Summer School in Advocacy

By Jessica Michelin

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

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

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

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

The hallowed halls of the UN Security Council

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

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

Selling Justice Short: Reflections on Reconciliation, Accountability, and Weight Loss

By Tiran Rahimian

A night view of the Empire State Building, where HRW’s offices are located.

One of the very first remarks made by my darling mother upon my return to Montreal was, perhaps unsurprisingly, that I had lost a fatally dangerous amount of weight. At first, I curtly brushed off the observation as an archetypal exaggeration of maternal love. But confronted to the cold, hard numbers of our bathroom scale, I couldn’t help but ponder on the reasons of this incontrovertible reduction of my body mass. It surely wasn’t malnourishment? I spent the equivalent of my Montreal rent every month at the delightfully nutritious Whole Foods Market buffet near Bryant Park. Certainly not over-exercising either? As much as I liked to profess to my friends that I was jogging every morning in Central Park (in part by recycling saved snaps of the same run over and over again), I simply lacked the stamina and willpower to stick to a proper cardio routine.

I realize that, surely for physiological reasons beyond my understanding, I tend to lose significant weight whenever I’m pushed out of my comfort zones for a protracted amount of time. I lost weight when, after a comfortable upbringing in Montreal, I returned to my native Tehran to finish my middle school. I also lost weight in my first months of law school, and again when I began clerking at the Court of Appeal last year. And HRW undeniably fit into that trend: my time in New York city profoundly challenged me on both intellectual and personal fronts, and, while ultimately cementing and confirming many of my previous convictions, compelled me to go through a long process reflection on of some of the drivers that had underpinned my interest in international justice.

“I would give all my fame for a pot of ale…” –Henry V. A riotous mix of high art and low comedy, Drunk Shakespeare is an Off-Broadway must-see where a professional actor ups six shots of Whiskey before embarking on a classic Shakespeare performance.

In IJ circles, the enduring debate on whether seeking accountability for grave international crimes interferes with prospects for peace is close to always brushed off with the self-evident response that there is ‘no peace without justice’. But the tension, I came to learn, is anything but axiomatic. With the inception of the UN Security Council Commission of Experts for the Former Yugoslavia in October 1992 – at a time when the UN-EU International Conference was already managing a peace process – the stage appeared set for a tense relationship between accountability for core international crimes on the one hand, and international mandates for peace and reconciliation on the other hand. The already polarized ‘peace versus justice’ debate crystallized with the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 1994, paving the way for a broad discourse on the compatibility of the two.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission– and its wide media coverage following the fall the Apartheid government – was heralded by some ‘peace-before-justice’ proponents as demonstrating the importance of pacifying, or at least postponing, calls for criminal justice accountability until after peace has taken proper hold. The temptation to suspend justice in exchange for promises to end a conflict has similarly arisen with respect to the International Criminal Court’s work in places like Darfur and Uganda, and threatens to recur in coming years as conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Myanmar approach their conclusion. Thankfully, the symbiotic relationship between peace, justice, and building a sustainable culture of human rights isn’t merely heralded as a self-evident truth, but has also been subject to empirical analysis by scholars and organizations like HRW itself.

Slight cultural shock

Rereading myself, the relationship between my weight loss and reflections on justice and reconciliation is perhaps…spurious. But I still like to think that my time working at HRW pushed me out of my professional and intellectual comfort zones, and was ultimately one of personal growth. Witnessing firsthand the inner workings of an NGO as influential and remarkable as HRW, hanging around diplomats at UN meetings, and working on the most pressing matters of international justice across the globe will certainly stand out as one of the more delightful challenges of my time at McGill law.

The Times They Are a-Changin

By Tiran Rahimian

In justifying the crimes of Milo in an internal armed conflict in Rome, Cicero pleaded, “silent enim leges inter arma.”[1] Times have, somewhat, and thankfully, changed. The past century alone has witnessed the crystallization of the laws of war, the emergence of a rules-based, human-centric global order, and the rise, and decline, and rise, of international criminal justice. Despite remarkable progress, however, the pertinence of law in the anarchically barbaric realities of war remains to this day contentious, and the objection that law falls mute when collective survival is jeopardized continues to resonate with the cynics and so-called realists of our world. To make matters worse, the rise of inward-looking populist movements in recent years poses yet another challenge to the international legal order, and may very well prove to be its litmus test. In this climate, the work of NGOs such as Human Rights Watch is more crucial than ever, and it was with a sense of both humbleness and awe that I began my internship within its International Justice (IJ) Program.

View from the offices of Human Rights Watch on the 35th floor of the Empire State Building

My first few weeks were euphoric. International criminal law had been the bread and butter of my 3L, and the organization’s IJ department comprised some of the foremost experts and brilliant legal minds in that field (evidently explained by the disproportionate presence of McGill law alumni). The work was intellectually stimulating, pedagogically instructive, and above all, fulfilling. But as I went from drafting one memo to another, and attending one UN meeting to another, I became struck with ivory-towerist doubt. There was an unsettling detachment between the refined protocols of lawyering, which reduced the indescribable to the antiseptic confines of legal reasoning, and the solemn suffering of victims on the ground. That I happened to be situated at the 35th floor of the Empire State Building, metaphorically looking down into the arena of human rights violations, certainly didn’t help either. I brought up some of my thoughts with the IJ Program’s highly esteemed Director, Richard Dicker, who helped me alleviate some of my questioning. Remarkably approachable, he combined humility with activist fervor, and expertise with empathy. He taught me to keep the big picture in mind, to appreciate the significance of victim-centric activism, and that the impact of advocacy work need not necessarily be quantifiable or measurable. Comprehensive, effective human rights advocacy, it became clear to me, comprises both activism in the field, as well as ‘detached’ lawyering within courts and intergovernmental organizations­­–both of which are equally indispensable.

As I continued my work and kept on top of the latest developments at the International Criminal Court (ICC)– the only permanent tribunal that holds perpetrators of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity accountable–, I came to another realization: the arena of international justice faces some incredibly thrilling and momentous years ahead. Born from the ashes of the Second World War in the form of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, virtually dormant throughout the geopolitical paralysis of the Cold War, and revived in the 1990s through the ad hoc tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the adoption of the Rome Statute, the realm of international justice is bracing itself for consequential developments as the ICC ends its adolescent years.

Fun fact: protecting Mr. Trump’s private residence on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue costs about $308,000 per day for local and federal taxpayers.

For one, we might very soon witness the end of what has been dubbed the issue of ‘US exceptionalism’ in international criminal justice. On November 20th 2017, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda formally requested judicial authorization to open an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in connection with the Afghan armed conflict. The investigation, if sanctioned by the Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber, would represent a feted shift in global justice, marking the first time in history an international tribunal has contemplated crimes allegedly perpetrated by US nationals.

Second, as I have argued elsewhere, the coming months could also mark a climax for decades of gender justice advocacy. The ICC’s potential probe into Afghanistan would be the first instance where the Court is poised to interpret one of the most controversial terms in its statute: ‘gender’. Reflective of political compromises and a tendentious negotiating history, the Rome Statute’s highly disputed definition awkwardly sits somewhere between a sociological and biological conception of gender: “For the purpose of this Statute, it is understood that the term ‘gender’ refers to the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society.” But this constructive ambiguity also leaves room for creative lawyering: as much as the conservative side might emphasize ‘the two sexes’, proponents of a more progressive and wide understanding could weaponize the words ‘within the context of society’, which could potentially extend to members of the LGBTQ.

Je me souviens.

Third, the ICC has been increasingly venturing into the uncharted waters of non-member states, inching closer to an ideal of universality. Of course, absent a referral by the UN Security Council, the Court can only assert jurisdiction where the “conduct in question” was committed on the territory of a member state, or if the alleged perpetrator was a national of a member state. But that hasn’t stopped the Office of the Prosecutor from conceiving ingenious arguments to stretch the Court’s jurisdiction. Regarding the plight of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, a state not party to the Rome Statute, Fatou Bensouda recently asked the Court to confirm its jurisdiction on the basis that a legal element of the conduct, crossing a border, occurred in Bangladesh, which is a member state. Its preliminary examination of Palestine, and its ongoing investigation into Georgia, similarly probe crimes committed by nationals of non member states, namely Israel and Russia. While, as I have explained elsewhere, atrocities committed in Iraq and Syria remain out of the Court’s reach, recently established investigative mechanisms by the General Assembly and the Security Council have been collecting evidence of these crimes, and the issue of accountability in the fertile crescent appears to be more a question of when and how, rather than whether.

Human Rights Watch’s 1997 Nobel Peace Prize as as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

To say that these developments will be controversial would be a grave understatement. Times have certainly changed since the days of Cicero, and they will likely continue to change in the decade to come. The road towards accountability is by no means clear, and is certainly rocky. Potential probes into Palestine and Afghanistan would be political dynamite, and accountability advocates have been bracing themselves for when the proverbial excrement hits the fan. At any rate, the arena of international justice faces excitingly tumultuous times ahead, and interning at Human Rights Watch has helped me keep on top of these historic developments.

[1] “Laws are silent among [those who use] weapons” (Cited in Cicero, Pro Milone, 4.11).

Ana’s Retirement Party

Painter Emily By Emily Ann Painter

It was late Thursday afternoon when Aji, Muzhgan and I, “the IJ interns” as they refer to us around the office, were signalled to join the large crowd that had already formed on the 35th floor. Having spent most of the day glued to my computer, researching the latest updates on the Special Criminal Court in Central African Republic or on Laurent Gbagbo’s trial at the International Criminal Court – whichever it was –  I welcomed the distraction and walked the short distance between my desk and the party. And as I did, it became clear that this would be no ordinary Human Rights Watch celebration: platters of cheese and crackers, champagne flutes and a large cake iced in the true “Human Rights Watch blue” covered the tables around which fifty smiling employees gathered. At the centre of it all stood Ana, one of HRW’s oldest and most beloved family member. Holding a flute and smiling wide, on this Thursday afternoon Ana was celebrating her well-earned retirement.

View from the 35th floor of the Empire State Building where the International Justice Program’s offices are located.

Of course, I recognized Ana. Every day around 5:50 pm, as I signed off and packed my bag for the commute home, she arrived on “our floor” of the Empire State Building, grey cart in hand, and began cleaning the office. Until today, this had been her daily routine for nearly twenty years.

For many like myself, Ana’s arrival signalled the end of the day and our brief interactions – courteous hellos, goodbyes, nods and smiles – reflected this. But as others noted in heartfelt speeches, the office’s night owls – few of which had worked at Human Rights Watch for as long as Ana had cleaned its halls – had often exchanged much more with the beloved custodian. She had offered them words of support during particularly arduous assignments and had shared her motherly wisdom with expecting mothers and parents throughout multiple pregnancies. Most notably, she had encouraged all to promptly adjourn their workday and return home to their loved ones.

I say notably because, as the night owls fondly recounted memories of long nights and early mornings worked alongside Ana, the eyes of a younger Ana began to fill, with soft tears pearling down her cheeks. Explaining her emotions, Ana’s daughter told us that though she was happy to witness the office’s love and appreciation for her mother, she couldn’t help but shed a tear for all the times she and her sisters had returned from school to an empty house, or had left in the morning without the warm greetings and encouragements her mother routinely offered us.

Moments later, as Ana bid us adieu in her own heart-wrenching speech, she confirmed the now teary-eyed crowd’s suspicions: Ana was retiring early so that she could finally spend time with her family.

The celebration I witnessed on this otherwise ordinary Thursday afternoon was heartfelt, beautiful and one I will remember for a long time. I will remember the stories, the tears and the smiles as Ana excitedly shared news about her family’s upcoming move to warmer climates “to be together again.” I will remember how I struggled to hold back my own tears, how I inevitably failed to do so and proceeded to awkwardly fan and cover my flushed face for minutes after the toasts ended.

I will also remember the feeling in my stomach as I recalled all the other women in this gender-biased profession whose tireless work would not be celebrated, whose sacrifices would not be recognized.

I have yet to shake this feeling.

As I sit here, sipping my second coffee and penning this story from the comforts of a far-too-trendy New York City café, I realize I am neither prepared nor willing to do so. After all, I recognize this feeling – a mix of shocked awareness, appalled recognition of social injustices, determination and yes, guilt – the same feeling that motivated me to apply to law school, to enrol in every possible human rights course at the faculty, and that led me to this truly incredible summer at Human Rights Watch.

This post is dedicated to Ana and her family. May you enjoy many mornings and evenings together in your new sunny abode.

Stop planning, Start trusting, but keep asking

By Nour Saadi

As human rights interns, we might go to a certain country with the objective of empowering a community, and most importantly, with a preconceived idea of what this entails. These communities are, often times, the victims of extreme violence. Working at Human Rights Watch, in an environment so remote from the victims I wanted to work for, I started asking:

How much do we know of the needs of the victims?

Do the victims really want accountability for the perpetrators? Would a court judgment really change their lives, especially if it comes from some far away court they have never heard of, in the Western world?

I sometimes found myself thinking that victims might not want accountability. This looked more like what Western countries want. It looked like an imposed mentality.

My desk at HRW

Mon stage à New York a été très enrichissant professionnellement. Les avocat-e-s et la coordonnatrice du Programme de Justice Internationale sont des perles. Les discussions sont enrichissantes, les stratégies ingénieuses, le travail exigent, le soutien sincère, et les commentaires des stagiaires toujours bienvenus. Travailler au sein d’une organisation aussi large que Human Rights Watch m’a aussi permis d’explorer nombreux de mes intérêts par la rencontre avec des professionnel-le-s travaillant pour d’autres divisions : discussions sur le droit fiscal international, la corruption en Afrique et ailleurs, la règle de droit au Moyen-Orient et son application en temps de guerre, double-standards et stratégies employées avec l’ONU; et plus encore.

The Brooklyn Bridge Park

The Brooklyn Bridge Park

 

 

Vivre à New York pendant trois mois a été particulièrement enrichissant personnellement. Le chaos humain qui pèse sur la ville a lentement généré un repli sur moi-même. Ceci m’a permis de faire des découvertes où ma belle Montréal n’aurait su me guider.

 

 

 

 

Nour Saadi

Lessons learned?

Today, I am going back to Montreal with this in mind.

 

Humanity is doomed.

Beauty and happiness lies in the little things.

How can you work, with no hope of seeing change happening?

Without, in your eyes, any light sparkling?

I, dear, cannot work without a purpose.

I, dear, will not work without a purpose.

 

I will keep asking,

Without forgetting,

To stop planning, and start trusting.

 

New York City, you have been good

Oh how many times have you changed my mood

How many times have you hit my shoulder?

Walking too fast, to not miss the light?

If only you knew, if only I knew,

That time is eternal, it will not disappear,

Only you will

 

So walk, run! If you will

But make sure to stop and

Look around

Ask the sky and

Ask your heart

If the direction you’re running towards

If that light, burning your jaded eyes

Without you blinking

Oh how can you?

You need to cross, you need to run,

Hit a few shoulders under the sun,

 

But make sure to stop and

Look around

Ask the sky and

Ask your heart

If that light across the street

The one attracting your frantic feet

The light burning inside it can meet

Or is it,

stealing it from you.

 

Uptown

Lives on “stand-by”

 Par Nour Saadi

 

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

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

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

Voici déjà un mois de ceci.

View from the top of the Empire State Buiding

View from the top of the Empire State Building

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

On these last nights of Ramadan,

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

 

On these last nights of Ramadan,

I pray for a night of peace.

Only one.

 

Nour Saadi

 

Air Train

Air Train, New York City

 

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

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

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