency of exiled Bulgarian Jews tracing their family histories when visiting. I began feeling an unexpected sense of belonging in Sofia, as I walked into the BCNL headquarters every morning gripping the railings bearing stars of David casted into the metal. I became acutely aware that I was going through my days in a space which once held 50,000 people like myself. Today, only 4% remain.

 

 

Inside the Sofia synagogue

The opposite side of the main hall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I began digging deeper into my personal connection with the city. I visited the Sofia city archives and left with an authenticated copy of my grandfather’s birth certificate (in Bulgarian!). I visited where he was born and where he lived – just a fifteen-minute walk from where I was staying. All of this felt like some sort of coincidental investigation unrolling in parallel to my internship.

I spent much of my time with BCNL researching issues of freedom of expression, hate speech, and systemic discrimination in the country. By the end of my stay, I had spoken with experts working with the communities most affected by discrimination, and had drafted a comprehensive report on the Bulgarian hate speech framework. I had learnt about a political sphere riddled with racism, homophobia, and scapegoating, and had monitored a handful of far-right marches. All the while, I pieced together my own family history, one which had been obscured by hatred and extremism.

When I wrote my IHRIP application, I didn’t realize the extent to which my own personal history would overlap and intertwine with the work I’d soon be doing. However, I did, at a surface level, understand the intimate nature of human rights work. I can now fully appreciate how human rights, in its very nature, merges the personal and professional.

A photo exhibit in the Etz Hayyim annex

Sofia Pride beneath the monument to the Soviet army

Global Views from Home: Lessons from a Remote Internship

By Renée Lehman

From submitting an amicus curiae brief to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), to researching potential courses of action in international cases of arbitrary detention, my summer internship with Avocats sans frontières Canada (ASFC) was filled with tasks that I would never have thought I could carry out from my apartment in Montreal.

Although I did not travel this summer, I definitely had an ‘international’ internship. I had the opportunity to learn from human rights lawyers working all over the world, and not only was it an immense privilege to assist some of them with their projects, but to do so from the comfort and safety of my own home was enlightening in its own ways. 

Completing this internship from Montreal gave me a deep appreciation for the stark contrast between my position of privilege relative to those who are served by international human rights organizations. For example, from the comfort of my kitchen table, I learnt about obstetric violence and human rights abuses occurring during childbirth. I had never even heard of the term ‘obstetric violence.’ While sitting on my balcony, I read detailed accounts of the torture suffered by individuals who have been arbitrarily detained. From my local coffee shop, I compiled a preliminary memo detailing which countries experiencing conflict might be the most receptive to new transitional justice mechanisms. From my living room, I reflected on what it means to be half-Ukrainian as I researched ways to ensure that individuals who are responsible for committing human rights atrocities in Ukraine will face justice.

Working on such projects was an incredible way to learn about international human rights law, humanitarian law, and international criminal law. It also enabled me to contextualize and better understand the long-term legal ramifications of what is ongoing in Ukraine and in other regions experiencing conflict. Especially after completing an undergraduate degree in political science and international relations, gaining this experience on the side of human rights law practitioners has been an unforgettable way to draw connections between academics and reality — and between my peaceful little corner of the world and the darkness that occurs in so many others, both near and far.

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