Learning about International Law – Home edition

Andrea SalgueroBy Andrea Salguero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Raoul Wallenberg

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

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


Tracking the impact of COVID-19 on the right to information

Hanna RiosecoBy Hanna Rioseco

This summer I had the unique opportunity to explore, in real-time, how public health emergencies affect information policy and the legal frameworks that govern the right to information. The right to information is an integral component of the right to freedom of expression. Enumerated in multiple human rights instruments, access to information enables people to make free and informed decisions. Freedom of information is fundamental for government transparency and accountability and is an important safeguard against corruption. Effectively realizing the right to information generally entails a legal regime that requires public authorities to proactively disclose important information, and also establish procedures through which the public can make requests for publicly held information.

COVID-19, however, has placed constraints on the ability of public authorities to accommodate information requests. For example, many public agencies were required to shut down completely at the onset of the virus, causing delays in responding to requests or publishing information. As a result, some States have amended the rules governing the right to information to extend or suspend statutory time limits, to accommodate remote work, or in some cases to prioritize the procurement pandemic related information. The Centre for Law and Democracy’s COVID-19 Tracker, which I helped to keep up-to-date throughout my internship, lists the various legal changes governments have made to their right to information processes and laws.

Tracking how States altered their information laws proved to be challenging in and of itself. Some changes were passed via legislatures, whereas other changes were mandated in executive decrees or tied to emergency orders. Locating the exact law or decree was difficult for countries that lack the online capacity to upload information to and manage websites. Sometimes, I could only find evidence of how public agencies adapted to COVID-19 working conditions on the Twitter of Facebook pages of local information commissions. Though the most common legal response was for governments to extend or suspend the statutory deadlines associated with filing or appealing information requests, some countries have made exceptions for requests related to COVID-19 and public health.  

In a report on freedom of expression during COVID-19, the UN Special Rapporteur noted that while temporary disruptions in the ability of governments to fulfill their right to information obligations may be expected during COVID-19, those disruptions should only take place where necessary for public health and safety. Generally, human rights instruments specify that restrictions on the right freedom of expression must meet a three-part test: the restriction must be provided by law, it must seek to protect a legitimate interest set out in international law, and it must be necessary. In assessing whether a restriction is necessary, Courts will first assess whether the restriction was proportionate to the aim pursued; a limitation might not meet the “necessary” requirement if less intrusive measures are available to meet the same public health objective. For example, a blanket suspension of the processing of freedom of information requests will seldom be necessary or proportionate, because access to information and government transparency are both extremely valuable for public health.

Access to information is particularly important during COVID-19, as governments and individuals are engaging in high-stakes decision making daily. In this context, governments must continue to fulfill their obligations and ensure people have access to timely and reliable information. The UN Special Rapporteur noted that “a public health threat strengthens the arguments for open government, for it is only by knowing the full scope of the threat posed by a disease that individuals and their communities can make appropriate personal choices and public health decisions.” Pubic authorities should attempt to proactively disclose information as quickly as possible, as individuals and communities need access to timely and reliable information in order to make informed personal choices and effective public health decisions. With more pressure than usual on public officials to support and guide us through this crisis, it is also important that governments retain public confidence by remaining transparent about their decision-making processes and policy objectives. Access to information enables the public to hold decision-makers accountable for their actions and can safeguard against harmful policies; it strengthens the capacity for people and governments to respond to COVID-19 and can save lives.

In the context of a global pandemic, the ability to access timely and accurate information has never felt more important. Tracking and reporting how governments have, or have not, promoted the right to information has taught me valuable lessons about how governments can, and should, respond to public health emergencies, and how emergencies affect various legal systems. I also learned about how international human rights law can guide States in responding to emergencies in a way that promotes human dignity and retains the principles of responsible governance. Lastly, my work this summer showed me first-hand the watchdog role civil society organizations can play during a pandemic by keeping tabs on government emergency responses that impact fundamental human rights.

La distance n’est pas un obstacle

Marie-Denise VanePar Marie-Denise Vane

Il y a moins d’un mois, le 25 mai dernier, George Floyd était tué par un agent de police lors d’une arrestation à Minneapolis, au Minnesota, États-Unis. Une semaine plus tard, un homme était victime de brutalité policière au cours d’une arrestation, à Cape Dorset, au Nunavut, Canada. Notre fil d’actualité des dernières semaines est rempli d’événements de ce genre : tragiques, frustrants et décevants, pour ne nommer que cela. Et bien que l’attention médiatique soit à son comble présentement, force est d’admettre que l’abus policier et le racisme — systémique — ne sont pas des problèmes nouveaux.

J’effectue présentement mon stage à la Commission des services juridiques du Nunavut (ou l’aide juridique pour les intimes). En réponse à l’incident de brutalité policière de Cape Dorset, mon avocate superviseure en droit criminel m’a demandé de créer un pamphlet informant la population de la procédure à suivre pour porter plainte contre un membre de la Gendarmerie royale du Canada, qui est le service policier desservant le Nunavut.

Le pamphlet a été partagé sur les réseaux sociaux. C’est bien peu, me diront certains. D’autres considèrent que chaque action compte. J’imagine que j’appartiens aux deux catégories. Je pense qu’il est légitime de se sentir frustré.e par le manque de progrès, ou lorsque progrès il y a, du fait qu’il ne mène pas à l’émancipation totale et à l’égalité réelle recherchées. Par contre, je pense aussi qu’il faut se forcer à agir et que tout débute par un effort de conscientisation, puisque l’excuse des mains liées ou celle de l’ignorance n’en sont alors plus une. Dans tous les cas, il n’est pas nécessaire d’être sur place ni de vivre la chose personnellement pour ressentir cette frustration et pour agir. C’est ce que la crise de la Covid-19 m’a particulièrement appris.

J’étais extrêmement déçue, et c’est le moins que l’on puisse dire, de ne pas pouvoir vivre mon stage « en entier ». J’avais tellement hâte de partir vivre à Iqaluit, « up North ». Même si l’expérience est incomplète et donc assurément différente, je suis néanmoins heureuse d’avoir la possibilité de la vivre. Je travaille depuis près d’un mois dans le domaine du droit criminel et du droit de la famille. J’explore à distance les défis que représente la pratique juridique auprès des personnes défavorisées du Nunavut. Je ressens de la frustration à l’idée que 2052 km m’empêchent de surmonter moi-même ces défis. Je suis chaque jour conscientisée à de nouveaux enjeux. Derrière mon MacBook Air et ma recherche juridique, je tente de sortir de ma zone de confort. J’apprends. Je forge ma personnalité de future professionnelle du droit. Puisque la distance n’est pas un obstacle au travail, à l’effort, au changement et au progrès, la Covid-19 ne m’aura finalement pas volé cette opportunité. J’espère sincèrement me réveiller un jour et avoir eu tort, mais pour l’instant je suis convaincue que le travail est partout et qu’il ne s’arrêtera jamais.

P.S. : Bien désolée de ne pas avoir de photos à vous partager, ni d’anecdotes touchantes à raconter… la distance complique la chose. Toutefois, je peux vous affirmer sans hésiter que les avocates qui me supervisent sont des femmes passionnées et sincères. Pouvoir les rencontrer en personne n’aurait été qu’un plaisir encore plus grand que celui d’avoir la chance de travailler virtuellement à leurs côtés.

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