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“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.

Wanting Power, Getting Rights

The views expressed in this post are my own.

In an alpine meadow on top of a mountain with my coworker’s dogs

At the beginning of my internship with the Yukon Human Rights Commission, I shadowed several inquiries. One particularly memorable inquirer told us that they were being discriminated against on the basis of their physical disability while receiving a public service. Though I can’t be more specific without breaching confidentiality, my colleague and I agreed that it seemed possible that the treatment they were experiencing violated the territory’s Human Rights Act. Having taken a couple dozen more inquiries myself in the weeks since, this inquiry stands out to me as the most instructive of what it’s like to work within a complaints-based process and at an organization created, and circumscribed, by statute.

The Commission is limited in how it can react to even the most credible allegations. It cannot, for instance, spring into action with an injunction to stop discriminatory treatment or to provide legal representation or advice to someone experiencing discrimination. In response to an allegation of discrimination or harassment, the Commission’s role is to facilitate a formal human rights complaints process, in which it “promotes the objects of…[the Human Rights] Act[1] without technically picking a side between the parties. And unless the complainant and respondent quickly reach a settlement, a full human rights investigation and hearing before the Board of Adjudicators is likely to take several years due to the volume of complaints the Commission receives.

Not being familiar with the nuances of the Commission’s mandate and the complaints process, the inquirer in this case asked us if the Commission would be able to do something to put an end to the discrimination they were experiencing. Their situation was becoming increasingly desperate and they wanted a remedy now. My colleague explained what I’ve just explained to you, that they were welcome file a complaint but that it would not lead to immediate relief. We referred the inquirer to another organization more able to quickly take actions on their behalf and the inquirer hung up, clearly frustrated that we could not do more. At one point in the call, they suggested that what we were telling them was like saying they had no human rights at all.

The inquirer was particularly vulnerable and needed help more quickly than the Commission could provide it. This does not mean that they had no rights. The Human Rights Act establishes rights that apply all individuals in the Yukon and, like I’ve said, the treatment this person was experiencing may very well have violated the Act. If they were to file a complaint, they might eventually receive damages and other remedies as a result of the breach of their rights. Yet their situation reflected the difference between rights and power. I sensed that what they desperately wanted was more power to improve their circumstances, quickly. Without having the luxury to wait for a complaints process to produce justice, the Human Rights Commission may seem to offer abstract protections that can be pushed to the margins by the experience of powerlessness. The inquiry reminded me of an argument famously articulated by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza: that truly having a right depends on having the power to enforce it.

In everyday speech, “human rights” might mean a number of different things, from freedom of expression to privacy, or from reproductive rights to due process. However, the Commission engages with a narrow class of human rights issues. It is tasked with enforcing one piece of legislation that, in tandem with a body of jurisprudence, protects individuals against discrimination and harassment. Yukon’s Human Rights Act is a powerful, quasi-constitutional statute that contains a relatively expansive list of protected characteristics. Nevertheless, filing a complaint may not always be the most practical way to redress concrete impacts of discrimination, especially where the situation is ongoing and urgent. And the reality is that for someone like the inquirer in this case, the Commission’s process may be less tailored to their specific needs than, say, hiring a lawyer might be; the trade-off is that the Commission’s services are free.

Thankfully, while the complaints process may be the Commission’s most direct tool for fighting discrimination and harassment, it has others as well. During my time at the commission, I sat in on an anti-discrimination training session that the Commission provided to correctional officers at the territory’s largest prison and reviewed the hiring policies of a local business to ensure that they were complying with the Human Rights Act. These proactive strategies are a crucial part of how the Commission promotes human rights in the territory, as they address some of the root causes of human rights abuses.

Yet the systems of power that lead to discrimination and harassment are resilient. Yukon’s Human Rights Commission itself was created by a colonial government and does not fundamentally change that fact. After work, over lunch, and during our weekly “coffee time” discussions, my colleagues and I often discuss systemic obstacles to creating a more just society and world. We share resources and personal experiences, and these moments of thinking together have contributed a lot to my education here this summer. They also put the inquiries I’ve taken into a broader context, in which addressing systems such as patriarchy, racism, ableism, etc. goes beyond human rights complaints. A successful human rights complaint is no small accomplishment; it can compensate the person who experienced the discrimination or harassment while having a deterrent effect. But it is also symptomatic of a society in which these systems of power continue to circulate.

[1] Human Rights Act, RSY 2002, c 116 at s. 16(1)(e).

Navigating the Ins and Outs of the Yukon Human Rights Act

By Garima Karia

During my time at the Yukon Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”), I drafted legal memos for the Legal Counsel and Director. The subject matters of these legal memos often arose out of ongoing Commission investigations, or live matters before the Director, which made them both timely and interesting. The memos also often dealt with interpreting and potentially expanding the scope of the Yukon Human Rights Act. In this blog, I will highlight my findings from my largest undertaking during the internship: a memo I drafted on section 12 of the Yukon Human Rights Act. Currently, section 12 of the Act reads as follows:

Systemic discrimination: “Any conduct that results in discrimination is discrimination.”

My colleagues at the Commission and I thought that this definition of systemic discrimination could use some work as it lacks clarity and specificity. Therefore, my task was to do a deep dive into how the term should be defined, and to propose a series of reforms to this section of to the Act that could clarify the definition of systemic racism/discrimination.  To ensure that I proposed a comprehensive set of recommendations, I surveyed all Canadian human rights legislation (provincial, territorial, federal) and jurisprudence to assess if and how other jurisdictions drafted provisions relating to systemic discrimination, and how these provisions were interpreted by tribunals and courts. I also looked broadly at academic commentary on the matter.

I found that, currently, no exemplary definition of systemic discrimination exists in Canadian legislation. However, upon surveying different definitions and interpretations of the term, I identified six key characteristics that, if combined, could make up a comprehensive definition of systemic discrimination. These key elements are the following:

  1. The effect or impact of a policy or act, rather than its intention, is at the crux of systemic discrimination. In other words, if a well-intentioned policy or act has the effect or impact of disadvantageous treatment of a particular protected group, it may be considered to perpetuate systemic discrimination despite its intent.
  2. Facially neutral policies or acts may cause systemic discrimination.
  3. Systemic discrimination is often subtle or “hidden.”
  4. Systemic discrimination is rooted in long-standing social and cultural attitudes and norms.
  5. Systemic discrimination may be embedded or detected in patterns/series/continuing phenomena that have significant cumulative effects. In other words, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” when it comes to the collective effect of various instances of discrimination or differential treatment that result in systemic discrimination.
  6. Systemic discrimination often contains an element of intersectionality.

In addition to the Yukon, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are the only other jurisdictions that define or include systemic discrimination in a meaningful way in their human rights legislation. While Saskatchewan’s Code does not include a definition, it empowers its Commission to prevent and address systemic patterns of discrimination. Manitoba’s definition is more specific than Yukon’s in that it includes elements of “effect/impact over intent” and “pattern/series/continuing phenomena resulting in significant cumulative effects,” but is still missing other key elements from the list above. As such, I proposed that a re-formulation of section 12 include all six key elements, as well as a provision that empowers the Commission to tackle the issue of systemic discrimination specifically.

Amending the systemic discrimination provision of the Act is important because manifestations of systemic discrimination undoubtedly make their way into human rights complaints. Even in cases of more “overt” systemic discrimination (e.g. if a pattern of behaviour is apparent or a complainant has been able to track acts of discrimination and their cumulative effect over time), a clear definition of the term and all that it may entail will empower complainants as well as Commissions and Tribunals to better interpret and deal with the impacts of systemic discrimination. Moreover, giving Commissions the agency to address and combat systemic discrimination as part of their mandates may produce creative and productive results.

Through my in-depth research and broad survey of how systemic discrimination has been conceptualized by courts, legislatures, human rights commissions, and academics across Canada, I have identified a list of key features that I argue should be integrated into any legislation or body’s definition of the term. In so doing, these bodies will give courts, complainants, and the public a clearer idea of what systemic discrimination entails, and how we can go about dismantling it.

Human Rights and the Importance of Resources Beyond the Law

By Hannah MacLean Reaburn

The views expressed in this blog are my own.

This summer, I worked remotely with Avocats Sans Frontières Canada (ASFC) and with the Ministry of Justice in Namibia. The experience of working with two organizations was incredibly fulfilling, as I was able to practice my legal skills in a technical sense – through completing research projects, writing reports, and running legal analysis – but also because I was able to experience how the law operates in different contexts.

In a number of ways, the internships were very different, with ASFC being a non-governmental international cooperation organization and the Ministry of Justice being a government office; however, there were similarities in how both organizations approached the law as a tool to facilitate and access human rights. At both organizations, there was a recognition that the law was not the sole answer to the issues at stake and that, while the law is crucial as a resource and shapes the lived realities of many people, human rights work requires engaging with fields beyond the law.

At ASFC, I researched sexual and reproductive health rights for women in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Bénin. As a legal intern, my research focused on legal resources; however, the project itself is collaborative between ASFC, le Centre de Coopération Internationale en Santé et Développement, and SOCODEVI. Legal work alone is not enough to bring sexual and reproductive rights into reality: it also takes health, education, and transportation resources – among many others – for international human rights to become tangible. Though the law is a powerful instrument, it does not operate in a vacuum, and it takes multi-sector commitments to move human rights law from the abstract into reality.

At the Ministry of Justice, I reported directly to the Honourable Minister Yvonne Dausab. This internship experience emphasized for me the importance of journalism and publicly available information as means of facilitating human rights. Between working on projects pertaining to genocide reparations, vaccine access, and immigration, Minister Dausab took time to respond thoughtfully to questions posed by the public through newspaper opinion pieces and articles. To ensure meaningful and clear responses, I was assigned to research topics ranging from judicial independence to presidential discretion in appointing members of the National Assembly. Responding to these questions with such deep consideration demonstrated both the Minister’s respect for the thoughts of the public and recognition that people should be able to ask questions of their governments and have their concerns be taken seriously and responded to in an accessible and public manner.

I completed these internships after my first year of law school and after spending eight months focused on case law and legal reasoning, it was refreshing to see how much the law operates outside of itself. It has been with gratitude and humility that I’ve watched resources and ideas be exchanged between organizations with a variety of expertise in the shared pursuit of human rights.

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.

Access to Justice in Action at the Yukon Human Rights Commission

By Garima Karia

This summer, I have had the immense fortune of moving to Whitehorse, Yukon to work alongside the fantastic humans at the Yukon Human Rights Commission (“the Commission”). As I read my peers’ reflections on their own human rights internship experiences, many of which include musings and lessons surrounding remote work, I feel both incredibly lucky and guilty – lucky that I was able to spend nine out of twelve weeks in the Yukon, and guilty that I happened upon this rare privilege in the midst of a pandemic. All that I can say is that I’m deeply grateful, and that I hope to do right by the opportunity.

At the Commission, my main duties are three-fold: I take “duty” shifts, during which I am the point-person in the office for inquiries from members of the public; I draft legal memos on questions of law and procedure that come up in human rights complaint investigations; and I support the human rights investigators by transcribing interviews, editing investigation reports, and talking through various aspects of human rights and administrative law as they apply to investigations. I have also been lucky enough to witness our Director facilitate settlement discussions and shadow him in his role as the “gatekeeper” at the threshold stage of the human rights complaint process.

Thus far, my favourite part of the job has been taking human rights inquiries from the public. This arm of the Commission operates similarly to a legal clinic (like the Legal Information Clinic at McGill, where I have been a caseworker in the past). We listen to an inquirer’s story or question (sometimes multiple questions!), and then provide relevant information about the Yukon Human Rights Act and the Commission’s human rights complaint process. Two key elements of an inquiry are explaining, in simple terms, the prima facie test for discrimination and the duty to accommodate. Both are core elements of the Act that work to guard against human rights violations and discrimination. The “ground-harm-nexus” model underlying the prima facie test can sometimes be justifiably difficult for inquirers to grasp. Many will state that they are a member of a vulnerable group that is protected under the Act, and that they experienced a harm in one of the protected areas (e.g. employment or accessing goods and services), but the nexus – the idea that the harm was driven by and sufficiently connected to discrimination based on a protected characteristic (such as gender expression, race, religion, or family status) – is the hardest to grasp.

Inquiries are challenging because they can often be very personal and emotional for the individual seeking assistance from the Commission. During my time here, I have dealt with inquiries pertaining to wrongful dismissal for disability or family status reasons to visitation rights of inmates and discrimination perpetuated by medical professionals. I have also encountered numerous COVID-related inquiries about vaccine status “discrimination” and mask mandates. Even though I am unable to provide legal advice as a Commission employee, I can comfort those who sought assistance from the Commission and assure them that I would do my best to guide them through the process. Engaging with Yukoners in this way – hearing and responding to their inquiries – feels like the most “human” part of my job. Although I love legal research and diving deeply into a niche question of law, I sometimes find that theoretical exercises leave me feeling distant from the actual practice of law and access to justice. Inquiries, on the other hand, illustrate how legal information can empower people to autonomously make informed decisions and choices that are attuned to their particular situation(s) or lived experience(s), which is what I think access to justice is all about. It’s rewarding to equip someone who felt powerless in their situation with resources and information that empower them to seek recourse and feel supported in doing so.

I am also learning a lot from the exercise of explaining human rights law without legal jargon. I am able to see, first-hand, how easily digestible the law can be without the opacity I often come across in law school settings. Many inquirers who come to the Commission cannot afford direct legal action and have exhausted many other avenues for resolution. They are often frustrated and losing hope – many have told me that they aren’t ready to give up on their cases but are tired of losing time and facing dead ends. Something as simple as understanding a legal test and filling out a complaint form, thereby commencing a dispute resolution process, gives some degree of reprieve to many people.

Human rights commissions and tribunals across the country provide free access to discrimination-related dispute resolution. In doing so, individuals who have experienced discrimination can seek justice in a very tangible and inexpensive way, unlike through the courts. However, like other useful bodies in the legal sphere, many human rights commissions are understaffed and underfunded, which can lead to significant delays. I plan to learn more about access to justice efforts in the administrative legal space in order to (hopefully) raise more awareness about and increase support for this avenue for dispute resolution in Canada.

The Procedure Underpinning Human Rights at the Commission

Jeremy Wiener By Jeremy Wiener

This summer, I am working at the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ). Every Canadian province has a human rights commission or tribunal, and the CDPDJ is Quebec’s. The CDPDJ’s principal task is promoting the principles enshrined in Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (which has quasi-constitutional status). To promote the Charter, the CDPDJ makes recommendations to the Quebec government regarding statutory law’s conformity  with the Charter, promotes scholarly research and publications on issues related to the Charter, carries out investigations of discrimination, and even represents complainants before the Tribunal des droits de la personne by drafting factums and pleading before judges.

My work has entailed researching questions of law to help the CDPDJ represent those who allege that they have been discriminated against. I do so, however, not only by researching anti-discrimination law. I have also analyzed procedural law, and the law relating to business association and civil evidence – law taught in McGill law courses that I have not taken yet! This has reminded me that protecting people’s constitutional rights requires much more legal knowledge than what only relates to constitutional law.

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I am working remotely this summer due to Covid-19. This has, naturally, and not surprisingly, proved challenging. But it has also presented unique opportunities. For example, if I was working at the Commission’s office, I would not be able to take a two-minute break from working to play with my dog as I do now!

All jokes aside, my colleagues at the Commission have gone to great lengths to make working remotely feel like we are working inter-connectedly, and I very much appreciate it! My internship thus far has proved incredibly insightful and formative, and I thank all those at McGill, IHRIP, and at the Commission who have made this opportunity possible.

On living through an infodemic

Hanna RiosecoBy Hanna Rioseco

This summer, the World Health Organization (WHO) hosted the first Infodemiology Conference, focused on understanding, measuring, and controlling infodemics.

The term “infodemic” was coined by the WHO to describe the rapid spread and overabundance of information – some accurate, and some not. In a situation report published in early February, the WHO warned that infodemics make it difficult to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance. During COVID-19, the consequences of misinformation can be a matter of life and death: a study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene estimates that between January and March 800 people around the globe may have died because of coronavirus-related misinformation.

Mitigating the risk of COVID-19 includes tackling the spread of misinformation that often accompanies outbreaks. Like a virus, misinformation spreads from person to person, but through information and communications technology systems.

I don’t have to consult the WHO, however, to recognize the information crisis for what it is: I’m living, scrolling, and sorting through it myself. Since February, my newsfeeds have been crowded with COVID-19 related news, stories, and memes. But the content that comes across my screen is not all accurate, or even useful. I’ve seen acquaintances criticize government directives about social distancing and question the effectiveness of mask-wearing; conspiracy theories regarding the origins and nature of the virus, some fueled with harmful sentiments; and medical misinformation such as untested at-home remedies. In Canada, a Carleton University study found that 46 percent of Canadian respondents believed at least one of four unfounded COVID-19 theories. 

To curb the spread of misinformation, the WHO has been active in the digital space by partnering with influencers to spread factual information. They have also been working closely with search engines and social media platforms to ensure that science-based health messages from official sources appear first in search results or newsfeeds. These efforts are being made to combat dangerous rumors, for example, that COVID-19 cannot survive in hot weather, or that chloroquine medication can prevent the virus. Additionally, the WHO is using artificial intelligence to engage in social listening and gain insights about the types of concerns people have about the virus. In theory, this will help officials to better tailor health messaging to meet the needs of the public. As I researched and reported on pandemic-related changes to access to information laws for the Centre for Law and Democracy’s COVID-19 Tracker, I also learned about how some States have used the infodemic surrounding COVID-19 as justification for harsh disinformation laws. Though aimed at protecting public health by curbing the spread of misinformation surrounding COVID-19, these laws have in many cases resulted in the detention of journalists and the criminalization of free speech. These responses raise a multitude of concerns, not only regarding human rights but also concerning how communications and information policy and legal frameworks can support access to reliable information moving forward.

During my internship at the Centre for Law and Democracy, I learned about how governments can mitigate the harmful effects of misinformation surrounding COVID-19 by fulfilling their right to information obligations. In a time where things feel more uncertain than ever, States can rebuild public trust and confidence by providing access to timely, reliable information. As I think about what I’ve learned about freedom of information and expression, and reflect on how our information systems and policies have failed to keep people informed and protected during this crisis, I am left with more questions than answers. What can this moment teach us about regulating the information environment? The problems posed by misinformation will, in all likelihood, outlast the virus, and require a multi-stakeholder solution. How can our digital communications infrastructure better safeguard against the harms of misinformation? What role should the private digital companies play? Should platforms censor or label content they identify as being false or misleading, or would that set a dangerous precedent for the moderation of free speech? And of course, where do human rights fit in?

What We Take for Granted…

By Leila Alfaro

The beautiful Andes, somewhere south of Mendoza

July 22nd, 2019

This is my last week in Mar del Plata. The last month has been tough for my family and me, as we have struggled with maintaining our Argentinian routine, so different from our regular one, and have been feeling homesick, missing our family and friends. I am very excited to head back home, but I am also very thankful for my time here, for the encounters I have had, the things I have learned, the places I have visited and the memories I have made. As the weeks progressed, I often had to fight the disconcerting thought that my presence here would ultimately prove to be useless and that in the end, I would realize just how little I had accomplished this summer.  I partly blame this on the slow pace of life here but these fears, certainly, were also anchored on the notion of just how complex issues pertaining to disability rights are, and that there is no single way of tackling them without eventually uncovering further underlying issues of a more complex nature. Exploring the field of disability rights, namely in a country with a fragile economy, proved to be beyond frustrating at times. A cloud of helplessness and desolation was hanging constantly over my head, as I had to come to terms with the extent to which ableism is embedded in the structures of society and just how limited the impact of rights and laws on paper can be, when there is simply so much that has to change in order to guarantee a dignified life for members of such marginalized group.

While I had no experience whatsoever in the field, especially in the Argentinian context, I found myself learning so much, so quickly. By learning from the situation in this foreign country, I inevitably felt the urge to find out more about the reality back in Canada. One of the most interesting moments in the context of the workshops with people with disabilities was when I was able to present a brief overview of how Canada approaches voting rights for people with disabilities. By communicating the reality of my country, I was able to share interesting links, like how the issue of an aging population has an incidence on the existing efforts of accommodation.

Curiously, when I elaborated on how there is still much to accomplish in Canada as well, I was met with what felt like skepticism. Argentinians certainly hold Canada in high regard, since they see our institutions as well-funded, efficient and “serious”. The irony is not lost in me, that as much as they admire said efficiency, they do not seem interested in a more rapidly-paced lifestyle. Indeed, such tradeoffs are inevitable, and we are not always in a position to be adequately critical of them given our own biases and perspectives which are ultimately limited by our personal realities.

Being abroad, I have mostly been able to reflect on the things I take for granted (like the people who are part of my daily life, the comfort of my home or some of my favourite foods!), but I have also learned about what people here take for granted. As I have become interested in the topic of voting rights for people with disabilities, I have begun working on a research project of my own. As I debated on which topic to present to the Centre for approval, I ultimately felt the strong urge to address the mandatory aspect of Argentinian suffrage. I found it fascinating how the people with whom I interacted could be so comfortable communicating their own frustrations regarding their system yet seemed very willing to justify it when I would question factors such as mandatory voting. I was surprised to find that virtually no literature exists on the subject in relation to disability (I was told there had been some kind of project done in another university that tackled this issue, but I have yet to learn more about it). I quickly became under the impression that, while Argentinians do recognize the particularity of their voting system in this regard (mandatory voting), they are quite satisfied with it. When it comes to discussing and promoting the ability to vote, basically no attention was brought to how the principle of mandatory voting might also impact persons with disabilities. This notion exemplifies the degree of ableism in society in terms of what the State expects from its citizens, seemingly ignoring the existing gap between those who have impairments and those who do not have any.

While I was pleased to hear that my research project relied on a novel outlook of the situation, I expect to gain more insight on the underlying ambiguities of mandatory voting, especially given the historical context of the Argentinian political scene. In elaborating on this topic, I hope to encourage other researchers and clinical workers to become more sensible to how the obstacles people with disabilities face are linked to more complex structural factors of society that we tend to take for granted.

My going-away dinner with members of the Extension Group on Voting Rights for PWD, comprised of graduate students and faculty from multiple fields

 

The last workshop in which I participated, especially tailored for people with visual impairments

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