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Canada’s Progress in its Commitment to Ending AIDS as a Global Health Threat by 2030

Nick PineauBy Nick Pineau

My final project with the HIV Legal Network involved writing a report analyzing Canada’s progress in its commitment toward ending AIDS as a global health threat by 2030. In March 2021, UNAIDS released its Global AIDS Strategy (hereafter “the Strategy”) for 2021–2026, which offers numerous recommendations to ensure the world has zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths by 2030. However, as COVID-19 developed into another global pandemic in early 2020, the progress toward ending the AIDS epidemic has halted. Furthermore, the twin pandemics have inequitably exacerbated the impact AIDS has on marginalized communities. To properly assess the barriers to people living with or affected by HIV, the Strategy offers numerous recommendations through an “inequalities lens”, evaluating the pandemic’s impact from the perspective of those most affected by it.

Despite its commitment toward ending the AIDS epidemic, Canada is still far from achieving the goals it has set out for itself. By 2019, over forty countries were within reach of the epidemiological milestone of endings AIDS—yet Canada was not among them. Populations at risk of HIV, including men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who inject drugs, sex workers and their clients, and people in prisons or other closed settings, remain in a precarious position within our country. Much of the HIV Legal Network’s work centres around the result areas mentioned in the Strategy. For this blog post, I will take a look at how Canada is doing in comparison to the Strategy’s recommendations in three key areas: prison rights, drug use, and HIV non-disclosure.

For prison rights, the Strategy advocates for a harm reduction approach for prison or other closed settings, including voluntary HIV testing and treatment, needle-syringe programs, opioid substitution therapy, and naloxone kits. While the Correctional Services of Canada stipulates that they offer inmate HIV testing, access to opioid treatment, and PrEP & PEP, there is limited data on the prevalence of such programs at each individual facility across Canada. The CSC should strive to better report on such programs to properly assess whether Canadian inmates are receiving adequate harm reduction services. Furthermore, Canada’s Prison Needle Exchange Program has not accelerated at the requisite rate—the program has only been implemented at 11 of the 53 federal institutions in Canada. Such a program could significantly reduce HIV transmission at closed facilities and secure inmates’ right to security of the person.

The Strategy also recommends that discriminatory laws and policies against drug use ought to be repealed, including those that criminalize drug possession for personal use. Rather than punish and stigmatize people who use drugs, a health-centred approach to drug use should be comprehensive, people-centred (with community-led responses and systems), and gender transformative. Canada has recently made progress in decriminalizing drug possession for personal use—a prosecutorial directive was issued in August 2020 to divert individuals from the criminal justice system for simple possession cases. Yet the criminal system may remain a blunt tool to deal with the intricacies of drug use. Rather than further stigmatizing individuals who use drugs by sending them to prison for, for instance, sharing between friends (and thus trafficking), Canada ought to adopt a health-centred model for dealing with drug use and not further entrench the marginalization of people who use drugs.

Finally, Canada is among the 92 countries worldwide that criminalize HIV non-disclosure. The Strategy recommends creating an enabling legal environment that de-stigmatizes seropositivity and the removal of discriminatory laws that criminalize HIV non-disclosure. The concept of U=U, undetectable = transmissible, whereby HIV-positive individuals with ‘undetectable’ viral loads cannot realistically transmit the virus, has the potential to accelerate anti-stigma efforts. Canada has recently made progress in lessening the criminality of HIV non-disclosure, with then-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould issuing a prosecutorial directive in 2018 not to prosecute HIV non-disclosure except in more severe cases. Wilson-Raybould acknowledged that HIV is a public health issue that disproportionately affects Indigenous, gay, and Black persons in Canada, and I would contend that using the criminal law to solve such an issue can further entrench stigmatization. Yet the directive’s force is lesser than if a Criminal Code amendment were made to legislate on the subject. HIV non-disclosure remains a crime on the books in Canada, and can be prosecuted as aggravated sexual assault which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. This could undermine public health initiatives to encourage HIV testing, and may simultaneously increase the stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV. Canada should adhere to the Strategy’s recommendations to fully realize the rights of those living with HIV.

This brief survey demonstrates that Canada has much to do in order to ensure the country is on track toward ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030. Canada ought to adhere to the Strategy’s recommendations and fully implement harm reduction initiatives in prisons, decriminalize drug possession for personal use, and decriminalize HIV non-disclosure. With renewed political commitment, advocacy, and community mobilization, Canada has the potential to fully realize the human rights of people living with or affected by HIV and AIDS.

Navigating the Ins and Outs of the Yukon Human Rights Act

By Garima Karia

During my time at the Yukon Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”), I drafted legal memos for the Legal Counsel and Director. The subject matters of these legal memos often arose out of ongoing Commission investigations, or live matters before the Director, which made them both timely and interesting. The memos also often dealt with interpreting and potentially expanding the scope of the Yukon Human Rights Act. In this blog, I will highlight my findings from my largest undertaking during the internship: a memo I drafted on section 12 of the Yukon Human Rights Act. Currently, section 12 of the Act reads as follows:

Systemic discrimination: “Any conduct that results in discrimination is discrimination.”

My colleagues at the Commission and I thought that this definition of systemic discrimination could use some work as it lacks clarity and specificity. Therefore, my task was to do a deep dive into how the term should be defined, and to propose a series of reforms to this section of to the Act that could clarify the definition of systemic racism/discrimination.  To ensure that I proposed a comprehensive set of recommendations, I surveyed all Canadian human rights legislation (provincial, territorial, federal) and jurisprudence to assess if and how other jurisdictions drafted provisions relating to systemic discrimination, and how these provisions were interpreted by tribunals and courts. I also looked broadly at academic commentary on the matter.

I found that, currently, no exemplary definition of systemic discrimination exists in Canadian legislation. However, upon surveying different definitions and interpretations of the term, I identified six key characteristics that, if combined, could make up a comprehensive definition of systemic discrimination. These key elements are the following:

  1. The effect or impact of a policy or act, rather than its intention, is at the crux of systemic discrimination. In other words, if a well-intentioned policy or act has the effect or impact of disadvantageous treatment of a particular protected group, it may be considered to perpetuate systemic discrimination despite its intent.
  2. Facially neutral policies or acts may cause systemic discrimination.
  3. Systemic discrimination is often subtle or “hidden.”
  4. Systemic discrimination is rooted in long-standing social and cultural attitudes and norms.
  5. Systemic discrimination may be embedded or detected in patterns/series/continuing phenomena that have significant cumulative effects. In other words, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” when it comes to the collective effect of various instances of discrimination or differential treatment that result in systemic discrimination.
  6. Systemic discrimination often contains an element of intersectionality.

In addition to the Yukon, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are the only other jurisdictions that define or include systemic discrimination in a meaningful way in their human rights legislation. While Saskatchewan’s Code does not include a definition, it empowers its Commission to prevent and address systemic patterns of discrimination. Manitoba’s definition is more specific than Yukon’s in that it includes elements of “effect/impact over intent” and “pattern/series/continuing phenomena resulting in significant cumulative effects,” but is still missing other key elements from the list above. As such, I proposed that a re-formulation of section 12 include all six key elements, as well as a provision that empowers the Commission to tackle the issue of systemic discrimination specifically.

Amending the systemic discrimination provision of the Act is important because manifestations of systemic discrimination undoubtedly make their way into human rights complaints. Even in cases of more “overt” systemic discrimination (e.g. if a pattern of behaviour is apparent or a complainant has been able to track acts of discrimination and their cumulative effect over time), a clear definition of the term and all that it may entail will empower complainants as well as Commissions and Tribunals to better interpret and deal with the impacts of systemic discrimination. Moreover, giving Commissions the agency to address and combat systemic discrimination as part of their mandates may produce creative and productive results.

Through my in-depth research and broad survey of how systemic discrimination has been conceptualized by courts, legislatures, human rights commissions, and academics across Canada, I have identified a list of key features that I argue should be integrated into any legislation or body’s definition of the term. In so doing, these bodies will give courts, complainants, and the public a clearer idea of what systemic discrimination entails, and how we can go about dismantling it.

Lutter contre le racisme systémique dans le secteur public québécois

Par Attou Mamat

Avertissement de contenu : La publication qui suit contient des références à des violences meurtrières, au racisme et à la détresse psychologique.

Le 8 juin dernier, j’ai pu assister à une rencontre réunissant l’ensemble du personnel de la Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. La Direction de la recherche de la Commission a présenté le Bilan de la mise en œuvre des recommandations du Rapport de la consultation sur le profilage racial et ses conséquences à plus de 150 employées, employés et membres. Le président de la Commission a ouvert la rencontre avec un mot sur deux événements, soit la découverte des dépouilles de 215 enfants autochtones sur le site d’un ancien pensionnat à Kamloops en Colombie-Britannique et l’attaque qui a tué quatre membres de la famille musulmane Afzal à London en Ontario. (Aussi, le Cabinet du procureur général du Nouveau-Brunswick venait d’annoncer qu’aucune accusation criminelle ne serait déposée contre le policier d’Edmunston qui a abattu Chantel Moore, une jeune femme autochtone, alors qu’elle était en situation de détresse psychologique.) Ces événements qui occupaient tous nos esprits nous rappelaient l’importance du travail qu’entreprend la Commission en matière de lutte contre le profilage racial et la discrimination systémique. 

Lorsque je pense à cet aspect du mandat de la Commission, je me rappelle les mots du président devant qui, la veille de la rencontre, j’ai prêté serment avant d’assumer mes fonctions de stagiaire. Le président m’a expliqué que la Commission est redevable à la population via l’Assemblée nationale, sans interférence du pouvoir exécutif. À mon sens, cette indépendance est particulièrement pertinente dans le contexte actuel, alors que la Commission se retrouve dans une position particulière où elle doit collaborer avec un gouvernement qui refuse de reconnaître l’existence du racisme systémique.

En valorisant l’expertise de chercheuses et chercheurs dans le domaine de l’antiracisme et le vécu de personnes racisées, la Commission semble avoir une longueur d’avance sur les ministères et organismes publics, qui peinent à mettre en œuvre ses recommandations. L’implantation de mécanismes de reddition de comptes pour évaluer cette mise en œuvre est d’ailleurs un défi auquel la Commission est confrontée. Sans indicateurs fiables, on ne peut évaluer les moyens pris dans le secteur public pour lutter contre le profilage racial et la discrimination systémique. Comment alors convaincre de cela un gouvernement qui nie le problème? Je suis d’avis que la solution passe par une multitude d’approches combinant les efforts d’organismes communautaires, de mouvements populaires, de groupes de pression, et de tant d’autres forces de changement social. 

Le rôle de la Commission dans tout ça? Soutenir ces divers acteurs et leurs membres dans la reconnaissance des droits et libertés fondamentaux pour toutes et tous. Je suis donc reconnaissante de pouvoir y faire mon stage cet été.

Human Rights to Water and Sanitation: Finding Common Ground on the Scope of Obligations

By: Ellen Spannagel

In my work as an intern with Forum for Human Rights, an organization that focuses on international human rights litigation and advocacy and Central Europe, I have been helping with a submission centered on the human rights to water and sanitation. The rights to safe drinking water and sanitation are derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, a right that is enshrined in several human rights instruments that are ratified by Canada, including the ICESCR, CEDAW, CRPD, and the CRC.

In my research, I found that violations of the rights to safe drinking water and sanitation are typically related to violations of other rights, including the right to health (highest attainable standard of health), housing (also part of the right to an adequate standard of living), and the principle of non-discrimination, among others. This bolsters the notion that human rights are interdependent and interrelated: these are rights that can only be upheld so long as the others are upheld.

This theme of interdependence is prominent within United Nations (UN) treaty bodies and throughout the comments of UN Special Rapporteurs. For example, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Leilani Farha, has specified that housing that does not provide adequate water and sanitation can give rise to a situation of homelessness, a fundamental breach of the right to housing. The interrelatedness of these rights is also prominent among regional courts. For example, in Öneryildiz v. Turkey, a community was devasted by the explosion of a landfill, and the European Court of Human Rights held that waste disposal, and its impacts on health, were intricately related to the right to life and that there is “positive obligation on States to take appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of those within their jurisdiction.”

While this makes it easy to link rights such as the human rights to water and sanitation to the violations of other rights, it sometimes makes it difficult to identify the specific obligations states have in fulfilling these rights at a normative level. For example, in the recent judgement Hudorovic and Others v. Slovenia, which considered whether Slovenia violated obligations to provide the Roma applicants with adequate access to drinking water and sanitation, the European Court of Human Rights acknowledged that it is “necessary to take into account the vulnerable and disadvantaged position of the Roma population”  in the context of several rights, such as the right to life. However, the court ultimately ruled that that the State had fulfilled their positive obligations to provide access to utilities to the applicants, despite evidence of existing lack of access to adequate water and sanitation. This contradicts the comments made by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing and raises questions about the scope of obligations where a multiplicity of interrelated rights are at play. Questions about the level of access (whether water must be provided directly into the home) and affordability (how much it should cost to remain connected to a public water supply) remain unanswered and highlight whether human rights as they currently exist are best positioned to tackle these issues.

In Europe, water-related issues (access to safe drinking water, access to sewage) and waste issues (uncontrolled dumpsites and landfills) are common situations of environmental racism that particularly affect Roma communities.  When I reflect on the state of affairs where I live, I am immediately reminded of the long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities, and its relationship to other issues such as adequate housing and food security.

The human rights to water and sanitation are especially important in the context of the climate crisis. While it is important that international and regional bodies recognize the interdependence of these rights to other rights such as the right to housing, without stricter judicial review, and a more specific framework establishing how these rights should play out on the ground, States will be absolved of responsibilities in ensuring these rights for communities that are structurally disadvantaged. Finding a common ground on the scope of obligations for these various interrelated rights, particularly in situations of persistent structural inequality, will be integral moving forward.

A Summer Spent at the Intersection of Human Rights Issues

Kayla Maria RollandBy Kayla Maria Rolland

This summer, I enjoyed working with the Disability Inclusive Climate Action Program (DICARP), a new initiative and partnership between the Canada Research Chair in Human Rights and the Environment and the McGill Centre for Human Rights & Legal Pluralism.

I spent the summer learning more about issues in climate justice, disability rights, and how these issues intersect. For example, persons with disabilities are more affected by climate change as a result of social, economic, and institutional barriers. Women, children, and minorities with disabilities are particularly impacted. The impacts of climate change on food systems may create food shortages that affect the right to food for persons with disabilities. Issues such as inaccessible transportation may impact the right to housing for persons with disabilities. The right to health for persons with disabilities may be impacted when essential healthcare services are disrupted by climate change. Climate change may also have significant impacts on access to water and employment for persons with disabilities. (1)

In response, those working in the spaces of climate justice and disability rights have argued that states hold legal obligations to protect disability rights in regards to climate change, as a result of instruments such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (2)

DICARP will involve a series of research projects and mobilization activities over the coming years related to this topic. Part of my role with DICARP was researching different activists, legal practitioners, and scholars working at the intersection of climate justice and disability rights from around the world to bring a diverse range of perspectives and experiences to the table. It was interesting to learn about the work currently being done, as well as opportunities to grow awareness. From the perspective of a human rights intern, this was also another opportunity to see the different paths that an interest in human rights may take you.

Another part of my role was helping to prepare for the program’s webinars that will take place this Fall. This included researching best practices for accessible webinars and web content. I learned a tremendous amount, and this was one of the most rewarding parts of my internship as these are skills that I will carry with me going forward, both professionally and personally.

I feel very lucky to have been involved with this partnership in its early stages. One of the benefits of having completed a human rights internship here at McGill is that I get to watch what the program will accomplish in the coming years.


(1) For more information, see the recent report “The impact of climate change on the rights of persons with disabilities by the UN OHCHR here: https://ohchr.org/EN/Issues/HRAndClimateChange/Pages/PersonsWithDisabilities.aspx

(2) For further information, see the report “The Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the Context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change” by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, Inclusiva, and the Center for International Environmental Law here: https://www.ciel.org/reports/the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities-in-the-context-of-the-un-framework-convention-on-climate-change-dec-2019/

The Humans in the Housing Crisis

Gemma DingwallBy Gemma Dingwall

Since 1876, the Federal Government has been responsible for housing on Indian reserves. In 2016, 27.4% of people on reserves lived in over-crowded housing[1] and 24.2% of First Nations people lived in a dwelling that was in need of major repairs.[2]

There are several contributing factors to these numbers. Firstly, many reserves are in northern isolated regions, which makes for shorter building seasons and costlier materials. Additionally, Indigenous people are also the fastest growing population in Canada and the available housing has not kept up. Furthermore, housing management can be run by people who are not qualified or have too many competing interests to adequately address the house repairs that are needed. However, one major factor is the consistency in which the Federal Government provides inadequate funding for housing and has ignored this issue for generations.

As high as these numbers may seem, they do not fully capture what the housing crisis looks like for those living in it. What those numbers do not provide is a visual of children sleeping on mattresses in living rooms. It does not paint a picture of twelve people living in a three-bedroom house so that people have to take shifts to sleep. It does not show young families waiting years just to have a place of their own. Nor do the stats really show what the inside of a home in need of major repairs looks like, whether that be leaking pipes, mold, holes in the wall or broken appliances.

The housing crisis has detrimental effects in so many areas. Children facing overcrowding have nowhere to complete their homework. Domestic violence victims have no where safe to go. A lack of privacy can lead to mental illnesses like depression. It also acts as a barrier for those looking to recover from their addictions who have no choice but to live with those who are still consuming. Infectious diseases like COVID-19 which can be spread more easily through overcrowded housing, also pose a serious threat to communities

During my internship with the Department of Justice and Correctional Service (DOJCS) of the Cree Nation, I was exposed to some particular ways in which overcrowding affects the justice system. One current challenge for the Cree Nation is that formerly incarcerated people as well as people who have experienced homelessness and who want to come back and integrate into their community have nowhere to go.

If their families do not want them in the home or there is no room in the home, these individuals have no opportunity to rejoin their community. Moreover, because of overcrowding, there are no alternatives—they cannot simply find another place to live. This problem compounds other issues such as formerly incarcerated people are less likely to follow their probation plan when they are far away from their community and do not have appropriate cultural programming or proper support.

To address this issue, the DOJCS has introduced the Tiny Homes Community Project. To start, three of the nine Cree communities will provide ten Tiny Homes for formerly incarcerated people to stay in while they look for more long-term housing. As Tiny Home tenants, they will receive support from Elders and mental health professionals. Each tenant is also required to participate in programming that will help them become a healthy, contributing member of the community.

My role in this project was to work in a team to draft the rights, responsibilities and protocols for the clients of these Tiny Homes. Again, the housing shortage posed several challenges. The Tiny Homes are meant to serve as transitional housing so the residents can integrate into the community. However, many people in the Cree Nation have to wait several years to be given access to a home of their own. This must be balanced with the high demand for the program, so the Tiny Homes cannot be occupied by the same clients for years. Another issue to consider is the process of expelling someone from the program, which may be necessary when the safety of the staff or other tenants is at risk. The reality is the expelled individual will have very few options on where to go; in some cases, they will have nowhere to go.

Overall, there are so many barriers caused by the housing crisis. It affects health, education, child development, rehabilitation, individual safety, familial relationships and overall community building. I know the Tiny Homes is a great program and will help many people reconnect with their community. Unfortunately, I also know that the housing crisis will continue to limit the number of people it serves and impacts its true potential.

[1] “The housing conditions of Aboriginal people in Canada” (25 October 2017) online:  < https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/ > [https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016021/98-200-x2016021-eng.cfm]

[2] Ibid.

Understanding Workplace Sexual Harassment

Sara WrightBy Sara Wright

During my December interview for the internship, then-Acting Director, Vida Nelson, told me about the $2.6 million of federal funding the Commission received to improve education and awareness on workplace sexual harassment.[1] It was an exciting announcement for the Commission and one that would have a meaningful impact for creating safer workplace environments for Yukoners. Thus, it was a no-brainer for me when I was asked if I wanted to focus on more general employment-related human rights matters or workplace sexual harassment. I chose the latter. My choice was not only because of what Vida told me about the federal funding; it was influenced by the experiences I, and so many of my friends, have had, and by the novelty of addressing the field from a legal perspective. Sexual harassment is an issue that has only recently been gaining widespread attention. When I started my undergraduate schooling, it was barely addressed in orientation. Now, it is a common part of the onboarding of students to their universities. Workplaces are finding themselves to be in great need of creating or updating their policies. This was an opportunity to be involved in assisting the facilitation of these improvements.

While, unfortunately, I was unable to actually go to the Yukon to assist in educational presentations and the development of materials in their offices, I was still able to assist by doing legal research on related matters. It gave me some insight into how new the matter is to human rights commissions. Most of the high-paying awards were given in the last 5 years, and there were almost no high awards given over a decade ago. Decisions made in provinces such as British Columbia refer back to decisions made in Ontario because there simply is so little Canadian precedent.

Reviewing policies was also part of my legal research. This was something I was particularly interested in because of my own personal experiences. I remember when I was casually speaking to someone at the Sexual Violence Response office of my undergraduate institution a month before graduating and only then learned that sexual harassment was defined by the recipient of the harassment. It matters how the recipient of the harassment feels, not the intentions of the harasser. As someone who sat through multiple trainings a year regarding sexual harassment, I was stunned that I did not know this. I was also surprised by how that aspect of the definition is sometimes left out of policies.

Though my internship has concluded, I am looking forward to seeing how the Commission moves forward with their five-year project to address workplace sexual harassment awareness in the Yukon.[2] It is sure to be a challenging time, considering how little data there has been for the Yukon specifically in this matter. However, the development of tools and training by the Commission is certain to improve employers’ understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment and hopefully keep perpetuating this positive trend of expanding the understanding behind what constitutes sexual harassment and how to better prevent it from occurring.

[1] Department of Justice Canada, News Release, “Government of Canada supports a territory-wide initiative to address workplace sexual harassment in the Yukon” (10 December 2010), online: Department of Justice Canada <www.canada.ca/en/department-justice/news/2019/12/government-of-canada-supports-a-territory-wide-initiative-to-address-workplace-sexual-harassment-in-the-yukon.html>.

[2] Yukon Human Rights Commission, News Release, “Towards a Yukon Without Workplace Sexual Harassment (12 August 2020), online: Yukon Human Rights Commission <yukonhumanrights.ca/news.shtml>.

Reflecting on COVID-19 and Human Rights

Alice JeonBy Alice Jeon

A silver lining of this quarantine-filled summer was that it left me with a lot of time to sit down and reflect. One thing that I have been thinking about is how this COVID-19 pandemic might alter the course of human rights work. Which human rights issues will become prioritized? Which advocacy strategies are still possible and preferred? Does the pandemic call for any changes in how we should think about ethical issues related to human rights? These are questions that I have continued to think about as I wrap up my internship at the HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

For one, my experience during the internship has showed me that the pandemic inevitably places certain human rights issues at the forefront of our attention. For us at the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, it has been the skyrocketing rates of drug overdose since the start of quarantine.

Statistics from Toronto Public Health reported that there were 287 suspected opioid overdose calls and 25 deaths in May 2020, the highest number of fatalities since September 2017.  The ongoing opioid crisis was compounded with the unique social circumstances caused by quarantine to create one of the worst periods of drug overdose in the past few years.

In this way, the pandemic has inevitably moved certain issues (e.g. child abuse, access to health care) to the forefront of the human rights agenda. At the same time, it is important to clarify that many of these issues are by no means “new.” COVID-19 may have exacerbated them but these social issues stem from deeply rooted, previously existing inequities that have merely become more exposed at this moment.

Furthermore, I have also been thinking about how COVID-19 may change what human rights advocacy looks like. Our organization is lucky in the sense that our work was only impacted on a minor level; our hearings were delayed and of course, we had to do work remotely, but that did not stop us from doing most of our legal research-based work. However, the reality is that a lot of human rights work consists of field work, working with people on the ground to figure out what is happening first-hand. This becomes very difficult with closed borders and two-week quarantines in place. Even without these hurdles, human rights work will definitely be harder in the sense that workers will be at higher risk of falling sick. This said, some would argue that infectious viruses have existed before COVID-19, something that has never stopped them from doing their work.

Here is another question that I have thought about: if we are in a situation where human rights issues must be put “on hold” in order to help contain the pandemic, to what extent should we do so? Or should we have to at all? For instance, how should we balance our right to privacy with the need to track the movement of the virus? Another question related to my internship work: to what extent is it acceptable that supervised injection sites are temporarily closed as a result of minimizing social interaction; and at what point does the closure become unacceptable? This seems like an important question, for I hypothesize that these closures may be related to the staggering number of overdose deaths.

At the moment, it seems like there are more questions than answers. However, even if a vaccine is eventually found, COVID-19 and its consequences are most likely here to stay. I would not be surprised if it permanently altered the field of human rights work, whether it is the issues that are prioritized, the type of advocacy that becomes preferred, or the way we think about ethical questions in relation to human rights. Uncertainty abounds but at least we can start making sense of which questions must be asked.



Sur le plaisir de se sentir utile

Jasmine RazaviPar Jasmine Razavi

Comme toutes les bonnes choses doivent un jour prendre fin, cette semaine est la dernière semaine de mon stage à la Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. Je me sens extrêmement chanceuse d’avoir pu compléter ce stage, alors qu’il était incertain que cela puisse être le cas il y a quelques mois à peine.

L’expérience que l’on acquiert en commençant un nouvel emploi ou un nouveau stage est toujours unique. Bien que j’aie fait de nombreuses recherches jurisprudentielles pour appuyer les avocates de la Commission dans leurs arguments juridiques, ce qui se prête bien au télétravail, je n’aurais pas pu apprendre ce que j’ai appris dans les dernières semaines en faisant simplement des recherches seules, durant mon temps libre.

L’apport des avocates supervisant mon travail, me posant des questions pour approfondir mes recherches ou pour que j’envisage de nouvelles pistes, corrigeant au passage les accros et les erreurs de compréhension, m’a permis d’acquérir un niveau de connaissance plus poussé sur le statut des droits de la personne au Québec. Le plus enrichissant reste d’apprendre les secrets du métier – de l’insider information, comme on dit souvent en anglais. Bien que je n’aie pas eu l’expérience habituelle du travail collaboratif aux bureaux de la Commission, la communication constante avec les avocates me supervisant m’a permis d’apprendre de précieuses informations qui ne viennent qu’avec le temps et l’expérience.

J’ai notamment travaillé sur des questions portant sur l’abus de procédure dans les tribunaux administratifs, l’engagement de la responsabilité personnelle des administrateurs et des employeurs lors d’une faute d’un employé, le profilage politique et le désaveu d’experts, les accommodements raisonnables pour les personnes souffrant de limitations fonctionnelles permanentes, et la montée en popularité et la légalité des questionnaires médicaux imposés par les employeurs.

Ces recherches avaient toutes un point commun : elles sont toutes absolument concrètes et basées sur la réalité, contrairement à un travail de recherche académique, qui explore des avenues hypothétiques souvent assez floues. Derrière chaque argument avant-gardiste de la Commission, pour lequel je devais parfois tenter de répondre à des questions jamais posées auparavant, se trouve le dossier d’une personne de Montréal, de Québec ou de la Beauce, attendant anxieusement le résultat d’une action juridique pouvant impacter sa vie de manière majeure.

Le sentiment de faire quelque chose d’utile, ayant des conséquences tangibles parfois même à court terme, ne me quittait pas. Même les recherches plus étoffées que je faisais, qui étaient d’intérêt plus général, serviraient de références futures pour les avocates des services juridiques.

Mes superviseuses de stage parlaient de dossiers qu’elles connaissaient sur le bout de leurs doigts et des cas plaidés à la cour avec passion. Je sentais, à travers elles, que le coup de main que j’apportais avait de l’importance. Aucun argument juridique potentiel ne me semblait tiré par les cheveux, au contraire; les arguments inusités démontraient un véritable désir de sortir des sentiers battus afin de faire progresser les droits de la personne.

Les discussions accompagnant les cas plus pointus m’ont permis de comprendre pourquoi certains arguments ne seraient pas utilisés, d’observer le raisonnement des avocates dans les étapes de remue-méninges et de repérer les erreurs à éviter – des situations que je n’aurais pas vécues et dont je n’aurais pas pu apprendre de manière autonome.

Je suis donc extrêmement reconnaissante d’avoir pu compléter mon stage à la Commission dans les circonstances inédites de l’été 2020. Je tiens à remercier tous ceux et celles qui ont pris le temps de m’écouter et de répondre à mes questions, et j’espère sincèrement que nos chemins se recroiseront bientôt.

Learning about International Law – Home edition

Andrea SalgueroBy Andrea Salguero

The old adage “life is what happens to you when you are making other plans” was never so true than in March 2020. At that time, despite worrying signs that the effects of the global pandemic were only increasing in gravity around the world, I still planned to spend my summer interning at the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Within a couple short weeks, however, the impossibility of international travel became evident—McGill University cancelled all international internships and the Inter-American Court suspended its work for the safety of its staff. In the midst of so much uncertainty, I was relieved to be closer to family and a familiar environment during the crisis, despite the realization that I might have to forgo any sort of internship this summer.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks later, I was delighted to learn that an opportunity to intern remotely in the field of human rights was still possible. Even more surprisingly, the remote internship would still be connected to human rights issues in South America. For these reasons and more I am so pleased to be interning at the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (RWCHR) is “a unique international consortium of parliamentarians, scholars, jurists, human rights defenders, NGOs and students united in the pursuit of justice […]”.[1]  The centre’s work is inspired by the heroic humanitarian acts of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who, at the height of Nazi totalitarianism, used his position to save over 100,000 Jews in Budapest, Hungary from the horrors of concentration camps over the course of six months. The Centre’s work is organized around five pillars of pursuing justice which encompass: commemorative and educative initiatives around the importance of human rights and the prevention of mass atrocities; promoting accountability for violators of human rights; defending the rights of political prisoners; and the advancement of women’s rights, as a multi-faceted approach to combatting global injustices.

My work this summer largely consists of legal research and falls under the RWCHR’s broad initiative to pursue justice through combatting the resurgence of global authoritarianism, and through securing justice for victims while seeking greater accountability for human rights violators. More specifically, my research is focused on the developing human rights crisis in Venezuela. In recent years, evidence of increasing brutality, alleged crimes against humanity and other human rights violations carried out by the Maduro government against civilian populations has been of growing concern to human rights advocates around the world.[2]

Through the leadership of RWCHR founder and Chair Prof. Irwin Cotler —who was among the first to investigate the Venezuelan situation as part of an independent panel of experts designated by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS)— the Centre remains committed to promoting accountability for these crimes. My research task supports this aim by exploring aspects of international law that may inform advocacy strategies for the RWCHR or other organizations within its network.

While challenging, this work has been rewarding when thinking of the overall impact against a culture of impunity that may be achieved through the cumulative effort of many human rights advocates working for the cause of justice around the world. This work has also helped me recognize that one does not need to be physically abroad to meaningfully contribute to international issues. At this midway point in my human rights internship, I look forward to seeing what the rest of the summer will bring!

Photo of Raoul Wallenberg

[1] “The Centre” (last modified 2018), online: Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights <https://www.raoulwallenbergcentre.org/the-centre-en>

[2] “Panel of Independent International Experts Finds “Reasonable Grounds” for Crimes against Humanity Committed in Venezuela” (29 May 2018), online: The Organization of American States (OAS) <https://www.oas.org/en/media_center/press_release.asp?sCodigo=E-031/18>


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