On being “American”

By Sara Gold

My last day in San José, Costa Rica – September 8, 2018

“Along the way we have even lost the right to call ourselves Americans […]. For the world today, America is just the United States; the region we inhabit is a sub-America, a second-class America of nebulous identity” (Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America, 1971, p.2)

What does it mean to be “American”? In the English language, this word often refers to the United States rather than to the continent, whose name it derives from. Frustration with this idea has been publicly expressed as early as 1971 by Galeano in Open Veins of Latin America. The concept remains part of present day discourse in the English-speaking world.

No individual better exemplifies this line of thinking than President Donald Trump. Throughout his campaign and in his published foreign policy, he explicitly stated that his “foreign policy is putting the interests and security of the American people first”. [1] Informally, this notion bleeds in our day-to-day speech; I myself have often carelessly referred to the people of the United States as “Americans” or to my travels to the United States as a trip to “America”.

“Being an American, for me, is being born or living in the United States. I’m not sure if it’s because of geography or intention, but firstly, the word South America represents me the best and secondly, Latin America, but not America”.Colleague from Argentina (translated from Spanish)

But what does it mean to be “American”? [2] Interning at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights this summer, working with colleagues from all over the Americas, and then subsequently travelling by land and sea through Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia allowed me to reflect on this question.

“Being American is a commitment. A commitment of having to bear the burden of unfairness, from the past and the present, but always worrying how to help. Being American is being proud of the mixture of races, ways of thinking and belief systems that constitute the American continent. Being an American is to live life’s hardship and trying your best in dealing with it”.Colleague from Colombia (translated from Spanish)

First, my experience at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica showed me the implications of a regional human rights protection system. In my opinion, this institution interprets “being American” as being a member States of the Organization of American States (OAS) and as being located on the continent. After all, it is the Inter-American system; all countries are considered as part of the Americas. The decisions issued by this Court have often been tailored accordingly to regional considerations.[3] Unfortunately, they have also reflected the consequences of the tragic side of this continent’s history, which has been marked by conflict, exploitation, and inequality.

Being American is not limited to being born in this great continent, it implies belonging to a great multicultural heritage, full of traditions, and thousands of different ways of seeing the world and living life. Americans enjoys a rich history that continues to be written every day, in which we are all its characters. – Colleague from Mexico (translated from Spanish)

Second, my experience working with colleagues from all over the Americas allowed me to realize that “being American” cannot be defined in one singular way. I worked with individuals from the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. I learnt about their legal systems, their customs, their slang, their prejudices, their food, their realities. I learnt that everyone’s preoccupations are different, but that many are concerned about things that I take for granted, like their country’s democratic process, like their right to safe and free abortion, like their job security, like their future as a young lawyer in their countries, just to name a few. These concerns reminded me of how privileged I am, which is easy to forget in the daily grind of McGill Law and Montreal.

For me, “being American” has a double meaning which, despite the political rhetoric coming out of my country lately, is not mutually exclusive. In one respect, I am American because I am from the United States. I probably think of this aspect of my identity fist when I hear the word “American”, not because I believe that only people from the US are Americans, but because we do not have another word to describe our nationality, and this is the aspect of my identity with which I come into contact most regularly. However, and equally important, I am American because I am also from one of the many rich cultures of the Americas. This aspect of my identity locates me on a global scale and ties me in a much larger community. Colleague from the United States of America

Third, following my internship, I furthered reflected on what it means to be American throughout my travels by land and sea in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. In these countries, I witnessed the inequalities that are very much part of the Americas. I listened to individuals tell their stories, list their concerns, reflect on their history, and debate their place in the world today.

These stories led to two current issues that have strongly impacted me. Both are related to migration. The first is the influx of migration of Nicaraguans into Costa Rica, and the extreme racism they face on a daily basis. Second, is the mass exodus of Venezuelans into neighbouring countries. While in Colombia, I encountered many Venezuelans who had left the country, in search of safety and stability. I learnt about what actions countries like Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are taking in order to try and alleviate the crisis. I wondered what the role of other Americans was in order to help our fellow citizens.

Finally, I realized that being American means sharing your culture with others. On several occasions, I was welcomed into people’s homes (such as my former colleague), shared life stories, and was invited to discover what made their country unique. This generosity allowed me to realize that “being American” does not only mean living in and being from the Americas, but also means being part of a larger community, that shares, that supports, and that helps. Ultimately, as my colleague from Costa Rica put it, maybe the term that should prevail is “human”.

“For me being “American” is a label that is useful for expressing a distinct cultural process that took place in the past. However, it is often used merely for reasons of discrimination, criminalization, stigma, etc. Nowadays it seems to me that the label “American”, “European”, “African”, etc. loses legitimacy as we mix more and more, it is social myopia to deny multiculturalism. In my opinion, the label that must ultimately prevail is “human”. Colleague from Costa Rica (translated from Spanish)

 

My colleagues from all over the Americas 🙂

 

[1] See: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trumps-foreign-policy-puts-america-first/

[2] Note: I asked five colleagues from the Inter-American Court, all from different countries, to reflect on what it means to be American. Their reflections can be found in the Italic portions of this text.

[3] The Inter-American Court (alongside the Inter-American Commission) were created to “safeguard the essential rights of man in the American continent”. See: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/index.php/en/about-us/historia-de-la-corteidh

 

Plenary Guardianship: Persons with Disabilities Made Vulnerable

By Roger Bill

 

It’s been over 2 months now since I’ve arrived in the Federal District of Mexico. The cultural shocks come less and less, my skin doesn’t burn so easily, I don’t mind the altitude when I run, and the chilangismos (local slang) roll easily off my tongue. As settled in as I feel, I’m often startled in my work by the large divide between the law on paper, and the reality in the streets.

In the day to day, this reality would be evident to any Canadian visitor like me, not just those working in human rights. Traffic laws are a great example. There are laws on the books, but what matters is what the other motorists are doing, not what colour the lights are. For example, I had a lively cab driver a couple of weeks ago. He was happy to be taking me and two friends across town for a decent fare. So, when a police officer pulled him over for running a red light and was at his window telling him he had to pay a fine and leave us to find another cab, what mattered was how quickly he could leave the police car in his tracks, not the picture of his car caught by the traffic camera.

After an adventurous flight from the police with my aggressive cabbie, I realized that what holds for cabbies holds for people with disabilities: there are laws on the books, but people will do what they can get away with.

Unfortunately for people with disabilities, the people bending the rules are their legal representatives, or public servants who don’t want to make reasonable accommodations for them, or administrators of psychiatric institutions where they are indefinitely detained.

A large part of my work in the first month of my arrival was creating this year’s Zero Project Report, a study of the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD). The study examines not only what legislative changes have been made in Mexico to bring the law in line with the convention, but what the practical reality of the implementation of the convention is. Sadly, the reality usually falls well short of the laudable goals and aspirational language of recent legislative reforms.

Disability Rights International advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, and particularly tries to attain the ideals promised by article 19 of the CRPD: to have people live inclusively in the community rather than in isolated institutions where they suffer abuse. The organization fights to have the reality of institutions mirror the rights guaranteed by law. This is a laudable goal and I’m very happy to participate in it through our different advocacy initiatives.

Currently we are trying to end institutional abuse in a Central American psychiatric hospital through motions before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. The abuse is terrible: people administered therapy without their consent, others locked up for life with no possibility to review their status and live again in the community, sexual abuse, human trafficking, and horrendous living conditions. We hope to stop the terrible abuse perpetrated by the institution. However, bringing about de-institutionalization is no mean feat. Realistically things won’t change overnight, and people with disabilities can do little to help themselves when they are locked up in psychiatric wards in deplorable conditions.

So, I’m very happy to be participating in a project to empower people with disabilities and give them the tools to change the situation in the hallways of hospitals. Along with pressuring the government to improve conditions and offer community service as DRI constantly does, we are attempting to reform the laws of legal capacity in Mexico so that people with disabilities can have more control over how they live their lives.

DRI is part of a working group composed of the National Council for the Development and Inclusion of People with Disabilities (CONADIS), Rehabilitation International, several strategic litigation firms which specialize in disability rights, and other invited experts. The project aims to propose amendments to the civil code of the Federal District, as well as proposing a draft legislation creating a supported decision making scheme. Through these two changes, we hope to create a strong example for the other Mexican states to follow. It is a monumental task, and our proposal may not get adopted on its first pass in the national assembly, but it is step in the right direction.

A report by the Secretary General of the UN on the progress of efforts to ensure the full recognition and enjoyment of the human rights of persons with disabilities [A/58/181] perhaps says it best:

“The right to recognition as a person before the law is often neglected in the context of mental health. The concept of guardianship is frequently used improperly to deprive individuals with an intellectual or psychiatric disability of their legal capacity without any form of procedural safeguards. Thus, persons are deprived of their right to make some of the most important and basic decisions about their life on account of an actual or perceived disability without a fair hearing and/or periodical review by competent judicial authorities. The lack of due process guarantees may expose the individual whose capacity is at stake to several possible forms of abuse. An individual with a limited disability may be considered completely unable to make life choices independently and placed under “plenary guardianship”. Furthermore, guardianship may be improperly used to circumvent laws governing admission in mental health institutions, and the lack of a procedure for appealing or automatically reviewing decisions concerning legal incapacity could then determine the commitment of a person to an institution for life on the basis of an actual or perceived disability.”

Throughout Latin America and much of the world, the laws governing legal capacity must be reformed to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Hopefully, Mexico City can take a leadership position for the rest of the country, and eventually for other nations in Latin America.

Some thoughts from the IACHR

perri By Perri Ravon

Close to 30 interns are working at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights this summer, assisting the Court’s legal secretariat. Most come from Latin America, where the Inter American system has gained unquestionable political and cultural resonance in the last decades. Others, like myself and a few fellow Americans, are truly discovering a new legal world within the human rights field: case law, judges, advocacy, diplomacy, media…

While working on urgent provisional measures, drafting memos for judgments and monitoring states’ compliance, I have also given thought to the “bigger picture”: the success and the limits of international human rights law, the meaning it has for individuals throughout the Americas… And beyond such theoretical questionings, I am also very interested in the impact such a system can have, today, in a country such as Canada which has not recognized the jurisdiction of the Court, yet which cannot ignore its legal developments. How much can we learn from the Court’s interpretation of the American Convention, from its unique approach to reparations, from its analysis of such issues as gender and economic migrants? How much can be quickly discarded given the immense differences between a regional human rights court and the Canadian legal system? And how much cannot?

Of course, I am fully aware of Canada’s “dualist” nature in terms of its reception of international law, and indeed I am not even alluding to the effects the actual American Convention could have in Canada. Yet, with respect to fruitful influences for future developments in Charter interpretation, the Inter-American Court’s case law may have a greater role to play than would at first appear.

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.