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What can we learn from protesting refugees? : A UNHCR Tunisia example

The northernmost tip of the African continent, at Cap Angela.


“We have had enough,” reads a protester sign in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Tunis. A young man who looks to be about 16 years old holds the cardboard sign written in Arabic, chanting in a line with about fifteen other single young men demanding to be resettled in Europe. He wears a t-shirt, jeans, and flip flops. Behind him are tarps flapping in the wind, made of garbage bags covering make-shift shelters held down by rope. We make brief eye contact as sweat pours down his face. I skirt by in my professional attire, making my way to a side street which opens to the backside of the UNHCR building with a view of the Lake of Tunis. The security guards recognize me, open the doors, and I place my backpack on the x-ray machine.

The imposing UNHCR office.

As a Canadian student in her mid-twenties working with the UNHCR protection team in an air-conditioned office, I do not claim to know as much about this struggle as the 16-year-old who walked here through the Sahara Desert from Sudan currently protesting in mid-summer Tunisian heat. Neither do I claim to understand the struggles of the Somalian mother I saw breastfeeding her child in 38°C (100°F) weather, nor that of the Ivorian migrant who joined the protest in an effort to escape the application of a cessation clause from Geneva which would effectively revoke his asylum seeker claim – after four years of waiting for a response. I only offer my insight as a law student and observer with a glimpse on decision-making happening within and around the UNHCR Tunis office this summer.

This post discusses the humanitarian and political considerations interwoven in the asylum seeker protest outside the UNHCR Tunis office from the months of April to July, 2022. While small in scale, the protest is a microcosm for understanding larger sociopolitical constraints facing asylum seekers across North Africa, and is an example of asylum seeker agency in demanding alternatives to our current refugee law paradigm.

Protest Background:

There are two UNHCR offices in Tunisia, one in Zarzis in the South of the country and one in Tunis in the North. Since February of 2022 a group of around 220 asylum seekers and refugees who were living in Zarzis started receiving reduced monthly support payments from the Zarzis office because of UNHCR budget cuts higher up. Considering the Zarzis POCs (“people of concern,” which includes refugees, asylum seekers, returnees, and internally displaced people) receive a slightly higher stipend than those in Tunis, the reduction was felt quite starkly in Zarzis at the time. After unsuccessfully protesting outside of the Zarzis office for two months demanding resettlement, the group of protesters found their way North to Tunis in April. They set up camp right on Rue du Lac Biwa in front of the UNHCR office.

The UNHCR office is in Lac 1, the diplomatic district of Tunis. The protest created shockwaves in terms of political pressure, considering it was just a few streets from The International Organization for Migration (IOM), the European Union, the German and Swedish Embassies, and upper-class hotels. These protesters picked the right place. With the unofficial threat from Tunisian officials to close borders if this situation didn’t come under control soon—which would have been detrimental to vulnerable people entering the country from neighbouring Algeria and Libya—the UNHCR protection team was pressured to come up with a solution fast.

The solution that the team came up with was essentially to create an emergency shelter until these applicants had their applications processed. This was a controversial decision, but I came to realize it was realistically one of the only options that made sense considering the political pressures on all sides. It was controversial because there are already around 6000 recognized refugees in Tunis, with only about 40 places for sheltered accommodation. Why should these newcomers – some of whom had not passed the vulnerability assessment to become refugees – get to skip the line while waiting for their assessment?  On the other hand, how could the UNHCR leave these people outside protesting after four months on the street with health outbreaks and heat waves? The decision was controversial because the shelter project absorbed a huge percentage of the yearly budget, therefore potentially reducing resources for other vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia.

Finger pointing came from all sides. In the eyes of NGOs, the UNHCR wasn’t doing enough : the shelter was far from the central downtown region, was too crowded, and didn’t have fans. How could they not provide fans in 40-degree weather? In the eyes of the UNHCR employees scrambling for resources and not sleeping enough, UNHCR was doing as much as they could considering the budget was constrained, their legal mandate was restricted, and if they started handing out fans here and not in other shelters, then more people would show up and the problem would explode. In fact, after the original protesters were moved to the temporary shelter, new people living in Tunis – including refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants – started protesting at the office, too. Bystanders had mixed feelings depending on who they talked to and which stories they heard.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this protest was appreciating the various perspectives involved: the asylum seekers, UNHCR headquarters, UNHCR Tunisia, NGOs speaking to refugees, the municipality, the police, the media. Furthermore, each of these actors can be split up into various organizations, departments, and individuals. Although refugees are often grouped into nationalities for statistical reasons, their stories are wildly different, and generalizations can paint simplistic stories out of complex human lives.

At the “Atelier pour renforcer la protection des enfants migrants en Tunisie” hosted by UNHCR and IOM

Working with the UNHCR this summer was deeply rewarding. From meeting inspiring colleagues, hearing gut-wrenching conundrums about statelessness, drafting legal decisions on cases, doing legal research about cessation clauses, attending conferences about child migrant rights, hosting a meeting between the IOM and UNHCR to address boat arrivals from Libya… and so on, one particularly interesting responsibility vis-a-vis the protest stands out. I wrote a letter on behalf of UNHCR in response to an open-letter from NGOs critiquing the UNHCR for their protest response. This was fascinating because I had only ever worked for NGOs similar to those I was responding to, and if I hadn’t seen the inside look from the UNHCR perspective, I would have most likely jumped on the NGO bandwagon without considering the important points (if I do say so myself!) made in the UNHCR response.

Legal Context:

A bit of legal context clarifies why a protest like this one brings so many humanitarian dilemmas to light. The three most important legal texts concerning the UNHCR are its Statute, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 1967 Protocol. Together, these texts (plus regional instruments) comprise the international legal landscape which the UNHCR works from.

The 1950 UNHCR Statute tasks the institution with the responsibility to provide international protection and assist governments in finding permanent solutions for refugees. The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees defines the term “refugee,” outlines the rights of the displaced and the legal obligations of States to protect them. Originally meant to address an estimated 1.2 million refugees who were still forcibly displaced following the Second World War, the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees removed geographical and temporal restrictions from the 1951 Refugee Convention. Basically, that just means we can use the Convention today.

Baskets in a market.

The terms “refugee” and “asylum seeker” are legal terms which impact what kinds of assistance people are eligible to receive from the UNHCR. According to the 1951 Convention, a refugee is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. When a person flees their own country for safety in another country, they are said to be seeking asylum and are known as an asylum-seeker. Asylum seekers apply for refugee status, which is determined by a legal process called refugee status determination, or “RSD”, by which governments or UNHCR determine whether a person seeking international protection is considered a refugee. In Tunisia, UNHCR does RSD because the Tunisian government does not have a system in place, even though they are still considered a “safe country,” by the international community.

As an important side note, both refugees and asylum seekers must be claiming status outside their state of origin. This means that internally displaced persons (IDPs), unlike refugees, are displaced within their own countries. Stateless persons, who may or may not be refugees, are not considered to be nationals by any state, due to lack of registration or arbitrary deprivation of citizenship, for example, which makes accessing services much more difficult. (Think: somebody born in the desert between Libya and Tunisia who doesn’t know which territory they were born on). Finally, a migrant is a person who moves to another country but does not fit into the above categories, often to better their standard of living.

These categories tend to create the impression that people can easily be classified into legal regimes, but in practice, individuals choose to leave their place of residence for multiple, overlapping motivations. The fact the RSD process can be so tedious is evidence that categorizing people into legal categories is not always easy.

One of the legal difficulties of this protest was that the protesters were demanding resettlement. Resettlement is the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another state, almost wholly dependent on that receiving state’s collaboration in the process. In other words, Canada can put caps on how many resettled refugees it accepts, and can even decide which sending countries it will not consider applications from. UNHCR has to tiptoe between state sovereignty, which is sometimes quite arbitrary, and its own protection mandate when it comes to resettlement. The resettlement process is selective and rigorous.

The fact that 200+ people were demanding resettlement outside of the UNHCR office demonstrates a few things. Firstly, when there is even a tiny hope to get resettled, people will latch onto it. Secondly, there might be misinformation (including between protest leaders and the protesters following their lead) when it comes to understanding resettlement processes. Thirdly, it suggests that the legal conventions we have in place are inadequate. In order to be resettled in Europe, these protesters would first have to be assessed to be refugees, and secondly, they would have to fall into the less than 1% of refugee cases accepted for resettlement from Tunisia. Thousands of people make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean sea each year because desperation and hope, and no other practical alternatives, drive life-threatening choices. There must be a better way.

The injustices of global governance were at the forefront of my mind throughout my time in Tunisia. Why can Europeans live in North Africa without much fuss, but people who have quite literally walked across the Sahara desert have restricted chances of ever seeing European soil, even as tourists? The fact that 80% of visa applications to France from Tunisia are refused, but the French don’t need visas to go to Tunisia, demonstrates the imbalance in bargaining power when it comes to immigration laws.

Perspectives about the beautiful and extremely dangerous Mediterranean sea depend on the geopolitical perspective one appreciates it.

Humanizing humanitarianism

I learned that there is no “good guy” and no “bad guy” in humanitarian law, as I often prefer to simplify. The UNHCR is mandated to deal with a tiny fraction of people on the move, which is necessary considering the immense work to be done. However, this can also be extremely frustrating considering non-refugees are often afforded less resources because of technicalities beyond their control. Sometimes the line between refugee and asylum seeker is quite thin, despite handbooks detailing the streamlined process. The lack of practical solutions for a large number of people who do not qualify as refugees – and even those who do – demonstrates that the system is in need of revamping. The ongoing protests are a clear indication that things aren’t working.

On World Refugee Day, asylum seekers and refugee families were invited to participate in art workshops.

I’m not claiming to know how to fix it, considering “fix” and “it” are PhD dissertation topics already approached from hundreds of perspectives. This said, my first gut reaction is that humanitarianism must be humanized. By this, I refer to the fact that humanitarian decision-making at the upper levels of policy can dehumanize the very beneficiaries they attempt to be assisting. “Humanizing humanitarianism,” as I call it, might mean stepping back and recognizing all the politics that come into play when it comes to refugee law. Decisions are made about huge swaths of people who are generalized into categories that may not be justified, especially considering geo-political power tilts. After all, the EU funds a large part of the UNHCR Tunis budget, and EU migration policies are some of the least humanizing exercises I’ve heard of. By way of example, the EU provides Tunisia with development funding in order to patrol the seas and ultimately reduce arrivals to Europe.  Problematic? Quite.

Considering asylum seekers as criminal villains dehumanizes them, but so too does considering asylum seekers as rule-following angels. Asylum seekers are human beings, and either of these extremes reduces a practical engagement with their goals and aspirations. While students in international development sometimes put refugees on a moral higher ground than the institutions which make laws regulating them (or at least I used to unintentionally), I realized that this can actually be counter-productive to humanizing those seeking asylum.  I met dozens of resourceful human beings who strategically try to make the most of existing systems, despite the fact that existing systems are sometimes not adequate structures to respond to their needs.

In closing, individuals have every right to aspire for a better life. Protesting outside the UNHCR office in Tunis and demanding change is one strategy employed by asylum seekers to do just that. Whether or not the change they are demanding will ever come to fruition, and whether or not the UNHCR can even respond to such demands considering legal constraints, is yet to be determined. One thing for sure is that taking these protests seriously is key in envisioning solutions to complex problems and being one step closer to humanizing the dehumanized, which is necessary for durable solutions going forward.

North Africa’s colonial borders

by Genny Plumptre

Nearly three months into my internship at the Conseil national des droits de l’Homme (CNDH), I went on a brief trip to Ceuta, an autonomous city on the northernmost tip of Morocco. It was not until discovering the location of my internship in Rabat, Morocco (and spending many a lost study hour catapulting myself around the region on Google-street view) that I learned of Ceuta’s existence. Even from within Morocco, it is accessible only by shared taxi from Tetouan, a city some 50 kilometers away. The experience of crossing the Morocco-Ceuta border led me to reflect, as I often have this summer, on the ways that citizenship regulates access to human rights, including the right to mobility.[1]

Ceuta is one of only two territories on mainland Africa to remain under European governance. Due to its strategic importance as a military base and centre for trade, it was never relinquished by Spain during the period of North African decolonization that began in the 1950s.[2] Arriving at the land border by taxi, visitors are confronted with an immense barbed wire fence that runs along the city periphery, policed by Guardia Civil officers and Moroccan security forces. In recent years, Ceuta’s border––like that of Melilla to the east––has been the scene of violent clashes between state forces and both Moroccan and sub-Saharan migrants seeking refuge in Europe.[3]

Any non-Arabic speaking foreigner travelling to Morocco will quickly come to learn the word marhaba, meaning “welcome.” Indeed, Moroccans are experts at welcoming others into their country, whose economy depends heavily on international tourism––including a large population of Moroccan expats who return to visit their families during the summer months.[4] The ethos of hospitality that underlies interactions between nationals and non-residents comes through in daily gestures of kindness and concern, as when a work colleague whom I had scarcely met took off the necklace she was wearing––typically Moroccan, she explained after I complimented her on it, with a pattern of red and yellow beaded triangles––and insisted that I keep it. In the medina where I lived, it was not long before I felt myself part of a small ecosystem of neighbours and shopkeepers who greeted me each day on my way to and from work.

This culture of welcome finds expression not only in the strength of Morocco’s tourism industry, but also in its national migration policy. In 2013, following years of campaigning by civil society and the CNDH, the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, announced plans for a series of in-depth reforms aimed at introducing a “humanitarian approach” to migration, consistent with the country’s international commitments, such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and, more recently, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration.[5]  This changed policy orientation stands in stark contrast to the security-oriented migration discourse that predominates in the EU. Although implementation of the 2013-2014 migration policy remains incomplete, limited by other foreign policy objectives and EU pressure to control the border with Europe, it has so far led to the regularization of some 50,000 so-called “irregular” migrants.[6] It is based partly in the recognition that, if in the past Morocco primarily served as a country of transit for migrants, today it is increasingly considered as a country of destination.[7]

Despite Morocco’s historical role as physical, cultural, and political bridge between Europe and Africa, travel to Europe remains out of reach for most Moroccan citizens. The cost, delays, and complications involved in obtaining a Schengen entry visa are a source of frustration for many.[8] Since 2020, Spain has also denied its southern neighbour visa-free access to Ceuta under the pretext of ongoing, pandemic-related mobility restrictions[9]––a situation that one co-worker described as “humiliating.” Describing my “weekend away” to a friend later that week, I felt a certain embarrassment in acknowledging that, although she lives and grew up just an hour’s drive to the south, she could not have joined me on such an impromptu trip.

Ceuta itself is a beautiful and eerie place. To the north, lush cactus-strewn hills sweep into waters of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic; to the south, approaching the border check point, crowded apartment buildings house many of the city’s poorest residents, the majority of whom are Muslim, in the neighbourhood of el Principe.[10] For people on both sides of the border, the barriers to mobility are multiple––not only physical but also legal and economic. Over 65 years after Morocco’s independence, Ceuta is a reminder of the colonial boundaries that continue to sew resentment and racial inequality across Africa and worldwide, and that add to the complexity of governing a region that has long served as a place of convergence between different peoples and cultures.

[1] See Universal Declaration of Human Rights, GA Res 21 (III), UNGAOR, 3rd Sess, Supp No 13, UN Doc A/810 (1948) 71, article 13.

[2] See Saïd Saddiki, World of Walls: The Structure, Roles and Effectiveness of Separation Barriers (Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2017) at 57–81.

[3] See Samir Bennis, “The reasons behind the Spanish-Moroccan crisis” (25 June 2021), online: FIKRA Forum <washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/reasons-behind-spanish-moroccan-crisis>.

[4] “Morocco” (2022), online: OECDiLibrary <oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/409d3fd2-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/409d3fd2-en>.

[5] “HM The King Delivers Speech On Occasion of 38 Anniversary of Green March”, 7 November 2013, online: The Kingdom of Morocco <maroc.ma/en/royal-speeches/hm-king-delivers-speech-occasion-38-anniversary-green-march>.

[6] See Anna Jacobs, “Morocco’s Migration Policy: Understanding the Contradiction Between Policy and Reality” (30 June 2019), online: Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis <mipa.institute/6872>.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Aurélie Colas, “A System ‘Unworthy of France’: For Moroccans, Obtaining a Visa is an Obstacle Course”, Le Monde (5 June 2022), online: <lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2022/06/05/a-system-unworthy-of-france-for-moroccans-obtaining-a-visa-is-an-obstacle-course_5985793_4.html>.

[9] See Yassine Biyad, “Nearly 11, 000 People Crossed the Borders of Ceuta-Morocco” 20 May 2022, Morocco World News, online: <moroccoworldnews.com/2022/05/349179/nearly-11-000-people-crossed-the-borders-of-ceuta-morocco>.

[10] See Marta Moroto, “The Muslim woman fighting Islamophobia in Spain’s African enclave” (19 June 2022), Middle East Eye, online: <middleeasteye.net/news/muslim-woman-fighting-islamophobia-spain-african-enclave>.

Good Gosh It’s Better Than Frosh: It’s Back to Batoche!

by Eric Epp

Visting Batoche in June was a solitary, reflective experience—no other cars in the parking lot and nobody closer than whoever was mowing the lawn of the church on One Arrow—but whew it was another story at the end of July, because it was finally Back to Batoche and just about everyone who was Métis or had Métis friends or wanted to camp out at Batoche with the Métis was rolling in, setting up, kicking back, and catching up! The line-up of cars stretched down the highway but my grandma’s Camry (and my wristband) demanded the red carpet so I skipped the queue and got wandering.

Four of the big Métis provincial organizations (BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario) had official spaces, but this weekend was a break from politics, and except when fiddlers set up in front of the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan area, the line-ups were for bannock burgers, porta-potties, and the never-ending rotation of bands playing the mainstage. Me, though, I was on a mission—I’d checked the schedule and was ready to finally engage with the core stuff of my legal internship: chuck wagon races! I got to the track and leaned up against the fence next to a backed-up pick-up truck, ready to watch some horses go round.

No flat tires this race!

They were mostly young guys hanging out in the bed of the pick-up, and they knew everyone and everyone knew them. Some were older and had to make a show of maturity to rein in the kids, but the kids didn’t mind because they were all sitting in the same pick-up bed anyways and everyone knew that. People hopped up and hopped down: some entered into the web of relationships seamlessly and others had to test the water; one kid wandered over from the track with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, acting a bit cooler than he was and the older guys had to tease him a bit. A dynamic, self-supporting web of relationships was the law of the truck bed…what a clumsy analogy for Métis law but I mean it! When the Métis of St Laurent assembled in 1873 to hash out some laws (after the horrors of 1869–70 in Red River pushed them west), they met as equals, bound together by real and fictive kinship networks—and when Gabriel Dumont was elected President, this web of relationships was the law that held him accountable, the law that guaranteed individual freedoms, and the law that resolved disputes: relationships were the building block of law, and the Métis web of relationships intersected and interacted with, overlapped with and bled into, all the other human and natural relationships that spread across the plains.

Latitude: north of Saskatoon; longitude: a bit west?

From Batoche it’s about a twenty minute drive south-west to Rosthern, where my parents met when their parents sent them to Rosthern Junior College, arguably the definitive Mennonite high school on the prairies. Duck Lake, site of another 1885 clash, is about a fifteen minute drive north from Rosthern—and if I had driven farther north and west into Saskatchewan, I would have come to  where both my sets of grandparents either grew up or established roots. When my Mennonite relatives went into town they would have rubbed shoulders, well, maybe not rubbed shoulders, and maybe not even exchanged glances with, but certainly encountered the Métis they shared the land with: their relationship with the land undeniably put them in a relationship with the Métis, and with all other peoples sharing the land, even those not starting with M.

I am writing this from McGill’s law library, but even from the position of starting my second year of law school, it’s undeniable that I too, in however small and uncertain a way, am part of the web of relationships that stretches across the plains. Western law rejects and attacks the legal significance of these relationships, but their existence is fact: sometimes tattered, sometimes stretched, sometimes even twisted into nastiness and violence, but always fact and always yearning to be healthy. I hope this tribunal project will help mend at least a few relationships.

Final Thoughts

When I first applied to the International Human Rights Internship Program, I was set on working at an NGO abroad. I had fallen into the trap of believing that the only way I take away something of value from my internship was through field’s work. But, working on Equitas’ Global Rights Connection, an international online human rights training program, quickly proved me wrong. As Coordination assistant, my task included responding to emails directed to our team. As a result, I received many emails from persecuted individuals worldwide asking for help. Teaching human rights in a highly conservative country and being homosexual in a highly religious country were only some of the various reasons why people would email us. Firstly, these emails came as a shock because the authors would be quite graphic in the description of the harm done to them. But, they allowed me to realize that I took living in a relatively liberal country for granted. Being a BIPOC in Canada, I tended to focus on the parts of myself that made me oppressed, but what about the parts that made me privileged? Yes, I am a Black Muslim woman, but I am also part of the upper middle class and I have the privilege of living in a rather progressive country (which still has its shortcomings, of course). I do not have to worry about being persecuted for interning at a human rights organization and I do not have to live a double life or assimilate to hide my identity (I recognize that this is not the reality for all Canadians, as many still must conceal parts of themselves to fit in or avoid discrimination/hate crimes). One thing I took away from my internship was to re-evaluate my place in this world, and I invite everyone who reads this to do the same.

Putting universal human rights standards into practice

by Genny Plumptre

This summer, I worked as a legal intern at the National Human Rights Council of the Kingdom of Morocco (CNDH), a constitutionally mandated, independent, and pluralistic national human rights institution (NHRI) that endeavors to promote and protect human rights and freedoms throughout Morocco. Since its creation in 1990 and subsequent restructuring in 2018, the CNDH has been at the forefront of the country’s human rights movement, helping to push the envelope on issues such as gender equality, the right to health, and the rights of incarcerated persons. In this post, I would like to share some preliminary insights into the role of NHRIs generally––and the CNDH in particular––in the international human rights field.

NHRIs are state-mandated institutions, independent from government, responsible for the protection and promotion human rights at the national level.[1] They serve a range of functions aimed as fostering domestic compliance with universal human rights standards, including handling complaints of alleged rights violations, monitoring the human rights situation within the country, undertaking awareness-raising activities, and issuing recommendations related to national laws, policies, and practices.[2] NHRIs are also accredited by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI)[3] based on their conformity with the United Nations Paris Principles,[4] a set of international standards to ensure the independence, plurality, and accountability of NHRIs. Through periodic reviews, they receive either an A status (full compliance), B status (partial compliance), or are denied status as an NHRI altogether.[5]

Press conference at the CNDH

It is a mark of the CNDH’s institutional effectiveness that GANHRI has accorded it A status since 2002. Its success in this regard has helped to cement Morocco’s reputation as a force for stability and democratization in the North African region. The CNDH’s President, Amina Bouayach, holds the position of GANHRI Secretary, and is regularly invited by INDH networks in the French- and Arab-speaking worlds, as well as by the Network of African National Human Rights Institutions (NANHRI), to share recommendations and good practices. Further, the broad protection mandate accorded to the CNDH under Law 76.15 (adopted in 2018) signals a renewed commitment on the part of Morocco’s government to human rights norms in the aftermath of the “Years of Lead,” a period from 1956 to 1999 characterized by widespread political repression and state-sponsored violence.[6]

Independence is a thorny question for NHRIs, whose credibility rests not only on the stability of their operations and level of autonomy from government––key ingredients enabling them to comment freely on a range of human rights issues without fear of reprisal––but also on their ability to remain sensitive to context, including the social, political, and cultural realities of daily life in different regions of the country. For the CNDH, this need for circumspection regarding existing societal dynamics means they are careful about how and when to broach different human rights issues. There were times when I found the officialism of the CNDH’s approach frustrating: the tone of its interventions, reports and press statements tends to be expository rather than directly critical, and it is rare to see politically sensitive topics such as the Western Sahara mentioned at all. Some critics have gone as far as to suggest that appointing activists to positions of prominence within the CNDH is a way of neutralizing them.[7] However, others would argue that CNDH’s institutional credibility rests on a certain talent for diplomacy with respect to the public, state bodies, and other national and international actors.

The CNDH’s stand at the 27th edition of the Salon International de l’Édition et du Livre (SIEL 2022)

This diplomatic savvy is helped by the fact that Moroccans are, by and large, multilingual. Apart from Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) and the local dialect of Darija (Moroccan Arabic), many people also speak, depending on the region, some combination of French, Spanish, English and Amazigh. Translation between these various languages is a constant feature of the CNDH’s work, especially in the Department of Cooperation and International Relations where my internship was based. With its composite identity (with roots in Arab, Amazigh, Jewish, and European culture), strong civil society, and 2011 Constitution that declares the primacy of international law,[8] Morocco is well-placed to act as a regional leader in the human rights field; but this means ensuring that the annual reports, conferences, press releases and other materials produced by the CNDH are accessible to a broad audience.

A misty morning commute to work

In the international human rights architecture, NHRIs have a role to play distinct from that of civil society, political dissidents, and human rights defenders. My short time at the CNDH has allowed me to better understand the importance of collaboration and dialogue among all these various entities and individuals as they work to protect human rights and guard against human rights violations in Morocco and elsewhere.

An evening walk through the neighbourhood of l’Océan

[1] See “About national human rights institutions”, 2022, online: European Network of National Human Rights Institutions <https://ennhri.org/about-nhris/>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See “Accreditation status as of 13 July 2022,” online (pdf): United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner <ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Countries/NHRI/StatusAccreditationChartNHRIs.pdf>.

[4] Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions, GA Res 48/134, UNOHCHR.

[5] See “Accreditation” (2022), online: GANHRI <ganhri.org/accreditation/#:~:text=The%20Paris%20Principles%20require%20NHRIs,and%20engage%20with%20international%20bodies>.

[6] See e.g., Mohamed Khamlichi, « La mémoire et ses questionnements » (2013), online : Conseil national des droits de l’Homme <cndh.org.ma/fr/bulletin-d-information/la-memoire-et-ses-questionnements-par-mohamed-khamlichi>.

[7] Voir Karine Bennafla et Houès Seniguer, « Le Maroc à l’épreuve du printemps arabe : une contestation désamorcée ? » (2011) 29:3 Outre-Terre 143 à la p 155.

[8] Voir Royaume du Maroc, Dahir 1-11-91 du 27 chaabane 1432 (29 juilllet 2011) portant promulgation du texte de la constitution, Préamble, para 4 (international law is accorded primacy within the framework of the Constitution and immutable principles of the Kingdom’s national identity).

An End-of-Summer Reflection

By Charlotte Ridsdale: Blog Post #2

As the summer comes to a close, I would like to reflect on my time as an intern at the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), and what I’ve learned through this experience.

First, I’ve learned that in the area of freedom of expression, we must adapt to changing technologies and realities. Many of the current projects at CLD revolve around digital rights, a broad legal area that includes for example online censorship, data sharing, privacy and defamation. As the internet has evolved, digital speech and mass dissemination of information (and disinformation) has remained a relatively unregulated area. When should online expression be regulated? This is a question that the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression is currently focused on, specifically in times of conflict and disturbance. CLD made a submission in response to this call for input, which you can read online here. I researched existing prohibitions of propaganda for war, and how these prohibitions might be adapted to the digital era. Through this experience I began to see how ineffective current regimes are in their attempt to protect internet users globally.

Second, I’ve learned that when you are a part of a very small organization, you must pick your battles. There are a number of work leads that appear on CLD’s desks throughout the year, but only so much time and “person-power” to take them on. It’s not always easy to put aside a project that you believe is important and could make a positive impact, but establishing boundaries and priorities are important.

Third, I’ve learned that international comparative law is not very straightforward. Some resources that helped me (and may help future interns) are : National Gazettes on the Library of Congress Site, which provides English-language translations of national case law and jurisprudence of many countries, WorldLii, and some academic databases that target specific issues: for example, freedom of expression and intermediary liability. For some countries, the ability to read the basic language was necessary to access legislation and jurisprudence, but DeepL works in a pinch.

Evidently I learned more than four things in my internship, but I will conclude with this; working with CLD has solidified the fact that freedom of expression is absolutely a pillar of democracy. Further, how states balance freedom of expression, access to information and freedom of the media is often an indication of how they treat human rights in general.

Reflections at the end of my internship

by Vidish ParikhBLOG 2 – 2022/08/29

The end of my internship this August brings about mixed feelings. I noted a couple of months ago how the relationship between policy and law is often underappreciated – how human rights (as an academic discipline) does not belong to the law or any one discipline.

Today, I sit here (remotely zooming into my last work meeting, noticing how humbled I am to have begun on a journey of studying human rights. I am completing this internship remotely because of the lasting effects of COVID 19. COVID has now only impacted how we work, it has brought new purpose to the idea and the way we work. More concretely, for me, it has impacted my notion of housing rights in substantive ways (and the definition of housing rights, while already amorphous, has also transformed during the pandemic). In short:  The future is uncertain.

And yet, amid uncertainty there are signs of hope for the progression of housing rights. More and more, housing rights are being recognized as constitutional in nature. Perhaps just as importantly, we are recognize that housing rights are systemic, so while listening to people’s individual stories is important, it is also essential to fund and seek ways to create transformational change on a provincial, national, and global scale.

Reflections halfway through my internship — law and policy

Vidish Parikh – BLOG 1 – 2022/07/20

As I reflect now, halfway through my internship I realize more than ever that policy and the law can and do benefit from being in dialogue with one another. Working with the federal housing advocate’s team at the Human Rights Commission has been a humbling experience.

During my first week, I had the pleasure of interacting with Canada’s first housing advocate, who echoed similar sentiments.  Law and policy do not exist in a vacuum. Policy makers rely on lawyers and vice versa.

I think what has most stood out to me is the use of words like law and legal by those who are traditionally not lawyers and in this sense outside the formal discipline of law. I came into law school, associate the study of law with lawyers, and the more I interact with those in policy the more I realize housing policy issues while implicating constitutional law, also implicate human rights. Human rights itself is not a term that belongs to any one discipline. The right to housing, for example, is a systemic federal policy issue, one that is (unfortunately) rarely given sufficient sociological treatment and appreciation by courts of law. This does not mean that law does not advance human rights (it does), but only that often times the law itself may not be the appropriate tool alone or at all. Policy and communication shops – groups of policy and communication staff that work in government—are as vital to the study and progression of human rights as constitutional law is, but they are often overlooked.

Reflecting on Human Rights Work

by Bella Harvey

Reflecting on my experience this summer, I think that human rights work can take many forms, from raising awareness to speak out about human rights, to mobilizing and engaging in human rights activism, to drafting human rights legislation and administering law, to conducting research and beyond. It can be both top-down and grassroots, but ultimately, it’s about pursuing the realization of a minimum set of goods, services, opportunities, and protections that are widely recognized as essential prerequisites for a life of dignity. While there are serious critiques of human rights (e.g., that they are a by-product of western imperialism and American power), and related criticisms of their universality (e.g., that rights are a construct consisting of a universalist language used to defend highly particularist causes), I nevertheless believe that human rights have an inherent appeal in their empowerment capacity to promote of human dignity and hopefully improve quality of life. Human rights work is, in part, a recognition that systems and structures in society privilege some to the detriment of others who are exponentially impacted as their vulnerability increases. Therefore, whether human rights become increasingly used to camouflage other ulterior motives, or are pursued for socially progressive and altruistic purposes, human rights work remains of great value to ensure their normative power is exercised with care for those who are vulnerable. Ultimately, human rights work is fundamentally about helping others and responding to societal challenges and inequalities that adversely affect people. Challenges need to be responded to with compassion and humility, and a recognition that it is a privilege to be in a position to be able to do human rights work.

As such, my time as an intern at the Forum offered me valuable experience for learning and mentorship. Things are so often quite different in the field or even in the office in contrast to the ways in which we read about and understand them through formal study. As an intern at the Forum, I learned much about commonalities and differences in understanding when it comes to human rights practice and its intersection with law. I also got to see witness the power and limits of the law and how the law can act as a mechanism but also a barrier to the realization of rights. as you can read about these things, learning by doing and through other pedagogical methods is so essential for truly understanding how things operate. Actively participating in human rights work and learning through collaboration and cooperation, seeing how transnational ideas such as human rights become meaningful in local settings and are vernacularized, offers so much in terms of understanding reliance and struggle.

A Forum for Human Rights

by Bella Harvey

This summer, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with the Forum for Human Rights (“Forum”), which is a legal non-governmental organisation focusing on international human rights litigation and advocacy in Central Europe. The Forum works to ensure that human rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled in accordance with relevant international human rights standards, using litigation and advocacy to promote human rights before national and international courts and domestic and international human rights bodies. It provides support, leads domestic and international litigation and advocacy activities, and is active before the UN human rights bodies, the European Court of Human Rights, and the European Committee of Social Rights.

Currently, one of the cases I have been doing research on concerns challenging the immigration detention of children before the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The Forum and Organisation for Aid to Refugees have filed a complaint with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) against Czechia, on behalf of a family from Afghanistan who was detained in Czech immigration detention for over a month in 2019. The family argues that by depriving their children of liberty, the Czech authorities had violated the CRC, which has repeatedly found that immigration detention of children is always in violation of the Convention.

This work highlights the crucial role of domestic actors in advancing human rights by moving from the macro-level into a more intimate frame. One of the questions I grappled with while completing my internship was how effective international human rights law is. While the rapid proliferation of international human rights treaties following the institutionalization of human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would seemingly suggest a productive trend for their pervasiveness on the world stage, an analysis of states’ commitment to human rights in practice thereinafter will help indicate if this is truly a reality. It is not enough that countries ratify human rights treaties; instead, the actual study of human rights practices is needed to determine whether or not international human rights law is effective in reducing (with the intent of eliminating) human rights violations. Part of what made my internship experience so valuable was getting to see how human rights are incorporated into national practice.


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