Summer School in Advocacy

By Jessica Michelin

At the UN for the first time! Notice the giant smile on my face.

A highlight of my summer internship with Human Rights Watch was being invited to attend conferences and meetings held at the UN Headquarters. Sure, anyone can sign up for a tour of the UN and visit the building. But there is something about showing up in a suit, ID card in hand, that feels different than visiting as tourist wearing shorts and a fanny-pack (okay, I’m playing up the stereotype here). Beyond the initial awe of walking through the building and sitting in on meetings, going to the UN was a stand-out experience for me because it was there that I received my first big lesson in advocacy this summer.

On July 17th, the World Day for International Justice, I attended a conference about why #JusticeMatters.

It was at the UN that my supervisor showed me the importance of putting yourself in the right place at the right time. After the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court briefed the Security Council on the situation in Darfur, my supervisor instructed me and a fellow intern to follow her down the stairs to where journalists sometimes wait to interview the Prosecutor. We hovered in a corner. Now, a little known fact about me is that I hate breaking rules. I get so nervous about breaking rules that I don’t even like doing something that could potentially be breaking a rule. This means that I am not usually a hoverer or a loiterer, because I’m always too nervous that some security guard will nicely tell me to please move along. Despite my natural instincts not to hover, I followed my supervisor’s lead, and she eventually caught the attention of a journalist. They made small talk for a bit, and then the journalist asked my supervisor if she had anything she’d like to say about the briefing. Leaning confidently into the tape recorder, my supervisor delivered a concise and clear comment on the briefing. As we walked away, she shrugged “maybe the journalist will use that quote.” Sure enough, the next day my supervisor’s statement was included in the news article. By placing herself in the journalist’s path, my supervisor was able to make her voice heard.

The hallowed halls of the UN Security Council

All second-year students at McGill are required to take a course called “Advocacy”. We learn about many different ways to advocate for a client: demand letters, mediation, and oral advocacy at a mock trial. These lessons were interesting and helpful, and I will carry those skills with me into my career. The advocacy lessons I learned at Human Rights Watch were a bit different, but equally as important. At Human Rights Watch, I learned about the power of using other people to get your message heard. A newspaper picking up a story with a well-placed quote may reach a broader audience than an organization could reach on its own. An idea being pushed forward by one person may go further than if that idea is pushed by another person. My advocacy course taught me how to be a better advocate when I’m the one at the table. But my impromptu advocacy lessons this summer taught me how to be a better advocate behind the scenes. I learned that sometimes being an advocate means getting the ball rolling and letting someone else run with it. Or in some cases, rolling the ball directly into someone else’s path so that they have no choice but to run with it.

I was lucky to work with two fantastic fellow interns this summer. We all agreed that it was pretty awesome to go to the UN.

Lives on “stand-by”

 Par Nour Saadi

 

Assise sur ma chaise, les yeux cloués sur mon écran.

They ripped off my pants with a knife and three violated me, one after the other. They pointed their guns at me, saying they were going to kill me, and beat me with their rifles. They beat me in my sex after they had finished. As this was happening, I saw a girl about five meters from where I was being raped. After they got off of her, one of them shot her in the abdomen as she was lying there. They shot her with one of their long guns. I saw the blood running down her body…. I saw this just after they had finished with me, but it wasn’t the same group.

C’est frappant, malaisant, de se retrouver dans une position où, du haut du 35e étage de l’Empire State Building, je lis sur des massacres ayant lieu chez moi, puis, à l’indication de l’aiguille passant les 18 heures, je sors du bâtiment et marche dans les rues, presque comme si de rien n’était. Mettant les cris de ces personnes sur “mute”, la vie de ces personnes en “stand-by”, alors que je rentre, prends une douche, mange et dors, puis retourne à mon écran le lendemain matin.

Voici déjà un mois de ceci.

View from the top of the Empire State Buiding

View from the top of the Empire State Building

Travailler pour Human Rights Watch reste toutefois enrichissant. Entourée de 4 avocat-e-s, aussi occupé-e-s les un-e-s que les autres, j’ai eu l’opportunité de faire de la recherche sur le Moyen-Orient, la Guinée et la Corée du Nord. La présence de 2 autres stagiaires au sein du bureau apporte son propre lot d’apprentissage. J’apprends qu’en voulant être compatissante avec l’expérience négative d’une stagiaire, justifiée ou non, je risque la mienne. Par ailleurs, je développe une certaine conscience de l’impact associé au travail que je produis, et à l’importance de lui donner une couleur qui est mienne.

L’approche de Human Rights Watch en termes de défense de droits humains repose sur l’utilisation stratégique de son influence sur des acteurs clés de la communauté internationale. Le rôle de la Cour pénale internationale ainsi que les défis auxquelles elle fait face commencent à prendre forme, ce qui génère en moi de nombreux repositionnements.

The more I understand how the ICC works, the more I am shocked to see the difference with Canadian domestic courts, the Supreme Court for instance, which writes decision with an air of “the Court has spoken”, while the International Criminal Court, with the mandate to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity, war crimes etc. –the most serious international crimes – needs permission to speak.

 

In the middle of this organized mess, I ask myself: where do I stand? Where do I start?

 

As I sat there, no more than three meters away, I saw them shoot an old man dressed as an imam in the head while he was praying. The old man was in the process of praying, because in the Muslim faith, if you are going to die, it is necessary to pray before dying. He was in the process of praying and a red beret walked up to him and shot him in the head with a pistol. Nearby, there was another man who wanted to pray. As he kneeled there, one of the ones wearing gris-gris said, “Don’t say another prayer,” and came up behind him and slit his throat.

 

On these last nights of Ramadan,

I pray with all my heart. I pray for the people I might not know, for the people I might not see, but for the people I can feel. I pray, because I am confused. What is my role, as a jurist? What can I do as a lawyer, really? What has law ever done for humanity, other than providing a sophisticated knife to deep-pocketed opportunists, other than providing rules conveniently drafted to relieve the anxiety of complicit observers, other than manufacturing hope?

 

On these last nights of Ramadan,

I pray for a night of peace.

Only one.

 

Nour Saadi

 

Air Train

Air Train, New York City

 

First testimony: A 26-year-old housecleaner who was gang raped by three members of the Presidential Guard on the September 28, 2009 massacre and rapes in the Conakry Stadium.

Second testimony: A 19-year-old student who was beaten by security forces and hid in an area under construction behind the stadium.

Reflections from HRW

2015 Jabir HumeraBy Humera Jabir

Taking the time to reflect on my internship with a bit of distance, I am better aware of the important lessons I learned through this experience.

When I began the internship, I often set out with a mind to finding the limitations of the legal frameworks in question as I have been trained to do through law school courses. However, working closely with the advocates at HRW has shown me that identifying limitations is only the first step in the field of international criminal law, which is constantly developing and moving in new directions.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is how to think through options to move legal frameworks for accountability forward. By experiencing how the lawyers I worked with think through problems, I was able to learn how they identified advocacy options, what areas of the law they abandoned as options, and what others they emphasized as potential persuasive avenues for securing justice and accountability.

I was most impressed by their long-term thinking. On a number of projects, the lawyers I worked with developed their strategies with contingencies in mind. What would happen if a particular state changed its position? What would happen if a particular political context underwent change? And what mechanisms should they as advocates begin to put in place in the event that these changes came about? Most of the human rights work I have engaged with prior to HRW has always been stopgap, seeking to address and remedy immediate violations. While HRW lawyers also do this work, they do so thinking of the future, thinking of the implications on contexts that may develop and cases to come, and with a mind to paving the road for accountability if and when it becomes an international priority in a given situation.

The internship has taught me to think about problems of international criminal justice with flexibility and imagination by taking account of the inherent unpredictability of international politics. I have learned to think through the limitations of existing frameworks but also the limitations of advocating for “something new” or becoming too mired in the specificity of a particular context. I was very impressed by HRW lawyers’ ability to think outside the box. I really learned what it means to make one’s best case for the best available approach, all the while accepting unforeseen risks and limitations. It really is a challenge!

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