Rights, resources, and framing the issue of disability

By Miatta Gorvie

The term “persons with disabilities” is a capacious term indeed, intended to capture the realities of a huge array of people’s lives. Somehow, it refers to an amputee begging in downtown Kampala and a person with mental health challenges languishing in prison while awaiting bail in a prison up-country; a girl who was fortunate enough to have been sent to a school for the blind or deaf and another who was left at home because of the lack of access to schooling for children with developmental disabilities. Legal Action for Persons with Disabilities – Uganda (LAPD) provides free and sustainable legal aid and human rights protection to the members of any and all of these communities of persons with disabilities (PWDs).

Access to justice for Uganda’s disabled is hindered at many turns. First and foremost is the fact that they are disproportionately more likely to live in poverty, as a result of systemic barriers to education and employment. There is no government assistance available for the disabled and so those who cannot work are dependent on family to fulfil their needs; the least fortunate are those that you see dotting the streets, begging for the goodwill of strangers. Even those who do have the resources to bring their cases to court will often be confronted by justice sector officials who do not understand the particularities of the lives of PWDs.

Uganda has a relatively robust disabilities rights regime, in terms of legislation. Not only has Uganda signed on to the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, it has also domesticated it’s commitment with provisions in its 1995 Constitution and the Persons with Disabilities Act of 2006, among other acts and policies. However, while the legal instruments are in place, in substance they are often minimalist and incomprehensive.

This legislation is a great achievement for a poor country with an unconsolidated democracy, but laws are only part of the question of achieving dignity for PWDs. Disability rights, perhaps more than many others, is a fertile testing ground for the balancing of rights and other priorities. Indeed, the term “reasonable accommodation,” which has recently been extended to the question of multiculturalism in Quebec, finds its origins in the disability literature. Reasonable accommodation is the idea that “necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case” should be made to ensure that PWDs enjoy their rights and freedoms on an equal basis with others.[1] For example in employment, should an employee with a physical disability need a different chair from the model used in the office, it would be considered unreasonable for the person to lose their job over the purchase of a chair and the employer is legally required to make the adjustment.

Disability rights are constantly framed as being in competition with resources. In a developing economy like Uganda, what can it mean for children with disabilities to have the right to public education, the same public education system that can barely pay its teachers or supply learning materials? While the problems are much more visible here, this is hardly a problem reserved to poor countries.

This spring, I travelled to Ottawa with a group of McGill students to hear the opening arguments for the Moore case. As a boy, Jeffrey Moore suffered from severe dyslexia but was able to participate in the public school system because the division had a program for students with his particular needs. When this program was cut for budgetary reasons, his father was forced to place him in a private school, at great cost, and he sued the BC government for what he perceives as an undue hardship. In the opening arguments, the province submitted that Jeffrey should not be compared to other students in the public school system but other special needs students in the system. Framed that way, Jeffrey and all other students with intellectual disabilities were given an equal opportunity to access a “general education.” Moore was seeking an accommodation to access the mainstream service whereas the government defined his request as a specialized education service. Embarrassingly, the province also claimed that there is no right for a student to learn how to read, because even public school students without disabilities have difficulty reading.

When a G-8 country shrugs at disability rights under the guise of “budgetary constraints,” the prospects for PWDs in the developing world seem dire. The dominant discourse reflects the way in which disability rights are still seen as second-tier rights or aspirations that will come to fruition at some uncertain point in the future when scarce resources are no longer an issue. McGill’s Frédéric Mégret has considered whether the CRPD simply affirms the idea that existing human rights apply to PWDs and reformulates existing human rights to acknowledge the particularities of PWDs’ experiences, or whether it actually goes as far as to extend existing rights and innovate so far as to create new rights with the realities of the disabled at their core. He finds the Convention to be a “very subtle mix of the old and the new, which confirms existing rights, even as it amplified upon, evolves from and departs from them in the sort of creative ways required by the issue of disability.”

I agree with Professor Mégret’s proposition, that the CRPD was an opportunity to make a statement about difference and pluralism, often thought of as running contrary to the universalism and equality inherent in the human rights project. However, I took on this internship partly as a challenge, to step out of the safe spaces of seminar courses and panel discussions and consider what “human rights” can possibly mean in the field. Therefore, as a result of my experiences doing legal aid for PWDs with LAPD this summer, I must reluctantly endorse the pedantic view of the Convention that the professor rejects, the one that considers the document to be an affirmation of restatement of the applicability of existing human rights to PWDs.

When faced with politicians and judges who already see rights for PWDs as “other” and as something to be addressed only after rights for the majority have been dealt with, it is not helpful for an advocate to make an argument about newness and plurality. It is likely preferable to submit that PWDs have the same general human right to education and that their requests for inclusion are only accommodations and not brand new rights. Would this framing not make it much easier to refute the “budgetary constraints” argument? It seems to me that when dealing with few resources and little audience time with decision-makers, the pragmatic route might be the most effective.


[1] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 2, http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=262.

CONGEH’s Chairwoman Appointed to the Supreme Court

I hoped she would enjoy her gift, a traditional bowl of bowls made from local woods that I had picked out with the assistance of one of her close relatives. The occasion was significant and celebratory: Julienne Ayissi, the Court of Appeal justice who, on a parallel career track, acts as figurehead and chairperson of the CONGEH, was to be sworn in as a Councilor of the Supreme Court of Cameroon.

In broad strokes, the Supreme Court of Cameroon acts as the final appellate court in penal, administrative and civil matters. It also provides the final say for disputes governed by the state-recognized customary law.  The Supreme Court has also assumed jurisdiction over constitutional matters while President Biya and accomplices lag to establish the Constitutional Court envisioned in the Constitution.

Her house was hard to find. Towards the back end of a messy web of warped and deep-ridged mud roads – the kind that evidence the “informality” of the local housing – we would finally find a gated cement lot. Lawn chairs were being unloaded by the dozen, groups of women worked around mountains of fresh vegetables, while Mme Ayissi herself rushes to and fro, preparing herself for a meeting. “Everybody has taken this so seriously, I find it overwhelming,” she tells me, “It is not that big of a deal”. Her exasperation might have been expected. It is rumored that she has had to take out a loan to pay for all the gas consumed in traveling between preparatory meetings, where members of the judiciary, State officials, family members and even some village authorities have stressed the importance of her new position and of the values she should embody in her work at the country’s highest tribunal.

And, in spite of her humility, the appointment is significant. Ayissi is attentive to the needs and concerns of the landless and the vulnerable, particularly women infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. That kind of alignment is useful in a Court that has been known to have its way with the law, so to speak. In matters of family property and succession law, for instance, the Supreme Court has been known to ignore core, explicit Codal articles and to fabricate new rules or regimes un-tethered to either the Code’s provisions or to its evident philosophy. This assumed judicial liberty might well be rooted in a dissatisfaction with the Civil Code, which is, for most intents and purposes, the French Code Civile as it existed in 1960. It was originally adopted as a temporary, “gap filling” measure to hold the country over until the competent government bodies could enact a law proper to Cameroon. Some speculate that, in light of persistent legislative inaction, the Cameroonian judiciary has taken upon itself the task of adapting inherited foreign legal notions to local realities and philosophies. In any event, this assumed liberty makes the identity of the members of the Supreme Court all the more important.

After an official State ceremony oversaw the swearing in of all sitting magistrates, Ayissi was treated to two receptions, one for members of the legal community and another for family, neighbours and residents of Bana, her native community. Residents of Bana would impress upon her how she now represents Bana, and the Bamileke more generally, at the national stage. Her family would celebrate the success of one of their own, evidently satisfied with the kind of family status that will follow her appointment. Members of the CONGEH, also present, have reason to be excited as well. “She could one day become Minister of Justice!” says an elated colleague. For now, CONGEH stands to look more credible with a member of the Supreme Court at its helm, and can look to Ayissi’s appointment as a vindication of its philosophy and approach to development.

Her appointment does speak volumes of the relationship CONGEH has fostered with the Cameroonian government. Paul Biya would certainly not have seen a critic appointed to the country’s highest judicial body. But the CONGEH that I have been exposed to seeks more to assist the Government, and considers many elected representatives and government missives as partners. Colleagues of mine are proud that government officials have expressed a certain reliance on the contributions made by the CONGEH. Liaisons with government ministries in turn lend the organization some credibility. Moreover, having the attention of certain politically significant individuals allows the CONGEH to engage in more effective – and therefore more fund-worthy – advocacy work. No doubt, there are pervasive costs associated with aligning an NGO with a central African government. So it is a strange kind of accomplishment that, while some of the other human rights interns have served advocates that have been targeted by anxious governments, loathing dissent, CONGEH’s leading advocate was just promoted.

L’état de la justice au Cambodge: Quand l’appareil judiciaire devient une arme politique

Par Éloïse Ouellet-Décoste

J`ai débuté ma journée en feuilletant le Code Criminel du Cambodge. Bon matin! Au premier coup d`œil, ce Code  Criminel n`a rien d`exceptionnel, il contient des crimes, des défenses, des circonstances aggravantes et atténuantes,  et la plupart des crimes et des sentences semblent raisonnables, comparable a ce que nous avons au Canada. Bien sur,  certaines nouveautés me sautent aux yeux, tel “Article 433: Régicide”…je n`ai jamais entendu parler de Régicide…et  lorsque je tourne les pages, je comprends pourquoi, il s`agit de l`assassinat d`un Roi…Cela dit, une fois que je regarde  un peu plus en profondeur son contenu, un nombres d`articles me font sourciller.

Le but de cette lecture matinale est de répertorier les articles les plus souvent utilisés contre les défenseurs des droits de  la personne. Au Cambodge, malgré le fait que l’indépendance et l’impartialité du système judiciaire sont garanties par la Constitution, les tribunaux demeurent une arme de choix contre ceux qui dérangent le gouvernement. Activistes et militants se portant à la défense des droits de la personne se retrouvent donc fréquemment devant la justice et, un certains nombres d’articles du Code Criminel à teneur assez vague sont déployés contre eux afin de les dissuader de continuer leurs travails. Les accusations les plus communes : incitation à commettre un acte criminel, diffamation, insulte, attaque aux travail des autorités, destruction de propriété. Et ces provisions du Code Criminel, qui sont à prime abord questionnable compte tenu leur définition vague, sont appliqué de façon très libérale par la Cour qui se permet de redéfinir les provisions pénales à sa guise afin de mettre des bâtons judiciaires dans les roues de ceux qui dérangent les intérêts personnels et commerciales du Gouvernement et des Compagnies privés proche du régime.

Pourtant, alors que l’appareille judiciaire est très efficace contre les défenseurs des droits de la personne, celui-ci est complètement inadéquat lorsque ce sont les victimes qui demandent justice. Compte tenu du manque d’Indépendance des tribunaux, ce n’est pas surprenant, mais ça reste excessivement dérangeant, surtout vue la violence perpétuée par la police et l’armée ces derniers temps. Depuis le début de l’année 2012, la police et l’armée ont ouvert le feu à plusieurs reprises contre des manifestants pacifiques, sans qu’aucune investigation indépendant s’en suive. En Mai dernier, une adolescente de 14 ans a été tué par balle alors que l’armée a ouvert le feu contre des villageois durant une opération d’éviction. Plutôt que de chercher à éclairer la situation et amener en justice les responsables de cette tragédie, le gouvernement a plutôt cherché à justifier l’incident en expliquant que cette force létale était nécessaire pour freiner le plan sécessionniste des villageois…pourtant rien ne prouve qu’en tel plan existe, et même s’il existait, je doute que les coups de feu amélioreraient la situation.

L’impunité ne protège pas uniquement les forces armées, les personnes influentes aussi n’ont pas trop à craindre la justice. En Janvier dernier, alors que plus de 1,000 employés des manufactures du Manhattan Special Economic Zone manifestaient pour de meilleures conditions de travail, un homme a ouvert le feu sur la foule avant de s’enfuir en moto. L’homme, qui est en fait l’ancien gouverneur du district, a été accusé d’avoir causé des blessures non-intentionnelles, sans pourtant être arrêté. Trois jeunes ouvrières ont été grièvement blessé au haut du corps…L’impunité s’est ça aussi, être accusé d’un crime moindre que celui réellement perpétué.

Donc, voilà l’état de la justice au Cambodge. Les victimes n’y ont pas droit et les innocents en sont victimes. Bien que le Cambodge soit une démocratie en théorie, ou du moins, considérer comme un pays en transition vers la démocratie, mon expérience jusqu’à date me révèle tout à fait le contraire. Et il semblerait que la situation s’empire depuis quelques temps. En fait, les élections approchent et le Premier Ministre travaille très fort pour consolider son pouvoir. La répression des libertés fondamentales d’expression et d’association est une de ses stratégies préférées. Et tout ceux qui de proche ou de loin semble s’opposer au gouvernement écope.

Par exemple, la fin de semaine dernière, le propriétaire de la seule radio indépendante du Cambodge, Beehive Radio, a été arrêté deux jours après son retour au pays. Il est accusé, entre autres, de complot sécessionniste et risque jusqu’à 30 ans de prison. Étrangement,  cette arrestation survient un mois après que Radio Beehive ait diffusé sur ses ondes un reportage sur la poursuite pour crime contre l’humanité menée au Tribunal Pénale Internationale par le Khmer People Power Movement contre le gouvernement Cambodgien. Bien que le Cambodge possède une Loi sur la Presse qui contient des provisions pénales spécifiques pour les journalistes ayant enfreint à leur devoir, le gouvernement préfère ignorer la liberté de presse et promouvoir l’autocensure en envoyant un message très puissant à tous ceux qui croient encore en le devoir des journalistes dans une société démocratique.

En fait, en plus de la répression violente et de l’utilisation des tribunaux, le gouvernement utilise aussi la législature comme arme contre les critiques. Au courant des dernières années, le gouvernement a développé plusieurs nouvelles lois qui enfreignent les libertés fondamentales des Cambodgiens. En plus du nouveau Code Pénal, le gouvernement a mis sur pied une loi sur les Démonstrations Pacifiques qui entrave à la tenue de manifestation et rend très vulnérable leurs organisateurs. La nouvelle loi anti-corruption met les dénonciateurs dans une position très précaire si leurs accusations s’avèrent fausse, mais compte tenu de la partialité des tribunaux, on peut prévoir que les accusations incommodes seront soudainement déclarées fausses…De plus, trois lois sont actuellement en route, une loi sur les ONGs, une loi sur les syndicats et une « cyberlaw ». Bien qu’encore au stage préliminaire, les derniers brouillons de ces lois laissent présager le pire.

Tous ces développements récents sont assez curieux, compte tenu de l’approche des élections l’an prochain. Plusieurs spéculent sur la santé du Premier Ministre Hun Sen et y voient une dernière tentative de consolider son pouvoir avant de mourir…Le Cambodge n’est pas un pays très connu, et figure rarement à la une des journaux. Pourtant, un niveau politique, le Cambodge est d’une certaine façon comparable au monde arabe. Hun Sen est reconnu pour son langage incendiaire. À titre d’exemple, voici quelques charmants mots qu’il a prononcé récemment “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead … and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.” Démocratique dit-on…Hun Sen fait aussi partie du club des dirigeants qui sont au pouvoir depuis plus de 10,000 jours. Faites le calcul…10,000 divisé par 365, ça fait beaucoup d’année ! Suite au printemps arabe, de nombreux dictateurs ont été déchus, réduisant la liste des membres du club des 10,000 jours à moins de 10 et Hun Sen en fait partie. Démocratique dit-on…Hun Sen possède aussi une fortune personnelle estimé à plus de $500 millions. Je doute qu’un simple salaire de Premier Ministre soit suffisant pour amasser une simple fortune, même pour les plus économes, et à voir les propriétés de Hun Sen, je doute que celui-ci soit très économe. Démocratique dit-on…

Bref, on oublie trop souvent le Cambodge, on ignore trop souvent ce qui se passe au Cambodge et pourtant, la situation se détériore et le gouvernement se raffermie, au détriment de la population, au détriment des droits de la personne. Malgré une des Constitutions les plus progressistes en Asie du Sud Est, le Cambodge est loin d’être un exemple d’un pays où règne la primauté du droit. Bien au contraire, au Cambodge l’État de droit se résume ainsi, tel que décrit par Phil Robertson, Directeur du Bureau d’Asie de Human Rights Watch, « The laws in Cambodia are what Hun Sen says they are, not what’s written down ».



How should an activist be?

By Jihyun Rosel Kim 

Before I began my internship, I was told it would involve mostly research. That statement is technically true – the majority of my time here was spent wrestling with Quicklaw, writing memos, or making information charts. However, one thing I’ve learned about the Legal Network is that it is truly committed to the issues identified in its mission statement, and will speak out in various ways.

1. Quiet action at the Court of Appeal

On June 15, staff of the Legal Network and other members of the community (including members of the Ontario Working Group on Criminal Law and HIV Exposure) participated in a “quiet action” campaign at the Ontario Court of Appeal. The Court was scheduled to hear an appeal on a case involving HIV status non-disclosure (R. v. M.), where both the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and HIV/AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario (HALCO) were intervenors.

The "HIV Positive" action at the ON Court of Appeal

At trial, the judge ignored case law by not applying the significant risk test (i.e. a person living with HIV must disclose his/her status to the partner when the sexual activity poses a “significant risk of bodily harm”) set out in R. v. Cuerrier. Instead, he charged the defendant with aggravated sexual assault simply on the ground that the defendant did not disclose his status. Although the defendant stated he used a condom (which further diminishes the already-low risk of HIV transmission), the trial judge said it did not matter whether the sex was protected or not.

To demonstrate to the Court that people living with HIV and their allies were concerned about such overbroad use of criminal law, the Legal Network organized a t-shirt campaign—members showed up to the courtroom all wearing the same t-shirt with the logo “HIV Positive” at the front. There were about 18 people at court, and since the assigned courtroom for the hearing happened to be a smaller one, we effectively filled the gallery.

Unfortunately, the Court decided to stay the appeal, to wait for the Supreme Court decision on HIV non-disclosure (R. v. D.C.; R. v. Mabior) later this year. Even though it was a bit anti-climactic, one of the justices did take notice of the audience uniformly dressed in “HIV Positive” shirts to address us directly, and say that he realizes these issues are important and that he will make sure to rule on the issues carefully once the Supreme Court decision came down.

2. Action around cuts to refugee health care

At the end of April, Citizenship and Immigration Canada announced changes to the Interim Federal Health Program, which would effectively cut most supplemental health care benefits for refugee claimants, and all access to government-funded health care services for failed refugee claimants (who may reapply to stay in Canada under humanitarian and compassionate grounds). The only exception would be when the claimant’s health condition presented a “public health risk”—such as HIV. As of now, the public outcry seems to have made Kenney’s office backtrack a little bit from their initial cuts these days, but most of the cuts still remain.

On June 18—the national day of action to protect refugee health care—the Executive Director emailed everyone about the protest in Toronto, and encouraged everyone to attend the protest with him. So later on that day, I went to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada office on St. Clair Avenuewith a team of policy analysts and the ED of the Legal Network, and joined a few hundred people who were chanting “health care for refugees!”

Through participating in these actions, I’ve learned about the joys of being out on the streets with other people who believe in the same things as I do, which offers tremendous comfort in times where laws and policies seem to be going to a dark place. These experiences won’t appear on my CV as things I accomplished, but they nevertheless had a big impact on my outlook on activism and effective advocacy.

And for that intangible feeling of joy that came from connecting with other like-minded people who are committed to making things better, I am very grateful to the Legal Network.

Plenary Guardianship: Persons with Disabilities Made Vulnerable

By Roger Bill


It’s been over 2 months now since I’ve arrived in the Federal District of Mexico. The cultural shocks come less and less, my skin doesn’t burn so easily, I don’t mind the altitude when I run, and the chilangismos (local slang) roll easily off my tongue. As settled in as I feel, I’m often startled in my work by the large divide between the law on paper, and the reality in the streets.

In the day to day, this reality would be evident to any Canadian visitor like me, not just those working in human rights. Traffic laws are a great example. There are laws on the books, but what matters is what the other motorists are doing, not what colour the lights are. For example, I had a lively cab driver a couple of weeks ago. He was happy to be taking me and two friends across town for a decent fare. So, when a police officer pulled him over for running a red light and was at his window telling him he had to pay a fine and leave us to find another cab, what mattered was how quickly he could leave the police car in his tracks, not the picture of his car caught by the traffic camera.

After an adventurous flight from the police with my aggressive cabbie, I realized that what holds for cabbies holds for people with disabilities: there are laws on the books, but people will do what they can get away with.

Unfortunately for people with disabilities, the people bending the rules are their legal representatives, or public servants who don’t want to make reasonable accommodations for them, or administrators of psychiatric institutions where they are indefinitely detained.

A large part of my work in the first month of my arrival was creating this year’s Zero Project Report, a study of the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD). The study examines not only what legislative changes have been made in Mexico to bring the law in line with the convention, but what the practical reality of the implementation of the convention is. Sadly, the reality usually falls well short of the laudable goals and aspirational language of recent legislative reforms.

Disability Rights International advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, and particularly tries to attain the ideals promised by article 19 of the CRPD: to have people live inclusively in the community rather than in isolated institutions where they suffer abuse. The organization fights to have the reality of institutions mirror the rights guaranteed by law. This is a laudable goal and I’m very happy to participate in it through our different advocacy initiatives.

Currently we are trying to end institutional abuse in a Central American psychiatric hospital through motions before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. The abuse is terrible: people administered therapy without their consent, others locked up for life with no possibility to review their status and live again in the community, sexual abuse, human trafficking, and horrendous living conditions. We hope to stop the terrible abuse perpetrated by the institution. However, bringing about de-institutionalization is no mean feat. Realistically things won’t change overnight, and people with disabilities can do little to help themselves when they are locked up in psychiatric wards in deplorable conditions.

So, I’m very happy to be participating in a project to empower people with disabilities and give them the tools to change the situation in the hallways of hospitals. Along with pressuring the government to improve conditions and offer community service as DRI constantly does, we are attempting to reform the laws of legal capacity in Mexico so that people with disabilities can have more control over how they live their lives.

DRI is part of a working group composed of the National Council for the Development and Inclusion of People with Disabilities (CONADIS), Rehabilitation International, several strategic litigation firms which specialize in disability rights, and other invited experts. The project aims to propose amendments to the civil code of the Federal District, as well as proposing a draft legislation creating a supported decision making scheme. Through these two changes, we hope to create a strong example for the other Mexican states to follow. It is a monumental task, and our proposal may not get adopted on its first pass in the national assembly, but it is step in the right direction.

A report by the Secretary General of the UN on the progress of efforts to ensure the full recognition and enjoyment of the human rights of persons with disabilities [A/58/181] perhaps says it best:

“The right to recognition as a person before the law is often neglected in the context of mental health. The concept of guardianship is frequently used improperly to deprive individuals with an intellectual or psychiatric disability of their legal capacity without any form of procedural safeguards. Thus, persons are deprived of their right to make some of the most important and basic decisions about their life on account of an actual or perceived disability without a fair hearing and/or periodical review by competent judicial authorities. The lack of due process guarantees may expose the individual whose capacity is at stake to several possible forms of abuse. An individual with a limited disability may be considered completely unable to make life choices independently and placed under “plenary guardianship”. Furthermore, guardianship may be improperly used to circumvent laws governing admission in mental health institutions, and the lack of a procedure for appealing or automatically reviewing decisions concerning legal incapacity could then determine the commitment of a person to an institution for life on the basis of an actual or perceived disability.”

Throughout Latin America and much of the world, the laws governing legal capacity must be reformed to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Hopefully, Mexico City can take a leadership position for the rest of the country, and eventually for other nations in Latin America.

Observations et impressions sur la 95e session d’audiences de la Cour interaméricaine des droits de l’homme

Par Anne-Claire Gayet

San José, Costa Rica

La 95e période d’audiences de la Cour interaméricaine des droits de l’homme a pris fin le jeudi 28 juin au soir, un jour plus tôt que prévu du fait de la suspension de l’audience publique concernant l’opinion consultative sur les droits des enfants migrants sollicitée par les pays du Mercosur, face aux difficultés politiques au Paraguay (destitution contestée du Président par le Congrès, le 22 juin 2012).

Ce fut une période de travail et de présence à la Cour très intense : deux semaines durant lesquelles les journées ont été rythmées par les audiences, ainsi que l’heure d’arrivée et de départ des juges. Une règle coutumière, qui date apparemment du Juge Cançado Trindade (président de la CIDH de 1999 à 2004, et juge de 1995 à 2008), veut que le personnel de la Cour arrive avant les juges le matin, ne sorte manger à midi que lorsque les juges finissent de délibérer ou de siéger, et ne sorte le soir qu’une fois les juges repartis… L’utilité d’une telle règle aujourd’hui, initialement pour s’assurer que les juges puissent compter sur l’aide immédiate d’avocats, pour faire des recherches sur des aspects précis par exemple, est discutable, étant donné que l’augmentation considérable du personnel de la Cour, et en particulier des depuis son instauration. Cette règle a en plus de quoi surprendre au sein d’une Cour des droits de la personne, mais sa révocation ou sa modification n’est manifestement pas encore à l’ordre du jour…

Pendant ces deux semaines, j’ai pu assister aux audiences publiques de la Cour, et travaillé sur mes autres mandats entre celles-ci.

Les audiences sont souvent, pour les victimes, l’« apogée » d’un processus très long et douloureux de recherche de justice, de vérité. J’ai appris et constaté que la CIDH est une cour principalement écrite, et que l’importance des audiences ne se situe pas tant au niveau de la preuve et des arguments (qui sont tous écrits), qu’au niveau des témoignages qui peuvent être faits dans un cadre formel, auprès d’oreilles bienveillantes. Venir témoigner à la Cour donne l’impression d’être écouté et entendu, et permet aux victimes de sentir qu’elles ont un rôle à jouer dans la recherche de la vérité et de la justice. Le reste de l’audience, et en particulier les « alegatos orales finales » (ou les arguments oraux finaux) constitués d’arguments de droit et de fait et parfois d’éléments très techniques, peut être peu compréhensible pour les victimes dans l’audience et celles dans leurs pays et communauté d’origine qui regardent l’audience par retransmission par internet.

Plusieurs affaires pendant cette 95e session portaient sur la violation de droits de peuples autochtones. La première affaire à être entendue, celle du Caso Masacres de Rio Negro Vs. Guatemala,  portait sur la présumée destruction de la communauté Maya Achi de Rio Negra, par le biais de cinq massacres exécutés par l’armée du Guatemala et les membres des Patrouilles d’autodéfense civile dans les années 1980-82, les violations postérieures des droits des survivants, l’absence d’enquête sur les faits et le refus de justice.  Le contexte de cette affaire est expliqué sur cette page.

Cette audience a été précédée par une cérémonie traditionnelle maya, dans l’enceinte de la Cour. Je l’ai découverte par hasard, sur l’heure de ma pause du midi, en regardant vers le parvis de la Cour. J’ai ainsi pu assister à la fin de la cérémonie. Plusieurs représentants de la communauté maya étaient réunis autour d’un petit feu, en habits traditionnels, très colorés. Un homme faisait balancer un encensoir et prononçait des paroles en langage maya. Autour de la petite quinzaine d’Autochtones, étaient respectueusement rassemblées une trentaine de personnes pour observer la cérémonie, personnes travaillant à la Cour, accompagnant les représentants des victimes (membres d’ONG, avocats) ou membres du public venant assister à l’audience.

L’homme qui animait la cérémonie a invité ensuite quelques personnes du groupe autochtone – celles qui ont témoigné pendant l’audience – à s’agenouiller devant le petit feu, et leur a passé sur tout le corps un rameau de branches qu’il avait brièvement mis dans le feu. Une fois les quelques personnes agenouillées, le flot de paroles s’est tari. La cérémonie, plus courte que d’habitude nous explique-t-on ensuite, a pris fin et deux personnes de la communauté maya ont pris la parole en espagnol pour nous expliquer le sens de la cérémonie. Ils nous ont expliqué que l’homme qui a animé la cérémonie est leur intermédiaire entre Mère Nature et leur groupe, que la cérémonie vise à demander pardon à Mère Nature pour le mal qu’ils lui ont fait, et aussi pour donner aux juges de la Cour interaméricaine comme des autres Cours, la force et la lucidité pour juger de manière la plus juste possible. Ils nous ont aussi dit que dans leur communauté, au Guatemala, les leurs entreprenaient également une cérémonie similaire, au même moment.

C’était surprenant et réconfortant de voir une telle cérémonie dans l’enceinte de la Cour, bâtiment toujours bien surveillé, officiel et formel. J’y ai senti l’ouverture et la sensibilité de la Cour à d’autres réalités culturelles et sociales, et en particulier sa sensibilité aux traditions autochtones. Le photographe de la Cour a pris plusieurs photos qui reflètent très bien l’événement. Ne manquent que l’odeur de l’encens, les mots et les sons prononcés durant la cérémonie, et la chaleur…

L’audience qui a suivi a été très émouvante. Les témoignages de survivants des massacres, arrivés trente ans auparavant, étaient poignants, et révélaient des blessures encore à vif. Dans la salle, l’émotion était palpable parmi ces hommes et ces femmes venus de si loin pour réclamer justice afin de retrouver leur dignité… Vous pouvez regarder et écouter quelques témoignages ou parties de l’audience en ligne.

Une autre affaire qui m’a particulièrement interpellée est celle de l’affaire Nadege Dorzema vs Republica Dominicana. Une histoire de migrants haïtiens traversant la frontière de la République Dominicaine, de nuit, dans un camion, qui se termine tragiquement. La police de République Dominicaine a tiré sur le camion, et continué les tirs alors même que les migrants ont commencé à crier; certains se sont enfuis et ont été tirés dans le dos. Les survivants ont été ensuite expulsés du territoire, sans avoir reçu de soins. Ont témoigné deux survivants, en créole, et de nouveau on pouvait sentir combien cet événement restait douloureux. Le deuxième jour d’audience (à partir de la 5e min, 42s), les représentants des victimes – ainsi que les représentants de l’État et de la Commission – ont présenté leurs arguments oraux finaux. Un des représentants des victimes était Bernard Duhaime, de la clinique juridique internationale de l’UQÀM. La présentation des représentants des victimes met en lumière le contexte plus généralisé de discriminations à l’encontre des Haïtiens en République Dominicaine, et je vous invite à écouteur cette présentation pour vous familiariser avec le sujet, ainsi que le fonctionnement des audiences de la Cour interaméricaine.

Bien que composant un temps limité de mon stage à la Cour, ces audiences resteront un moment fort de mon expérience ici, parce que c’est là où j’ai pris la mesure de l’importance de la Cour pour les victimes, et de l’ampleur de leurs attentes vis-à-vis de cette institution internationale des droits de la personne : elles veulent que Justice soit faite, et que la Vérité soit déclarée.

Je ne suis pas convaincue que la Cour soit en mesure de répondre positivement et pleinement à ces grandes attentes, malgré les bonnes intentions des personnes qui y travaillent, mais j’ai observé que les audiences ont offert aux victimes une reconnaissance de leurs maux, et leur ont permis d’exprimer ce qu’elles ressentaient depuis des années, depuis le temps des violations, par rapport au reste de la population et à l’État : souvent de la discrimination, de la marginalisation, et une absence de soutien étatique. La reconnaissance des maux par les juges et la possibilité d’exprimer des ressentis et des griefs dans un cadre officiel, me semblent deux aspects positifs de ces audiences, qui ont, je crois, le potentiel de contribuer à la réhabilitation des personnes qui viennent demander Justice.

A few on-the-job lessons

2012-Priya-MorleyBy Shantha Priya Morley

I am writing this update from the ‘meeting room’ at our host organization, which has been transformed for the past two months into the interns’ ‘office’ (along with our evening and weekend offices – the one café in town with real coffee and our living room).  I am bundled in a woollen sweater, with leggings and socks under my black skirt; outside the office window, the view beyond the immediate foliage is obscured by mist and drizzling rain.

Lesson number one: July is winter in the Central Highlands, and Kenya gets cold!  While I was finishing the term in Montreal and preparing to spend my (Canadian) summer in Kenya, and despite the warnings of travel books and my wiser friends, I can’t say that I ever really believed that my in-case-of-emergency sweater would be as necessary as it has become.  However, having grown up on the West Coast of Canada, even in Kenya I’m always prepared for rain.  My weather realization is but one of many lessons learned over the past two months.

Although I attend court every week with and for the girls, I have to date had only one very “legal” meeting for which I thought my well-travelled suit would be necessary.  Early one morning, a few weeks into the internship, my co-worker and I received an unexpected call from the Nairobi-based lawyer leading our case.  He explained that he was in Meru (his home area) for a few days, and would like to meet up with “his law students”.  On Monday, we donned our suits, put on our best shoes, ensured we were altogether presentable, and met with the lawyer at a local café.  After he explained in more depth the assignment we had been given, he mentioned some legal briefs we should use as precedent.  We hopped into his car and headed out to his parents’ place to both see the briefs on his laptop and check out the house he is building near his parents’ property.  After driving on a few paved roads, and then a few more dirt roads, we arrived.  He took us to the unfinished house and walked right up the rickety ramp and inside onto the mud floor.  The dozen male builders stopped, stared, and then laughed outright at my co-intern and I following the lawyer through the house (with no roof or finished walls) and ducking through the doorways and under wires as he explained the floor-plan to us.  The lawyer, true to form, repeatedly warned us: “you are entering at your own risk; there is no insurance here!”

After we sufficiently amused the builders, he took us next door to his parents’ property.  Instead of going inside, we walked past the farmhands, past the chicken pen, and descended through the farm.  The lawyer trudged ahead, determined to show us his innovative water source, while my co-intern and I lifted up the hemlines of our skirts and folded up the sleeves of our blazers, trying our best to avoid the acacia bushes’ spear-like thorns.  After observing and complementing the farm and the water source, we ascended back to the house.  There we resumed our ‘legal meeting’ and looked through the necessary legal briefs, before heading back into town with a bagful of farm-fresh oranges.  When considering our attire, my co-intern and I have often referred back to this adventure and have erred on the side of expecting unpredictability.  Lesson number two: even legal meetings may not be strictly legal, and only wear blazers when absolutely necessary!

A couple of Saturdays ago, I had another experience which affirmed the unpredictability of much of my work here.  Arriving at work expecting a day of legal research and writing, my co-intern and I were informed that we could accompany the head social worker to the hospital to pick up one of the girls and her six-day-old baby.  We left the shelter and walked up the hill to meet the car.  As we passed one house, we heard a baby crying.  As this is well within the prerogative of babies, we were unfazed and kept walking.  The head social worker heard another sort of cry and, looking back, saw a young boy cowering on the ground with a grown man looming over him.  She stormed into the compound, with us in tow, and was joined by three male passers-by who also heard the boy crying.  The four of them interrogated the boy’s father about the physical abuse he was inflicting on his son, and the head social worker pulled the boy away and behind us for protection.

She proceeded to put the boy’s father to shame by fiercely explaining to him exactly how children are supposed to be treated and how terrible his actions were.  The mere presence of the three (large) men added emphasis to her words and enabled us to easily keep the boy to one side.  By a stroke of luck, the pick-up truck that was intended to take us to the hospital arrived.  The boy and the boy’s father, who was suitably ashamed of his own actions, entered the pick-up with us.  We drove into town and stopped to wait for another social worker to come and meet us.  While waiting, the boy’s father exclaimed over his cell-phone “I’ve been arrested!!!” (by the head social worker).  Indeed, when the other social worker arrived, he took the boy and his father to the police station, followed up on this incident of abuse by the father (and the much more serious pattern of abuse by the step-mother that was uncovered).  [The boy is currently staying with a family friend until he is sent to boarding school in his aunt’s village, and he is doing very well!]  After this exchange, we continued to the hospital and met the latest addition to the shelter’s family.  All in a day’s work, as they say.  The third lesson, exemplified by this incident, is quite obvious to anyone spending time in the shelter: there are always children in need of protection, and the social workers here are never off the clock.

While my co-intern and I have spent a substantial amount of time in court and completing our legal assignment, we have had many other adventures in the field.  I have gone with a social worker to a girl’s parent-teacher conference; have received fresh sugar cane and heard stories of the Kenyan independence movement from the grandfather of a defilement victim while on a home visit; and have acted as a sort of human protective shield for a girl while her large, aggressive, and unsupportive family attended her court hearing – to name a few.  These experiences have been informative, have complemented the legal work extremely well, and have ensured that my internship remains very busy, unpredictable, and fulfilling.  I look forward to seeing what the next month will bring!

Sanitary napkins, Bribery and Refugee Status Determination

By Molly Joeck

What do these three things have in common? They can all be found at the important-sounding and all-powerful Office of the Prime Minister, or OPM, in Kampala, an office that I am frequently obliged to visit in the context of my work at the Durable Solutions Unit at Refugee Law Project. The OPM is, essentially, the equivalent of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board, granting new arrivals asylum seeker status, and then assessing them through a series of interviews as to their eligibility for refugee status, and, if they are lucky, eventually granting them this status. As with the IRB, and probably even more so, the process is very bureaucratic, difficult to navigate and opaque beyond belief.

On one particular day at work, I needed to bring some paperwork to OPM, the usual assortment of things: appeals applications, lost ID declarations, requests for the merging of family files, etc. There is one officer at OPM in particular who deals with these sorts of requests. I’ve never become clear as to what her exact title is, but for my purposes she holds God-like status, able to grant or refuse almost any of the requests I have. There are always crowds of asylum seekers huddled in the waiting room hoping to see her, but on this day I slipped into her office ahead of the throngs. Because OPM works frequently with RLP, they are relatively tolerant of our frequent meetings, and generally willing to let us pop into the office when we come by

The all-powerful god-like officer, whom I’ll call Vicky, was occupied with a client when I arrived, but quickly wrapped up her conversation to turn to me. She greeted me as the client stood up to leave, and the client had one last quick exchange with Vicky in Swahili before exiting the office. Seemingly in reaction to whatever words she’d just exchanged with her client, Vicky turned back to me, grabbing a box from behind her desk and placing it on the desk it front of me.

“Do you know these?” she asked me. It was a box of sanitary napkins. My mind was racing – why should I know these particular sanitary napkins? Did they have special magic properties? What was going on? I remembered a newspaper article I’d read when I first arrived in Uganda about a local entrepreneur’s new project – sanitary napkins made very cheaply out of local materials, affordable for girls attending rural schools and easily disposable, the main problems facing adolescent school-age girls coping with menstruation. I concluded that the sanitary napkins on the desk in front of me must be these new sustainable Ugandan-made pads.

“Yes, I think so,” I replied. “Aren’t they the ones made locally in Uganda?”

“No,” Vicky replied firmly, “they are international sanitary napkins,” (with extra emphasis on the word international, in case I should conclude that these were merely shoddy Ugandan-made products). “They are very good quality, the best available. Would you like to buy some?”

A representative of the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda is trying to sell me sanitary pads? I wasn’t quite sure how to handle the situation. So I did what I usually do – I blurted out the truth. “I don’t use pads,” I replied.

Vicky’s curiosity was piqued. She leaned forward across her desk, looking very interested in what I had to say. “Ahhh, you use tampons?” she asked me.

“No, not necessarily,” I replied. Vicky was confused, and I felt that I had no choice but to embark on an explanation of alternatives to tampons and pads. Vicky was very curious, and asked lots of questions.

Once we’d finished our conversation about menstruation and sanitary napkins and tampons, we passed to what Vicky seemed to feel was the much less interesting subject: my clients and their futures as refugees in Uganda. Vicky’s attention waned visibly, and she rushed me through what I had to say.

“No, we can’t handle that – UNHCR has to deal with it,” in reference to a client who has been unable to obtain asylum seeker status for almost a year because of issues around his repatriation.

“OK, give it to me, I’ll look at it later,” in reference to a client whose testimony has been lost not once, but twice, by OPM, and as a result has been without status for two years in Uganda. And so on.

Evidently buying sanitary napkins is an easier mission to accomplish at the OPM than resolving issues of status for asylum seekers.

UNLESS the right sum of money enters the right person’s pocket, I was later to learn.

A group of RLP’s clients have formed an organization called the Association of Torture Victims, or ATV. ATV is supported by RLP, provided with space for meetings and occasionally given funding for its activities. In the last week of June ATV organized anti-torture day, inviting torture victims as well as various organizations involved with torture victims to attend. The event took place in the field of Old Kampala Secondary School, across the street from RLP. Three big tents were set up for attendees, and various speeches and performances took place, including music and acting.

One of the highlights of the day was a series of skits put together by members of ATV meant to communicate their experiences as asylum seekers in Kampala. OPM was one of the organizations featured in one of the skits. The actor playing an OPM representative, as part of the skit, asked an asylum seeker for money in order to process his application, a procedure which is meant to be free. The asylum seeker had no choice but to hand over the money in order to proceed with his application in a timely manner.

After the skits wrapped up, speeches began. Various people got up and spoke, including Mama Eunice, the much-loved head of the Legal and Psychosocial Department at RLP. Her heartfelt words drew much applause from the large audience.

The next person to take the microphone was a representative of OPM, who, after pronouncing some insincere words on the plight of torture victims, proceeded to launch into a defence of her agency, stating outright in response to the earlier skit that OPM officials never take bribes. This is not the way OPM operates, she explained. The agency is staffed by honest folks who wouldn’t dare do such a thing!

On this warm day in the middle of the school field with the sun beating down on us, this questionable statement drew the liveliest reaction of the day from the hot, hungry audience. The ATV members and other clients of RLP in attendance, who were numerous, began waving their arms in the air and booing so loudly that they drowned out the words of the OPM representative. Anyone who may have been dozing at that point was rudely awakened.

The message from the audience was clear. Do OPM representative take bribes? Ha! Is the sky blue? Do Ugandans eat matooke? The OPM representative, looking embarrassed and unsure of herself, rushed through the end of her speech and hurried back to her chair to take a seat.

I wonder how many Ugandan shillings you have to slide into an OPM representative’s palm to get a box of high-quality international sanitary napkins along with your refugee status determination. I suppose I’ll never know. But any women in Kampala looking for some top-notch pads, ask for Vicky at the OPM. Maybe she can help you out, for the right price of course.

On Bail and Cultural Questions

2012-Chris-DurrantBy Chris Durrant

There is one topic that my fellow intern and I never fail to get tired of talking about. Weekday evenings or on the weekend, we inevitably will speculate on whether there will be any bail hearings waiting for us when work starts the next day. This speculation is usually tied into an ongoing theory about the weather told to us by one of the administrators of Maliiganik Legal Services: people are far less likely to get in trouble when the weather is nice. The reasoning is that people are more likely to be out of the house and onto the land, meaning people aren’t cooped up and are busy with hunting or fishing. Additionally, they don’t want to risk getting taken into police custody, which would lead to missing out on the nice weather: considering the brevity of Iqaluit’s summer, this makes a lot of sense.

We talk about bail so much, because we really like running the hearings. We certainly feel bad that we hope for bail hearings, because it means at minimum someone has spent a night in an extremely questionable RCMP detachment cell, not mention that some sort of crime might have been committed. However, we enjoy it because for summary or hybrid charges, we are allowed to go before a Justice of the Peace and argue that our clients should be released on bail, while Crown lawyers (some with decades of experience) make arguments that they should be detained.

The process up here doesn’t rely on jurisprudence as much as it does in the south, as far as I understand. There are a few points of the law the lawyers, interns and Justice of the Peace (who are almost without any prior legal training) all are familiar with, and our arguments are generally confined to the fundamental questions which come from those points of law. The likelihood of the accused showing up to court, and the likelihood of the accused committing another crime while out of bail are the two major concerns. The smaller ambit of issues is what makes me feel confident that I can provide my clients with the defense they deserve.

This is important, because not only does the client’s liberty for the two to four months leading up to trial hang in the balance, but a number of statistical analysis have shown that being denied bail makes you significantly more likely to be proven guilty, likely because being remanded to prison limits people’s access to their lawyers, as well as making them look guilty because they will enter the court from the cells and in prison clothing. On top of this, people who have been remanded are more likely to plead out, because they simply want to get their time in prison done as soon as possible.

So, despite my eagerness to get to defend clients in bail court, the high stakes involved make it a serious situation, stressful for the counsel, and even more stressful for the client.

Inuit and the Bail Hearing Experience

I’ve run roughly ten bail hearing so far, and assisted Maliiganik lawyers with others. So far all of my clients have been Inuit. This is interesting for me because one of the things I want to get out of my internship is to get as much understanding as I can about Aboriginal people’s experiences with the Canadian justice system. In one way I am getting a great experience, because I see first hand what their experiences are like. On the other hand, I lack a comparator group to interact with, and see how they approach the bail hearing. Therefore I don’t really ascribe any cultural connection to the way my clients approach things. When I ask a client at the end of discussion about release plan options if they have any questions about the process or anything else, and they say “I want to get out” I just take it as a natural reaction to how unpleasant being in jail is.

This weekend I’ve been fortunate enough to have the time to read some of Rupert Ross’ book Dancing with a Ghost. Ross worked for years as a lawyer in northwestern Ontario. His book is an attempt to examine the Cree and Ojibway worldviews and to show how this effects their interaction with the justice system. Ross is careful to give a disclaimer that he has likely come up short in some of his descriptions, and that his descriptions shouldn’t been taken as applying to all of Canada’s aboriginal populations. I’m certainly conscious of that, but reading nonetheless has made me question some of my assumptions about my client’s behaviour. I wonder now whether the almost obligatory “I want to get out” response to my asking if there are any questions comes from a strong desire to get out, or whether I’m missing something.

One trait that Ross points out in his book is that there exists an ethic of non-interference, which means parents let their children make their own choices. I’m not sure whether this is also practiced by the Inuit, but if it is, I’ve heard Crown attorneys make arguments in court that (very likely unintentionally) exploit this cultural factor. I had a client who was having a bail hearing because he had missed three court dates. To convince the justice of the peace that my client would show up to court, his father was willing to act as a surety (someone who promises the court to make sure the accused attends court and follows his bail conditions).

The Crown raised the point however, that the father had let his adult son miss his previous court appearances while living in his house, why should the court be convinced that he would now make a difference. I responded that he had never made a commitment to do so to the court before, and so this was a fundamentally different situation. The justice of the peace accepted my reasoning, and my client was released. The justice of the peace that day was an Inuit woman however. Would the Crown’s argument been accepted if the JP was a settler that day?

In addition to how it would have affected the outcome of the bail hearing, the fact that the bail system makes demands on friends and families of accused individuals to make demands on them and tell them what to do is certainly at odds with the ethic of non-interference. It must be a sharp reminder to anyone immersed in that cultural ethos that the Canadian legal system is not their own.

Reading Ross’ book certainly means I will be asking more questions to the Inuit lawyers and staff at Maliiganik, and hopefully I will be able to better understand my clients, and even make cultural arguments in their defense. Given how hard it is the pin down what cultural characteristics are, and if ones that existed in the past persist, I understand it is a difficult task however.

Would you commit a crime in this weather?

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