Strategic Litigation and Societal Engagement: A Creative Recipe for Pushing Forward Health and Human Rights Law in Uganda

2013 Lipi Mishra 100x150Greetings! I report to you from Kampala, Uganda – a city unlike any I’ve ever encountered. While it took a few days to acclimatize to the hustle and bustle of boda bodas (motorcycle taxis), mutatus (mini buses) and the perpetual periods of sizzling heat, I’m happy to report that my bearings are now on straight. I’m in Kampala working with the Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD), an indigenous Ugandan NGO that addresses a wide array of issues pertaining to the enforcement of human rights and the jucticiability of the right to health.

My first two weeks at CEHURD have been nothing short of fantastic. I’ve had the unique opportunity to go to the Ugandan High Court to report on a trial (more on this later), met with a member of the East African Legislative Assembly at the Ugandan Parliament for a briefing on recent changes to TRIPS agreements (Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property rights), and partook in a meeting for the Coalition to Stop Maternal Mortality in Uganda which brought Ugandan NGOs together to discuss issues of access to safe and legal abortions, contraceptives, and Uganda’s progress on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

What is particularly intriguing about CEHURD is its creative approach to driving forward human rights law. Not only does it conduct policy research, but it also engages in strategic litigation – a concept that I am only recently familiarizing myself with. Strategic litigation entails the careful selection of cases to bring before the court in order to utilize the judiciary to push forward changes in the law. Important factors that serve as an impetus for strategic litigation success include opportunistic timing (i.e. is the issue politically relevant? Can courts handle the issue?), suitable and compelling facts, and appropriate legal resources to actually carry out the case.

Civil Suit No. 111 is one such example of strategic litigation being carried out by CEHURD. Proceedings for this case began on May 17, 2013. The case was brought before the Ugandan High Court by CEHURD on behalf of the family of Nanteza Irene who died in labour at Nakaseke Hospital as a result of being allegedly deprived of medical attention for almost 10 hours.

CEHURD has taken on this case in order to trigger Constitutional issues of rights to life, health, freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment, and equality. While the case is currently ongoing, the legal community eagerly awaits this ruling as it can have a great deal of implications for health policy, resource distribution, and accountability in healthcare settings.

CEHURD also pushes forward issues of human rights and the justiciability of the right to health through policy and advocacy – a route that is many of us are more familiar with. The combination, however, of strategic litigation, research, and advocacy creates a powerful arsenal in identifying and addressing human rights issues in a way that taps into legislative, judicial, and broader societal spheres. At any given moment, CEHURD is conducting a number of activities ranging from engaging members of civil society, working on pro bono cases, organizing rallies and demonstrations, or petitioning the government on contentious bills. Engaging diverse elements of society has proven to be quite successful in a host of other settings that have sought to push forward the rights of women, children, and LGBTI communities, and thus, the replication of the model here in Uganda with respect to health issues is already demonstrating exciting promise.

While the nexus between health and law may not necessarily be intuitive, I’d like to devote my summer to exploring, articulating, and emphasizing that an important overlap does, in fact, exist between these two spheres.  In light of this overlap, the right to health should be justiciable just like any other right; this is a sentiment echoed by the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan who said, “…health will finally be seen not as a blessing to be wished for, but as a human right to be fought for.” The combination of diverse activities that combine strategic litigation, research, advocacy, and civic engagement is a recipe that I believe will strongly equip change-makers in this fight.

To find out more about CEHURD, visit their website:

Settling in at the Calcutta Research Group

2013-Malischewski-100x100By Charlotte-Anne Malischewski

When I first arrived at the Calcutta Research Group, I found a large, unmarked dark brown door, chained shut in a residential area.  I wondered if I had come to the wrong place, but I had double checked the address last night and I was certain that I was the address I’d written dow.  So, I sat down, crossed my fingers, and waited.

It took a while to settle into my internship, partly because I am the first McGill intern to have a placement with the Calcutta Research Group and partly because “intern” has a different meaning here than it does in North America. Luckily, though, once I realized I was here more as a visiting researcher and I began to get to know the other folks in the office, what started out a bit confusing and very unknown turned into a fascinating experience.

The Calcutta Research Group was founded in 1996, emerging from a gathering of 400 peace activists from the sub-continent who came together in support of the peace movement in West Bengal.  It started out as a forum for young public activists and socially committed researchers and is now well-known for its research and publications, courses, dialogue work, and library. Over the years, the CRG’s areas of research have evolved.  They now work on issues relating to partition, borders, displacement, migration, conflict, peace, governance, democracy, autonomy, and social justice with a special focus on gender, class, the environment, labour, and minorities.

PP Pile - DemocracyRefugee Watch Yellow Pile copy

Because the CRG has been dependant on project-based grants and funding, it has never achieved the level of institutional stability required to retain researchers on a long term.   Yet, somehow, despite the financial insecurity that comes with being a public institution without any formal affiliations to the government, a university, or a political party, the CRG continues to produce an impressive collection of books, an array of reports, and a bi-annual journal.  The neat thing about the CRG is that it’s not just a research centre, it’s also a network of scholars, activists, and institutions across India with connections around the world. The list of people who have come to deliver lectures or teach modules in their winter course is quite impressive.

Books layed out

At the office, I am working on a legal brief on statelessness to assist the centre in tying in legal aspect to their three-year statelessness study, which is soon coming to a close. So, I’m putting together a document that discusses the international legal framework on statelessness as well as the regional and national legal mechanisms available for the prevention and reduction of statelessness and the protection of stateless populations in India. Like everyone else here, I also lend a hand on various project, grant proposals, and presentations on topics such as rural migrants in cities and post-conflict realities for women in India’s northeast.

It might have started slow, but the only thing that’s still slow are the computers. There’s no lack of work to be done. And, thanks to Mohan-da, no matter how busy it gets, cups of darjeeling tea are a plenty!

Orientation Course Posters

[The photos in this post are ones I took for an audiovisual presentation I am developing for the CRG about their work.]

My first week at Equitas

2013 Linda Elhalabi 100x150By Linda El Halabi

Today, it will have been exactly a week since I started my internship at Equitas. I feel very lucky to be spending the summer in Montreal. The city is so lively this time of year, with so many festivals and events to check out during the weekends, and beautiful scenery – and flowers – everywhere. Throughout this summer I will aim to share my thoughts both on the internship and life in Montreal during the summer.

My role as an intern for Equitas is to help plan and implement their renowned 3 week long conference, the International Human Rights Training Program taking place in June. The program brings together participants who work in local human rights organizations in their countries. Participants come from all over the world, including West Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South America, and South Asia. They attend the program to learn valuable skills and make important contacts which they can then use to improve their organization’s programs and advocacy/lobbying efforts back home. I like the idea of the program because it is tailored to the needs of the participants and is meant to give them the necessary resources to work on their own grassroots level programs. Participants learn a lot – from the best ways to lobby the state for change, to how to deal with conflict arising during their training and advocacy sessions with the community they serve, as well as how to mainstream a gender analysis into their organization’s work among other things. The organizations represented at the IHRTP are very diverse both in terms of their religious, political, and ethnic backgrounds, and in the type of activism they engage in and the causes they defend.

Over the past week, I have started working on several tasks in view of preparing for the program. Every day has been interesting. My colleagues are all friendly and welcoming, and they are very helpful whenever I have questions about a certain task or about the program. I have learned a lot in only a week. The more I learn about the program, the more I look forward to the month of June. Before starting my law studies, I completed my undergraduate studies in political science and East Asian studies at McGill. I took several classes that focused on international development, and learned a lot about the successes and failures of the various international actors that work in the field. An important lesson from past failures is the importance for actors with resources – mostly actors from the North who wish to operate in the South – to respect the needs and voices of those they seek to help, and not to try to impose their own views of what the human rights issues are in the country’s context and how to best deal with them.  Throughout this week I have had the chance to learn about Equitas’ work culture, their goals and mission, and it is clear that the way the program was designed reflects this idea of respecting the needs of those you seek to help.

Those were some of the thoughts I had during my first week. I am looking forward to the rest.

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