Final Days, Final Thoughts

By Caroline Schurman Grenier

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will I be the next Amal Clooney? Doubtful.

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

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

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

Time will tell.


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

Settling in on the Smiling Coast of Africa

No matter how you many countries you visit or live in, moving to The Gambia is a whole different experience. Nothing quite prepares you for the change, the weather, the people, the men, the poverty and the adjustments you have to make. The friendliness on the “Smiling Coast of Africa” definitely helped but I still found it difficult to adjust in my first few weeks.

Things don’t work when you want them to, the power goes off when you really don’t want it to, goats scream in the middle of the night and it’s terrifying, sidewalks are a luxury, it takes 4 hours to get something done when all you need is 30 minutes, you sweat in places you didn’t know existed, seeing cows walking by your side as you try to tan on the beach is normal, you fear the bathroom, you accept you will never be as well dressed as West African women, you’re convinced the mosquito in your bedroom is going to give you malaria, you feel a special bond with your electric fan at work, you try to learn to appreciate instant coffee (I haven’t), and you actually begin to answer when people call you toubab on the street (the Wolof word for white).

If you do not learn to be flexible and to take things with a grain of salt, you won’t like it at all.

Some of the more frustrating aspects of day to day life grow on you with time. I came to enjoy the freezing cold wakeup call of my morning bucket shower making it oh so clear that it was time for work.  I found my evening feet rinse quite therapeutic even if it was because the lack of sidewalks and the abundance of dirt roads make your feet turn a whole new colour. Sometimes the fridge would stop working, meaning it was a reason to go out and eat Gambian cuisine, which is actually fantastic, unless you’re allergic to peanuts, in which case you’d die just by stepping out of the airport of the country where peanuts are the ONLY export.

One ritual I’ve come to thoroughly enjoy is to walk down to the local market after work to pick up my vegetables and mangoes (a food group in itself in The Gambia when they’re in season). There, I get to chat with Ara, a lovely Gambian woman, always beautifully dressed (I could stare at these outfits forever) who runs the fruit and vegetable stand with her brother. I was drawn to her stand on my first day after work and have been going since. A few days in, she asked if I liked parsley and gave me some for free. I was so touched by her gesture; that’s what Gambians are like. They’re happy, they’re generous yet they have so little. It’s incredibly humbling and we can all learn from their wonderful nature.

Some of it doesn’t grow on you and makes you so frustrated you could just scream into a pillow for hours on end. I’m a very independent person, I do things on my own and I’m used to going where I want to solo. As a white woman, even though the country is very safe, I can’t do whatever I want without being disturbed. Going to the gym or for a run? Men will try to run next to you. Go for a leisurely stroll? Have lunch in a restaurant? Go to the beach? Get a taxi? Walk around local markets? Someone is going to introduce themselves to you and propose to you. If you find a Black man to join you, you’re fine. But that still means I have to spend time with someone if I want to venture out anywhere. We all have days where we don’t want to interact with humanity, where we just want to be lost in our thoughts, read, write, drink coffee, listen to music and just be on our own. When I feel that way, I find myself forced to stay home because there is literally no way I can find that peace if I leave my compound.

Some of it doesn’t grow on you but you learn to tolerate it. Cat calling isn’t fun, but some men are more imaginative than others at complementing women. One said I was as pretty as A flower in A garden (no one told him beauty lies in precision), a nice change from the whistles or the ones screaming from the other side of the street, BOSS LADY HI YOU LOOKING GOOD TODAY, I was offered romantic rides on donkey carriages, was proposed to by taxi drivers and was expected to give out my phone number in the same way you throw fish to a hungry crocodile; freely and with no restraint. Many men confessed their love to me, a nice ego boost from my love life back in Montreal. Of course I rarely answered but often took mental notes of what was being said and write it down for entertainment. If you can’t laugh about it, you’ll cry of frustration because it happens so often. Every man wants to shake your hand. WHAT IS WITH THAT? I don’t know you and quite frankly have no desire to know you, so please, save the hand shaking and just wave hello.

It’s not always fun and I often times find myself thinking “I’m The Gambia, what the actual fudge” (censored for academic integrity) and then I remind myself that this is a once in a lifetime experience, that most people never leave their comfort zone and that I am growing so much from my time in The Gambia.

That being said, I’m only human so if I’m having a rough day, that’s ok too. It’ll pass.


Reflections on Human Rights Education

By Sara E.B. Pierre

One of the things I loved the most about working at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) was observing and participating in their capacity-building workshops. I am a big believer in education, and I think it is crucial when it comes to human rights work. IHRDA gives presentations and workshops as part of its education mandate. They also have a mandate to defend, which they do by advocating on behalf of victims of human rights abuses, and to inform, which they do by building a comprehensive database of African human rights legislation.

There is one phrase in particular that one of my supervisors said at a capacity-building workshop back in The Gambia which has stuck with me. In our Critical Engagements with Human Rights class, we have had many discussions about the tension and overlap between international, national and regional human rights norms. Are human rights a Western concept? The answer is no.

The phrase I remember my supervisor saying was at a capacity-building workshop for police officers/prosecutors and social workers on harmful practices against girls and women. He said that harmful practices against women and girls are not part of African culture; “maybe it was a part of our culture 200 years ago, but if you practice FGM (female genital mutilation) or child marriage in Africa now, you are violating our culture.” I think he was trying to show how culture is fluid, and no one state has a monopoly on the concept of human rights. Yes, we may all have slight differences when it comes to writing laws, and this is a good thing. However, the bottom line is that human rights are universal rights, and nothing, not even claims of practicing one’s actual or alleged culture, should get in the way of that.

The capacity-building workshop was prepared by an NGO called Safe Hands for Girls, in collaboration with IHRDA. The theme of the two-day training was harmful practices against women and girls, and we focused on forced marriage, and especially female genital mutilation, or FGM. This last topic was especially difficult to hear about, as the first speaker went into the painful specifics of the operation, complete with real life images. There were no trigger warnings, but there was a moment of individual prayer before the workshop began. Besides talking about how painful the procedure is for infants, children and women, the speaker also explained that how it is done can lead to complications which affect the health and sometimes the life of the person being operated, especially when/if she becomes pregnant.


One of my supervisors at IHRDA spoke about women’s rights in The Gambia. He brought up an interesting point: how even though FGM has been outlawed in the country, and there is extensive knowledge that the practice is still widespread (76% of women in The Gambia have suffered through FGM), there have been no cases brought forward. When he brought up the question of how this can be, something interesting happened. A police officer said there have been no cases brought forward because they do not receive reports or complaints. However, a social worker replied that just the other day someone came to her with a report of FGM, and when they tried involving the local police, the police officer did not want to make an arrest for fear of being targeted by the community. I think this situation is all too prevalent and is very useful for showing the disconnect between the law and practice. To me, it shows that human rights work must be rooted in education, and must be contextual. A top-down approach does not work. If we truly want sustainable change, we must first change the attitudes of the perpetrators of the human rights abuses. In order to change peoples’ minds, we have to get to know them.



Blog Post 1: First Lessons and Impressions

By: Sara E.B. Pierre

A few months preceding my internship, I saw a news story on my Facebook page about how the President of a small country in West Africa accepted defeat after 22 years of dictatorship, but quickly changed his mind. The President’s name was Yahya Jammeh, and the country was The Gambia – where my internship was taking place in the summer. For a long time after this news, I was not sure whether the internship would happen. In the end, Jammeh was pressured enough to accept defeat and left the country. I did some more research on him before I left for The Gambia. It was only later that I found out how the Gambians I saw on my screen, cheering him in the streets, were forced to do so every time he made a public appearance. Through my work, I started to realize how he ruined the reputation and endangered the health of those he claimed to have personally healed of AIDS, and how terrifying it must have been to live in a place where any member of your family could go missing and be tortured without ever getting any answers.


The first week of May I was greeted into the New Gambia. Billboards, T-Shirts and graffiti all proclaimed, “Gambia Has Decided”. I saw people selling smartphone data plans, shoes and fruit on the side of the street, I saw monkeys waiting for a safe time to cross those same streets, and I saw vultures resting on top of the street lights. I ate mangoes every day and soaked in the sun at the beach.

On my first day of work I took multiple taxis which have designated stops, kind like the public transportation system I was used to back in Montreal. After getting lost and telling the taxi driver I was working in human rights, I was dropped off at the African Human Rights Commission. This was not actually my workplace. It was, however, as I would soon come to realize, the place our complaints (“Communications”) would sometimes be sent, seeking redress for those across the continent whose rights have been violated by their government.

Some cases and presentations I have done research for include those advancing the complainant’s right to health, right to work, right to not be tortured, right to education and to freedom of expression. These, and many more, are enshrined in a Charter I have gotten more and more familiar with over the months – the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The part that I find most impressive about this Charter (which was set up in The Gambia itself), is that it not only protects civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, but it also protects group rights (such as the right to a “generally satisfactory environment”), and lays out duties incumbent upon these same individuals and peoples.

After a very friendly Gambian woman helped me find my actual workplace, I realized it was only a short walk away from the Commission. We walked past the roundabout (adorably named “Turn Table”) and found The Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHDRA).

I was impressed with the pan-African non-governmental organization even before I arrived in The Gambia. Besides reading about their mission to defend, educate, and inform, what struck me most was how they included professional pictures of staff members, such as the gardener and cook, on their staff page. The idea that justice and the fight for human rights involves so much more than what superstar lawyers do is a big lesson that I am learning. At our staff meeting, we all had the chance to say what we had been working on, whether this had to do with the organization’s website, a conference someone would be presenting at, or making sure we have clean and running water. When everyone’s voice was heard, I felt there was transparency, accountability and fellowship. The value of these things cannot be dismissed because it reinforces the underlying truth that we, those who work to uplift the dignity of human beings, are not there to “save” or “fix” anyone; we are there to build safer and more just communities, and to empower people. And what a better way to project that vision than by reflecting it in the way we uplift our own neighbours?

« Penser comme un avocat » : Réflexions sur le raisonnement juridique

2013 Jean-Marc Lacourciere 2 100x150Voilà maintenant un mois que je suis à Banjul, en Gambie, à travailler pour l’Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa. J’ai découvert une ville côtière paisible et agréable. J’ai la chance de travailler avec des gens de partout à travers l’Afrique, dans un contexte des plus chaleureux et accueillants.[1]

Il m’est arrivé à plusieurs reprises, durant mes études en droit, d’éprouver un certain scepticisme face aux méthodes de raisonnement juridique. En bref, je trouve qu’en essayant de schématiser les réalités sociales complexes, ces méthodes finissent parfois par les masquer. Il m’est arrivé, dans la dernière semaine, de ressentir de tels sentiments suite à deux événements différents. En racontant ceux-ci, j’espère vous donner une occasion de réfléchir aux limites du raisonnement juridique, en plus d’un aperçu du type de travail que je fais ici.

La forme qui l’emporte sur le fond

La mission principale de l’IHRDA est d’offrir des services juridiques pro bono aux victimes africaines de violations de droits de la personne. Nous intentons des litiges devant  les instances internationales, telles que la Commission africaine des droits de l’Homme et des peuples, ainsi que devant les tribunaux nationaux de pays africains.

Un des dossiers sur lesquels je travaille depuis mon arrivée concerne le massacre qui a eu lieu au village de Kilwa, en République Démocratique du Congo (RDC), en octobre 2004. Suite à une insurrection mineure, les Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) ont été dépêchées à Kilwa. Elles s’y sont livrées à d’horrifiantes exactions : tirs d’obus sur des populations civiles, torture, viols, exécutions sommaires. La Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo a estimé à 73 personnes le nombre de civils tués par les FARDC. [2] Le massacre a, en outre, été commis avec la complicité d’une compagnie minière canadienne, Anvil Mining Limited. Cette dernière possédait une mine de cuivre à proximité de Kilwa, et l’insurrection avait forcé l’arrêt de ses opérations.[3] L’IHRDA a logé une plainte au nom des victimes contre la RDC devant la Commission africaine des droits de l’Homme et des peuples.

C’est en travaillant sur ce dossier que j’ai eu un premier moment d’épatement face à mon raisonnement juridique. Une collègue m’avait demandé de consulter des affidavits de victimes. Ils contenaient des récits horrifiants.  Les victimes y racontaient les circonstances de la mort ou de la torture de leurs proches. Cependant, en les lisant, une de mes premières réactions fut de m’attarder sur ce qui m’apparaissaient être des lacunes dans leur rédaction. Certains d’entre eux semblaient contenir du ouï-dire. D’autres contenaient des opinions sur des questions médicales exprimées par des personnes sans expertise dans le domaine.

Après quelques instants, j’ai eu un petit moment d’éveil, et été assez désolé par mes réactions. Comment se pouvait-il qu’en lisant des documents relatant des événements aussi tragiques, j’aie le réflexe de m’attarder à leur conformité aux règles de preuve ? Une partie de la réponse se trouve peut-être ici : en nous forçant à prouver un événement en obéissant à des règles strictes et complexes, le droit peut facilement nous faire perdre de vue ces événements. Les victimes de tragédies comme celles de Kilwa veulent que ce qui leur est arrivé soit reconnu par un tribunal. Cependant, pour ce faire, il ne suffit pas pour l’avocate d’y inviter la victime pour qu’elle y raconte son histoire. Elle doit s’attarder à la forme que prendra cette histoire lorsqu’elle sera racontée devant le tribunal. Je crois que ceci crée inévitablement un risque que l’attention à la forme prenne le dessus sur l’attention au contenu. C’est ce qui semble m’être arrivé pour un instant.

Pour ce qui est de la qualité des affidavits, quand j’ai posé la question à mon directeur, il m’a expliqué que la Commission africaine appliquait des règles de preuve plus souples que les tribunaux canadiens : elle n’évalue pas la probité des éléments individuellement, mais dans le contexte de l’ensemble de la preuve présentée. Comme quoi l’importance accordée à la forme varie d’un système juridique à l’autre.

Les limites de l’ « activisme judiciaire »

La semaine dernière, l’IHRDA a organisé un atelier de formation sur l’aide juridique en Gambie, à l’intention des forces policières gambiennes. Une des conférencières était une juge à la Cour d’appel de la Gambie. Elle a expliqué durant sa présentation qu’à plusieurs reprises, elle avait ordonné à l’agence gambienne d’aide juridique de représenter des accusés dans des affaires criminelles. Cette affirmation a étonné plusieurs des juristes dans la salle : les accusés en question n’étaient clairement pas admissibles à l’aide juridique en vertu du Legal Aid Act de la Gambie. Lorsque questionnée sur ce point, la juge a répondu avoir été motivée par de considérations de justice, les accusés étant complètement incapables de faire valoir leur cause par eux-mêmes. Elle a, par la suite, affirmé ce qui suit : « l’agence d’aide juridique aurait pu faire appel de mon ordre en Cour Suprême de la Gambie; tant que la Cour Suprême ne se sera pas prononcée contre les ordres de la sorte, je considère que j’ai l’autorité pour les émettre. »

J’ai passé un bon moment à réfléchir à ce dernier commentaire. La juge en question s’était arrogé un énorme pouvoir. En suivant son raisonnement, un tribunal a compétence pour rendre n’importe lequel ordre qui lui semble juste, sans égards au droit. Je suis d’habitude favorable à l’ « activisme judiciaire », surtout quand il est utilisé pour faire progresser le droit pour mieux tenir compte de réalités sociales. Cependant, il m’est aussi arrivé d’être frustré en lisant des décisions où, selon moi, une juge avait ignoré une règle clairement énoncée dans un texte de loi, afin de promouvoir sa vision de la politique sociale la plus souhaitable. Entre la juge qui applique le droit et celle qui décide en fonction de ce qui lui semble juste, je suppose que la première a l’avantage d’être prévisible.

Reconnaître les limites du raisonnement juridique

Je conclus sur cette notion de prévisibilité. Le peu de temps que j’ai passé à travailler dans le domaine du litige d’intérêt public me donne l’impression que nos combats doivent être menés sur plusieurs fronts. En tant qu’outil de progrès social, le litige a certainement ses limites, et doit être combiné à la participation dans les instances démocratiques, à la mobilisation populaire, à la dissémination d’information, etc. Reconnaître les limites du raisonnement juridique, et jusqu’où celui-ci pourra la mener dans une cause donnée, est donc une habilité importante pour l’avocate dans ce domaine. Elle lui permet de savoir quand il est favorable de saisir les tribunaux, et quand  il vaut mieux de défendre une cause par d’autres moyens.

[1] Consultez le site de l’IHRDA si l’organisme vous intéresse, il est très bien fait:

[3] Les victimes ont essayé, sans succès malheureusement, de faire autoriser un recours collectif contre Anvil devant les tribunaux québécois. Pour de l’information sur les procédures judiciaires au Québec, vous pouvez consulter le site du cabinet qui a agi pour les victimes, Trudel & Johnston :

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.