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Life after the Easter bombings

By Tessa Martin

It was April 21st. My partner came barging into the living room, a look of shock on his face.

“Tessa, there was just a terror attack in Sri Lanka, multiple bombs have gone off.”

 

Thirteen days later, my flight landed in Colombo.

______________

So much can be said about the attack itself…

About the victims.

The 257 people who lost their lives and all the others left behind.

All that has been lost… the families blown apart.

 

About the perpetrators.

The fact that they were only a tiny radicalized group who most likely had outside help.

 

About the fact that this attack made little sense locally,

as there were no prior issues between Muslims and Christians to speak of

– only between Muslims and Buddhists, and Muslims and Hindus.

 This attack did not feed into any pre-existing local narrative.

 

About the Sri Lankan Government’s failure to react to all past and recent warnings

(from the Sri Lankan Muslim community itself

as well as from International Intelligence Agencies & Bodies)

about this specific group and a potential attack.

 

But there have been hundreds of news articles about that…

No, instead I want to talk about what happens after. How does society move on, or not?

I want to talk about what happens when the international eyes have turned away, following the dizzying spin of the news cycle, like flies drawn to the next brightest light. I do not mean this as an insult, as I also tend to fall into this rhythm.

But what happens after we stop watching?

_______________

I wish to talk about three things: Everyday life (locals), Islamophobia and Tourism.

Everything I have to say, of course, either comes from my experiences as an outsider, local news, or from countless Sri Lankans – friends, colleagues, random encounters and a lot of Tuk Tuk drivers – who have shared their thoughts, experiences and knowledge with me. I will do my best to relay what little understanding of the current situation I have gained over a mere two and a half months’ time.

I wish I could say this was my first time going to a city right after a terror attack. It wasn’t.

The memories of Paris in November of 2015 remain all too fresh.

Some parallels will be drawn.

________________

Tourism

I’ll begin with what perhaps, at first, appears most trivial… Tourism.

Only last year, Sri Lanka was rated the best country to travel to in 2019 by Lonely Planet. After a long a brutal civil war which ended in 2009, Sri Lanka had skyrocketed to the top of the travel charts.

The attacks quickly reversed this trend.

It did not take long to fall witness to this… On my second day in Sri Lanka, I decided to make my way to Gangaramaya Temple. While I was immediately dazzled by the peace and beauty of this place, one thing struck me all the more; the temple was completely empty. On the way back home from the temple I spoke to a Tuk Tuk driver/ tourist guide named Geethan, who told me that prior to the terror attacks an average of 800 tourists visited the temple every day. In the midst of our conversation, Geethan told me that he had gone from making 8000 rupees ($60 CAD) to 300 rupees ($2 CAD) a day because of the fall in tourism. He said, “I’m sure that in six months tourists will be back, but until then I don’t know how I will feed my 12-year-old daughter.”

The 70% fall in the hotel occupancy rate tells a similar story. In an effort to attract local tourism, the prices of rooms have dropped drastically. Although big hotels can take the hit, small hostel owners have been placed in a more precarious position.

While I was in Kandy, I found myself as the only occupant in a small hostel. One evening, I joined the owner of the hostel, Ramesh, for a drink and some nice conversation. Ramesh told me that prior to the attacks the place was always fully booked. In anticipation of the influx of tourists following the Lonely Planet rating, he had poured substantial finances into renovating the place. Ramesh is one of the many people now struggling to pay back their investment…

The East Coast, though in peak season right now, is deserted. Given the general upwards trend, many enterprising people from the area took out bank loans to open B&B’s and cafes and now are sitting empty while defaulting on their loans.

I hope this serves as a reminder of how important it is to come and support local economies in times of crisis. To us it’s a vacation; to them it’s a matter of subsistence.

___________________

Everyday life (locals)

My previous experience from being in Paris a week after the terror attacks in 2015 prepared me for one central sensation: the quiet. The feeling that time stood still… the deserted streets… the shock reverberating in everyone’s expressions. A rhythm of life slowed. The weight of the silence. The aura of mourning stagnant in the air.

To be honest, I did not fully grasp this upon first arriving in Sri Lanka. The constant flow of cars passing by and the periodic honking deluded me into a sense of ongoing activity. I was all the more confused when person after person commented on how quiet and empty the streets were. Today, now that the flow of traffic has mostly resumed to its pre-exiting insanity, I realize just how quiet Colombo had in fact been when I first arrived. ‘Quiet’ and ‘deserted’ are relative terms. Standstill looked different in Colombo as it had in Paris, but standstill it was.

In fact, I was not prepared for the level of disruption the attacks would have on people’s daily lives. Sri Lankans’ previous experience with 30 years of civil war – a war that only ended 10 years ago – did not desensitize people to the recent attacks, but rather triggered them. Over the course of my first couple of weeks in Colombo, I slowly came to understand that these attacks had shattered any sense of peace that people had finally acquired over the last decade.

The general feeling in the weeks following the attacks was: “we are back to square one.”

While the sight of the military in Paris felt absurd, almost like a parallel universe, the presence of the military in Colombo was all too familiar. I think this was best expressed by one of my co-workers, who said:

“I was driving my kids to school this morning and there were soldiers everywhere.

For a second, I thought WHAT YEAR IS THIS!? I was transported back to the war.

I don’t want my kids to get used to this… I don’t want this to be their reality too…”

She was one of the few people driving her kids to school that day.

This is where Paris in 2015 serves as an interesting, albeit morose, comparison. You see, the whole of Paris was in shock, but people kept going to work… kids continued to attend school… This was not the case in Colombo.

When schools reopened two weeks after the attacks, student attendance in major cities was reported to be as low as 5%.

In fact, people refused to leave their homes altogether. Supermarkets ran out of food as locals bunkered down in their houses for at least a week or two following the attacks.

The fear was palpable… Driven by a general mistrust in the government, and one another.

Over the past two months, I have watched as things slowly get back to normal.

But back to normal for who?

This brings me to the last and most important point I wish to make: the demonization of Muslims following the attacks…

______________

Islamophobia

Sri Lankan Muslims, representing 10% of the country’s population, are not new to Islamophobic attacks.

Communal violence erupted in 2014, and later in 2018 in Ampara and Kandy, as Sinhala Buddhist hardliners, with complicity of law enforcement agencies, rioted and destroyed Mosques, archeological sites, businesses and properties of Muslims. The reasons for the attacks were: (1) the phobia of a growing Muslim population, (2) the myth of sterilization pills, and (3) economic jealousy and rivalry between Muslims and Sinhalese. The idea of radicalization did not feature into the debate.

The Easter bombings didn’t just bring about a rise in Islamophobia, but birthed an entirely new reason to discriminate: fear of radicalization… of terrorism…

Muslims are not just seen as competitors today, they are seen as dangerous… as a threat to people’s safety.

The international Islamophobic narrative has made its debut in Sri Lanka, galvanizing the fears of the majority. The actions of a few have been held to represent an entire group, casting a dark shadow over Sri Lankan Muslims as a whole, all painted with the same brush. How… classic, I know. The predictability of human irrationality never falters.

It did not take long to see the effects…

The week of the bombings, Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena outlawed the Niqab and Burqa, invoking emergency law. The fact that the suicide bombers had all been men with uncovered faces apparently did not feature into the decision.

In fear of backlash, many Muslim men shaved their beards and women removed their hijabs.

Their fear was not misplaced…

Three weeks after the bombings, a wave of Anti-Muslim riots by Buddhist hardliners broke out across the country. Mosques, Muslim business and homes were burned to the ground. A Muslim man lost his life, stabbed to death in front of his family while trying to protect his carpentry workshop. A nation-wide curfew and a social media ban were imposed, lasting 4 days and a week respectively.

On the evening of the second day of the curfew I walked into the living room to find my housemate sitting on the couch on her phone. I asked her what she was doing.

“Watching my country burn,” she replied.

There was a simplicity in the way she said it… Her tone matter-of-fact, yet conveying all the emotion in the world. The phrase keeps resonating in my head.

Rumour was that the police had done little to stop the mob… The descent into unbridled violence had been sparked by a Facebook post by a Muslim shopkeeper stating, “Don’t laugh more, 1 day u will cry.” It was interpreted by locals to be a warning of an impending attack. The man was arrested. Most of the rioters, were not.

Muslims, activists and politicians have reported a rise in the arbitrary arrest of Muslims and police harassment in Sri Lanka, a reality which has even garnered the attention of the EU. A Muslim doctor, falsely accused of performing sterilization surgeries on Sinhalese women by certain individuals seeking political mileage, has been refused bail because it would cause ‘societal unrest’. Meanwhile, a hardline Buddhist monk convicted of spewing hate speech received a Presidential pardon.

What’s worse? On June 3rd, all of Sri Lanka’s Muslim ministers and their deputies resigned, following demands by hardline Buddhist monks to fire five Muslim provincial governors and a minister from the government. Sri Lankan Muslims have therefore been left largely unrepresented in government, causing warranted apprehension.

While more could be said on the subject, I wish instead to turn to my own encounters with day to day incidents of Islamophobia – incidents that I either witnessed or which were recounted to me by people I met.

A month and a half after the attack, I went on a trip to the South with a Sri Lankan friend of mine named Fadhl. We were in Gall fort trying to rent a motorcycle, but that did not go as planned. After demanding that Fadhl give him his passport, the motorcycle owner blatantly asked Fadhl if he was Muslim. Rather than explaining his mixed heritage (being ½ Moor, ¼ Sinhala and ¼ Tamil), Fadhl simply walked away, refusing to dignify the man’s comment with a response.

Later that day, we met a local coffee shop owner named Kat, who told us that a Tuk Tuk driver had tried to persuade her to go to a Sinhalese shop instead of the Muslim grocer that she always got her groceries from.

Boycotting of Muslim shops is a common occurrence these days. According to a documentary filmmaker who I met last week, 60% of Muslim businesses in Batticaloa (which has one of the highest percentages of Muslims in the country) have been boycotted. Meanwhile, Muslim Tuk Tuk drivers on Pick Me (the local equivalent to Uber) have started warning passengers that they are Muslim, leaving many people to decide to get another Tuk. This, I think, is representative of a greater, perhaps more troubling, trend – A trend which this filmmaker pointed out to me.

When I asked what surprised her most about her interviews with Muslims from across the country, it only took her a second to respond:

“The Guilt,” she said.

I nodded silently, trying to push down my outrage at the thought that victims of discrimination so often internalize people’s misconceptions. Outraged because the world has succeeded in making Muslims feel responsible for the actions of others whose beliefs share no resemblance to their own.

And you know what really scares me most? This isn’t local at all…

What I am witnessing here feels like just another facet to the global rise of Islamophobia.

 

 

Research and Knowledge Theft in Uganda

Katrina Bland

There was a professor from Canada, who every year would take me for coffee, and at the end of every coffee, she would have a chapter written based on my conversation. So, I have decided that I no longer share vital knowledge on the issues we have been working around. As an issue of intellectual property rights, this is my request, don’t let western scholars steal your knowledge. Let us write.”

Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt all eyes in the room turn to me. As the only Canadian present and the intern charged with taking verbatim notes, it appeared that I could be preparing to do the very thing he was warning against. Words that the speaker intended as a call to arms for the native Ugandans in the room would recur to me again and again as they echoed some questions I have been asking myself about my time in Uganda. 

This is the view from my office at RLP. Across the street is Old Kampala Primary School and in the distance the National Mosque is visible. From my office I can hear the sound of children playing, practicing the drums as well as the call to prayer everyday. Old Kampala is no longer the downtown centre of Kampala, but was the centre of the colonial administration before independence.

On my first day at Refugee Law Project (RLP), I sat in my office and read the Compendium of Conflicts put together after years of research by RLP’s Conflict, Transitional Justice and Governance department. I am embarrassed to admit that I was surprised by how complicated Uganda’s history of internal conflict is and how little I knew about the country that would be my home for the next three months. While I was familiar with Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, I knew nothing about the funding of various rebel groups by foreign African governments, the diversity of Uganda’s ethnic make up and the inter-tribal tensions further exacerbated by religious adherence, or the efforts made to have customary, religious and English common law co-exist as parallel and at times equal legal systems. My surprise, however, transitioned into something that resembled exasperation and recognition of my own incompetence. Who am I to be here? What could I possibly offer?

Set up of a psychosocial, medical and legal aid camp hosted by RLP for World Refugee Day. Almost 300 people attended seeking access to one or all of the services at the event. Although the event was meant to end by 5PM, it stretched on due to the overwhelming demand. During the event I tried to help as much as I could, but my ability was limited. While I gained a great deal from witnessing the event, I feel that I was able to offer little in return.

I think internships are often more work for the host organizations than for the interns themselves, no matter where you are in the world. Here, so far away from home and where the perspective on history I had absorbed over my life is out of place, this is exacerbated. I imagine I would need at least a couple years of education in Uganda, on the culture, history, socioeconomic structure and so on, before I could offer anything at all. I am lucky that my colleagues at RLP have been nothing but patient and welcoming with me as I try to catch up.

One of the tasks I have felt I could be useful doing has been editing working papers and other documents written by RLP staff from across Uganda. I am extremely self-conscious while doing it, however. English was forced upon colonized societies and there is still a tendency for people from the Global North to assume that English being different in post-colonial societies is the same as English in those societies being bad. Instead, however, I think that English in Uganda simply evolved differently the same way English in Canada evolved differently from English in the United Kingdom or the way French in Montreal is recognizably different from French spoken in Paris. They are in a way, all different dialects with the same roots. As such, I struggle to understand at times, as the primary connotations of words here are different from those at home. More than this, I think story telling is a deeply personal and cultural practice. The expressions that resonate with individuals vary from place to place, from culture to culture. Is there any objective value to the Global North’s conception of academic English? Or should we all be moving towards accepting more diverse versions of story telling and argument writing?

Inner courtyard of the Parliament of Uganda in Kampala
Kampala was chosen as the capital of the British protectorate of Uganda as it was the centre of the Buganda Kingdom, the Kingdom the British favoured to rule over the conglomeration of other Kingdoms that became Uganda. The same speaker as in the quote above said in another instance, “What is Uganda? There is no such thing. You know, the thief is always in a hurry, so the British forgot the B. On the copy of the agreement signed between the British and Buganda Kingdom in Luganda, the B is still there.”

In my experience, this recognition of lived experiences as a form of truth telling worthy of legitimacy in academic and professional spheres is only emerging in legal scholarship in Canada. In comparison, it seems that Uganda is years ahead. RLP, for example, specializes in organizing events they call memory dialogues, which serve as an opportunity for individuals to describe events as they remember them and contribute to the creation of a collective history. I have edited many documents that draw on these memories, describing surviving mass killings in village squares or witnessing individual murders where the bodies were later skinned or boiled in the street. Who am I to change the words and phrases someone has chosen to relate their experience working with war torn communities in northern Uganda? Still, as the documents are intended for a global audience, particularly future donors and other NGOs looking for best practices to follow, there is some practical need for them to meet the expectations of those readers. As such, I try to find an appropriate balance between what my instincts tell me about academic English and the author’s original voice.

I am reminded of the words of the speaker above during this process. Although I am only editing, it is not hard to imagine the sense of ownership the speaker’s Canadian friend would feel over a chapter resulting from their conversation. Does translating stories into the Global North’s conception of an academic thesis give us the right to call the ideas our own? Or does it simply allow us to remain willfully blind to what the speaker resents? If I consider research and writing about Africa as, at least in part, a self-interested practice, often allowing individuals who participate in it to garner some kind of elite status, it seems that extracting knowledge and experiences as fuel for this process is akin to colonial resource extraction. Unlike physical resource extraction, however, the market in which scholars from the Global North sell their ideas does not buy raw materials. There are so many good reasons and intentions behind this kind of research and writing, but at the same time, I feel it may be complicit in the perpetuation of the Global North/South dichotomy. Have I trapped myself? I am not prepared to celebrate such scholarship wholeheartedly, but I am not prepared to denounce it and walk away either.

The question, then becomes, what can I possibly offer in the future? Will I ever come back to Uganda? Will I work for an international human rights organization somewhere else? Will I ever be able to give anything back to the people who have shaped my experience here by walking me through some of the most complicated and painful issues RLP is trying to tackle through transitional justice?

Petit, a fellow intern at RLP and law student and me at the Wildlife Conservation Centre in Entebbe, known to locals simply as the zoo

Solomy, a transitional justice lawyer with RLP, and me at an event on property rights in post-conflict communities hosted at the Parliament of Uganda

I thought at first that even if I took what I learned here and applied it in Canada or elsewhere, that would be enough. In fact, there is so much that Canada could learn from the transitional justice movement in Uganda. But, then I learned that the resentment against knowledge theft, as articulated by the speaker, is not an isolated opinion. Communities all over Uganda—whether rural or urban, refugee or host—describe people, like myself, coming in, conducting interviews, doing research, and leaving. It feels, understandably I think, exploitative to be asked to share painful experiences and hopes for the future with a stranger who will take your words, translate them into a paper written in academic English and return to their comfortable life somewhere where their families will be happy they survived Ebola. No tangible difference in your life as an individual, often no thank yous and no goodbyes.

My focus on this seems to reinforce that I am from the Global North, a fact that I often instinctively wish I could hide. In contrast, my colleagues seem less concerned. As educated professionals from the capital, they are in some ways removed from the people they are trying to help like me. More than anything, they want me to worry about gaining as much as I can from my internship experience. Just yesterday, one of my coworkers said he was going to talk my supervisor into taking me to the field to see some of what I have been reading about first hand. In response to my discomfort and concerns, he simply said ‘What you learn here could influence what you do for the rest of your life.’ I have no doubt that my time at Refugee Law Project already will, and even though I don’t think I have any answers to the questions I have been asking in this blog, maybe that is enough for now.

Lake Victoria as seen from Ssese Islands where the main economic activities are fishing, logging, and palm oil production for exportation. Prior to colonization, the islands were the spiritual centre of the region.

Proud Namibia

By Bianca Braganza

One of the most rewarding aspects of my time with the Law Reform and Development Commission (LRDC) has been the civic outreach and education we have conducted. The Chairperson, as part of the mandate of the Commission, provides legal education to the public and community organizations on various subjects upon request. This summer has been filled with presentations crafted specifically for the legal rights of the LGBTQIA+ community in Windhoek, with a strong vision for the future of a Proud Namibia.

Wings to Transcend Namibia

Pictured with the board of Wings to Transcend Namibia: Left is Jholerina, the founder of the NGO, myself, Princess, Programs Officer, and right, the Chairperson of the LRDC, Ms. Dausab. Not pictured is Teddy, who is the Advocacy and Communications Officer.

In late May, the Board from the NGO Wings to Transcend Namibia, came to visit the Commission to request civic education on the status of the legal rights of transgender persons in the country. Here, Princess tells her story of coming out to her family and the journey to acceptance she has struggled to achieve within her family, community and country at large. What I have appreciated the most about our civic education and legal engagements is the way in which the Chairperson pushes for narratives, and for engaging our personal stories with the legal activism and endeavours we pursue. Ms. Dausab began the meeting not with agenda-setting and running through legal provisions and the report we prepared, but rather by inviting the Board to tell us about themselves, their journey, and the current experiences on the ground of persons who identify as transgender in Namibia.

Community Civic Education: Trans Rights

This led to the presentation we conducted earlier this month to the community at large on the legal rights of persons who identify as transgender in the country. Upon request from the community themselves, we addressed human and constitutional rights of transgender persons with regards to: interactions with the police (and the levels of brutality and discrimination this community faces), health care workers and discrimination in employment. We also presented legal steps that could be taken to change one’s name and pictures on official legal documents. This necessitated a thorough analysis of various birth, immigration and identification acts and informing the community of strong cases that could be made to advance legal recognition of their gender.

As we presented on the Pan African landscape for transgender rights, we were thrilled to discuss the exciting news from two weeks earlier that Botswana has decriminalized sodomy. This has had incredible repercussions for the perception, acceptance and legitimization of the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community at large. Botswana has also led the way for the rights of transgender persons, where in September of 2017, the High Court ruled for the right of a person to change their gender marker on their identity documents as refusing to do so was unreasonable, and violated their right to: dignity, privacy, freedom of expression, equal protection of the law, freedom from discrimination, and freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment.

The LRDC routinely conducts civic education on the history and application of Human Rights in the country. Ms. Dausab’s personal style uses interactive tools such as group discussions and activities to elicit key themes and takeaways from her presentation. For this presentation, she broke the approximately 30 community members into 3 groups, and had them complete an activity about the aftermath of a shipwreck, where we all were tasked with assigning roles (to the male and females in the fact pattern) for fetching wood, cooking, hunting, building, and engineering with the aim of outlining how cultural norms (and even domestically, how different tribes) conceptualize the traditional gender binary and male and female roles in society.

Completing the reflection activity.

One of the most pivotal parts of our presentation to the community included emphasizing not making the same mistakes as our neighbor South Africa, in the quest for equality. Here, legal progress preceded social progress. In the landmark case of Minister of Home Affairs vs Fourie, South Africa legalized same sex marriage in 2006, after a lesbian couple claimed their right to marry in a post-apartheid country. Although making South Africa a leader in the African context for marriage equality and legal protection against discrimination (the country has added protection provisions for discrimination based on sexual orientation in legislation), the case did not cause a nationwide consensus or shift in the social perception of LGBTQIA+ people. In effect, legal protection preceded public acceptance. There is currently more violence and brutality against the community in South Africa, despite the legal framework in place, than in Namibia, which does not have any legal provisions based on sexual orientation (or gender identification for that matter). It was therefore fundamental to provide a holistic account of social change during our presentation, and reinforce that the law is not always the sole answer. There needs to be incremental social change within the country based on: active citizenship (representation in government and the workforce of the community); education; media (using the arts as a powerful way to shift public perception and to foster empathy and compassion towards the community, as well as eradicate stigma related to HIV/AIDS and sex work); business indicators; and advocacy and action.*

#BeFree

The #BeFree Day that the Chairperson was invited to speak at was a very special and moving experience for me. It fused together the worlds I am passionate about of law, health, social justice, the arts and youth empowerment. The movement itself of #BeFree seeks to engage high school students with current topics that are culturally seen to be “taboo” and covers the topics specifically of LGBTQIA+, sex work and HIV/AIDS with the aim of educating youth and eradicating stigma and false information. The messages were beautifully presented, and incorporated a range of ways in which to explore these themes, including dance, comedy, theatre, the high school students themselves presenting a debate (the topic of religion versus culture), a panel discussion (with experts in legal, medical, and community activism), and of course, the open dialogue with the Chairperson, and the First Lady of Namibia (pictured to the right).

High School students from local Windhoek schools, awaiting the start of the programming.

At the #BeFree Day, alongside the Chairperson after her successful open dialogue on same sex marriage, disability rights and access to education with the First Lady of Namibia.

 

Namibia’s Diverse Women Association – UN SDGs and SOGIESC

Namibia’s Diverse Women’s Association (NDWA) requested a presentation from the LRDC to educate leaders in the community on the status of the rights of LGBTQIA+ persons in the country, with the aim of building a national linkage and intersectional human rights equality and inclusivity agenda. This was to be done by drawing upon UN systems and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in order to strategize on how exactly to advance the rights based on Sexual Orientation Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC) in Namibia.

With the framework of the SDGs, we aimed to create a holistic presentation that highlighted the intersectionality of various sectors in the advancement of this community’s rights in Namibia (health protections, the police force, economic advancement, housing and education). We also presented on the language and provisions of the Constitution while drawing upon successful cases made in South Africa and Botswana. There are currently two cases currently going to the Supreme Court of Namibia for same sex marriage (we find ourselves in extremely exciting times!).

We concluded that potential law reform moving forward can take the shape of (foremost) the repeal of the criminalization of sodomy (Criminal Procedure Act of 1977), the amendment of the Combatting of Immoral Practices Act of 1980 (including the repeal of outdated and unconstitutional provisions) and the insertion of protection of the rights of persons from discrimination based on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identification into various acts- from Labour, to Immigration, to Health Services Acts. It can also include the amendment of the Identification Act to allow gender marker changes and pictures for identification to be accepted without proof of gender reassignment surgery (which, in addition to hormone therapy, is currently not covered by insurance nor provided in the country).

Pictured with leaders from various LGBTQIA+ community grassroots organizations in Windhoek.

* “South Africa still hasn’t won LGBTQ+ equality. Here are 5 reasons why”. Retrieved from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/11/south-africa-road-to-lgbtq-equality/

From the Local to the National: A Snapshot of the Human Rights Situation in the Philippines

By Kathleen Barera

It’s already been about five weeks since I began my internship at Ateneo Human Rights Center in the Philippines. I am working at the AKAP/Child Rights Desk. My research project concerns the common children’s rights issues across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states, namely Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. This is part of Ateneo Human Rights Center’s project of “Building a Child-Friendly ASEAN”.

I am having an absolutely wonderful experience and don’t want my time to end! Ever since my first day, I have felt completely welcomed. I am lucky to be surrounded by and to be learning from a group of passionate, kind-hearted, and fun-spirited colleagues every day!

With some colleagues who treated me at a vegan restaurant, Cosmic

Luckily, I also arrived just in time for the basic orientation seminar on human rights, an integral part of the summer internship program, which prepares students for their week-long immersion in an indigenous community and their month-long internship with an NGO. In the span of four days, we participated in a number of informative sessions and workshops on topics ranging from indigenous rights to children’s rights and from alternative lawyering to paralegal training.

Human Rights: A Bad Word?

During the basic orientation seminar’s human rights and drug policy session, an attorney from StreetLawPH, an organization of lawyers and advocates with a mandate to provide access to justice to and protect the human rights of drug users in the Philippines,[1] said that ‘human rights’ has become a bad word here. Sadly, this statement truly does represent the current state of affairs in the country. I am reminded of this chilling reality each day as I read up on recent developments in the news.

Myself and the group at the Basic Orientation Seminar in Tagaytay City

Ever since Duterte’s presidency, the political climate in the Philippines has been far from conducive to human rights. Nearly two weeks ago, a 3-year-old child was fatally shot by a police officer during a drug bust operation.[2] Following this inconceivable tragedy, the words uttered by Senator Bato, a former police chief, were that “shit happens”.[3] This repugnant disregard for human life has been the norm from the moment Duterte became president in 2016. In fact, the human rights situation has rapidly deteriorated, most notably as a result of Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ (read: war on the poor),[4] particularly the extrajudicial killings of at least 27,000 suspected drug dealers to date, even children.[5] Duterte has in the past justified that any child killed in the drug war is ‘collateral damage’[6] and recently, he said that he prefers being connected to the extrajudicial killings than with corruption.[7]

Yet, Duterte has garnered and retained the support of many Filipinos. To my surprise, some people told me that they considered Duterte to be the Philippines’ best president, particularly because he has reduced crime. I learned at the seminar that this is unfortunately a common sentiment. When drug dealers are gunned down, there is a lack of empathy for the plight of the individuals in question. Instead, their tragic deaths elicit the reaction that there will now be less ‘criminals’ and ‘bad people’ on the streets.

Ateneo Human Rights Center-Save the Children Philippines meeting

The complete disregard for the rule of law under Duterte’s administration extends beyond the war on drugs. For one thing, the freedoms of dissenters have been undermined in many ways. There has been a crackdown on media freedom, such that journalists are increasingly targeted and murdered.[8] Duterte even threatened to have individuals who planned to file a case to have him impeached after the exclusive economic zone China-fishermen debacle imprisoned.[9] Furthermore, the rights of children in conflict with the law are under attack. Recently, the Senate refiled the bill to lower the age of criminal liability for children from 15 to 12 years old.[10]

Metro Manila Pride March: Love Conquers Hate

On June 29, I attended the Metro Manila Pride March and Festival, themed Resist Together, in Marikina City. I felt proud to stand as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community in the Philippines. There was a record-breaking crowd of over 70,000 participants, almost triple the number of attendees from 2018.[11]

Metro Manila Pride March in Marikina City, where participant is seen marching on, despite the disruptive opposition from some religious counter-protestors

While Manila has the biggest Pride demonstrations in Southeast Asia,[12] I knew to expect counter-protests from religious groups. I witnessed dozens of people lined up holding signs and handing out pamphlets about how God hates sin, but not the sinners, and that LGBTQ+ people can be saved.[13] An attendee told me that for the most part, nobody confronts the counter-protestors; rather, they continue to celebrate themselves in their march for equality. While I was angered by their disruptive presence, I decided to focus my attention on the laughter, love, purpose, and warmth emanating from the crowd of participants, with “Free Hugs” signs and open resistance to social injustice.

Although there are closed-minded people who don’t believe their fellow human beings deserve the same dignity and human rights as them, and even though the SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression) equality bill is still pending in Congress, the mayor of Marikina City enacted, on the same day and in front of the attendees, an anti-discrimination ordinance.[14] The ordinance ensures equal rights to the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace, education, and government services, and also criminalizes discrimination.[15] In a country where the President claims that beautiful women helped him ‘cure’ himself of being gay,[16] this is a powerful symbol of hope for a better future.

In front of the Rizal Monument at the Rizal Park, which commemorates the executed national Filipino hero Jose Rizal

Pinoy local dish kare-kare (peanut sauce stew with vegetables) made vegan

Halo-halo, a popular Filipino dessert, topped with ube (purple yam) ice cream

The tricycle/trisikad, a common form of transportation, in Intramuros (the walled city)

[1] See: https://www.hri.global/abstracts/abstracthr19/593/print

[2] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1138105/shit-happens-bato-says-after-a-child-got-killed-in-drug-bust

[3] Ibid.

[4] See: https://www.hrw.org/tag/philippines-war-drugs & https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/08/rodrigo-dutertes-drug-war-is-large-scale-murdering-enterprise-says-amnesty 

[5] See: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/philippines#c007ac https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-rights-un/philippines-faces-call-for-un-investigation-into-war-on-drugs-killings-idUSKCN1TZ22M

[6] See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/17/duterte-says-children-killed-in-philippines-drug-war-are-collateral-damage

[7] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1139316/duterte-you-may-link-me-with-ejks-but-not-with-corruption

[8] Ibid.

[9] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1134976/duterte-on-impeachment-proponents-ill-jail-them-all

[10] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1135970/early-18th-congress-bills-lower-age-of-criminal-liability-anti-fake-news-and-terrorism/amp?fbclid=IwAR0g47oS7QPRY9BSAOFfK2v-70WEsgR2dJBWaIpKeGQUB4XT9U-FA_6u5Lc

[11] See: https://www.rappler.com/move-ph/234225-metro-manila-pride-2019-attendees-breaks-record

[12] Ibid.

[13] See: https://www.rappler.com/move-ph/234350-how-religious-groups-clashed-lgbtq-rights-pride-march-2019

[14] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1135560/marikina-mayor-signs-anti-discrimination-ordinance

[15] Ibid.

[16] See: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/world/asia/duterte-gay.html

Réflexion sur le cours d’été du NLC

Par Sophie Kassel

Le 28 juin dernier, le Native Law Centre (NLC) a conclu son cours d’été. Après un lunch pour célébrer la fin des examens, nous nous sommes dirigés vers l’auditorium pour que les enseignants, assistants de cours et étudiants puissent se dire au revoir. Pendant qu’on distribuait les certificats, les étudiants ont été invités à dire un mot sur leur expérience devant la classe. Assumant que la majorité des élèves serait trop timide pour y participer, je fus surprise que presque chaque élève se soit présenté. Chaque réflexion était unique , incluant des étudiants qui parlaient de leur appréciation inattendue pour la ville de Saskatoon et d’autres de leurs nouveaux amis dans le programme. Les thèmes de la fierté, la réussite et le sentiment de communauté ont été souvent abordés. En quittant le NLC pour poursuivre leurs études à travers le Canada, les élèves commencent leur première année en droit avec de l’expérience en lecture et analyse juridique. Le NLC souhaite assurer qu’ils soient le mieux préparés pour cette année charnière.

Le cours d’été qui enseigne le droit des biens joue un rôle vital dans le mouvement qui cherche à augmenter la quantité d’avocats et de juges autochtones. Des facteurs systémiques, tel qu’un accès inégal à l’éducation post-secondaire et les frais de scolarité rendent les professions juridiques non-représentatives de la société canadienne.[1]Les étudiants autochtones sont sous-représentés à travers les écoles de droit, menant à une faible représentation d’avocats et de juges autochtones dans la profession.[2]Quand le NLC a lancé son cours d’été en 1973, il n’y avait que cinq étudiants autochtones en droit et quatre avocats autochtones à travers tout le Canada.[3]Même si les universités essaient de répondre à cette sous-représentation en admettant plus d’élèves autochtones dans leur programmes de droit, les statistiques démontrent que le taux de réussite (la proportion d’élèves qui réussissent à obtenir leur diplôme en droit) est plus faible chez les élèves autochtones.[4]Il faut donc que les universités fassent un effort pour non seulement admettre plus d’élèves autochtones dans leurs écoles de droit, mais aussi assurer que ces élèves aient l’appui dont ils ont besoin pour avoir du succès dans leurs études.

Le programme du NLC aide à répondre à cette deuxième responsabilité.  Le cours d’été prépare les étudiants autochtones pour leur première année en droit à travers un cours intensif de huit semaines portant sur le droit des biens. À la fin du cours, les élèves ont acquis de l’expérience avec la lecture et l’écriture juridique, ce qui va leur permettre de commencer leur année scolaire avec certaines compétences requises pour avoir du succès dans leurs études. L’importance du programme s’étend au-delà de l’apprentissage des compétences d’analyses juridiques. Ce programme offre une solution à l’exclusion des voix autochtones des écoles de droit.[5]À travers ses professeurs et conférenciers autochtones, le NLC crée une communauté où les étudiants peuvent avoir un sentiment d’appartenance et d’appui. Lorsque la directrice Kathleen Makela a donné un discours lors de l’orientation du programme, elle a indiqué que chaque classe était planifiée dans des salles différentes de sorte que les élèves se sentent confortables de prendre leur place dans la faculté. Le programme d’été essaie d’encourager un sentiment d’appartenance à la profession juridique.

Après avoir terminé le programme au NLC, les élèves de cette année vont commencer leurs études en droit dans des universités à travers le Canada : l’Université de Victoria, l’Université de la Colombie-Britannique, l’Université de l’Alberta, l’Université Windsor et d’autres encore. Voyant tous les étudiants à la cérémonie à la fin du programme, j’étais triste qu’aucun d’entre eux ne poursuive ses études en droit à McGill. Même si je comprends qu’il y a plusieurs facteurs qui influencent le processus d’admission autant que le choix de recommander à un appliquant de poursuivre le cours d’été au NLC, il reste que le cours d’été offre de nombreux bénéfices. Les élèves sont introduits à l’étude du droit sous le mentorat de professeurs autochtones et on leur offre le soutien dont ils ont besoin quand on considère l’exclusion historique des élèves autochtones de telles institutions universitaires. De plus, le succès du programme du NLC se démontre dans les statistiques, comme celui que les trois quarts de tous les avocats autochtones au Canada y ont participé. J’espère qu’il y aura un ou plusieurs élèves du programme NLC qui intègrera la faculté de droit de McGill l’an prochain.

 

[1]Sonia Lawrence and Signa Shanks, “Indigenous Lawyers in Canada: Identity, Professionalization, Law” (2015) 38 Dalhousie L J 2, at 510

[2]Peter Devonshire, “Indigenous Students at Law School: Comparative Perspectives” (2014) 35 ADEL L REV at 311-312

[3]Devonshire, at 311

[4]Devonshire, at 312

[5]Lawrence and Shanks, at 513-514

ASWAT NISSA

ou La voix des femmes

Un acrostiche écrit par Aurélie Derigaud-Choquette

Appelée à défendre la cause des femmes et des populations marginalisées en Tunisie, Aswat Nissa mène son combat sur plusieurs fronts :
Soutenir et former les candidates aux élections, une mission!
Web, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, radio, presse écrite: tous les moyens sont bons pour sensibiliser au manque de représentation des femmes en politique ou à la violence faite aux femmes.
Analyser et étudier les progrès accomplis pour l’intégration de l’approche genre dans les politiques publiques, quoi de mieux pour en relever les lacunes et appeler au changement?
Tunisiennes et tunisiens sur un pied d’égalité, un idéal atteignable!

 

Nourrie et éveillée à la cause féminine par mon implication au sein de cette équipe motivée,
Ici et maintenant, mes efforts contribuent au changement à l’échelle locale, malgré l’adversité.
S‘aventurer dans des régions jusqu’alors inconnues du droit pour moi, et explorer les dessous du travail d’une organisation militante de la société civile.
S‘affirmer, apprendre, échanger, débattre, éveiller ma curiosité…
Aswat Nissa, je vous remercie de tant m’apprendre!

 

 

An Arbitrary Border in the Middle of Akwesasne

By: Larissa Parker

Akwesasne is a Mohawk community, which borders two Canadian provinces and the United States. As someone put it on my first day, it is a community with its own legal system that has to co-exist with American federal law, Canadian federal law, New York State law, Ontario law and Quebec law; a jurisdictional puzzle!

The community has four main districts: Cornwall Island, St Regis, Snye, and the Southern district. The first three are territory on the Canadian side, while the last one represents territory on the US side. Looking at the map above, you’ll notice that to get to each district, you need to cross through the US. Wherever you live, chances are you need to cross the border to do your shopping, pick up your kids, go to work, ect.

The official border crossing is on Cornwall Island. Although the island is entirely on the Canadian side, it sits strangely in between the Canadian and US border terminals. This crossing causes all community members a lot of hardship. You would think that they have processes in place to accommodate Mohawk individuals who are forced to cross it everyday, but this is not the case. On the contrary, there are rules in place that force community members to report to the border when they leave the different jurisdictions. Anyone coming from the US side, needing to go to Cornwall Island (which is only 5-10 km away) must drive up to Cornwall Island through the US Border, continue driving past their destination, report to the Canadian border, and then return. This is approximately a 30-minute detour. And if anyone does not do this, their car is seized and they are slapped with a hefty fine ($1000 for the first offence, $2000 for the second, ect). This is possible because of the cameras that have been set up to register license plates and the time that they cross; if you do not report within 10 minutes or so, border officials are alerted by the system and told to seize your vehicle.

The absurdity of this process is impossible not to notice when you work here. The Akwesasne Court, for example, is located on Cornwall Island, yet the Justice Department (where I work) is in St Regis. If I need to go to the Court, I must drive past it, report to the border and then come back (in addition to crossing the border daily on my way to and from work). Many people in my office make at least one trip to the Island every day, meaning they spend a lot of their time simply reporting to the border, going through customs, just to turn around. Not to mention if you live there, you also have to report every time you come home.

For me, it is difficult to fathom why either government thought it was appropriate to place a border in the middle of this community. There are two theories in my office: 1- it was an attempt to assimilate Akwesasne (which failed); or 2- it is a punitive response to the fact they did not assimilate.

One of my tasks this summer is to go through hundreds and hundreds of files of border misconduct and unreasonable car seizures, which are part of a class action suit that the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne filed against the border in 2015. Although I cannot write more on this work (as much of it is confidential), I want to stress how saddening it is to read about so many incidents of misconduct and abuse of power and how little sympathy either government or their border agents have for community residents.

Source: https://www.akwesasnetv.com/?tag=akwesasne-border-crossing

Funny enough, I have my own border troubles. I am driving a California plated car (long story!) and if you didn’t know, driving a US-plated car as a Canadian citizen in Canada is illegal unless you import it. Within three days of starting my internship, I was charged almost 1000 dollars in taxes, detained, and lectured to by several CBSA officers about my mistake. The American border has also flagged me as suspicious; I have been stuck for way too long trying to explain my internship, where I’m from, why I have this car, and must report to them every time I leave the US (which is every day at least once)! Nevertheless, the more I cross, the easier it gets, especially as people begin to recognize me.

Some of my colleagues think this is funny and joke that I am getting the “true” Akwesasne experience. But the reality is, I’m not. Despite my border issues, I am treated better than many Mohawk individuals. I know this because I have access to the files. Many Mohawk people are still arbitrarily searched, held, and verbally abused on a daily basis. Sometimes, border officials make rude remarks about their status cards and demand more documentation than is required under the law. In many cases, they are outrightly racist. They seem to have little regard for their time and sometimes, no respect for who they are. Although they use the border every day to travel within the borders of their territory, they are treated poorly on land that was stolen from them.

PS: Border struggles aside, here are some photos of how beautiful the community is!

Les droits humains au Pays des merveilles

Par Jennifer Lachance

Qu’est-ce que le Canada a le droit et l’obligation de faire lorsque l’un de ses ressortissants est emprisonné à l’étranger, ou pire, condamné à mort? Cette question m’a bien torturé lors de l’un de mes mandats de recherche chez ASFC. La réponse en trois mots? Pas grand chose. Et cette réponse m’a dévastée. Face à des situations aussi déplorables qu celle de Robert Schellenberg, ressortissant canadien condamné à mort, je n’ai pu me résoudre à accepter que le droit n’ait pas de réponse claire. Alors comment fait-on, lorsque notre idéal de droit humain ne trouve pas écho dans le droit international, où l’État règne en monstre imposant ses moindres caprices? 

On est terrifié. Clairement. Mais surtout, on se creuse les méninges afin de trouver un bout d’espoir sur lequel s’accrocher. Parce qu’on ne peut pas accepter le statu quo (qui le voudrait?). Parce qu’on sait qu’il y a ne serait-ce qu’une infime possibilité que cet idéal soit atteint si on a assez d’imagination pour marquer les esprits des prochains juges à qui seront présentées des violations de droits humains. Alors on ne baisse pas les bras. Je crois que c’est parfois cela, travailler en droits humains. C’est un combat de tous les jours qui est loin d’être facile. Mais lorsque ça fonctionne, ô combien est-ce satisfaisant. Et si une bataille ne définit pas le reste de la guerre, chaque mot, chaque recherche, chaque action devient les armes de demain. 

Chez Avocats sans Frontière, ce combat se mène sur plusieurs fronts, partout dans le monde en même temps. Ainsi, alors qu’on reste dans la beauté inouïe de la ville de Québec, on en vient à travailler sur des dossiers de groupes armés non étatiques en Colombie, sur la situation des droits humains en Afrique, et on se voit parfois même donner l’opportunité d’influencer le futur de l’organisation en participant à la rédaction de propositions de projets ailleurs dans le monde. On en vient à rencontrer les gens formidables qui ont porté ces projets à terme sur le terrain en partageant un thé autour d’une table avec des Maliens, en recevant une présentation d’Haïtiennes venues partager toute l’expérience qu’elles ont acquise auprès de la société civile avec ASFC, en écoutant des histoires cocasses avec des coopérants venus des quatre coins de la planète finir leur stage à Québec. Bref, on en vient à partager de nous, de notre culture, mais également à voyager à travers chacune de ces inoubliables rencontres qui forment les fondations de chacune de nos batailles en droits humains. 

Un magnifique coucher de soleil dans la ville

Adventures in Kenya – But First, The World Justice Forum

By Julia Green

Before leaving for Kenya, I had a Skype call with Jenna, an intern from U of T who I would be spending the summer with, as well as Fiona Sampson, the CEO of the equality effect (e²). While Fiona talked with great enthusiasm about the amazing work e² does fighting for justice for survivors of sexual violence, she emphasized that internships with her organization tend to be a little unpredictable. Her repeated advice was for us to be ready to “expect the unexpected.” Little did we know that the “unexpected” would begin before we even touched down on Kenyan soil.

When we accepted the internship, Jenna and I had been told we would be spending the summer on a rural compound that houses survivors of sexual violence near a place called Meru in central Kenya. Two days before we were meant to fly from Toronto to Nairobi however, we received an email from Fiona asking us if we would be open to starting our internship in Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city, instead. Fiona explained that one of e²’s partners there called the International Centre for Reproductive Health Kenya (ICRHK) was very keen to host us for some of the summer. After a quick Google search of the ICRHK I decided I was game, and Jenna and I emailed Fiona telling her we were down to switch things up. When we boarded the plane together in Toronto, the last message we had received from Fiona was her telling us that she would be in touch ASAP to confirm if Mombasa was a go.

Fresh off the plane and into the World Justice Forum! I learned from this experience that a lawyer should always have a change of professional-looking clothes, a bit of makeup, and something other than running shoes in her carry-on (none of which I had in my carry-on this time, sadly).

Our flight to Nairobi included a fourteen-hour layover in Amsterdam, which we thought would be nice since neither of us had ever been there before. Given the time difference we knew we would be exhausted when we arrived in the Netherlands, so we had planned a fairly low-key itinerary. However, when we connected to the Wifi at the Amsterdam airport we had yet another email from Fiona with even more “unexpected.” She told us she was still waiting to confirm about Mombasa, but had another question: would we be interested in going to the Hague to attend the World Justice Forum on behalf of e² during our layover? It turned out that on that particular day there was a conference going on at the World Forum (right across from the International Criminal Court) for people working in international human rights law. The e² staff who was supposed to be there for the last day of the conference wasn’t able to make it, so Fiona was wondering if we would be willing to step in for her. Despite the fact that we looked and felt the way one does after an overnight international flight, Jenna and I decided we were both interested. Within an hour of touchdown in Amsterdam, we were in a taxi on our way to the Hague for the conference’s 8 am start.

We arrived at the World Forum, haggard and exhausted, but the excitement about where we were soon took over. We spent the afternoon mingling with incredible human rights professionals from around the world, attending workshops on different access to justice initiatives, and listening to speeches from inspiring people who were doing all kinds of interesting work for vulnerable people. When Fiona asked us to attend she had mentioned that e² had been nominated for one of five $10,000 awards that would be handed out that day. According to her, the chances of e² actually winning were very slim, so she assured us th

at we needn’t worry too much about having to go accept an award.

Given that by the time the award was being announced Jenna and I had both been awake for over 24 hours and gone even longer without a shower, we were grateful to think that we could just sit back and enjoy the final part of the conference before we headed back to the airport. However, just as we were settling into our seats and cracking jokes about how funny it would be if we had to go up on stage and accept an award in our current post-flight state, they announced the first winner: the equality effect!

We laughed our way all the way up to the stage, unable to believe the absurdity of it all. There we were, in front of a room full of hundreds of well-dressed human rights lawyers and other professionals, wearing running shoes, athletic wear, glasses, and completely sleep-deprived. Things got even better when they asked one of us to give a speech and Jenna jumped on the mic to read the dialogue Fiona had sent us “just in case” we won but couldn’t get the email to open on her phone. She wound up free-styling, but whatever she said came out perfect. The room went wild with applause as we stepped off to the side to be photographed holding our huge framed award.

Because of how little sleep I had gotten for the entire duration of this ordeal, it still feels hard to believe it even happened. Luckily, the World Justice Forum had plenty of professional photographers on deck to get our classy airplane looks from every possible angle. It’s not exactly h

The professional photographer got a great shot of my plane outfit, featuring running shoes and yoga capris.

ow I imagined my first time accepting an award for international human rights work would be, but I quite honestly can’t think of a better story. At some point in all the madness we received an email from Fiona confirming that Mombasa was a go. As we boarded the flight from Amsterdam to Kenya, we both couldn’t help repeating that the summer really did seem to be shaping up to unexpected after all – in the best way possible.

“Why human rights law?”

By: Samantha Backman

“Why human rights law?” This question was posed to me by one of my supervisors in the early days of my internship at the Bulgarian Center for Not-for-Profit Law (BCNL). In the last several weeks, as I have immersed myself in the field of disability rights at BCNL, I have found myself pondering this question time and time again. I believe that it is a critical question for anyone working in the area of human rights law to reflect upon. Pausing to ask ourselves why we are doing something can undoubtedly make us more purposeful and focused in our efforts and help us connect with the broader significance of our work.

I was drawn to the International Human Rights Internship Program because I am a bit of an idealist. I am optimistic about the law’s potential to be harnessed to achieve social justice. Human rights law greatly appealed to me, as it seemed to be rooted in a pursuit for freedom, equality, and human dignity. The notion of striving to uphold such lofty ideals was extremely inspiring to me.

Over the past few weeks, however, I have learned that human rights law is about more than a quest for abstract principles. As I have been discussing with my mentors at BCNL, it is also about people.

At BCNL, I have been tasked with writing a report on recent legislative reforms that countries have undertaken in light of Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which calls upon states to recognize the legal capacity of people with disabilities on an equal basis with others. Article 12 asks states to put into place supported decision-making mechanisms whereby persons with disabilities are authorised to make their own decisions with help from trusted individuals.

As I have been researching worldwide legislative reforms in the area of disability law, I have been struck by the role that civil society organizations have played in the painstaking process to enact change. Around the world, civil society organizations have given talks, organized pilot projects, led marches, lobbied governments, drafted legislation, and initiated strategic litigation to secure the full enjoyment of rights for persons with disabilities. These are fundamentally grassroots, bottom-up efforts. This is the work of parents of persons with disabilities who have been disheartened by their children’s disempowerment at the hands of society and the legal system, and who have come together and formed alliances. This is about lawyers who have advocated in the courts for people who have been stripped of their civil rights through placement under restrictive guardianship regimes. This is about civil society activists who have designed supported decision-making pilot projects so that persons with disabilities can gain control over their own life decisions. At its core, all of these endeavours are galvanized by the experiences of individual people. All of this energy is marshalled so that individual human beings can feel respected and have agency over their own lives.

My work in a civil society environment has shown me that the law has a human face. Human rights law is not simply about singing treaties and enshrining rights on paper. It is about advocacy. It is about ensuring the implementation of these rights on the ground. It is about holding governments to account. In these matters, civil society plays a critical role.

As I conduct my research in the context of my internship, I am amazed by the fact that in many countries, the work of disability rights activists has spanned many years. Civil society actors have persisted tirelessly with their efforts, even in the face of indifference or resistance from their governments. There is an astonishing will to continue to advocate for progress. It could very well be argued that these activists are pushing for freedom, equality, and human dignity. But they are critically focused on advocating for the people, for those individuals whose stories have moved and inspired them. Perhaps it is this personal connection that makes their fight for human rights so enduring. Extrapolating from this, if we aim to see human rights law on a “human scale,” perhaps this can help to remind us why this field is so worthwhile.

Photo credit: BCNL. BCNL helped to organize the Manifestation of Friendship, which took place in Sofia during Ability Day on May 18th, 2018. This was part of a national campaign for collecting signatures in support of a draft law in Bulgaria that would abolish guardianship and introduce supported decision-making (The National Citizen Initiative 7000).

NGO House: The BCNL headquarters is home to NGO House, an innovative co-working space for members of the local NGO community.

The Palace of Justice in Sofia

The bustling Vitosha Boulevard at the heart of the city centre

A tram in Sofia

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