Neutral Conceptions of Disability Law

Isabel BaltzanBy Isabel Baltzan

As my internship with the the Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos at the PUCP in Lima and the course on disability law comes to an end, I wanted to write out some final reflections.

A huge aspect of the course, beyond explaining how legal frameworks function with regard to disability, was determining what moral values underpin the laws in place. For example, we discussed the transition from a medical model of disability – wherein a disabled person is responsible for overcoming their disability through science and medicine (e.g. seeking to remedy a disability through consultation with a doctor, or medication, etc.) – to a social model of disability – wherein the world around a disabled person is what poses limitations to their existence (e.g. having stairs be more commonplace than ramps is a societal choice).

The underlying assumptions in these models are vastly different, as the medical model proposes an individualist approach to disability – and assumes it is always unwanted, a burden, a drawback. The social model, on the other hand, is much more collective – seeking solutions to barriers outside of just the disabled person and into society itself; this conception doesn’t assume that disability is inherently bad, or good; it just is, and we must work with it.

This neutral conception of disability is compelling, because it withholds judgement. Another topic we discussed in class at length was the many stereotypes and assumptions people have about disabilities – and I came to terms with my own. A super common one, for example, is the assumption that disabled people are pure, kind, angelic, harmless, vulnerable. This is a positive stereotype, but it is a stereotype nonetheless – one that can harm disabled people in different ways (see, for example, the discussion in the film Crip Camp surrounding sex, desire and sexual identity being forgotten when it comes to disabled people).

Having a neutral conception of disability is a good first step to conceiving of laws in a neutral way. Based on this idea, we had a later discussion in the class about the value society attributes to disabled lives, eugenics, and abortion. With Peru being an overwhelmingly Catholic country, its religious and legal heritage are intertwined, and abortion has been illegal since 1924 except for in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. There are criminal penalties to undergoing abortion for any other reason. There is a wrinkle in the law, however: the penalty for an illegal abortion is lower if the pregnancy resulted from a violent act outside of marriage, or non-consensual artificial insemination outside of marriage; and if the pregnancy is probable of resulting in the birth of a severely physically or mentally disabled child.

There is a ton to unpack within these provisions, but the only focus of our discussion was, ‘why do we punish people less for illegally aborting probably disabled foetuses, than when they abort probably non-disabled foetuses?’ The answer was tricky to defend, because the provision inheres that it is more reprehensible to abort a non-disabled foetus than a disabled one. Ergo, disabled lives are worth less than non-disabled lives. The only defense that came up was that disabled children can be a huge stress on their families, both emotionally and financially, and that many families are not ready to raise a disabled child – and it’s understandable that someone would want to go forth with abortion in that case. However, this defense quickly falls apart when it is considered in light of the entire set of provisions, which highly restrict when women can decide to abort at all, with the only valid excuse being ‘I am going to die if I continue with this pregnancy.’ The thorniness of the whole ordeal is because the law isn’t neutral – not with regard to abortion, nor the value of women’s choice, nor disability. So, we sought out solutions – neutral conceptions of law – that would remedy this issue.

As this discussion was unfolding I was fervently Googling away, trying to understand what the heck everyone was talking about when discussing therapeutic and eugenic abortions – I had only ever heard of abortion, tout court. And then it dawns on me – I’ve never heard of any of this because we don’t use any of these terms in Canada. Here, the law on abortion is …almost non-existent. R v. Morgentaler tells us that it’s an infringement on S. 7 to impose any. The choice is entirely left to people who get pregnant (and the health networks that service them, but that’s another issue). The law takes basically no position on abortion in Canada; it is as close to neutral as you can get.

I finally piped up and gave the example about Canada and its neutral conception of abortion, even if it maybe isn’t a realistic model for Peru to adopt. It’s a different country, with a vastly different culture and different values, and dropping an unwanted Canadian superiority complex into class with regard to abortion laws wasn’t my goal. I wanted to illustrate it as an example of a neutral conception of abortion, which in turn is also entirely neutral with regard to abortion of disabled foetuses. With a complete 180 of Peruvian abortion laws being a bit abstract, the professor suggested another non-discriminatory solution, which sounds radical on its face. She suggested that we stop giving health information about foetal disability to pregnant people – because if they don’t know this specific information, they don’t choose to abort based on this specific information. My knee-jerk reaction here was, ‘But people should know if they are going to have a disabled baby! Why wouldn’t just making the entire law neutral avoid the whole ‘aborting-disabled-babies’ thing?’ Well, what I hadn’t considered was that though we might think that we are not biased against disabled people, we still might be. Because, wanting to know if a child is disabled might be about preparing to welcome them into the world, but it might also be about deciding whether or not to abort them. That choice, in Canada for example, is the mother’s own, and there is absolutely value in that – I cannot stress that enough. Yet, we cannot discount the insidious power that our own social values have on this decision as well – because a country with a more neutral, or even positive, conception of disability wouldn’t condone the abortion of disabled foetuses only because they were disabled. Yet for now, in Canada, that definitely isn’t the case: if social norms dictate that disabled people are less worthy, nothing is stopping pregnant Canadians from aborting disabled foetuses because they subscribe to that stereotype.

My conclusion after mulling over this conversation for a few weeks isn’t stagnant. I’ve toyed with these ideas that make me a bit uncomfortable, and I’m not sure where I land. I think the best conclusion I can draw from this entire discussion is that, though some places boast neutral laws (e.g. my understanding of Canadian abortion laws), that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are morally neutral on ideas. Letting women choose is always the right decision in my opinion, but I had never considered the extent to which choice, as much as it feels like our own, is influenced by the world around us – and if the world around us devalues disabled lives, we are prone to devaluing them as well, and making choices that reinforce that societal stereotype.

Cheers,

Isabel

Narratives surrounding our “first right” – the democratic right to protest.

Camila FrancoBy Camila Franco

Unless cited, the views expressed in this blog are my own.

A memorable event during my internship at the Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (IDEHPUCP) was when the center realized its sixteenth edition (virtually) of the Human Rights Conference titled “Bicentenario: 200 Años de Indiferencia”, or “Bicentennial: 200 Years of Indifference” in English. The week-long conference sought to visibilize historically marginalized groups, as well as identify challenges and generate proposals for stronger nation building by focusing on three axes of analysis: corruption, memory and inequality. 

Following four days of panels featuring speakers from various origins and sectors of specialization, the event concluded with the closing keynote conference: “Protesta Social y Constitución” (or Social Protest and Constitution), by Dr Roberto Gargarella, a jurist and sociologist from the University of Buenos Aires. The keynote was also supported by Eduardo Dargent, a lawyer and political scientist at PUCP, and moderated by Elizabeth Salmón, the executive director of IDEHPUCP. In this event, Dr. Gargarella characterized social protests as “el primer derecho” or the ‘first right’ to which special deference and protection is owed, since the right to protest represents the possibility of defending all other human rights and freedoms. The right is not merely to the act itself, but rather to dissent, and to demand that the people’s dignity and interests be respected. He noted that presently, the right to social protest is surrounded by controversy. I want to further explore this fractured relationship that democratic constitutions have with their “first right”. 

The right to protest corresponds to the right of peaceful assembly, which has been enshrined within international human rights doctrine, under Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and as such all 173 states parties are bound to respect it. Likewise, this right is recognized according to Article 15 of the American Convention on Human Rights. In Peru, the right to assemble peacefully is guaranteed under Article 2, paragraph 12 of the country’s Political Constitution.

Even though peaceful protests are legally recognized as fundamental to all democratic constitutions, they are routinely stifled around the world by law, police force, or court orders. Obvious concerns arise from the excessive use of force deployed by the state against its civilians, and the potentially unconstitutional ways in which this freedom has been restricted via public property laws, for example. But I am equally concerned by the devaluation of the potential that this “first right” has to combat inequality.

 Marginalized groups, without economic resources, are more likely to have their quality of life in the hands of the state. A state that finances social assistance, controls child and family services, public education and the penal system, for example. When government policies put special interests before human rights, those entrenched in these state-regulated bureaucracies feel the impacts most gravely. It is no coincidence that throughout history, socially oppressed groups have relied primarily on assembly rights to protest the systemic injustices suffered. Those who protest against the state often lack access to political influence, have no resources to litigate unjust government policies, and their minority interests are not always promoted by democratically elected bodies. Therefore, a crowd gathering as a form of disruption can become the only way to get attention, apply pressure, and demand political change. It is important to recognize, then, that protesting is both a phenomenon of necessity and a legitimate tool to take advantage of in a democratic society. 

However, social protests continue to polarize and attract a controversial reputation. Why?

In my opinion, part of the answer lies in two mainstream narratives that are propagated by those who want to defend the status quo (or, more precisely, by the state who is being criticized). Distorted narratives are used to discredit the group of individuals who participate in the protests, by showing them as illegitimate messengers, who should not be taken seriously, or as immoral people, who should not be indulged. This allows the state to deflect systemic responsibility for the situation that generated the protest in the first place, and to divert attention away from the demands the protestors introduce.

We saw this tactic deployed in Canada last year when members of the legislative assembly referred to the defenders of Indigenous lands during the Wet’suwet’en ‘blockades as “spoiled kids,” whose main motivation for participating in any demonstration was “TikTok culture.” These types of character attacks are commonly used to undermine protesters, especially youth, in order to dismiss the legitimate concerns within their message. Likewise, these critiques wrongly characterize the act of protesting as pleasant, when in fact protesters are often subjected to tense scrutiny and the risk of violence or police abuse.

In the same sense, by qualifying the protesters as immoral individuals, it is possible to create a an imaginary confrontation between the interest of the protesters and the interest of the broader public. This is done so by qualifying protestors as “terrorists” or “criminals”, like former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe did when referring to those protesting against the 2021 tax reform in May (the reform sought to increase increased taxes for lower and middle income Colombians, and also raised taxes on utilities and food). It is important to point out that even in the case of demonstrations that involve violent actions, it is inaccurate and harmful to generalize the entire mobilized population as such. In effect, this language scares onlookers away from the scenes of mobilization, keeping them disconnected from the true message of those on the ground and exacerbates a social polarization, further excluding those who are marginalized. These narratives work to normalize the repression of dissent and also underestimate the real potential that social protests have to combat inequality.

It is also recognized that in circumstances where peaceful protests havve failed to create change, vulnerable groups may have valid reasons to engage in more disruptive means to combat the oppressive status quo. For this reason, it is worth analyzing the balance between material damage and obstruction of public space with the cause and objective of the social demonstration. To adequately protect the potential for equality that protests bring, it is necessary to create a very clear distinction between what constitutes never permissible acts of violence and what is disruption that still falls within the s of legitimate democratic protest. The current vague and narrow definition of what it means to be “peaceful” has allowed the power holders to weaponize the rule of law and carry out massive human rights abuses, when they decide that a protest no longer fits their definition of “peaceful” and therefore should not be protected. When the state justifies quelling protests in the name of stability and order, we must seriously ask ourselves: at what cost?

As Dr. Gargarella stated during his keynote address, most social anger has to do with inequality. We can think of the disruption caused by protests as a symptom that there is a tear in our social fabric – that a systemic failure is no longer bearable. This tension cultivates a democratic dialogue which provides an opportunity for education, negotiation, compromise or accountability.  By emphatically protecting the freedom of assembly, we can uphold a more compassionate and equal version of justice. Instead of avoiding the discomfort that protests bring, we could celebrate protests for social justice as an indication of an engaged citizenry that is committed to the wellbeing of the collective. We can shift our narrative and celebrate protesters as defenders of our democracy, of our constitutions and of a future where human rights are truly inalienable.

The little things are the big things

Camila FrancoBy Camila Franco

I spent my summer working for the Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos de la Pontificia Universidad del Perú (IDEHPUCP), an academic institute created in 2004 in response to Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la verdad y Reconciliación, “CVR”) which sought to provide an official record of the human rights violations that occurred in Peru during the internal armed conflict between 1980 and 2000. IDEHPUCP seeks to strengthen democracy and the enforcement of Human Rights by conducting interdisciplinary trainings, engaging in applied research, public advocacy, and the promotion of public policies with civil society and the state. Over the last 17 years, the institute has developed seven fascinating lines of work: Memory, democracy, and post conflict; Business and human rights; Human mobility; Indigenous villages; the Inter-American Human Rights System; Fight against corruption; and Rights of persons with disabilities. I was fortunate enough to contribute to diverse projects in various lines of work. I primarily conducted comparative research on issues of business standards, technology implications on migrant populations, Indigenous resilience to climate change, and I wrote summary reports of discrimination cases heard at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

 

This virtual internship has come with the many familiar challenges and advantages of online work: periodic feelings of isolation and disconnectedness, time zone confusion, blurred work-life routine but likewise tremendous flexibility. I accepted this internship knowing that it would likely be remote, but I admittedly held on to the unrealistic hope that our global health crisis might be under control by the time May arrived. Once the placement was officially confirmed as remote, I grieved the idea of a summer in Lima.  I craved experiencing a new culture, being immersed in my native language, and physically connected to the Andes Mountain range, my native land. At the same time, I remained grateful to have the chance to ameliorate my professional Spanish skills, while contributing to the important mandate of a leading human rights institute in Latin America. There was also the added benefit of being able to work remotely from different locations here in Canada to accommodate for personal circumstances. I also understood that with all the hardships that this pandemic has brought, having to complete my summer internship remotely from the safety of my home was a privilege above all else. Yet as soon as I met the incredible people that breathe life into the IDEHPUCP, my longing for South America swung right back.

Virtual Birthday Celebration in June for all missed ‘Covid Birthdays’ at IDEHPUCP

My supervisor and colleagues constantly did many things to make me feel a part of their academic family. Every single morning at 9 am on the dot, our coordinator would send a “Buenos días” text on our WhatsApp Academia chat, to which we would all reply with greetings and exchange funny memes at the start of our day. On Friday afternoons we could always expect our coordinator to ask us about our coming weekend and wish us all well. In June, the institute held a big team “birthday party” to celebrate all our covid birthdays and exchange stories about our worst and best birthday memories. Although, in my opinion, this year has provided more than enough zoom birthdays with the audio disaster that is getting multiple people to attempt singing the birthday song at once (always inevitably unsynchronized despite the sincerest efforts) this night was one of my favourites. These gestures might seem trivial, but they all made a significant difference in how supported I felt by the team I worked alongside with for three months, and it allowed us to build more personal connections, despite the 6,400 km distance.

Of course, most of our conversations regarded the projects we were working on at any given time. We had bi-weekly meetings that provided the opportunity for every line of work to update the rest of the group on ongoing tasks, deadlines and make calls for feedback and assistance. These meetings, as well as the lively WhatsApp group chat, served as essential debrief spaces for the team this summer. Particularly as Peru went through a tumultuous presidential election that erupted civil unrest, and as the country tragically ascended to the highest per capita covid-fatality rate in the world. I felt an immense sense of sadness knowing that my own colleagues could not enjoy the access to vaccination and health care that I could by staying here in Canada. It also forced me to reflect on this desire to “experience” Peru, as a foreign Colombian-Canadian, and to what extent this wish is insensitive to the reality of what it means to live in a country under a fragile democracy, and a health care system overwhelmed by the pandemic. I knew that supporting the institute from Canada was the best thing I could do in this context, and I was grateful to learn about the various areas of work that my supervisors are experts in. The memes and zoom celebrations were just a bonus which reflected the warmth of those working tirelessly at IDEHPUCP.

 

Peruvian Disability Rights and Civil Reform

Isabel BaltzanBy Isabel Baltzan

For my IHRIP experience, I’ve had the opportunity to join the Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos at the PUCP in Lima — following along with a course on disability law and disability-related human rights issues in Peru, with work in an accompanying legal clinic. This is my first legal internship experience. I felt nervous and unprepared at first, and so, so far from any of my classmates over 6,000 km away.

I’ve been placed with a group of students, all in their last year of courses, and thrown into a course that expertly draws the historical and legal framework for rights granted (or not) to disabled people in the region. The course focuses on interesting and important ethical and moral debates that the law needs to answer for. I’ve quickly realized that though I’ve done a year of law school and a few years of living before that, I am in no way at the caliber of the people around me — not in legal knowledge (let alone in the Peruvian system), not in disability rights, nor in Spanish (never even mind legal jargon). So, I’ve spent a lot of time listening, filling in knowledge gaps on my own time, and mulling over the issues that are brought up.

I want to point out some thoughts I’ve had over the course of my internship, with it being my first dive into the world of human rights and disability. Granted, I never really know what’s going on — as an intern I expect to feel lost but doing it over email, WhatsApp and Zoom really adds to that feeling — so classes are always an interesting surprise, as are the cases we are presented. I’ve first learned that Peru has recently undergone an overhaul of its disability rights, and changes enacted in 2018 now allow people with disabilities to take advantage of their legal capacity — their ability to manifest a will, and move through the world much like everyone else does. This in turn has been accompanied by the phasing out of interdicción, a state in which a disabled person is deprived of their rights (under the guise of their best interest) and all legal decisions are handed off to a curator — with little to no oversight of how effective or respectful the process is. Nowadays, a system of apoyos (literally, ‘supports,’ but possibly better translated as advocates) and salvaguardias (safeguards) has replaced interdicción. The current system seeks to support disabled people in the exercise of their legal capacity, ideally while respecting and affirming their needs and wants. The new system also benefits from oversight granted by safeguards. A fantastic reform.

Now, of course, just because we say things are different doesn’t mean they actually are any different. Calling the same thing by another name is not progress unless actual change occurs. Progressive law (more progressive than lots of places — cough, California, cough, #FreeBritney), as amazing as it is when enacted, needs to be followed for anyone to reap its benefits. One issue that came up often was disabled people petitioning for rights at the court and the judge requiring them to get an apoyo to be granted what they might be asking — even though the disabled person seems completely able to exercise their legal capacity. Why? Perhaps the judges are used to working through curators with the disabled population. Perhaps, discrimination and stereotyping prevail. Possibly, a misunderstanding that something was supposed to change after 2018.

One case in particular comes to mind as an example of the darker side of reform. It had been moving through the courts for quite some time, and involved an older woman who had been under a curator — someone close to her — through interdicción, for many years. Unfortunately, the curator had passed and the woman was left in a sort of vacuum — the interdicción system had been overhauled, so she wouldn’t get another curator, and would need an apoyo if any legal issues came up, which eventually they did. Seems easy. Except, in order to begin the process of naming an apoyo for herself, she needed some documents from an office that wouldn’t give them to her because she needed legal representation through a curator (deceased and irreplaceable) or an apoyo (yes, a total real-life, awful catch-22). Funny enough, this situation is analogous to one described by Lon Fuller in his Eight Consequences of Failure — “(6) rules that require conduct beyond the powers of the affected party.” The solution was for the legal clinic to request a procedural curator for the woman just until she got an apoyo — but in the meantime, this woman has suffered serious violations to her rights to access to justice and to defense, leaving her effectively in a state of utter vulnerability. This can’t be the progress sought out by the reform, but it’s the reality of the situation.

The whole affair underscores for me how important it is to consider the impact of sweeping reforms that seek to improve a system — to consider who exactly is making a sacrifice for the benefit of all. It really highlights how important it is for the systems in place to move with reforms, instead of just letting reforms pass through them. This isn’t to say that my entire experience at the IDEHPUCP has been disheartening, though it’s unrealistic to assume it would all be joy and glory. The clinic does incredibly important work to educate students and the public on disability-related topics, and it is fulfilling beyond belief to be a small part of meaningful and impactful changes in people’s lives through the clinic. I’ll write more soon about the experiences of clinic work and some interesting debates we’ve had throughout the course.

Cheers,

Isabel

Ressentir

Sandrine RoyerPar Sandrine Royer

Travailler du confort de la maison comporte bien des avantages, que j’expérimente cet été en travaillant à distance pour el Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (IDEHPUCP). Je me sens incroyablement privilégiée d’être en sécurité et de faire partie d’une équipe engagée et brillante qui, du Pérou, s’est assurée de m’offrir la meilleure intégration possible à l’équipe et au travail. Je suis passionnée par les projets de recherche qui me sont assignés et je suis avide de nouveaux apprentissages. J’en apprends énormément sur les droits humains, et plus spécifiquement sur les droits des femmes migrantes. J’ai également été amenée à découvrir le rôle inspirant de la Commission Interaméricaine des Droits Humains, dont le travail est crucial pour l’avancement des droits humains sur notre continent.

Néanmoins, je me sens parfois bien éloignée de la réalité de mes collègues et des gens pour qui ils travaillent. Je lis des informations, les analyse et sous-pèse leur pertinence dans mes écrits. Je suis évidemment touchée par ce que je lis, mais les statistiques et les descriptions ne me semblent parfois qu’être des échos des recherches que j’effectue normalement dans un cadre académique.

Cette semaine, toutefois, ma perception a changé du tout au tout. En faisant des recherches sur les conditions de vie des migrants vénézuéliens, j’ai lu que certains d’entre eux avaient parcourus à pied les 4,000 km séparant le Venezuela du Pérou. J’ai figé. Et l’information a commencé à m’imprégner. D’un coup, j’ai senti. J’ai senti le désespoir et la peur. J’ai ressenti l’impact sans pitié de la COVID qui a laissé une trop grande majorité des migrants sans emploi et ultimement sans logis ni vivres. J’ai aussi senti la force incroyable et la résilience de ces centaines de milliers de personnes qui ont parcouru tant de route pour trouver la sécurité, qui ont quitté maison, souvenirs, famille pour sauver leur peau.

Sauver sa peau. Un sentiment, une urgence que je ne connais pas, une réalité qui m’est si éloignée. Pourtant aujourd’hui j’en ressens les bribes et j’en frissonne d’angoisse. Et je me sens encore plus loin. J’ai l’impression d’être active pour aider cette population, de mettre la main à la pâte, en quelque sorte. Mieux que rien. Mais trop peu. Et j’ai une douleur sourde à la poitrine en pensant à tout ce qui devrait être fait, ne sachant par où débuter. Pour l’instant je ne peux que me retrousser les manches et travailler de plus belle. Écouter. Apprendre. Ressentir. Même en étant si loin, je me dois d’être attentive et réceptive à la réalité de mes pairs. Je me dois d’accueillir les témoignages, même s’ils me remuent profondément. Surtout parce qu’ils me remuent profondément.

J’entends souvent des personnes autour de moi dire qu’ils n’écoutent plus les nouvelles, qu’ils ne veulent pas suivre l’actualité mondiale parce qu’ils sont trop bouleversés par ce qu’ils y apprennent. Je crois qu’au contraire, c’est parce que l’on est bouleversé par ces images et ces informations qu’il faut les lire et les écouter. J’ai le sentiment que si l’on entendait ce que d’autres humains vivent et que l’on se permettait de ressentir des bribes de ce qu’ils peuvent ressentir, nous développerions une compassion qui remettrait notre monde en question. Un citoyen souhaiterait-il continuer de consommer du fast fashion après avoir visité un sweatshop et rencontré et créé des liens avec ses employés? Voudrait-il continuer de consommer des bananes quotidiennement après avoir vu de ses yeux l’impact des pesticides sur des communautés entières? Après avoir rencontré les personnes touchées ? Je ne crois pas. La déconnexion sélective que beaucoup d’individus choisissent d’entretenir pour protéger leurs émotions a un impact énorme et direct sur la vie de personnes qui sont pourtant étroitement connectés à nous.

C’est ainsi que je décide d’accueillir les émotions qui me viennent en travaillant cet été, sachant qu’il ne s’agit que d’une parcelle de ce que peuvent vivre mes semblables, mais sachant qu’il s’agit probablement d’un début de solution.

Learning to Sing: A Look Back on my Summer in Peru

Melisa DemirBy Melisa Demir

There are a number of ways that I could describe my fifteen-week journey to Peru –  an amazing adventure which often times all seems like a blur to me now.

“How was your trip?” is the most common question I’ve been faced with since my return – one that I expected, and yet still have trouble answering. “There’s not enough time in the world to tell you all about it,” I say.  Sometimes, I confess that it all went by so quickly – that it feels like I never even left.

Still, I find myself saying that my trip was busy, as I spent most of my days working hard to meet deadlines, or travelling back and forth from airports or bus stations early in the morning to get back to work on time after weekend getaways. When including it on my CV, I will probably write about how this was the summer in which I developed my research skills, perfected my Spanish, and learned about national and international human rights protection through my contributions to reports, events and other projects with the IDEHPUCP. My friends know it as the unforgettable trip where I managed to live by myself in a foreign country, made friends from all over the world, and climbed a countless amount of mountains – both physical and figurative.  

To me, this was the summer where I learned how to sing.

**

In Lima, life is always bustling – cars and busses honk through stop signs instead of actually stopping, bus drivers scream the route out of the window instead of having a formal system like we have here in Montreal, and nearly everyone listening to music fearlessly belts their hearts out as they sing along, no matter where they are.

I was shocked the first time I heard my colleague – who later became one of my best friends – singing her favourite reggaeton music in the middle of the office on my first day. I rolled my eyes and chuckled as the person behind me during the walk to the grocery store sometime early on in my trip sang and danced to his music. In Montreal, this would be seen as obnoxious and disruptive – but in Lima, it was a form of expression that had not yet become taboo or subjected to the social expectation that, in public or at work, one must be discrete. Where I was used to being expected to fit into a set of social standards, to mold into the rest of society and stay in the shadows, they would charge forward in individuality and expression, full of life and heart-warming spirit.

Walking through the streets of Magdalena del Mar on Peruvian independence day

It wasn’t long before I stopped jumping in surprise when someone in the Institute’s academica department broke the concentrated silence of the area with a few words of one of the summer’s top hits, and instead, started smiling and dancing along to their melody. Their voices and music ended up being the soundtrack to my summer, characterizing my walks home, my evening dinners with my Peruvian family as they sang “El gato nero” to their one-year-old son, and, of course, my time at work. As this aspect of Peruvian culture lost its foreignness, my initial role as the young, shy Canadian intern terrified of speaking Spanish at the risk of sounding stupid slowly morphed into one of sociability and confidence. The country that once seemed so distant from everything I knew began to transform into a home – or as my colleagues and I liked to call it, mi patria. On Peru’s independence day, I attempted to belt out their national anthem. I joined in many birthday celebrations at the office in which the entire Institute gathered around to sing “Happy Birthday” in choir around a large strawberry shortcake from the bakery down the street. Eventually, I even found myself humming along to my music as I typed.

What at first glance appeared to be an example of the care-free stereotype we often associate to Latin American culture eventually revealed itself to be a beautiful expression of happiness, confidence, and hope. A life in human rights research, I quickly realized, can be a daunting one. The nine-to-five work days, which often dragged out to nine-to-eight days during busy periods, are a constant realization of the terrible things that occur around the world, sometimes as close as within the city you work or live in. Every hour is filled with reminders that the world can be a terrible place for some, and that having the opportunity to advocate against human rights violations is a product of your privilege to not be on the other side of them. When one project ends, it’s on to the next one, dealing with similar hard realities, only with regards to a different violated right, and rarely with any assurance that the work you submitted will ever make it into the hands of a policy-maker, or even make a dent in the international hardships you are trying to alleviate. Most of the time, all you can do is hope that what you invested your heart and soul into makes a difference, even if by just raising awareness about the issues around you, and keeping pushing forward until the change you work for finally comes. And so, they sing.

**

I had never worked in human rights before my experience in Peru. I now have the utmost admiration for those who do – who dedicate their lives to making the world we live in a better place, if only for some.

On my last day of work, I submitted my final project, took pictures with my friends in the department – who I would see later for a final goodbye party – and emotionally emptied my desk. As I left, I closed the mahogany doors of the Institute behind me for the last time. I hugged Señor Ochoa, the security guard that greeted me every morning, goodbye.

During the walk home, I sang along to Ed Sheeran’s Perfect.

Be Patient; Stay Fearless

Melisa DemirBy Melisa Demir

Nearly eight weeks ago, I stepped off a plane and into the chaos of the Jorje Chavez airport parking lot in Lima, Peru. My first experience on South American soil began with a wave of taxi drivers calling out “Taxi! Taxi” and waving their permits at me as I searched for my Uber somewhere near Gate 11. Towering ahead of me was an enormous billboard, advertising LATAM Airlines, which read: “Welcome to Lima.”

It took about half an hour and many WhatsApp phone calls – all of which served as a stark reminder of just how different the language in in a Spanish-speaking country was from the Spanish I had learned in high school – before I finally met up with Rodrigo, my driver. I threw my suitcases and my backpack into the trunk of his grey Hyundai, almost exactly like the one my parents drive at home, and hopped into the backseat, ready for what I knew would be the adventure of a lifetime.

A lot has happened since that first day. The sun that I was met with when I first stepped through the airport’s sliding doors has started to disappear, making only its signature rare appearances as “the Grey city” falls into its winter months. I’ve seen penguins and sea lions off the coast of Paracas, sand-boarded down the dunes of Huacachina, rafted through valleys in Arequipa and spent five days hiking through glaciers and the high Peruvian jungle to the beautiful Machu Picchu. I’ve finally figured out how to properly unlock the front door of my apartment after too many hours spent on the verge of tears, locked out with my groceries lying on the front steps. The family that I once knew as simply Kat and Gus from AirBnB have become like my second parents, including me in their family celebrations and mornings to the market, sitting with me at dinner, and teaching their one-year old son to walk towards me and, occasionally, roll me his ball.

On top of the sand dunes in Huacachina

Standing in front of Humantay Lake at the beginning of my Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

On top of Machu Picchu after 5 days of trekking!

Of course, I have also become quite familiar with the corner desk I was given at the Institute of Democracy and Human Rights (IDEHPUCP) – once empty, its drawers are now filled with notes bearing my handwriting, the airplane headphones I use to drown out the sound of my coworkers’ singing when I need to concentrate, the books on human rights I have read since my first day, and the box of vanilla cookies I bought from the grocery store down the street to snack on with my afternoon coffee.

I first stepped through the gates of the big yellow building on calle Tomas Ramsey and into the doors of the Institute at the end of May, one month ago. I had been slightly anxious to start my internship – at twenty years old, I have never had a desk job, and as a first year student, I’ve never worked in the legal field before. I nervously gave the security guard my name on that first morning, and he greeted me with a large, warm smile – one that I’ve gotten used to these past weeks, and that I still see every morning as I walk into work with my morning coffee in hand. That first morning, his smile acted as a sense of comfort in the new adventure I was about to embark on. “Good morning, Melisa,” he had said as I signed my name in the registry. “Welcome.”

Since the beginning of my time here at the IDEHPUCP, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about many different aspects of international human rights law – particularly, I’ve studied the notion of corporate responsibility in international law, participated in discussions on corruption in Peru, and helped the Institute run two parallel events on rethinking gender roles in Latin America and on the continued reality of human trafficking in the area. Yet, in these past three weeks filled with great learning opportunities, two lessons have stuck out to me so far: be patient, and stay fearless.

On Being Patient: Learning to Leave My Fast-Paced Lifestyle Behind

My internship at the Institute began with a warm welcome from the entire IDEHPUCP family – I was given a tour of the different departments, greeted with a signature one kiss on the cheek or a dynamic wave by everyone I met and even invited to the Institute’s events during my first week, as if I had already become one of the team.

However, my work also began at a time where the organization of two of the Institute’s biggest projects (hosting two conferences within the same week) was just nearing its end – a time where there was just enough work for those who had already been involved in the preparation of these events to keep busy, yet not enough for me to join in too extensively. As a result, for my first two weeks of work, I was only given two books to read – one on the effects of international law on corporate activity, and another on the functions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – and some translation work from Spanish to English. I began to worry if my Spanish skills were seen as not strong enough to handle more heavy workloads, or if my lack of experience in human rights law deterred my supervisors from including me in big research projects.

Then came the week of the events, and I quickly found myself busier than ever, running around the University campus making sure everything was running smoothly, being tasked with small jobs here and there. I even had my first of what I expect to be many late nights within my legal career, when I was asked to help a colleague find information on the biographies of the events’ panelists due the following morning. Since then, my days at the Institute have been filled with a variety of different tasks, making every moment spent at work unique – in addition to my translation work, I have been assigned to do research on the international and national protection of elder rights, have co-written an article on labor rights violations within Peru which was published on the Institute’s website, and, most recently, have been asked to help with a jurisprudential study on recent constitutional decisions in the country.

Not only has my work life gotten busier, but my Spanish has already improved tremendously, giving me the confidence to start coming out of my shell more, going to more social events and becoming good friends with my colleagues. Lima really is starting to feel like home – so much so that the barista at the Starbucks on my way to work has started to greet me with “Hola Melisa, que tal?” and knows my order almost by heart.

Life in Lima is not nearly as different than life in Montreal as I thought it would be – its streets are bustling with busy buses and cars and large boulevards lined with shopping malls and gourmet restaurants, and its nightlife in Miraflores and Barranco rivals that on Blvd St-Laurent. One of the biggest culture shocks for me was definitely learning to take a breath, and coming to terms with with not having heavy workloads all the time. I grew up in a culture where I was taught that being hardworking and being productive often meant being busy every second of every day. Here, things are different: being a good employee is more about being available to lend a hand to your teammates when they need it, and doing everything you do, no matter how little work you’re given, as best as you can.

All in all, I have definitely come a long way in my month by myself here in Lima, and most of my adaptation happened simply with time. I have come to realize that the IDEHPUCP is largely a place for learning – my supervisor ensures that every project I am given can somehow tie back to Canada, even in the smallest way. One of the biggest lessons I have learned so far is how to be patient, to wait for my opportunities to arise (or even to create my own), and, in the meantime, to take advantage of the little things this internship has to offer, such as the experience of simply being in one of the most important research centres in the country, learning from some of the most dedicated human rights workers in the area, and being able to help out with their work, even in the simplest ways.

On Staying Fearless: Nothing Worth Doing Ever Came Easily

Like many people I know in McGill’s Law Faculty, I came to law school mainly driven by a love and passion for international law and human rights. Also like many in my Faculty, I have become well aware of how difficult pursuing a career in this field will be.

My experience so far at the IDEHPUCP has opened my eyes to the merits of pushing through obstacles and overcoming seemingly impossibly high mountains – of always staying fearless, whether it be when crossing the street in Lima’s busy traffic, swallowing my pride and joining in on conversations and social events with my colleagues even when I still sometimes have trouble keeping up with the local jarga (Peruvian slang), and most importantly, when making decisions about my future career choices.

The controversial panel on the respect of gender and LGBTQ rights in religion

Here at the Institute, I spend most of my time immersed in a culture of devotion and passion for human rights work. I watch my colleagues, some of which are still students, juggle their work with their studies, running back and forth from the Institute and the PUCP campus, putting their theses that they need to complete in order to graduate on the back-burner in order to complete what they see as more urgent tasks, like writing up on pressing human rights issues or conducting studies on international law. During the panel on Gender Rights, I watched the head of the Institute, Doctora Elizabeth Salmón – one of the most respected and successful people in the field of international law and human rights law in the country – defy social norms by setting up a panel on the continued struggle to find balance between the protection of women’s rights and LGBTQ rights and religion in Lima.

More recently, one of my best friends at the Institute told me that her dream job is to spend time working with the International Red Cross in Iraq or Iran protecting human rights, fully aware of the dangers attached to this career, because she wants to spend every day of her career being able to tackle human rights violations in these countries face-on: “I have a friend who worked with the ICRC in Iraq, and she had the power to see these violations every day, and to say ‘Enough,’” she had said. “My dream is to be able to do that, too.”

Everyone at the Institute, I have come to realize, spends the better part of their careers making sacrifices for the bigger cause of defending human rights, both within their country and beyond. They are all fearless in their work, not only because of their passion for their jobs, but because they know that what they do needs to be done in order to make a change – no matter how difficult, or scary, it may be.

As the halfway point of my time here at the IDEHPUCP approaches, I am already so grateful for all of the experiences this internship has brought me, and for all of the important lessons that I’ve learned, and will continue to use in the future – wherever my career, and life in general, take me.

 

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