“Never, never again!”

Trigger warning: Mentions of death and state violence.

Image credit: Danielle Santos (@anye_santos)

I arrived in Manila during a challenging time for human rights supporters. Just a few days before, on May 9th, the Philippines held their 2022 presidential and vice-presidential elections, something I had been aware of upon first connecting with my host organization, the Ateneo Human Rights Centre (AHRC). During my introductory zoom call with my supervisor, I remember learning through her passionate enthusiasm about a largely youth-supported political movement taking place like none other before in preparation for the election. She and many others in the human rights line of work I’ve met were backing Leni Robredo, the vice-president at the time running as an independent and the only female candidate in the race. Robredo’s volunteer-led grassroots campaign termed the “pink revolution” was marked by mass youth volunteerism, crowdfunding and massive rallies calling for change and instilling a sense of hope to move forward from the Duterte Government.  

Anyone who’s heard of the Duterte regime is bound to know about his infamous war on drugs, marked by mass arrests and extra-judicial killings, which has had a devastating impact on the state of human rights in the country. The perceived threat to human rights in the 2022 elections was not over a re-run from Duterte but from Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. who is known for placing the Philippines under Martial Law from 1972 to 1986 until him and his family’s exiled.

Image credit: Danielle Santos (@anye_santos)

  Incessant extrajudicial killings, documented tortures, forced disappearances and mass incarcerations marked this period of martial law. Although enacted to reduce the increasing separatist rebellions and violent urban crimes at the time, the dictatorship suppressed calls demanding freedom, justice and democracy, with waves of arrest for any political opposition and accusations of corruption and power-grabbing, extending even to journalists. Furthermore, the Marcos’ authoritarian regime revealed unexplained wealth amassed over 21 years while the country’s debt mounted, with estimates reflecting significant amounts that are still a topic of primary discussion today.

Despite all this precedent and uncontested awareness of graft corruption, the seemingly promising “pink movement” was unsuccessful in winning over the presidential seat from the Marcos family, with Robredo losing by a wide margin of 16 million votes.

Wall of Remembrance at Bantayog ng mga Bayani (“Monument to the Heroes”) in Quezon City, Metro Manila

 Disappointment, fear, burnout and shock are a few words to describe the feelings I sensed from my colleagues following the election results, starting from the first virtual staff meeting I joined. Each colleague invested much of their labour and energy into the movement in the prior months, coupled with the fact that their everyday work deals with different aspects of human rights and government relations, and I could only imagine the hurt they were experiencing. As people who engaged with human rights advocacy during a Duterte government for the last six years, my colleagues at AHRC found themselves in limbo on what to expect next as the new government establishes their committee appointments, many of whom the staff would inevitably have to work with. They could only be left to speculate if things would remain the same, or if they needed to brace themselves for worse. Fears of history repeating itself is a shared sentiment for many other CSO with a human rights agenda/mandate in the Philippines, creating a suspended state of uncertainty impacting their strategic planning. 

Attendees surrounding a floor stage listening to a youth speaker for the martyr commemoration event on May 21st, 2022

 My first in-person internship experience was attending an annual commemoration event in honour of martial law victims at the end of May in Quezon City with two of my colleagues from AHRC. It took place in a beautifully enclosed courtyard outside a landscaped memorial center called “Bantayog ng mga Bayani“, or “Monument to the Heroes” in English. The memorial center honours the individuals who lived and died standing up for freedom and justice during the authoritarian Marcos regime (1972-1986), with the names of hundreds of martyrs etched into a black granite Wall of Remembrance. The event was attended by anywhere between 150-200 people, including journalists and loved ones of victims listed on the walls. With a sound speaker system in place, the program included a series of powerful speeches, family testimonies, and performances of poetry, song and music. While a reasonable portion was in English, the program was primarily in Tagalog, and my colleagues kindly took some time to translate some key moments. For example, they told me about how one speaker in his mid-50s  recounted with pride how his father was abducted during the 1988 elections because he was protecting the ballot.

What really stood out to me what the intergenerational attendance of the friends and families of some victims, where I observed what might have been four generations of relatives of a victim in a said group. One speaker was as young as seven, and I was overcome with emotions hearing him chant, “never, never again!” regarding martial law and state violence. Tragedy stays with a family through generations, and to have an awareness of this injustice at such a young age is never an easy thought to swallow.

It was a beautifully moving moment of holding space for collective rage and grief for past atrocities and the unknown that is feared to come with the incoming administration. However, event speakers and organizers stressed that they would not stop sharing and passing down these stories of lost ones, no matter how much the government may try to silence or scare them into submission. These stories will live on through the younger generation, and journalists are crucial for uncovering these stories of injustices, rendering them all the more worthy of support and protection.

 

Image credit: Danielle Santos (@anye_santos) Some candid images captured of me reading the names of Martyrs on the Wall of Rembrance courtesy of a photojournalist attendee named Danielle.

During a program break, I took some time to walk around and read through all the names on the Wall of Remembrance, where attendees had already placed some flowers and were taking what I assumed to be family pictures next to the etched names of loved ones. As I was nearing the final panel, I was approached by someone holding a camera I had spotted a few times prior during the event. She introduced herself as Daniella, and after sharing the reason for my attendance at the commemoration event as well as my summer internship, I came to learn that she was familiar with AHRC through past collaborations with the organization she was working with called IDEALS, and even kindly offered to send me resources on the topic of EJKs after I expressed my desire to learn more in my research tasks to come. Before parting ways, she showed me some candid shots she took of me while I was reading through the panels, and has permitted me to share them in this Blog post, alongside some other beautiful pictures she captured of the event. 

 

The candle that was given to me as the names of martial law victims were read out and the crowd was invited to light and place them against the Wall of Remembrance.

Afterwards, the event resumed with a concluding program of reading off of all the names of known martial law martyrs, where candles were distributed around for all attendees to light and place alongside the marble panels. The emotive instrumental music paired with the solemn reading off of names off the list as the large crowd of attendees migrated towards the Wall of Remembrance left me with goosebumps all over.

Image credit: Danielle Santos (@anye_santos)

This experience was such a critical moment that I am very thankful I was able to experience early on, as it was able to inform much of what I continue to come across in my work as an AHRC intern. It provided an important lesson always to remember the raw nature of human rights work; there are victims and their loved ones most closely impacted doing the frontline advocacy work, and that it is not just some theoretical and far removed phenomenon one such as myself has the privilege of only researching. Amidst feelings of dismay and frustration, there is resilience and courage in the testimonies shared at the event, keeping human rights work alive. As I continue to engage in human rights research and advocacy, I must remember these families and treat these testimonies and statistics with the respect they deserve. 

Tunisia on the precipice

Five days after the start of my internship at Aswat Nissa, a feminist organization in Tunisia, President Kais Saied published his constitutional project in the Official Gazette. What followed was a whirlwind that taught me the value of democracy, institutions, and the rule of law. Before I dive into what was the most incredible few weeks of civil society advocacy, I want to share a little more about the context of my internship.

A sunset captured from my grandmother’s house in Ezzahra.

This isn’t my first time in Tunisia. In fact, my father is Tunisian, and I have many family members that live here. When I was offered this internship, my heart and mind immediately went to my grandmother, Emna. She lives in the small coastal town of Ezzahra (“the flower”), a few kilometers away from the offices of Aswat in Tunis. Growing up, I only got to spend a few days a year with her, during short summer vacations. Spending the last few weeks with my grandmother and living in the family home, where my father was born and raised, has been incredible. What this means for my internship in Tunisia is twofold; first, my experience is coloured by an attachment and sense of belonging to my homeland, and second, that the current political and economic crisis has been emotionally challenging and overwhelming (I will expand on this in another post).

To understand the current political crisis in Tunisia, I will first start with a short timeline of important events:

  • July 25, 2021: the president invoked emergency powers, fired the prime minister, and suspended parliament in what many critics called an attempted coup. He has since ruled by decree and further consolidated his power by removing key political actors, dismantling political institutions, and dismissing members of the judiciary.
  • December 6, 2021: the president announced his intention to draft a new constitution that will be voted on via referendum to be held in July 2022.
  • June 30, 2022: Saied’s unilaterally drafted constitution is revealed in the Official Gazette. All political parties and civil society have condemned this constitutional project as antidemocratic and ironically, unconstitutional.
  • July 25, 2022: a popular referendum will be held on the new constitution. Civil society and political parties are boycotting the referendum claiming that the process and constitution are anti-democratic.

Caricature published by Aswat Nissa of President Kais Saied mowing over the slogan of the 2011 revolution: Freedom, Dignity, Equality.

Since June 30th (4 days after the start of my internship in Tunisia), the work at Aswat, and in virtually every other civil society organization in the country, has revolved around this new constitutional project. If adopted, the new constitution will threaten the Arab Spring’s only successful democracy and steer the country back into authoritarianism. To name a few changes made to the previous constitution: the civil state is removed, the parliamentary system is replaced by a hyper-presidential system with no checks and balances, and the president has ultimate powers over all three branches of government. Given that the opposition is boycotting the referendum, it is almost certain that the Yes vote will win, and the new constitution will be adopted. The passage of the proposed constitution will consolidate a return to autocracy and jeopardise decades-long advances in human rights.

The Aswat Nissa team carrying slogans for a protest opposing the referendum and the proposed constitution.

As a militant feminist organization, Aswat is leading social media campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers of the new constitution, speaking on radio shows, hosting panel discussions, issuing warnings to international partners, organizing a popular protest, and strategizing with other civil society organizations. I have spent many hours reading and analyzing the proposed constitution and what it will mean for the rule of law and democracy in Tunisia. In parallel with what is happening in the United States and around the world, my trust in democratic institutions has never been weaker. Within a few months, a democratically-elected president – who ironically happens to be a constitutional law professor – unilaterally drafted a new constitution that will change Tunisian society forever.

The other interns and I at a conference organized by the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, Lawyers Without Borders, and civil society organizations developing an action plan to challenge Kais Saied’s proposed constitution.

I cannot really describe the atmosphere in Tunisia right now, other than feeling both eerily normal and alarmingly tense. Tunisia is at the precipice of a democratic collapse, and civil society is scrambling to save it. The next few weeks and months will be full of uncertainties. What is certain however is that grassroots organizations like Aswat will continue to work tirelessly to restore democracy, protect human rights, and honour the hopes and dreams of the 2011 revolution.

Digital Transnational Repression: When states use the Internet to stifle dissent across borders

Niamh LeonardBy Niamh Leonard

Beyond studying surveillance technology exports, which I spoke about in my last blog post, the second area of focus for my summer internship has been contributing to the data collection process for an ongoing research project on digital transnational repression.

Digital transnational repression refers to when states seek to exert pressure – using digital tools – on citizens living abroad in order to constrain, limit, or eliminate political or social action that threatens regime stability or social and cultural norms within a country. While transnational repression itself is not a new phenomenon, the development of spyware has made repression much easier than it once was. Instead of having to send agents into foreign countries, governments can now threaten political dissidents across borders using cyberspace.

The Lab’s team has identified that one of the most pressing questions to tackle is how digital transnational repression can be addressed. Targets of digital transnational repression often turn to law enforcement for protection, attempt to use the legal system to seek justice and relief, or ask technology companies for support. However, a lack of coordinated response often makes it difficult for targets to get the support they need. The Lab has been studying possible legal and policy responses to this issue.

As a first step, in November 2020, the team published an annotated bibliography that includes media reports and analysis, technical reports, and academic literature about this emerging phenomenon. The annotated bibliography demonstrates that digital transnational repression is a pervasive problem, affecting individuals from many countries including Bahrain, China, Ethiopia and Iran.

The Guardian’s recent investigation into a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers believed to be targets of interest of clients of the Israeli spyware company NSO Group only confirms the scale of the problem. The investigation confirms what has been known for years: human rights activists, journalists and lawyers across the world have been targeted by authoritarian governments using NSO Group’s Pegasus hacking software. NSO Group is but one example of the many companies profiting from the sale of spyware to questionable actors.

To further study the impacts of digital transnational repression, the Lab has been conducting interviews with targets and other actors (e.g., journalists, policymakers and technologists) who have knowledge of instances of this phenomenon in Canada.

Throughout the summer, I participated in conducting and transcribing interviews with targets and other actors. I very much enjoyed this part of my work, as each interview was a deep dive into the political situation of various countries around the world. I learned a lot about how governments use digital tools to stifle political dissent and about the reality of many human rights defenders, journalists and refugees who live here in Canada.

Human rights defenders are often faced with impossible choices: in many cases having to choose between their own safety and that of their family on the one hand, and their ability to speak out about injustice on the other.

Hearing from individuals who have such moral courage only strengthened my own resolve to use the law as a tool to address injustice, promote human rights, and strengthen democracy. In the short-term, I will continue doing so at the Citizen Lab, where I will be staying on as a Legal Extern throughout the fall. I am grateful for this opportunity to continue learning from my amazing colleagues while contributing to the impactful research underway.

On Democracy and the Right to Information

By Ayelet Ami

This summer, I interned remotely with the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), based in Halifax. A non-profit corporation, CLD works internationally to promote and protect those human rights foundational to democracy. To this end, it assists governments in upholding international and constitutional standards related to these rights and deepens NGO’s and civil society’s understandings of them.

As an intern, I researched law and policy in various states, drafting comparative analyses to feed into CLD’s larger projects. I was also tasked with producing detailed brochures on two international institutions’ access to information (ATI) policies and procedures, helping users to exercise their right to information.

One assignment I found particularly captivating was updating Indicator 1 of CLD’s RTI Rating. The RTI Rating “is the leading global tool for assessing the strength of national legal frameworks for accessing information held by public authorities (or the right to information, RTI)”. CLD’s website provides an interactive map displaying countries’ RTI ratings and rankings. The rating system is broken down into seven thematic areas, which are sub-divided into indicators. The first indicator evaluates the legal framework’s recognition of a right to information. To reassess scored countries and evaluate ones previously omitted, I undertook a conscientious review of constitutions around the globe. After identifying the constitutions’ RTI provisions, or noting their absence, I assessed their strength against a set standard and scored them accordingly. Where constitutions were imprecise or did not appear to guarantee a right to information, I looked for judicial findings of such a right. My fascination with constitutions only grew as I analyzed each provision’s language and context within the broader document. I was also grateful for the opportunity to contribute to such a widely used tool.

Like many of my colleagues, I faced the challenge of working remotely. Though I would have loved to have connected with my colleagues in person and explored Halifax, my time at CLD taught me that great distance can be overcome with a little creative thinking. Our supervisors did a fantastic job of fostering a familiar environment, despite our being in four different cities across North America. Beyond advancing our substantive work, our periodic meetings helped with team building. We also held social hours. Sometimes, having to invite others into our personal space over Zoom can be uncomfortable. During one social hour, we leaned into this discomfort, each presenting an item in our room of personal significance, or with an interesting backstory, to the rest of the team. This exercise provided us the unique opportunity to become better acquainted in our respective spaces. What do we surround ourselves with and why? I wondered.

Surrounded by the driven and passionate people at CLD, I could truly appreciate the work that goes into building and maintaining strong democracies that uphold people’s fundamental human rights. I thank all those who made this experience so rewarding.

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