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Keeping Warm During the “Cold” Rainy Season

By Yulia Yugay

Contrary to popular belief, I did not roast under the Kenyan sun for three months. In fact, we caught the second half of the rainy season and stayed in Kenya during the coldest months of the year. In July, the temperature can go as low as 15 degrees; it is at this time that people take their warm leather or down jackets out, wear long thick scarves and hats. In other words, when Nicole and I went outside wearing a blazer or a light sweater, Kenyans thought we were the most warm-blooded people that have lived on this earth. Unsurprisingly, when they found out about average winter temperatures in Canada, they could not believe their ears.

In Meru Law courts with a public prosecutor and Nicole

These differences in perspectives were obviously not limited to climatic issues, which is why my experience in Kenya makes up a full spectrum of emotions. One of the most shocking, yet unsurprising, things we’ve witnessed is the treatment we received, as wazungu (white people) during official events, from government officials and people on the streets. When visiting police stations while trying to find out the status of a case, going to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to follow up on the progress of an appeal, or when asking for help from court staff, we were offered a seat in the waiting room, directed to the right person or given an answer. While this sounds totally ordinary, our Kenyan colleague said that he felt like he was in a different country. Later we were told that this was due to the fact that everyone thought we were “important” people who are coming to check on their work.

Another instance where we got preferential treatment because, once again, people thought we were “important” was at the celebration of the Day of the African Child. We were officially greeted, given water bottles, and seated right next to a highly ranked government official whose arrival (30 minutes late) required the interruption of the entire parade. This time, we received special treatment because it was very likely that we were some of the donors who sponsored the event. While this treatment can be understood, it also showcases a frustrating reality: an experienced university graduate working in a Kenyan NGO with issues as important as defilement cannot always do their work as efficiently or to the same extent as two foreign students who do not even speak decent Swahili.

Justice Clubs launch event at Ncuui Primary School

With that said, there was an overwhelming amount of wonderful people, customs and precious moments that kept us warm in fifteen degree weather and in spite of the different surprises on the way.

One of the highlights of my internship were the school visits we paid within the framework of the Justice Clubs initiative. The objective of the Justice Clubs is to educate a group of primary school students about human and children’s rights, the 160 Girls decision, and the issue of defilement more broadly. Selected students learn the curriculum through specifically designed workshops and activities and then pass the message on to the rest of the school and members of community during launch events and closing community shows. Having visited and selected the schools and trained the teachers (Justice Club patrons), it was extremely comforting to see the effort, dedication and enthusiasm that both the school administration and students had invested into organizing, preparing for and performing at the launch events. The level of student engagement and parent participation instills hope that the Justice Clubs initiative contributes to women’s and girls’ empowerment and brings us one step closer to the longterm, systemic change.

At the tea plantation with a group of strong and beautiful women

However, every moment spent with the girls at the Tumaini shelter was, without a doubt, the most memorable and heartwarming. Working with their individual cases, knowing their stories made my work very emotionally challenging. Nevertheless, all the time spent cooking, playing, reading, colouring books, and painting nails with the kids added the invaluable human component to the human rights work I did all summer. I cannot stress enough how loving, sincere and generous are these souls who, thankfully, haven’t forgotten how and what it means to be children

To conclude, I’d like to express my deepest gratitude for all the people I met over the course of my three months in Kenya who made up for the many cold and rainy days. I am grateful for the people who introduced me to and taught me to cook some of the best Kenyan dishes. I am grateful for the famous Kenyan tea with milk and sugar, religiously served every morning and afternoon, that I shared with my colleagues (this definitely helped me cope with the unbearably slow wifi or the lack thereof). I am grateful for the lady at the market who always greeted me with a warm smile and threw a couple more sweet potatoes or bananas in my bag. I am grateful for the women working at the tea plantation who welcomed me into their group and showed me how to pluck some of the best tea in Kenya. I am grateful for the friendships created not only with the people in the office, but also with their families. And finally, I am grateful for having been able to experience the sense of community that is so deeply rooted in Kenyan people.

Sunrise at the Maasai Mara National Reserve

Asante sana, my dear Kenya, and until next time.

Finding Familiarity in a Foreign Place

By Adriana Cefis

The first time I experienced home abroad was while eating McDonald’s soft serve at Colombo’s Racecourse as little kids played soccer in front of me. The experience brought back foundational childhood memories of summer: house league soccer followed by Wild Willy’s ice cream. If you’re from Montreal’s West Island you know exactly what I’m talking about. I was taken aback by the strong feeling of comfort: how weird it is to experience home a million miles away as a foreigner in a place you’ve never been before, a misplaced sense of déja vu.

On my first day, my supervisor at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo assigned me the task of writing a report on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). He explained that States party to the Convention must submit an initial report within two years of ratification. Sri Lanka ratified the Convention in February of 2016 but as of yet, no initial report has been submitted.

I was originally asked to research and write a shadow report. To give you an idea of the work involved in such a project, Canada’s initial report was drafted in consultation with  over 700 civil society organisations. In addition to the time constraint imposed by my three-month placement, the subject of disability rights is under-researched in Sri Lanka (or “poverty stricken” as one activist I spoke with put it), and the available data is paltry and outdated. The potentiality of producing a rich and nuanced report in just three months seemed implausible. My first challenge at ICES was therefore to narrow the scope of my project and devise a new proposal for my supervisor.


Having already completed a great deal of desk-based research, I arranged to meet and informally speak with a number of disability rights “veterans.” I ended up writing a report on barriers to both formal and informal mechanisms to the implementation of the CRPD. To do so, I conducted interviews with umbrella disability rights organisations that represent the country’s main geographic areas, individual Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), International Non-Governmental Organisations, disability rights activists, and the the country’s Human Rights Commission’s sub-committee on disability.

I used Alexander Betts and Phil Orchard’s institutionalisation-implementation gap to organise the information gathered from these interviews in my paper. This theory provides a frameworks for why norms institutionalised at the international level (for example, through the ratification of conventions) are implemented differently domestically by categorising implementation gaps into ideational, material, and institutional barriers.

At times, this project was a source of personal conflict for me: I wanted to be a responsible researcher. I devised ethics forms and had them approved by my supervisor, I tried my best to acknowledge the limitations of this three-month research project and underscore that this was not a scientific study, but a report designed to offer a comprehensive foundation for further research and activism, and I spoke to my supervisor about sharing the information contained therein widely among the network of organisations I spoke with.

I also grappled with the inability to include all of my findings in the report. The conversations I had yielded some viewpoints that would make for interesting studies in their own right as well as some side-points that could not be included in my project. For example, some of the people I spoke with asserted that disability can be a a model for reconciliation among different groups of people, specifically emphasising how parents associations provide an arena where people from different ethnicities, religions, and paths of life rally together. Others suggested that ex-combatants make for better activists because they know how to mobilise effectively.

One of the comments that came up and struck closest to home was the idea that there’s a hierarchy among disability rights when it comes to research, advocacy, and representation among disability rights organisations (primarily with visual impairment being very well represented and intellectual disability the most underrepresented).

This point was especially relevant in the Sri Lankan context where formal mechanisms of implementation often treat “disability” as a homogenous group and are not especially conducive to the implementation of disability rights, meaning that service provision often falls to the informal sector. The strength of the “rights movement” in a “niche” area of disability rights is therefore related to how well that “niche” area is represented and serviced.

I have a family member with an intellectual disability and my family has always been involved in organisations that provide services for this group of people in Montreal. Speaking to parents of children with disabilities in Sri Lanka and hearing their frustration at the lack of services and stigma experienced by their children accordingly struck close to home, as did listening to stories of families that went door to door to raise awareness and funds for service provision. There it was again, that familiarity, that sense of déja vu.

Volunteers for the West Island Association for the Intellectually Handicapped over 50 years ago – my grandmother is in the middle at the back

Overall, I’m grateful for this amazing opportunity which allowed me to experience the challenges and beauty of field-work, including but not limited to addressing conflicting viewpoints, identifying and acknowledging internal biases, dealing with a variety of forms of transportation, the occasional battle with Sri Lankan fauna and flora, intriguing conversation, and the space and time to reflect on all of the above.

Public transit snack

Sri Lankan cooking class

Meeting Tep Vanny

By Emilie Duchesne

One of my most interesting assignments was to research Tep Vanny, Cambodia’s most famous land activist. Just a few days ago, she was finally released from prison after two years. As part of the push to get her out, LICADHO was planning to create a website celebrating her activism. Along with another intern (who luckily knew more than I do about website design, which is nothing), I got to visit CC2 women’s prison to interview Tep Vanny for our research.

While we were waiting for her, I listened and took notes while the prison team interviewed two prisoners who broke my heart. The first was a 16-year-old mother who had given birth after being incarcerated for selling drugs. Another of my projects was a legal analysis of the criminal provisions in Cambodia’s law, and so I knew she had likely been sentenced to a disproportionately long prison term for next to nothing. The prison team made sure that her baby was healthy and arranged to provide supplies for her, since they are not provided in prison. She seemed to be doing a remarkably good job with her baby despite the situation.

After speaking with her, the team asked a guard about a tip they had received that a ten-year-old boy was being illegally held in the prison. There is a law on juvenile delinquency in Cambodia which sets the minimum age for detention at 14 and also commits Cambodia to various international standards on the treatment of children in detention. When he came out, I saw how little he was and knew there was no way he had been mistaken for a fourteen-year-old.

I later did research on the juvenile delinquency act and learned that there are no enforcement provisions, and that there is also no independent monitoring. The judges who are charged with monitoring are the same people who put Tep Vanny and other activists in prison whenever instructed by the government to do so. LICADHO was only able to learn about the incarcerated boy because another prisoner had tipped them off during an interview. He was not being kept separately from adult prisoners, and his parents had not been contacted. Thankfully, the women prisoners had been taking care of him, comforting him, and giving him extra food, and the prison team was able to advocate to get him released and back to his family.

When Tep Vanny came out, all the nerves I had been feeling on the way to the prison were instantly alleviated. She is a hero here in Cambodia, and her activism has been centrally featured in at least two documentaries that I know of. Despite this, she is completely warm and unpretentious; she laughed with us, put us at ease, and thanked us for taking the time to talk to her, saying she rarely gets opportunities to speak about her activism with other prisoners.

It all started in 2010, when Vanny’s home and those of her neighbours were razed to make way for a Cambodian People’s Party senator and his powerful Chinese backers to build a commercial development.[1] There was no consultation process; the community learned about the development when the company showed up and began destroying homes and filling the lake with sand. Vanny’s mother had been evicted in a different land grab, and so she had already seen first-hand that the government does not normally pay fair compensation to evicted people. Her activism began with going door-to-door in her community telling people about their rights and urging them to stand together. She spent the next ten years organizing, protesting, and petitioning alongside her all-women activist group, the Boeung Kak 13, until almost all the families in her community had negotiated title agreements with the government.

At this point she extended the fight to other people disenfranchised by economic land concessions and to activists who have been wrongfully jailed by the Cambodian government.[2] She even picked up English, which she had been too poor to learn in school, so she could raise awareness internationally. Now her English is excellent, and she has spoken in front of the UN on behalf of Cambodian land grabbing victims. Her activism has been hugely successful in raising awareness about land grabbing, but at great personal cost: she has been threatened, beaten, and arrested on many occasions. On August 15th, 2016, she was arrested alone for the first time. The government had always previously arrested her alongside other activists from her community, and so many people believe she was arrested alone this time in an attempt to break her spirit.

On the night of her arrest, Tep Vanny was leading the Boeung Kak lake community in a cursing ceremony to protest the arbitrary detention of five NGO officers and an election official. It was a terrifying time for human rights defenders: following a close and highly contested election in 2013 marred by allegations of fraud, the government’s uneasy truce with civil society had collapsed into a violet crackdown with various legislative restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, consistent state violence against protesters and strikers, and the forced closure of major independent newspapers and radio stations.

In response to this crackdown, Tep and other activists launched the Black Monday campaign of May 2016, in which various groups protested peacefully while wearing the color black as a sign of united resistance. Prime Minister Hun Sen immediately responded with a ban on “any protests in which participants are dressed in the same colour”. Hun Sen frequently alleges that foreign governments are conspiring to incite a Cambodian uprising– a “colour revolution” based on the revolutions in Yugoslavia and Serbia- when justifying violations of political rights.[3] In the weeks that followed the ban, authorities enforced it by violently dispersing protests, threatening protesters, and banning people from posting their views online without government permission. Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson described the situation as “a witch-hunt against any NGO or activist who ever demanded the government respect human rights, called out corrupt officials, or organized joint actions”.[4]

Despite the ban, Tep’s group continued protesting and even expanded their campaign in July to demand an independent investigation after a popular political analyst was murdered. Kem Ley was shot in a gas station days after publicly commenting on a Global Witness report titled “Hostile Takeover: The Corporate Empire of Cambodia’s Ruling Family”. Kem Ley’s death must have been a reminder to Tep Vanny of the risk she was running as the face of land activism in her community. According to Global Witness, at least thirteen environmental and land activists were killed in Cambodia between 2002 and 2014.[5] But, if she felt afraid, it was still not enough to convince her to stop. Only three fabricated charges and a politically motivated arrest could finally put an end to her work.

When I met Vanny, I was struck by her kindness and intelligence. Compared to pictures I had seen she looked pale and tired, but when she spoke about her activism I recognized the Vanny I had seen in documentaries, passionately leading protests and confronting government officials. She lit up when talking about her children, who are both top of their classes in school. She told funny anecdotes of when she first started approaching members of her community about activism and was met with skepticism because she was relatively new in the community and not well-known. We asked her about fear, and she said: “we all have fear in the body, but we continue anyway.” She told us that when she is released, she will continue her activism by providing newer activists with guidance. She believes solidarity is the key: “the government wants to silence us one-by-one. But we are bigger than the government together. We have to use our power.” When we asked if there were any parts of the interview that she would like for us to omit, she smiled wryly and said: “Write what you want. I’ve said too many things already.”


[1] https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-post-depth-politics/boeung-kak-disastrous-decade

[2] https://www.amnesty.org.uk/tep-vanny-jailed-defending-her-home

[3] https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/prime-minister-bans-color-coordinated-demonstrations-112434/

[4] https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/government-ups-plot-accusations-new-video-linking-cnrp-and-us-groups-colour-revolutions

[5] https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/land-activists-%E2%80%98under-threat%E2%80%99

Terrorism, Election Violence, and Transitional Justice

By Nicole Maylor

From exploring different research streams in the organization to watching world cup matches over lunch, the last 6 weeks of my internship were very eventful. Here are updates for my continued research on the Abu Sayyaf Group, a new project on election violence, and writing a piece on transitional justice:

Update on Abu Sayyaf Group

My policy paper on the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) took a swift turn shortly after uploading my first internship blog post. After meeting with my boss, we decided that it would be in the best interest of my work to write a Stable Seas blog post on the ASG instead. The ASG blog post focuses on the Abu Sayyaf Group’s activities around the Sulu Sea to demonstrate the need for the Stable Seas project expansion in South East Asia.

In response to Stephanie Chipeur’s comment on my first blog post, through further research, I conclude that there is a link between maritime terrorism and organized crime. I had a good conversation with a co-worker who researches organized crime and he said that terrorist groups share similar tactics and activities with groups labeled as being involved in organized crime, thus a distinction between the two is hard to make. Additionally, I think that we in the West have been fed the trope of who a terrorist is, which links to gender, race and religion making distinctions between groups even more difficult. I have also learnt that terrorism efforts look different in different parts of the world. For example, Philippines is a coastal nation, and historically, terrorist groups in the area have been able to retreat to the isles in the Sulu Sea without persecution. This leads me to believe that a large part of the ASG terrorism efforts owe their success to the geography of the region.

To counter maritime terrorism efforts, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia signed an international agreement to patrol their shared waters in an effort to eliminate terrorist groups from retreating to the ocean after committing crimes. While this is a positive development in the region, I question how useful this effort will be if these patrol teams are not able to monitor every nook and cranny of every island? In my opinion, government forces must also explore technology such as drones that operate aerially to locate and monitor terrorist activity as well. Luckily, I will be able to get first-hand knowledge on this topic as a co-worker is heading to a conference in Manila at the end of August and will give me feedback to direct my piece. Overall, this has been a very interesting topic to learn about, and I look forward to getting my co-worker’s feedback in order to publish my Stable Seas blog post before the summer is over.

Election Violence, can we forecast the future?

I’ve also been tasked with researching election violence statistics for a data collection model with the goal of forecasting the future of election violence around the world. For this project, election violence is defined as any case where the government engaged in election-specific violence against civilians or harassed opposition. This has been an interesting experience in understanding how governments, in general, enforce their power. I researched 336 election results over a 20-year span and determined that despite a nation’s geography, development or political history, few are completely immune from election violence. For me, this spoke to a greater question on the relationship between the rule of law and the state. Should laws be enforceable just because they come from the state, even when they are corrupt? Is a true democracy one that centers the voices of the people? If so, how loud do their voices have to be? How do these ideas interplay with rights and freedoms against state produced violence?

These are all important questions that are examined by both the layperson and academic around the world. The answers are not simple, and I do not have any set conclusions on this topic. Overall, I have realized that governance, which is at the core of One Earth Future’s mandate, is tricky. That said, it can be achieved in many ways, including: free and fair election processes, contemplating different histories, and should have the ultimate goal of peace and co-operation for all.

Bringing in the Canadian Context

Lastly, I was offered an opportunity to co-author a piece on transitional justice. During a conversation in the work kitchen, a co-worker told me that she was writing a post for a series on African security to promote the book titled: African Actors in International Security: Shaping Contemporary Norms. She was writing about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Report as a standard for seeking justice in post-conflict states and I immediately thought of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She offered me the opportunity to work on the article together. I was very grateful for this offer, not only to bring the Canadian context of reconciliation with indigenous communities into my summer work, but also because I previously worked in Cape Town for an NGO focused on gender-based violence and South Africa holds a special place in my heart. Being able to co-author this piece allowed me to bring these two experiences together and I gladly welcomed it.

While writing, I listened to the Nelson Mandela Centennial Lecture  given by Barack Obama. The lecture centered working across ideological lines and resisting oppression and inequality. Obama, along with South African dignitaries, spoke to the need for a unifying symbol to rally around in uneasy political times. This was influential on my writing as I reflected on the idea of true reconciliation, and what that means today.

I also tried to incorporate my own experiences into the piece. I have conflicting thoughts on the topic of reconciliation because as much as I think truth and reconciliation commissions are necessary in post-conflict states, reconciliation must also be an ongoing process. The wants and needs of the oppressed mustn’t only be listened to and acted on during a reporting period but must continue to incorporate modern-day realities. This idea is especially interesting to think about in the South African context as the government is currently looking into land expropriation from majority white farmers which can be perceived as either retributive or restorative justice.

To compare, in the Canadian context, indigenous communities in Saskatchewan are currently protesting the outcome of various criminal cases where white men have been acquitted for murdering indigenous youth which speaks to the struggle between indigenous communities, the Canadian government and the ongoing pursuit of justice. Both cases speak to the modern-day reality of historically oppressed groups. Both cases come after state-led reconciliation efforts and reports. Overall, this piece has piqued my interest in transitional justice in post-conflict states, and I hope to learn and write more about this topic in the coming year.

Here is a link to the post: http://oefresearch.org/think-peace/truth-and-reconciliation-south-african-model

Lessons Learned

Overall, I am grateful to have worked on a variety of interesting projects at One Earth Future. Every day I was able to have stimulating conversations with co-workers and I am so happy that my fellow team members were also avid soccer fans! Looking back, I am proud of my efforts, and I will use the knowledge I have gained this summer to impact the world around me in a better, more peaceful way.

P.S. I haven’t reflected much on my life outside of the office. Here is the story of my weekend life in Colorado through pictures!

An Institutional Infection

By Alicia Blimkie

It’s easy to love the Philippines. The country is a place of contrasts, with a mere handful of blocks separating towering glass skyscrapers from shacks with tin roofs that could fall over with a single gust of wind (and the country gets a lot of typhoons, so fall over they do). But one thing that stays constant is the people. Their friendliness crosses class divides and endures hardships. No matter where I walk, I’m always greeted with a smile and “Morning, po!” This spark in people’s eyes is even more spectacular when you realize the suffering that this country has experienced. Centuries of colonization (first under the Spanish, then the Americans), massive casualties during WWII, then a decade of dictatorship and martial law under the Marcos regime forced the country through seemingly endless suffering, in multiple forms. The true resilience of the Filipino people is demonstrated by the fact that all of this violence culminated in the peaceful EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986, which ushered in a transition to democracy.

View from the Makati courthouse

But the freedom that was found after the transition is now under threat. I’ve heard people say that the atmosphere today feels like it did in the 1980s, when fundamental freedoms were stamped out. Many journalists and other political activists are afraid to speak out against the government. (If you think the fake news issue was bad during the 2016 U.S. election, you should look at the fake news in the Philippines). Political opposition leaders have been attacked, some having been thrown in jail for yet-unproven drug offenses.

But I’d like to write about one particular event. While my tired body was being carried through the air, across the Pacific to Manila, the Justices of the Supreme Court of the Philippines were busy voting out their Chief Justice. Imagine, for a moment, that the Supreme Court of Canada voted to oust Wagner or dear Bev McLachlin from the court. Yes, this is just as crazy and unfathomable as it sounds. And it was unthinkable for many of the Filipino lawyers I work with, as well.

To put the incident in context, the Philippines has a government and judiciary modeled after the American system, including built-in checks and balances on power. Filipino lawyers and law students look up to their Supreme Court as upholding independence and rule of law as much as we do. This was a shock. Filipino law students are taught that the only way to remove a Chief Justice from office is through impeachment – they would get the question wrong on their exam if they wrote otherwise. Instead, Chief Justice Sereno was removed via a process called quo warranto, which essentially declares that the appointment was never valid in the first place. The court was able to justify its use of quo warranto by interpreting a phrase in the Constitution which states that the Chief Justice may be removed by impeachment to mean that she could also be removed through other means. This diverged from how the provision had previously been interpreted, thus, as some argue, contravening stare decisis.

What are the consequences of this? Chief Justice Sereno had opposed the current government multiple times in her judgments. It was the Solicitor General – representing the government – that submitted the petition for quo warranto. The worry is that the highest court is being influenced by political pressure. In a country where officials are constantly accused of involvement with drug trafficking, and where alleged traffickers are often killed without due process, this is a serious issue. And if government officials can now use quo warranto proceedings to remove members of the judiciary who oppose them then they also have the chance to fill these positions with those who are loyal to the regime. So much for a strong, independent institution.

Volunteering with AHRC staff to paint a local elementary school

A loss of judicial independence is not just an academic or legal issue, it has serious human rights implications. One issue is due process. For those officials who can be removed via quo warranto, there is a prescription period of one year. In its reasoning, the Supreme Court stated that this deadline did not apply to the government. But if that is the case, with what other offenses can the government charge people, regardless of prescription? The court that was supposed to protect individual rights could potentially rule in line with its political inclinations now, more than with the law. Freedom of expression may also be negatively impacted. The removal of someone in a high-ranking position who stood up against the government contributes to an atmosphere of fear. If the Chief Justice can be removed by a President who doesn’t like her, what about people with lower profiles whose stories will not end up in the news?

A courtyard in Intramuros: the old part of Manila

Ultimately, this event made me reflect on the fact that the institutions to which we cling so tightly are largely abstract, and often ephemeral. Even if the buildings and the people working in them are physical, much of an institution’s effectiveness depends on the trust of the public and the willingness of employees to do their work in good faith. These structures are fragile, and what can reduce them to rubble is simply people changing their minds. The question of how to build institutions that will withstand the test of time is a difficult one, but it is highly important, particularly for societies with violent pasts that are rebuilding for a brighter present and future.


La Tunisie, le paradoxe.

Par Alix Genier

Après deux mois ici, je me suis habituée à beaucoup de choses.

L’odeur ambiante du jasmin. La conduite automobile. Les enfants qui vendent des mouchoirs et des machmoums dans la rue. Les chats partout. La nourriture épicée. Les horaires flexibles et les changements de plan. Les discussions sur le bus. Les rencontres fortuites. La lune magnifique. L’interdiction de vendre de l’alcool les vendredis. Les regards dans la rue. Les sorties jusqu’aux petites heures du matin même en semaine. Le sel de la mer. Les bouteilles de plastique partout. Et surtout, surtout, les femmes tunisiennes, leur beauté et leur force.

Faisant mon stage au sein d’une organisation travaillant pour les droits des femmes et l’implication des femmes dans les institutions politiques, je me suis imprégnée de l’essence des femmes dans ce pays. Les femmes tunisiennes sont époustouflantes et, force est d’admettre, qu’elles portent le pays sur leur dos. C’est probablement le cas de beaucoup de pays, mais je pense que ça m’a surprise énormément pour trois raisons principales.

J’avais beaucoup entendu parler de comment la Tunisie était différente, ouverte et progressive. Cela est probablement vraie si on la compare aux autres pays environnants. Les Tunisiens et Tunisiennes me rappelleraient gentiment que cela est vrai aussi par rapport à beaucoup de pays occidentaux! Avec son Code du statut personnel adopté en 1956, Bourguiba – le premier président de la Tunisie après le règne des Bey – avait propulsé la Tunisie en avant : abolition de la polygamie, égalité entre les hommes et les femmes, création de procédure judiciaire pour les demandes de divorce, autorisation de mariage avec le consentement mutuel seulement, et bien plus encore. Malheureusement, aujourd’hui, le chemin à parcourir pour les femmes reste encore grand, surtout en pratique alors que la femme tunisienne reste contrôlée et surveillée par sa famille, son entourage, son village, hommes et femmes confondus. (La campagne de sensibilisation lancée par une ancienne stagiaire de McGill avec Aswat Nissa dénonce d’ailleurs ce problème.)

Je dois admettre qu’il s’agissait de ma première fois dans un pays arabo-musulman/ dans un pays du nord du continent africain : je ne savais pas trop à quoi m’attendre pour être honnête. On entend tellement de choses sur les pays arabes dans nos médias – qui leur font trop souvent mauvaise presse – que je ne savais pas du tout ce qui m’attendrait lorsque je poserais les pieds en terre tunisienne.

J’ai été fascinée de constater, à vivre ici et à discuter avec les gens, que la majorité de la population est fière de sa religion et est en accord avec le fait que la Tunisie soit inscrite comme un État musulman dans sa toute récente Constitution (adoptée en 2014). Les Tunisiens et Tunisiennes ont (l’air d’avoir…?!) une relation particulièrement respectueuse avec la religion : autour d’une même table, au sein d’une même famille ou d’un même groupe d’amis, on retrouve des filles voilées et d’autres non. À la plage, bikini et burkini cohabitent paisiblement.

Je dois toutefois souligner que malgré cette apparence de tolérance, un grand poids pèse sur les épaules des filles tunisiennes qui doivent « être de bonnes jeunes filles, qui ne doivent ni fumer ni boire ». En d’autres mots, elles doivent être de jeunes filles aux bonnes mœurs (un terme qui, au Québec du moins, en ferait rougir plein d’un. Ou devrais-je dire : plus d’une!) Le plus choquant pour moi a été de découvrir qu’une importance IMMENSE est encore accordée à la virginité des filles.

J’ai eu la chance de discuter avec de jeunes femmes engagées en politique qui participaient au programme de l’Académie politique des femmes d’Aswat Nissa (l’un des programmes phare de l’organisation avec laquelle j’ai fait mon stage : le programme vise à offrir des formations aux jeunes femmes impliquées en politique dans le but de leur donner des outils pour qu’elles deviennent des agentes de changement, notamment pour la condition de la femme dans le pays, dans leur localité). Lors de la formation organisée sur le thème du genre, elles ont eu un grand débat sur cette question, je n’ai évidemment pas tout compris comme la discussion enflammée s’est déroulée en arabe (j’y travaille, je vous promets!), mais l’une d’elle est venue me voir pour me faire part de ce sur quoi elles avaient échangé. Un élément qui m’a énormément surprise est que dans certaines familles, la mère et la belle-mère de la jeune mariée attendent impatiemment le drap tâché au lendemain de la nuit de noce, un trésor qu’elles conserveront précieusement…

Les participantes de l’Académie politique des femmes d’aswan Nissa lors de la formation Genre et Égalité de genre.

Enfin, il s’agissait de ma première fois, avec des yeux aussi aiguisés, dans un pays où les rôles de l’homme et la femme sont aussi socialement définis. Disons simplement que j’étais très alerte aux différences et… aux injustices. Ce billet serait immensément long si je faisais la liste exhaustive de tous les exemples qui m’ont frappée.

Parlons simplement des célébrations de mariage où les hommes et les femmes ont des cérémonies de préparation différentes, des édifices à logement où seules les femmes ont le droit de vivre et d’entrer, des espaces dans les maisons qui sont réservés aux femmes, du rôle central (lire sacré) occupé par les mères et du devoir de protection de l’homme envers la femme.

Mais parlons aussi des cafés des hommes (où les femmes n’ont formellement pas le droit d’entrer), du fait que l’on retrouve dans les champs un ratio de trois, quatre ou cinq femmes qui travaillent pour un homme (lorsqu’il y a un homme…), du fait que ce sont les femmes qui doivent s’occuper de la maison et des enfants (et qu’on ne parle pas du fameux « double shift de travail »), du fait que les jeunes garçons sont tellement protégés et couvés par leur mère (au point de difficilement, à 25 ans, savoir se faire cuire des œufs ou faire seul leur sac pour le weekend), ou encore que certaines femmes doivent demander la permission à leur mari pour sortir (puisque la « place de la femme est à la maison »).

Pour moi qui a grandi dans une société plutôt égalitaire, au sein d’une famille où, malgré une répartition genrée des tâches domestiques, les hommes et les femmes jouissaient d’un statut égal et possédaient un pouvoir décisionnel, financier et social équivalent : ce fut un choc.

L’homme tunisien et la femme tunisienne ne sont, aujourd’hui encore, malheureusement pas des égaux. Ils sont différents, considérés différemment et traités différemment, pour le meilleur et pour le pire.

J’ai trouvé que la ligne était trop souvent fine entre la protection et le contrôle. J’ai trouvé qu’il était difficile de justifier que la fille devait être entourée et surveillée par son père et ses frères pour la protéger des autres prédateurs masculins.

La Tunisie est un paradoxe pour moi parce que les femmes sont autant vénérées que diminuées. Autant les femmes sont-elles présentées comme des personnes fragiles et vulnérables (ce que je peux comprendre parce qu’elles possèdent effectivement moins de moyens et sont socialement beaucoup plus limitées), autant il m’a semblé que cela était seulement de grandes excuses pour que les hommes se sentent forts entre eux. Réellement, aucune femme tunisienne n’accepte d’être vulnérable. Certaines sont soumises peut-être, d’autres résignées, d’autres encore jouent le jeu. Mais la cohésion impressionnante qui existe entre les femmes tunisiennes est fascinante. Elles partagent ce fardeau entre elles, ce qui rend les choses plus faciles, j’imagine. Elles se tiennent les coudes, rient et font de mini-révoltes contre les hommes. (J’ai aussi eu beaucoup de temps – et d’exemples ô combien intéressants! – pour cogiter sur les relations amoureuses entre les hommes et les femmes.)

Les femmes tunisiennes sont pleines d’idées, aiment leur pays, prennent soin de leurs enfants et espèrent un monde meilleur. Des jeunes élues municipales qui ont dû mener un véritable combat – au sein de leur famille tout comme au sein de leur communauté – pour parvenir à prendre cette place qui leur revient de droit, aux jeunes diplômées qui ont des projets plein la tête, en passant par les femmes des campagnes dont la subsistance dépend de trois-quatre poules et quelques arbres fruitiers, les femmes d’ici sont belles et fières. Elles ont un sourire, parfois édenté, radieux et un regard, parfois terne, intelligent. Les femmes tunisiennes savent, perçoivent et comprennent la vie. Et je plains les hommes de la Tunisie le jour où les femmes décideront qu’elles en ont assez. Façon de parler parce que, entre vous et moi, ils en seront en grande partie responsables…!

Les habitantes de cette maison nous ont offert une poignée de caroubes alors que mes amis et moi regardions leur arbre, intrigués.

Le 13 août est l’anniversaire du Code du Statut Personnel et le Jour de la Femme en Tunisie. Je souhaite dédier cet article à toutes ces femmes magnifiques que j’ai eu la chance et l’honneur de rencontrer lors de mon séjour ici.

À toutes ces femmes, je vous dis bravo et sincèrement merci. Vous me rendez fières d’être votre sœur.

Responses to Brett and Sara

Brett Campeau:

Your post about Akewesasne and the environment at the Canada-US border raised questions for me. I can think of many ways in which the imposition of the international and provincial borders that divide Akewesasne would cause problems for the people that live in this territory. For one, the act of crossing the border can be time-consuming and is highly guarded by the state. Individuals with criminal records maybe denied permission to cross the border and this may affect many Akewesasne residents given the over representations of indigenous people in the criminal justice system. I am also curious about whether duties are imposed on those crossing the border within Akwesasne territory with goods bought cross-border. I know your post is about the environment but I’m wondering whether you have come across these issues during your internship and whether you have crossed the border within Akwesasne and if you notice any differences between crossing there and at other border crossings.

I would also be very interested to know more about the Akwesasne court. In what ways do the procedures differ from Canadian courts? Are proceedings conducted in an indigenous language? It would be great if you have a chance to observe in the Akwesasne court so that you can share with us a sense of Akewesasne legal proceedings.

Sara Gold:

I appreciated that your post identifies some of the issues with access to justice in the international law setting. Usually when we speak of access to justice we think of local concerns, like self represented parties in family law courts. Your descriptions of how Gladys Justina Escobar Candiotti was treated by state lawyers was very illustrative of the problem of the legal profession’s monopoly on legal proceedings. One way that Escobar Candiotti could have been better prepared is if she would have had her own lawyer. However, as a witness she would not be entitled to a free lawyer nor, from what you described in your post, would she be able to afford one.

One of the observations I have made (in my master’s thesis) is that rather than look at the cost of legal services, the Canadian legal profession has focused on legal aid and self help strategies as a solution to the problem of access to justice. While legal aid is certainly helpful, one must qualify by showing significant need. But, as we know, there is a large gap between those who qualify and those who can afford a lawyer. Plus, in the case you describe with Escobar Candiotti, she would not qualify because she was a witness, not a party, and because she was testifying in an international forum. The self-help strategies, like legal information hotlines or simplified court forms, are also inadequate. Lawyers have created a legal system that presumes lawyers rather than laypeople are the primary participants. To then provide people with more information and expect them to participate equally is quite disingenuous. If lawyers make it too easy for parties to act alone then what would be the point of hiring a lawyer. It is in lawyers’ self-interest to maintain the complexity of legal proceedings and their monopoly. Just as you described in your post, legal jargon and the technicalities of legal procedure are tools to preserve this monopoly.

Green and Blue Bandanas

A group of young activists wearing green bandanas blocks an intersection in MDP.

By Francesca Nardi

I am writing this as my summer in Argentina starts to come to a close. This week is significant not only for me as my internship ends, but also for Argentina and many of those I have met throughout my time here.

From the moment I arrived and started walking around the city, blue and green banners and bandanas caught my eye. At first, I had no idea what they were for, thinking that maybe they were related to the World Cup.

I could not have been more wrong.

Throughout my time here, a national bill that would legalize abortion has been debated and voted on by the lower house of Congress. It passed through Congress in June, and tomorrow it faces a final challenge in the Senate. The debate surrounding this bill has been a feature of my summer in Argentina, and I feel lucky to have been here during such a fascinating time legally and politically.

It would be a massive understatement to say that this bill has been polarizing. Abortion in any context is incendiary, especially in a very religious country that is the birthplace of the Pope, in a very religious and conservative region of the world. There have been widespread protests since I arrived, as well as massive rallies organized by both sides. Men and women wear coloured bandanas, (green signifying support for legalized abortion, and blue signalling opposition) to work, school, and around the city during the day. The graffiti on the walls around the city contains political messages about this issue. Every party on Friday and Saturday nights descends into heated dinner conversation about the future of this bill and what it will mean for Argentina. For some, it represents Argentina moving into the future and joining the rest of the developed world in allowing women to make essential choices about their own bodies. For others, it represents an unacceptable departure from religious and moral values. For some, it simply means recognizing the reality that hundreds of women are dying in Argentina from dangerous underground procedures.

Being here during this time has turned every assumption I had about the abortion debate in Latin America completely on its head. Reading about the debate in Latin America, I always assumed that the opposition to abortion was fueled predominantly by men and by the Machismo culture that is so pervasive. I have been startled to realize that there are lots of women, including lots of young women who oppose legalizing abortion. Among my female friends, almost all of whom are lawyers or in their final year of law school, approximately half oppose legalizing abortion in Argentina. This realization has prompted some of the most interesting and challenging dinner conversations I have ever had with young women and friends my own age, and has served as such an important reminder that I am here to learn and to listen, not to impose my views or perspectives on the people I meet here.

It has been inspiring to see so many young people mobilizing to make their voices heard, on both sides of the debate. Argentina has a long history of a highly engaged political culture and consciousness and I feel lucky to have been here to see that in action. Regardless of what happens during the vote tomorrow, being here during such a time of dialogue and mobilization for change has been eye-opening both within my work and outside of it. I will be watching this debate closely, even once I am back home.

It is crazy that I leave in two days. Somehow this summer has been simultaneously nothing like what I expected, and exactly what I needed at the same time. I absolutely fell in love with Mar del Plata, and will be so sad to say goodbye to this beautiful city I have called home for the past three months. This opportunity has been so beautiful, and I will carry the lessons and the friends from my summer in Mar del Plata with me back to Canada with me.


For anyone curious about this debate: https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/americas/100000006031377/argentina-a-nation-divided-on-abortion.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fworld&action=click&contentCollection=world&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=5&pgtype=sectionfront


Cast of a Show Election: Villains, enablers, and heroes

By Emilie Duchesne

It took me maybe five minutes to fall in love with Phnom Penh. I stepped out of the airport after my day-and-a-half redeye, thinking I was too exhausted to feel anything, and it woke me right up. At first it was the lack of traffic control. When you aren’t used to it, it’s hard to overstate how exhilarating it is to ride in a tuk-tuk at rush hour, with motos weaving in between cars and around street vendors. Being Canadian, and used to all the action being indoors, the next thing that struck me was how little is enclosed. Most restaurants and shops are open to the street, many ground-floor houses double as shops, and big groups of people eat street-food at tables a few feet from traffic. There is so much people-watching to be had that you couldn’t possibly catch it all.

I remember finding it jarring to see propagandistic Cambodian People’s Party signs on every street, but they quickly become invisible. Campaigning started today for the sham election, and I had my way blocked by a parade of twenty or so cars, trucks, and floats with CPP supporters yelling and waving banners. While I watched with interest, the people around me continued their conversations or took out their phones. Anything can seem normal after thirty-three years.

Some people had hoped this would be the last year of Hun Sen. The last national election nearly went to the opposition, and they made even more gains in local elections last year. But winning the popular vote in a military dictatorship can turn out to be a tactical mistake. Six months before I arrived, the CPP stopped tolerating dissent in any form. First, in November, they had the opposition party dissolved by the Supreme Court. Over 100 party members were banned from politics for five years and many others, including leader Kem Sokha, were jailed on spurious charges. In the months that followed, the CPP has systematically destroyed the independent media with forced closures and targeted arrests, and self-censorship is now pervasive among the independent journalists who remain in the country. The CPP has also recently passed a series of legislative amendments criminalizing free speech and authorizing intensive government surveillance of NGOs and the social media accounts of the general public. People have been targeted seemingly at random, creating a climate of paranoia. In one case that I researched, two former Radio Free Asia journalists, Oun Chhin and Yeang Sotherain, were charged with espionage and producing pornography after Oun, who was out of a job after the forced closure of Radio Free Asia’s Cambodian branch, set up a karaoke production studio in a guesthouse. When he called his friend and former colleague, Yeang, to testify that he had not been “spying”- which the CPP have re-defined to mean “telling the international community about the crackdown”- they arrested Yeang, too.

I arrived in the middle of a strange lull; on the one hand, everything is falling apart, and on the other, there is very little for anyone to do. NGOs and activist groups have observed the plight of people such as Chhin and Sotherarin who have been persecuted for nothing, and now have a well-grounded fear of being shut down, deported, or jailed. The threat of jail means something more in Cambodia- it’s not just loss of freedom, it’s confinement to filthy and severely over-crowded conditions, especially in Cambodia’s notorious Prey Sar men’s prison. While the wealthy can bribe their way to relatively luxurious conditions, in the average cell there are a hundred people to one toilet and the men sleep shoulder-to-shoulder on the ground. The overcrowding problem has in large part been brought on by the war on drugs, a hugely ineffective and ill-executed strategy inspired by the American war on drugs.[1] LICADHO’s prison team monitors 18 of the 28 prisons, interviewing the prisoners to ensure their rights are not being violated and providing them with medical care, but there is simply not enough money or doctors to provide what should be a social service, if the government had any interest in that sort of thing.

And then there are the quieter but equally horrible everyday effects of a dysfunctional government: corrupt pay-to-care police, corrupt pay-to-win judiciary, no public healthcare, no social security, substandard public schools, and the list goes on. The NGOs function as a sort of decentralized bureaucracy, attempting to fill in the gaps, but the uneven quality of NGOs and lack of a coordinating mechanism makes this impossible. The government has no incentive to improve the state of things because Chinese investment will keep pouring in either way. The country keeps getting richer on paper, but it isn’t trickling down. The basic agreement between Cambodia and China is that China provides lots of no-strings-attached aid, by contrast with international aid, which is contingent on respecting human rights standards. In exchange, Chinese businesses get to build developments wherever they want, leaving evicted Cambodians and environmental destruction in their wake. In the words of my tour guide at Angkor Wat, who turned out to be a fascinating person: “why does China only give money to bad guys? Because the bad guys are easy to control.” Most recently, Hun Sen granted a cheap 99-year lease to China to develop a massive resort on Cambodia’s valuable and ecologically sensitive coastline. It will cover a full 20% of the coast, and will include its own airport, leading some to question whether China has effectively been granted sovereignty over a huge parcel of Cambodia.[2] This is only one of many land concessions that have been granted to foreign interests, mostly China and Vietnam.[3]

Before I showed up here, I was preoccupied by the question of how to get rid of Hun Sen. Practically speaking, what would the international community need to do- sanction the textile industry, cut off aid? Would the human costs be too high, and would these methods even work? It seemed like a logical question to me. If you’re faced with a hydra, everyone knows you don’t cut off one of the heads- you have to stab the heart.

Now that I am here, it seems obvious that I was asking the wrong question. Of course the international community could do something. I don’t know the best method of intervention, but I am not a political strategist. What I do know is that when the World Bank cut funding to Cambodia in 2011, largely in response to protests by Phnom Penh’s evicted Boeung Kak lake community, the government finally gave the community the compensation they had demanded. However, the World Bank went back on its promise not to end the funding freeze until the government had addressed the land grabbing problem.[4] They reinstated funding even though land grabbing remains the single most prominent political issue in Cambodia. One of my tasks at LICADHO is to keep a record of the land protesters who come to the capital to protest, and I quickly found myself getting confused between all the different but often related conflicts. In total, 23 communities representing more than 2,400 families across 11 provinces came to Phnom Penh in June alone; this does not include various communities that chose to take their complaints to provincial authorities instead.[5]

Engagements like this on the part of the international community are par for the course in Cambodia- a short burst of interest, and then nothing. Despite various condemnations of the opposition party’s dissolution and much discussion, so far aid has not been cut and trade agreements remain intact.[6]

This international disinterest is especially depressing considering that Cambodia’s problems have been created to a large extent by other countries’ foreign policies since at least French colonial times, and arguably far longer. Today, the biggest player is China, but historically Cambodia has been caught between the “tiger and the crocodile” of Vietnam and Thailand, and during the Vietnam war Cambodian civilians were heavily bombed by the United States.[7] The rise of the Khmer Rouge- like so many other human rights atrocities- has been persuasively linked to American interventionism in the region.[8] The concept of sovereignty seems entirely empty in a context such as this, where the self-interested meddling of foreign elites carries so much more influence than the democratic will of the people. The rest of the world is by far more responsible for Hun Sen than Cambodians, who have never elected him in a fair election, but they don’t see it that way. The United States has not paid any reparations, and instead is still asking Cambodia to repay loans used to feed refugees whose homes were destroyed by the bombing.[9] China is still happily munching away like Cambodia is a snack to tide it over between Africa and the Middle East. And the EU has bigger fish to fry- in the words of my colleague, “there is always something even worse happening somewhere, and they aren’t doing anything there, either.”

Human rights work in an autocracy is draining, frustrating, and tragic, and yet meaningful work does get done. It is really something to watch the people who do this work and to speak them about why they do it.

What do you do when you can’t kill a hydra? It turns out that you do whatever can be done, including slicing the same heads over and over to momentarily stop them from eating people. The progress is slow, and there is personal sacrifice almost universally.

I met one woman, a lawyer at another NGO, who was threatened by the government and forced to quit her job. She quit working for a year and then returned and continued representing the people the government wants to shut up- land activists, human rights defenders, and people who have had their land illegally grabbed. She loses almost every single case because judicial independence is non-existent in Cambodia. It’s a testament to her ingenuity that she still manages to win occasionally. But as any lawyer knows, winning and losing trials isn’t the biggest part of the job; it’s supporting clients through difficult decisions in through a careful, researched appraisal of the options. She can’t always, even often, get people a win when they deserve it, but she can make sure they understand their procedural rights and their options. And there are little wins, mostly cases that are dropped for lack of evidence when she pushes for this at the pre-trial stage.

This lawyer and her assistant, who has been failed at the Cambodian equivalent of the bar twice now because of corruption, are two of the people I admire most in this world. They both knew that they were signing up to be discriminated against when they decided to do human rights work, and they have been. They decided to do it anyway. Lawyers everywhere face the choice between selling out and doing good work, but in Cambodia that choice is starker and more lasting.

I also want to tell you about a colleague of mine. His family fell into poverty when he was young, and he put himself through university by working as a nighttime security guard and then by working fulltime. He chose to work in human rights, knowing the salary would be modest, and he regularly works 50+ hour weeks, which is a lot even for LICADHO staff, who are in general the hardest-working people I have ever met. Most of his salary goes toward his little brother’s university fees. He told me some friends who graduated with him work in government, which entails very little work and making a comfortable living off bribes. He would never judge them, and said he see it as people doing what they need to do to get by. Thinking of myself, and the temptation I’ve felt at times to sell out, I asked if he had ever considered it. He hadn’t. He told me he loves his job and considers himself lucky to love what he does. He also told me he would continue even if he didn’t- the work is too important to stop.

[1] https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/drug-law-passed-critics-cry-foul

[2] http://www.atimes.com/article/a-chinese-colony-takes-shape-in-cambodia/

[3] http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/land_concessions/

[4] https://www.reuters.com/article/cambodia-worldbank/world-bank-stops-funds-for-cambodia-over-evictions-idUSL3E7J920D20110809 ; https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/world-bank-loan-of-100-million-angers-boeng-kak-activists-128160/

[5] https://twitter.com/licadho/status/1014802083201970176

[6] https://euobserver.com/opinion/142321

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Menu

[8] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/khmer-rouge-cambodian-genocide-united-states/ ; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegations_of_United_States_support_for_the_Khmer_Rouge

[9] https://www.npr.org/2017/05/30/530683478/u-s-demands-cambodia-repay-loan-from-vietnam-war-era

Final Days, Final Thoughts

By Caroline Schurman Grenier

As my internship comes to an end, I have so much to say yet I am struggling to put my thoughts into coherent sentences to produce a decent blog post. A form of writer’s block if you will which just makes my challenge sound so much more glamorous, don’t you think?

Despite my constant wondering if I would make it to the end, I did it. I have completed my internship at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa in Banjul. What have I learned over the summer? More than I could have imagined.

I learned that transitional justice is much easier to write about in academic journals than to implement in real life.

I learned that it’s so very frustrating to have ideas and goals for a project when there is not enough money to put those same ideas and goals into tangible change.

I learned that it’s ok to change your mind, which to me is one of the most important realization I have come to over the course of my internship.

I took a class on restorative justice during the last year of my undergraduate degree and found it fascinating. It was my favorite class, the readings were incredible, and the discussions awoke in me a vehement desire to learn more. I aced the final and I thought to myself: “If I get into law school, this is what I want to focus on”.

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Isn’t it wonderful to be 22 and to be convinced you have found your calling in life? Well, time goes on, and you turn 23 (a small time frame but after all we change more between 18 and 25 than at any other time in our lives, frontal lobe and all) and you realize maybe it’s not for you.

I started to work at IHRDA just months after the Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission Act was passed. I don’t believe in flukes so it was meant to be for me to be here at this time. Former president Jammeh was urged out of office in December 2016 following a vicious 22 year dictatorship and the population wants to be heard and wants financial reparations for their sufferings. It means that The Gambia is still at the brainstorming stage, gathering ideas on how to implement the commission and to apply for funding. It’s the drawing board stage where you try and downplay the chaos of beginnings. They’re doing great at that. Newspaper articles are written on the matter, there are many roundtable discussions where the guests range from ministers to EU delegates to civil society members. But it’s always easier to gather men in suits in boardrooms and draft reports than to go on the streets or in the villages and ask citizens, “and what would you like in this process? What are you looking for?” I did not follow Gambian news as closely as locals but from what I gathered, there is lots and lots of talk but so very little real action on the grounds.

I’m forever grateful to have gone behind the scenes of the academic papers, to understand that the needs of the people are rarely met, that there is hope, but unfortunately hope does not pay for the societal changed needed. The TRRC could still very well take place and could be successful but it will need to learn from the mistakes of other West African states who have undergone a similar process. Gambians pride themselves on their uniqueness and on the uniqueness of their situation, but even unique people must learn from those they deem to be not so unique.

I did not only learn about transitional justice. I learned about the African human rights system in depth. There is so much that has been done but there is so much left to do. There are very little enforcement mechanisms in African courts when decisions are rendered. The African Court, the court with the highest enforcement mechanism, has been ratified by only a handful of African countries. The mountain to climb seems insurmountable to me, but I have been lucky enough to be in a work environment where my colleagues don’t feel the same way. They trust they are doing their part, they want to fight the beast of injustice and although they may not live to see substantive change in African human rights law, they will pave the way which will hopefully allow the next generation to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They love their work and even if they know it is not producing the change they would like to see, they will keep fighting for what’s right.

It’s been an honor to witness such passion and perseverance in my workplace.

Do I not care about human rights law merely because I don’t want practice it? Please do not be so naïve.

I do care deeply about human rights and transitional justice and I greatly admire the men and women who dedicate their lives to such a noble career. There is a spark in their eyes when they engage in ardent discussions on the topic and that spark will stay with them throughout their career. It’s not the same as the interest of a young student reading about something she finds “super interesting”. This is their life, this is their passion.

Living in The Gambia is in itself a tremendous learning experience. I recommend to anyone who feels lost and confused to let yourself feel even more lost and confused and to strip yourself of your sources of comfort, allow yourself to reflect and watch the reflection change your life.

Will I be the next Amal Clooney? Doubtful.

Does that make my experience less pertinent? Does it make my internship useless? Of course not.

Thank you to IHRDA for the work experience and to the Smiling Coast of Africa for the life experience.

Human rights law may not be for me. So what is for me?

Time will tell.


For the moment this is the only picture that accepts to upload on my blog post. It’s pretty random, am aware.

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