On Being a Human Rights Intern

By Daniel Powell

When a bright-eyed colleague of mine asked me why I had decided to spend a summer pent up in the Foundation’s off-highway suburban headquarters, I offered the only response that I could possibly muster to justify the cosmological happenings that had brought me there. My presence at the One Earth Future Foundation, like the presence of the other two McGill Law interns whose desks sandwiched my own, was the product of a well-ordained coincidence. As the saying goes, I never chose to end up at the Foundation; it chose me, as a matter of circumstance, and I willfully obliged. The circumstances were, to be fair, a product of my own making. I attended the one-and-a-half hour information session on the Faculty’s international human rights program and prepared an application, quickly modifying an existing resume and writing out answers to short essay questions. And when I had finished preparing the application, I forwarded my application to the human rights program. However, even as these actions were of my own doing, I never really believed that they would lead to anything. I certainly never expected that my application would be the cause of a professional experience as rewarding as the one that I experienced.

Of course, when I received an email inviting me to interview, I accepted with delight, remembering the seemingly inane words of advice that I once received from a human resources staffer to the effect that one can never secure a job without attending the interview, words which I have never managed to forget, precisely because their epistemological truth is cocooned as a stark and deceiving tautological absurdity.

The coincidence that had brought me to Broomfield for the summer was formalized in an interview before a four-person committee in a dimly lit seminar classroom. I remember entering the interview room and feeling immediately that I was under the thralls of a civilian inquisition. And although I appreciate that this imaginary portrait may now seem to be nothing more than a preposterous posture of literary excess, understand that the idea did occur to me. The imaginative invocation was not a completely absurd one either. At the time of my interrogation, I had just begun to study the origins of civil law and judicial institutions. The image of a panel of adjudicators sitting in a dark, cloistered law school seminar room had enough eidetic relation to the civilian investigation figured as a secretive Church affair that I could not resist the analogy.

At least I brought flowers. The day of my inquisition, I wore a collared floral shirt, a style choice which I then believed to reflect a comfortable balance between quirk and professionalism. The inquisitorial meeting was short, and though I left with a sense of nervous incapacity at my failure to communicate a clear vision of my interest, I found out later that this inquisitorial committee had nevertheless chosen to select me, in the same way that it had selected the rest of the twenty-something person cohort, to participate in the program. More than a mere offer to work at One Earth Future for the summer, the program director, Professor Ramanujam, offered me, as she offered all interns, an opportunity to participate as a human rights intern: a learning experience which included both a real-world clinical and academic component.

Back in Broomfield, while recounting with strategic brevity the series of coincidences that had brought me to intern there, I realized fairly quickly that something I had said was out of line. The moment that I associated human rights with the One Earth Future Foundation, a reaction registered on the face of this bright-eyed colleague. By the time I had finished sharing the story, its meaning had registered dominantly in her facial expression. The reaction was not the kind of reaction easily suppressed by an intentional grin of the jaw leftwards or rightwards, as if some jocular jiggle could eliminate true feelings from the facial repository. The reaction was crystal clear.

When I stopped speaking, she gave words to these emotions: “This is not a human rights organization.” These words were spoken clearly and declared with so much clarity that I was made to feel like some embarrassed and disoriented mouthpiece stuck stumbling over words which had become alien to him. She added that she had done human rights work previously and this organization, the one for which I was supposed to be a human rights intern, was not and could not actually be a human rights organization. She knew  this too because she had brought “relevant work experience” when she joined the Foundation, had even been recruited because of it, and that experience was of course definitive.

However, for all the certainty, she never seemed to consider whether what she was now doing, though not conventional human rights work, had some important or at least remote connection to human rights. Instead, she held that because she was not directly working with the subjects of human rights, and the mandate of the organization was not directly related to human rights, the organization could not be engaged in human rights work.

This exchange might have been a dandy one, easily repressed by memory or rationalized into irrelevance, if it had been singular. But the view of my colleague was not singular. She was not the sole soul of colleague who shared this all too similar opinion about the work of the Foundation. It was shared by many, including my own supervisor, who suggested so nonchalantly that One Earth Future was not really a human rights organization that when he said it I nearly choked haphazardly on a mouthful of air.

I lingered doubts for quite some time about my work as a human rights intern stationed in what I had been told firmly was not a human rights organization. Despite what I had been told, I could not make sense of my experience as human rights work. This doubt of mine manifested as a burning desire to make sense of my experience and to justify that the organization was somehow connected to human rights. However, even as I inclined towards this mindset, I was confused as to what human rights work consisted in. One Earth Future Foundation never proclaimed to be a human rights foundation. Its mandate was to eliminate the root causes of organized political violence, not to fight human rights battles through direct advocacy.

In retrospect, reflecting on my experience, for all its extraordinary learning and professional development, I am comfortable recognizing that perhaps the category of human rights intern has been circumscribed too broadly. It might even be possible that in our world the category of human rights worker has lost effectiveness for the type of work that I have an interest in pursuing and for which the Faculty program provides.

These concerns no doubt coincide with more fundamental questions that arisen about the form and function of human rights. Increasingly, the substantive commitments of human rights have also been subject to uncertainty. Some believe human rights include a basket ranging from basic political and social rights to economic, civil and even environmental rights. As the status of human rights remain a matter of debate, so too do the politics required to implement them. The reality remains, however, that rights are presumed and invoked because the world continues to be a place which fails to provide the necessities of its citizens and a world which absent governance structures and institutions incites violence between people rather than facilitates peace.

In this way, debates waged over rights might more appropriately be considered concerns of justice. In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen recognized that the discourse of human rights had come to appear weak and frail. For one, without substance, rights are meaningless. Sen was more concerned with how the inability of the ideal the framework of rights to capture what mattered for human rights. While he has not gone so far as to attack the language of human rights, Sen has proposed capabilities as an alternative measure for addressing the ends of rights. Implicit in Sen’s attention to capabilities rather than human rights is a vision of justice: a political philosophical project to ground a commitment to the lives of others. More than writing about human rights, Sen has sought to create a theoretical framework for how to achieve substantively just outcomes in a world which fails so often to provide for the most vulnerable. In such a world, he make clear, the negative freedom of rights can often mean little. If one does  not have the capability to exercise rights, then what good is it to banter on about human rights? Not good at all.

Reading Sen has brought me a level of comfort with my work in human rights, because for him what matters is not human rights but the sort of things required for the production of a just society. I have come to terms with and embraced my work over the summer as a human rights intern not because I have attempted to ram my experience into some pre-conceived idea of what human rights must be about. I have come to terms with my work because I have come to appreciate the opportunity that I learn about the importance of governance for creating justice, to witness an organization committed to building governance structures in their absence, and even to appreciate the challenges of governance instantiated as those encountered by the organizations which seek to devote their own human capital in the most efficient and effective way possible towards achieving the aims of justice.

In this way, my human rights internship, like some of the other human rights program internships, was not so much a mechanism for achieving an exotic human rights experience. It was also not an experience which I took to stand out on my resume, though it may nonetheless come with residual benefits. For me, the internship was an opportunity to realize that if the world is to achieve substantive justice, a desire which I hold true and axiomatic, it will only achieve such justice if it can develop the systems of governance and institutions required to render moot the very function of the exotic human rights advocate.

I am grateful for what I have learned, most importantly the institutional knowledge that I now carry with me. I cannot help but reflect on the value of a human rights program in our time and place. Achieving justice is and will continue to be, in all its fronts and manifestations, a perpetual struggle, one that has no conclusion. Justice must be achieved, but it also must be defended.

I long for the day when I have the privilege to share the knowledge that I have learned and put it to use so as to ensure that justice is made real and brought to life. For if indeed I can someday reflect on my experience as a human rights intern with the recognition of the human capital that has been vested in me and which I deem responsible to share, then I will have succeeded not merely in being a human rights intern in its most blasé formalism: a notation on a school resume. I will have succeeded as an agent and contributor of our shared world. And this agency will not assume the seemingly glamorous struggle of human rights. It will assume the placid face of an administrative struggle.  Because it is through institutional and governance reform that visions of a fair and just society came be made into a contemporary reality.

Welcome to Denver, Daniel

Daniel Powell

I arrived in Denver chock full of enthusiasm yet weighed down by trepidation about the journey that I had just embarked on. This was no pedestrian trepidation, and though I had only felt it faintly in the first minutes of my new journey, I knew it was a living thing, an alive thing, festering on the air that I grasped to swallow. The trepidation was not the sort of constructed false positive stuff like that which I experience each time I arise to the callous siren of my 120 decibel Screaming Meanie alarm machine. I felt it when I felt it. I knew it was there when it was there. When I arrived in Denver, I was a 25-year old student alone, away from home, and lost in a small airport that somehow managed to seem so big I thought it had wrapped its arms around me. But those arms were not a measure of comfort, because I did not want arms wrapped around me. I was stuck. Or, at least, I felt stuck.

“You should have been prepared” is all I can remember hearing myself say to myself as I tried to come to grips with the reality that now in this time and place I had to somehow figure out what to do and where to go and how to get to where I needed to get to to figure out where to go and get to. “You should have realized.” But I had not realized that when I got to Denver I was about to experience the effects of a transplantation from one world to another as if I was being sucked up like an inconspicuous water molecule floating in one test-tube only to be dropped into another. I never had that sort of realization. I refused to let myself think about it, and I think subconsciously, it was because I knew how hard it would be to become comfortable with the inevitable fact that I was leaving and would be estranged from home. So, I played little tricks on myself.

But those tricks came back to haunt me. Because while I could deal with a bit of trepidation, a hint of vivre avec, I never imagined preparing for psychological warfare. And even if I was not facing true warfare, it felt that way. I felt that way. The trepidation did not bother me until I had left the fabricated, stale air of the Air Canada passenger jet and my pores embraced the dry heat of the Denver International Airport. And I remember the trepidation growing as I moved along the flight-to-baggage procession. It grew when I stepped out of the plane wishing the francophone flight attendants “au revoir” and “bye-bye” only to realize that those French words were likely going to be my last time speaking the twang of un accent Québécois to which I had only recently become habituated for several months. It continued to grow when I marched through the industrial blue-carpet padded airport avoiding the pedestrian walkway because even without its gradual speed advantage I was walking so fast I had no need for a mobility solution of the sort airport planners design and implement for a living. And this trepidation of mine was no internal, subjective state. It had consumed me, filled my entrails, animating the muscle tendon like electrodes crossing over the chemical pathway to reaction.

It continued to grow when I considered, though only for a split second, that I would never find my bags because I had been walking and walking and I had absolutely no clue where I was headed. It continued to grow when suddenly I found myself in front of an inter-terminal station for an elevated passenger transit trolley only to realize that I was becoming, perhaps even had become, the archetypal frazzled passenger who seems so overtaken by the labyrinthine of the passenger airport that they might as well have stayed home. “Could I be that guy for the rest of my life?” It continued to grow when I boarded the inter-terminal transport and began ever so naturally to worry that a freak accident was about to take place, despite the comforting authoritative voice downloaded to the automated broadcast system of the transit carrier. It continued to grow when I reached my destination, read the flat-screen panels to verify which of the carousels could possibly or possibly not have my bags, and realized that I had to walk more. It continued to grow when I was the first person standing beside the carousel which had not yet started rolling along and I was naturally led to believe that I might actually be dreaming and maybe I did not make it on the plane.

Believe me when I say that I was starting to feel queasy. At this point, I thought that I might have contracted a dormant strain of SARS, though I can’t say that I know anything about what it would feel like to have SARS. The mere thought that I was stuck in Denver with SARS caused a bit of an internal stir, and as a freshly molded law student, my only response was to recall the case of Williams v. Ontario, an extra-contractual obligations unit on the limits of state liability in which the government of Ontario was found not to be liable for its failure to prevent a SARS outbreak. My trepidation had grown, filling my entrails like a contagion. So much so that I thought I had become a contagion unto myself.

As I waited in trepidation for my bags to be released onto the carousel, the end of the procession was in mind. I could contemplate what it would feel like to feel grounded, connected to and with my bags. They came. And I got them. In fact, I hurled my bags as if they had morphed into real humans en route to Denver and they were now drowning in deep ocean waters and there was no way to save them but to pull ferociously at them. Even if the common law refused to recognize it, I felt the rescuer’s obligation to save these bags from drowning. At the time, it seemed heroic, but it was only heroic because I was tripped up on trepidation. It was only heroic until I realized that I now stood beside the carousel bags in hand with no clue what was to come next. And my reaction to the incertitude was not much of a reaction because I had already reached an emotional zenith of sorts. Trepidation, like all emotions, is subject to the law of diminishing returns. It was no longer possible to break out from the state of mind that I had been worked into.

Then came the final act, the moment of pure tragedy, the maraschino cherry to fit uncomfortably on my hot mess of a Saturday sundae. The moment which should have been but never ended up being cathartic occurred when my telecom provider Videotron, aware of a nascent business opportunity, offered an ever so gentle reminder that either I purchase a traveler’s package, a comfortable supplement to an already outrageous monthly charge, or submit to unconscionable fees. Though I can’t remember exactly what the text-message said, I know exactly how I interpreted it: “Welcome to Denver, Daniel… Quebecor faces a challenging competitive environment in an otherwise captive, slow-growth telecom market. Nevertheless, its shareholders lust for opportunities to augment Annual Revenue Per Unit (ARPU). Selling foreign phone services purchased at wholesale prices from American carriers is revenue generative because the cost of wholesale services is less than the fees they generate. So, thank you for travelling to Denver and turning on your phone.”

I bought the package and made a call. The whole fiasco of a morning was captured in the four words my father spit out when I called to let him know that I had arrived at my destination and I was doing damn fine and super dandy: “you’re not in Denver.” And, no, this sentence, the first out of his mouth, did not end with a gentle influx as if to pose a question, even one ever so slight, rather than make a statement of indisputable, scientific truth. He never even asked me the question, because he was so sure his son was stewing in the Air Canada complaints lounge at YUL, seeking a way to avoid telling his host company that he had missed his flight, which I most certainly would have been doing, he sure knows me well, had I missed the trip.

It has been over two weeks since I arrived in Colorado, and I am happy to report that I have overcome the fear and anxiety that first confronted me when I realized I had moved away from home and was stuck in a small Colorado town for months on end. In the present moment, I remember my trepidation like it was a faint blur in the rear-view mirror of a cheap rented sedan. It is possible that I have merely caught the unhurried vibe of Boulder life. I have certainly lost all awareness of the rush and mania of law school. The memories of first-year law school have been overshadowed by a deep appreciation for what I have now come to realize I learned as a first-year law student. Each day at work, I am overwhelmed by the insight that my legal education has provided me. My current work project investigating allegations of abuse by private military and private security contractors has been at once a conduit for understanding the applicability of law to human rights and for imagining alternative means to regulate the industry. Engaging and fascinating do not come close to describing the experience.

Now and again, when I crawl out from the comfortable and ergonomic cubicle of an office territory that bears my name and lurch over to the Foundation’s chocolate bowl in search of a caloric boost, a cultivation process that I have come to treat as if it were a mandatory and hourly ritual, I catch myself smirking at the very idea that there are people who get paid a salary to read, write, think, and research about interesting things, which is essentially how I define my work. Since day one, I have been trying to make sense of the fact that this type of labour time could ever give rise to alienation or be compensated for. I can’t make sense of it and I have yet to understand it. I could never have imagined that the work I do would be considered “work.”

So as I reflect on the dynamic range of emotions that have guided me in my current experience, I can’t help but chuckle at how stressed I had first been  and how freaked out I was to confront the unknown when I arrived in Denver. At the very least, my experience suggests that not all exciting things begin with frolicking and cheer. Trepidatious though it may have been to get here, the trepidation was not in vain.

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