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On Being a Human Rights Intern

By Daniel Powell

When a bright-eyed colleague of mine asked me why I had decided to spend a summer pent up in the Foundation’s off-highway suburban headquarters, I offered the only response that I could possibly muster to justify the cosmological happenings that had brought me there. My presence at the One Earth Future Foundation, like the presence of the other two McGill Law interns whose desks sandwiched my own, was the product of a well-ordained coincidence. As the saying goes, I never chose to end up at the Foundation; it chose me, as a matter of circumstance, and I willfully obliged. The circumstances were, to be fair, a product of my own making. I attended the one-and-a-half hour information session on the Faculty’s international human rights program and prepared an application, quickly modifying an existing resume and writing out answers to short essay questions. And when I had finished preparing the application, I forwarded my application to the human rights program. However, even as these actions were of my own doing, I never really believed that they would lead to anything. I certainly never expected that my application would be the cause of a professional experience as rewarding as the one that I experienced.

Of course, when I received an email inviting me to interview, I accepted with delight, remembering the seemingly inane words of advice that I once received from a human resources staffer to the effect that one can never secure a job without attending the interview, words which I have never managed to forget, precisely because their epistemological truth is cocooned as a stark and deceiving tautological absurdity.

The coincidence that had brought me to Broomfield for the summer was formalized in an interview before a four-person committee in a dimly lit seminar classroom. I remember entering the interview room and feeling immediately that I was under the thralls of a civilian inquisition. And although I appreciate that this imaginary portrait may now seem to be nothing more than a preposterous posture of literary excess, understand that the idea did occur to me. The imaginative invocation was not a completely absurd one either. At the time of my interrogation, I had just begun to study the origins of civil law and judicial institutions. The image of a panel of adjudicators sitting in a dark, cloistered law school seminar room had enough eidetic relation to the civilian investigation figured as a secretive Church affair that I could not resist the analogy.

At least I brought flowers. The day of my inquisition, I wore a collared floral shirt, a style choice which I then believed to reflect a comfortable balance between quirk and professionalism. The inquisitorial meeting was short, and though I left with a sense of nervous incapacity at my failure to communicate a clear vision of my interest, I found out later that this inquisitorial committee had nevertheless chosen to select me, in the same way that it had selected the rest of the twenty-something person cohort, to participate in the program. More than a mere offer to work at One Earth Future for the summer, the program director, Professor Ramanujam, offered me, as she offered all interns, an opportunity to participate as a human rights intern: a learning experience which included both a real-world clinical and academic component.

Back in Broomfield, while recounting with strategic brevity the series of coincidences that had brought me to intern there, I realized fairly quickly that something I had said was out of line. The moment that I associated human rights with the One Earth Future Foundation, a reaction registered on the face of this bright-eyed colleague. By the time I had finished sharing the story, its meaning had registered dominantly in her facial expression. The reaction was not the kind of reaction easily suppressed by an intentional grin of the jaw leftwards or rightwards, as if some jocular jiggle could eliminate true feelings from the facial repository. The reaction was crystal clear.

When I stopped speaking, she gave words to these emotions: “This is not a human rights organization.” These words were spoken clearly and declared with so much clarity that I was made to feel like some embarrassed and disoriented mouthpiece stuck stumbling over words which had become alien to him. She added that she had done human rights work previously and this organization, the one for which I was supposed to be a human rights intern, was not and could not actually be a human rights organization. She knew  this too because she had brought “relevant work experience” when she joined the Foundation, had even been recruited because of it, and that experience was of course definitive.

However, for all the certainty, she never seemed to consider whether what she was now doing, though not conventional human rights work, had some important or at least remote connection to human rights. Instead, she held that because she was not directly working with the subjects of human rights, and the mandate of the organization was not directly related to human rights, the organization could not be engaged in human rights work.

This exchange might have been a dandy one, easily repressed by memory or rationalized into irrelevance, if it had been singular. But the view of my colleague was not singular. She was not the sole soul of colleague who shared this all too similar opinion about the work of the Foundation. It was shared by many, including my own supervisor, who suggested so nonchalantly that One Earth Future was not really a human rights organization that when he said it I nearly choked haphazardly on a mouthful of air.

I lingered doubts for quite some time about my work as a human rights intern stationed in what I had been told firmly was not a human rights organization. Despite what I had been told, I could not make sense of my experience as human rights work. This doubt of mine manifested as a burning desire to make sense of my experience and to justify that the organization was somehow connected to human rights. However, even as I inclined towards this mindset, I was confused as to what human rights work consisted in. One Earth Future Foundation never proclaimed to be a human rights foundation. Its mandate was to eliminate the root causes of organized political violence, not to fight human rights battles through direct advocacy.

In retrospect, reflecting on my experience, for all its extraordinary learning and professional development, I am comfortable recognizing that perhaps the category of human rights intern has been circumscribed too broadly. It might even be possible that in our world the category of human rights worker has lost effectiveness for the type of work that I have an interest in pursuing and for which the Faculty program provides.

These concerns no doubt coincide with more fundamental questions that arisen about the form and function of human rights. Increasingly, the substantive commitments of human rights have also been subject to uncertainty. Some believe human rights include a basket ranging from basic political and social rights to economic, civil and even environmental rights. As the status of human rights remain a matter of debate, so too do the politics required to implement them. The reality remains, however, that rights are presumed and invoked because the world continues to be a place which fails to provide the necessities of its citizens and a world which absent governance structures and institutions incites violence between people rather than facilitates peace.

In this way, debates waged over rights might more appropriately be considered concerns of justice. In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen recognized that the discourse of human rights had come to appear weak and frail. For one, without substance, rights are meaningless. Sen was more concerned with how the inability of the ideal the framework of rights to capture what mattered for human rights. While he has not gone so far as to attack the language of human rights, Sen has proposed capabilities as an alternative measure for addressing the ends of rights. Implicit in Sen’s attention to capabilities rather than human rights is a vision of justice: a political philosophical project to ground a commitment to the lives of others. More than writing about human rights, Sen has sought to create a theoretical framework for how to achieve substantively just outcomes in a world which fails so often to provide for the most vulnerable. In such a world, he make clear, the negative freedom of rights can often mean little. If one does  not have the capability to exercise rights, then what good is it to banter on about human rights? Not good at all.

Reading Sen has brought me a level of comfort with my work in human rights, because for him what matters is not human rights but the sort of things required for the production of a just society. I have come to terms with and embraced my work over the summer as a human rights intern not because I have attempted to ram my experience into some pre-conceived idea of what human rights must be about. I have come to terms with my work because I have come to appreciate the opportunity that I learn about the importance of governance for creating justice, to witness an organization committed to building governance structures in their absence, and even to appreciate the challenges of governance instantiated as those encountered by the organizations which seek to devote their own human capital in the most efficient and effective way possible towards achieving the aims of justice.

In this way, my human rights internship, like some of the other human rights program internships, was not so much a mechanism for achieving an exotic human rights experience. It was also not an experience which I took to stand out on my resume, though it may nonetheless come with residual benefits. For me, the internship was an opportunity to realize that if the world is to achieve substantive justice, a desire which I hold true and axiomatic, it will only achieve such justice if it can develop the systems of governance and institutions required to render moot the very function of the exotic human rights advocate.

I am grateful for what I have learned, most importantly the institutional knowledge that I now carry with me. I cannot help but reflect on the value of a human rights program in our time and place. Achieving justice is and will continue to be, in all its fronts and manifestations, a perpetual struggle, one that has no conclusion. Justice must be achieved, but it also must be defended.

I long for the day when I have the privilege to share the knowledge that I have learned and put it to use so as to ensure that justice is made real and brought to life. For if indeed I can someday reflect on my experience as a human rights intern with the recognition of the human capital that has been vested in me and which I deem responsible to share, then I will have succeeded not merely in being a human rights intern in its most blasé formalism: a notation on a school resume. I will have succeeded as an agent and contributor of our shared world. And this agency will not assume the seemingly glamorous struggle of human rights. It will assume the placid face of an administrative struggle.  Because it is through institutional and governance reform that visions of a fair and just society came be made into a contemporary reality.

Terrorism, Election Violence, and Transitional Justice

By Nicole Maylor

From exploring different research streams in the organization to watching world cup matches over lunch, the last 6 weeks of my internship were very eventful. Here are updates for my continued research on the Abu Sayyaf Group, a new project on election violence, and writing a piece on transitional justice:

Update on Abu Sayyaf Group

My policy paper on the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) took a swift turn shortly after uploading my first internship blog post. After meeting with my boss, we decided that it would be in the best interest of my work to write a Stable Seas blog post on the ASG instead. The ASG blog post focuses on the Abu Sayyaf Group’s activities around the Sulu Sea to demonstrate the need for the Stable Seas project expansion in South East Asia.

In response to Stephanie Chipeur’s comment on my first blog post, through further research, I conclude that there is a link between maritime terrorism and organized crime. I had a good conversation with a co-worker who researches organized crime and he said that terrorist groups share similar tactics and activities with groups labeled as being involved in organized crime, thus a distinction between the two is hard to make. Additionally, I think that we in the West have been fed the trope of who a terrorist is, which links to gender, race and religion making distinctions between groups even more difficult. I have also learnt that terrorism efforts look different in different parts of the world. For example, Philippines is a coastal nation, and historically, terrorist groups in the area have been able to retreat to the isles in the Sulu Sea without persecution. This leads me to believe that a large part of the ASG terrorism efforts owe their success to the geography of the region.

To counter maritime terrorism efforts, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia signed an international agreement to patrol their shared waters in an effort to eliminate terrorist groups from retreating to the ocean after committing crimes. While this is a positive development in the region, I question how useful this effort will be if these patrol teams are not able to monitor every nook and cranny of every island? In my opinion, government forces must also explore technology such as drones that operate aerially to locate and monitor terrorist activity as well. Luckily, I will be able to get first-hand knowledge on this topic as a co-worker is heading to a conference in Manila at the end of August and will give me feedback to direct my piece. Overall, this has been a very interesting topic to learn about, and I look forward to getting my co-worker’s feedback in order to publish my Stable Seas blog post before the summer is over.

Election Violence, can we forecast the future?

I’ve also been tasked with researching election violence statistics for a data collection model with the goal of forecasting the future of election violence around the world. For this project, election violence is defined as any case where the government engaged in election-specific violence against civilians or harassed opposition. This has been an interesting experience in understanding how governments, in general, enforce their power. I researched 336 election results over a 20-year span and determined that despite a nation’s geography, development or political history, few are completely immune from election violence. For me, this spoke to a greater question on the relationship between the rule of law and the state. Should laws be enforceable just because they come from the state, even when they are corrupt? Is a true democracy one that centers the voices of the people? If so, how loud do their voices have to be? How do these ideas interplay with rights and freedoms against state produced violence?

These are all important questions that are examined by both the layperson and academic around the world. The answers are not simple, and I do not have any set conclusions on this topic. Overall, I have realized that governance, which is at the core of One Earth Future’s mandate, is tricky. That said, it can be achieved in many ways, including: free and fair election processes, contemplating different histories, and should have the ultimate goal of peace and co-operation for all.

Bringing in the Canadian Context

Lastly, I was offered an opportunity to co-author a piece on transitional justice. During a conversation in the work kitchen, a co-worker told me that she was writing a post for a series on African security to promote the book titled: African Actors in International Security: Shaping Contemporary Norms. She was writing about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Report as a standard for seeking justice in post-conflict states and I immediately thought of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She offered me the opportunity to work on the article together. I was very grateful for this offer, not only to bring the Canadian context of reconciliation with indigenous communities into my summer work, but also because I previously worked in Cape Town for an NGO focused on gender-based violence and South Africa holds a special place in my heart. Being able to co-author this piece allowed me to bring these two experiences together and I gladly welcomed it.

While writing, I listened to the Nelson Mandela Centennial Lecture  given by Barack Obama. The lecture centered working across ideological lines and resisting oppression and inequality. Obama, along with South African dignitaries, spoke to the need for a unifying symbol to rally around in uneasy political times. This was influential on my writing as I reflected on the idea of true reconciliation, and what that means today.

I also tried to incorporate my own experiences into the piece. I have conflicting thoughts on the topic of reconciliation because as much as I think truth and reconciliation commissions are necessary in post-conflict states, reconciliation must also be an ongoing process. The wants and needs of the oppressed mustn’t only be listened to and acted on during a reporting period but must continue to incorporate modern-day realities. This idea is especially interesting to think about in the South African context as the government is currently looking into land expropriation from majority white farmers which can be perceived as either retributive or restorative justice.

To compare, in the Canadian context, indigenous communities in Saskatchewan are currently protesting the outcome of various criminal cases where white men have been acquitted for murdering indigenous youth which speaks to the struggle between indigenous communities, the Canadian government and the ongoing pursuit of justice. Both cases speak to the modern-day reality of historically oppressed groups. Both cases come after state-led reconciliation efforts and reports. Overall, this piece has piqued my interest in transitional justice in post-conflict states, and I hope to learn and write more about this topic in the coming year.

Here is a link to the post: http://oefresearch.org/think-peace/truth-and-reconciliation-south-african-model

Lessons Learned

Overall, I am grateful to have worked on a variety of interesting projects at One Earth Future. Every day I was able to have stimulating conversations with co-workers and I am so happy that my fellow team members were also avid soccer fans! Looking back, I am proud of my efforts, and I will use the knowledge I have gained this summer to impact the world around me in a better, more peaceful way.

P.S. I haven’t reflected much on my life outside of the office. Here is the story of my weekend life in Colorado through pictures!

Guns N’ Rifles: A Free-for-All

By Léa Carresse

Illicit trade is a fascinating topic in its potential for oddity and horror. There are “things” I never thought could be smuggled or trafficked: from the innocuous, KFC chicken wings smuggled in Gaza tunnels from Egypt,[1] to the morbid, human cadavers from China, for museum exhibitions or local tradition.[2]

But it’s not just about what can or cannot be smuggled or trafficked. The way in which it can now happen is also developing. Take Cody Wilson, for example, who had the rather unusual privilege of being ranked #14 on Wired’s 2012 list of “The 15 Most Dangerous People in the World”.[3] Wilson invented the first website to share and sell blueprints for anyone who would want to create a 3D printable and downloadable gun. There’s a legal loophole in the US Gun Control Act of 1968 that Wilson takes advantage of – you can’t make a firearm for sale in the US, but it isn’t illegal to build your own gun – hence the possibility to have those gun parts sold and shipped. Recently, Wilson came up with the “Ghost Gunner”, a desktop CNC milling machine that can produce guns anywhere at any time.

How worrying is this? On the one hand, with technology developing fast, it could be that terrorist groups such as ISIS will accelerate the production of their weapon supply by using 3D printing, with blueprints downloaded or bought on the dark web, for example.[4] The arms trade would now occur on online platforms or be domestically produced with the creation of one’s own blueprints and milling machines. On a more local level, especially in the US, it also means that firearms will be harder to trace, perhaps leading to a booming illicit trade.

On the other, it seems that the whole 3D manufacturing of a gun is still a very expensive, lengthy and tricky process, and the outcome is a weapon that is inefficient, unable to fire repeatedly and with accuracy.

The example of 3D gun printing is somewhat a digression from the maritime arms and drugs trafficking research in Africa, the Middle East and Asia that I had to complete at OEF, but it shows the possibilities for and the rapidity of expansion of the illicit arms trade.

This rapid expansion and evolution didn’t start with technology. An older example would be that of the AK-47 as the terrorist weapon of choice. Arguably the most recognizable firearm, if not weapon, in the world, the AK-47 assault rifle was created in 1947 by Russian engineer Mikhail Kalashnikov after the German Sturmgewehr, and received an update in the early 1970s with the newly branded AK-74.

What’s so great about the AK-47? It’s light, inexpensive to manufacture, incredibly sturdy and easy to manipulate (which is why child soldiers are often seen with them), and yet very deadly. A stark contrast, perhaps, from the 3D guns mentioned above.

Because AK-47s are so easy to make, they were produced in the USSR on a huge scale, and shipped to allied governments as part of deals – with Vietnam, China, Syria and Iraq, among others – some of which manufactured their own variants and fueled the black market. This in turn led to the AK-47 becoming an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist symbol, the most potent example being the Munich massacre conducted by the Black September terrorist group.[5]

The US, misjudging the rifle’s efficiency and focussing on nuclear arms, came late to the game, but had a significant hand in the distribution of the firearm, worsening the situation. The AK-47 and its legacy are still lethal today, with copies of the weapon used by Jihadi groups to perpetrate their most recent attacks, such as Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.

Point being, you don’t need fancy technology for something to work and spread like wildfire. All you need is simplicity and efficiency.

As the French would say: the USSR is dead, long live the USSR!

Update: A settlement with the US government will officially make it legal for Cody Wilson to disseminate his printable gun blueprints.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/may/19/kfc-smugglers-of-gaza

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-37103447

[3] https://www.wired.com/2012/12/most-dangerous-people/

[4] https://www.wired.com/story/terror-industrial-complex-isis-munitions-supply-chain/

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/world/ak-47-mass-shootings.html

Peace Through Governance

By Nicole Maylor

The slogan at the One Earth Future Foundation (OEF) is peace through governance. Over the past six weeks of my placement, I have been exploring the nuances of this slogan to better understand the mission of OEF.

I have been working on the Stable Seas project, housed in the research department of the organization. This project evaluates maritime security through a specially curated index outlining 9 issue areas that impact a coastal state’s maritime security. From piracy to illicit trade, international co-operation to rule of law, countries are evaluated on how well or poorly they fair in these domains and awarded a score. The score is used as a policy tool to persuade governments to implement better maritime security measures to ensure peace through governance. While the Maritime Security Index covers Eastern, Southern, and Western African states, the goal of the project, and one of my tasks for the summer, is to expand the index to North Africa and the Middle East, with the ultimate goal of having a global index.

My second task for the summer so far has been researching maritime security issues and maritime terrorism threats in South East Asia. Specifically, I have been researching maritime vulnerability in the Sulu Sea between Philippines and Malaysia.

With an undergraduate degree in International Development and Globalization, the research I am doing for both tasks has been interesting and right up my ally, but after completing a year in law school, the questions I have been asking myself and reflecting on for this research have significantly changed.

One of the main questions I have been reflecting on is: what is maritime terrorism exactly? This is definitely a complex question and what I have come to understand is that the ability to label a group as “terrorists” and have that label shape a group’s identity resides with those in positions of great power. This understanding is exemplified through the life of Nelson Mandela. Ten years ago, Nelson Mandela was still classified as a terrorist by the United States, a superpower, and placed on a terrorist watch list.[1] Today, he is seen, rightfully so, as one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known.

Therefore, when I reflect on the research I have been doing on the Abu Sayyaf Group, an ISIS backed terrorist organization in South East Asia,[2] I am trying to come to a more balanced understanding of who maritime terrorists are, classified by whom and why.

So far, I have found conflicting narratives. On one hand, the Abu Sayyaf Group has taken tourists from resorts for ransom, committed beheadings,[3] and partaken in the siege of Marawi city last year.[4] On the other hand, news outlets have also reported that the Abu Sayyaf Group has financially supported poor southern Filipino communities around the Sulu Sea.[5] The reason for their support is probably not benevolence, but this nuance does lead me to try to understand the roots of maritime terrorism in a more robust way.

My point here is that when examining maritime terrorism through a framework of peace through governance, I think the exploration must go deeper than merely accepting what popular media tells us to assume the profile of terrorist organizations to be. This exploration must also include questions around appropriate governance and the practicality of peace for coastal states. Does peace mean total eradication of terrorist groups and those who support them? Does it mean better governance of poor, unstable areas victimized by radicalization? And how do these questions change when analyzed through the lens of maritime security?

While these are very overwhelming questions to even begin to attempt to answer, I do have to say that I feel very privileged to be able to spend the summer exploring maritime terrorism, maritime security, and peace through governance. Hopefully by the end of this experience I will have some answers, so stay tuned!

To learn more about One Earth Future Foundation: http://oneearthfuture.org/

To learn more about the Maritime Security Index: https://stableseas.org/issue-areas/overview/#0

P.S. On the weekends I have been hiking a lot – here are some pictures of beautiful Colorado mountains!

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2013/12/07/why-nelson-mandela-was-on-a-terrorism-watch-list-in-2008/?utm_term=.8bac29b1abea

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36138554

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/27/world/asia/jurgen-kantner-hostage-abu-sayyaf.html

[4] https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/10/happened-marawi-171029085314348.html

[5] https://www.nyarisk.com/2018/03/21/abu-sayyaf-weakened-not-defeated/

Welcome to Denver, Daniel

Daniel Powell

I arrived in Denver chock full of enthusiasm yet weighed down by trepidation about the journey that I had just embarked on. This was no pedestrian trepidation, and though I had only felt it faintly in the first minutes of my new journey, I knew it was a living thing, an alive thing, festering on the air that I grasped to swallow. The trepidation was not the sort of constructed false positive stuff like that which I experience each time I arise to the callous siren of my 120 decibel Screaming Meanie alarm machine. I felt it when I felt it. I knew it was there when it was there. When I arrived in Denver, I was a 25-year old student alone, away from home, and lost in a small airport that somehow managed to seem so big I thought it had wrapped its arms around me. But those arms were not a measure of comfort, because I did not want arms wrapped around me. I was stuck. Or, at least, I felt stuck.

“You should have been prepared” is all I can remember hearing myself say to myself as I tried to come to grips with the reality that now in this time and place I had to somehow figure out what to do and where to go and how to get to where I needed to get to to figure out where to go and get to. “You should have realized.” But I had not realized that when I got to Denver I was about to experience the effects of a transplantation from one world to another as if I was being sucked up like an inconspicuous water molecule floating in one test-tube only to be dropped into another. I never had that sort of realization. I refused to let myself think about it, and I think subconsciously, it was because I knew how hard it would be to become comfortable with the inevitable fact that I was leaving and would be estranged from home. So, I played little tricks on myself.

But those tricks came back to haunt me. Because while I could deal with a bit of trepidation, a hint of vivre avec, I never imagined preparing for psychological warfare. And even if I was not facing true warfare, it felt that way. I felt that way. The trepidation did not bother me until I had left the fabricated, stale air of the Air Canada passenger jet and my pores embraced the dry heat of the Denver International Airport. And I remember the trepidation growing as I moved along the flight-to-baggage procession. It grew when I stepped out of the plane wishing the francophone flight attendants “au revoir” and “bye-bye” only to realize that those French words were likely going to be my last time speaking the twang of un accent Québécois to which I had only recently become habituated for several months. It continued to grow when I marched through the industrial blue-carpet padded airport avoiding the pedestrian walkway because even without its gradual speed advantage I was walking so fast I had no need for a mobility solution of the sort airport planners design and implement for a living. And this trepidation of mine was no internal, subjective state. It had consumed me, filled my entrails, animating the muscle tendon like electrodes crossing over the chemical pathway to reaction.

It continued to grow when I considered, though only for a split second, that I would never find my bags because I had been walking and walking and I had absolutely no clue where I was headed. It continued to grow when suddenly I found myself in front of an inter-terminal station for an elevated passenger transit trolley only to realize that I was becoming, perhaps even had become, the archetypal frazzled passenger who seems so overtaken by the labyrinthine of the passenger airport that they might as well have stayed home. “Could I be that guy for the rest of my life?” It continued to grow when I boarded the inter-terminal transport and began ever so naturally to worry that a freak accident was about to take place, despite the comforting authoritative voice downloaded to the automated broadcast system of the transit carrier. It continued to grow when I reached my destination, read the flat-screen panels to verify which of the carousels could possibly or possibly not have my bags, and realized that I had to walk more. It continued to grow when I was the first person standing beside the carousel which had not yet started rolling along and I was naturally led to believe that I might actually be dreaming and maybe I did not make it on the plane.

Believe me when I say that I was starting to feel queasy. At this point, I thought that I might have contracted a dormant strain of SARS, though I can’t say that I know anything about what it would feel like to have SARS. The mere thought that I was stuck in Denver with SARS caused a bit of an internal stir, and as a freshly molded law student, my only response was to recall the case of Williams v. Ontario, an extra-contractual obligations unit on the limits of state liability in which the government of Ontario was found not to be liable for its failure to prevent a SARS outbreak. My trepidation had grown, filling my entrails like a contagion. So much so that I thought I had become a contagion unto myself.

As I waited in trepidation for my bags to be released onto the carousel, the end of the procession was in mind. I could contemplate what it would feel like to feel grounded, connected to and with my bags. They came. And I got them. In fact, I hurled my bags as if they had morphed into real humans en route to Denver and they were now drowning in deep ocean waters and there was no way to save them but to pull ferociously at them. Even if the common law refused to recognize it, I felt the rescuer’s obligation to save these bags from drowning. At the time, it seemed heroic, but it was only heroic because I was tripped up on trepidation. It was only heroic until I realized that I now stood beside the carousel bags in hand with no clue what was to come next. And my reaction to the incertitude was not much of a reaction because I had already reached an emotional zenith of sorts. Trepidation, like all emotions, is subject to the law of diminishing returns. It was no longer possible to break out from the state of mind that I had been worked into.

Then came the final act, the moment of pure tragedy, the maraschino cherry to fit uncomfortably on my hot mess of a Saturday sundae. The moment which should have been but never ended up being cathartic occurred when my telecom provider Videotron, aware of a nascent business opportunity, offered an ever so gentle reminder that either I purchase a traveler’s package, a comfortable supplement to an already outrageous monthly charge, or submit to unconscionable fees. Though I can’t remember exactly what the text-message said, I know exactly how I interpreted it: “Welcome to Denver, Daniel… Quebecor faces a challenging competitive environment in an otherwise captive, slow-growth telecom market. Nevertheless, its shareholders lust for opportunities to augment Annual Revenue Per Unit (ARPU). Selling foreign phone services purchased at wholesale prices from American carriers is revenue generative because the cost of wholesale services is less than the fees they generate. So, thank you for travelling to Denver and turning on your phone.”

I bought the package and made a call. The whole fiasco of a morning was captured in the four words my father spit out when I called to let him know that I had arrived at my destination and I was doing damn fine and super dandy: “you’re not in Denver.” And, no, this sentence, the first out of his mouth, did not end with a gentle influx as if to pose a question, even one ever so slight, rather than make a statement of indisputable, scientific truth. He never even asked me the question, because he was so sure his son was stewing in the Air Canada complaints lounge at YUL, seeking a way to avoid telling his host company that he had missed his flight, which I most certainly would have been doing, he sure knows me well, had I missed the trip.

It has been over two weeks since I arrived in Colorado, and I am happy to report that I have overcome the fear and anxiety that first confronted me when I realized I had moved away from home and was stuck in a small Colorado town for months on end. In the present moment, I remember my trepidation like it was a faint blur in the rear-view mirror of a cheap rented sedan. It is possible that I have merely caught the unhurried vibe of Boulder life. I have certainly lost all awareness of the rush and mania of law school. The memories of first-year law school have been overshadowed by a deep appreciation for what I have now come to realize I learned as a first-year law student. Each day at work, I am overwhelmed by the insight that my legal education has provided me. My current work project investigating allegations of abuse by private military and private security contractors has been at once a conduit for understanding the applicability of law to human rights and for imagining alternative means to regulate the industry. Engaging and fascinating do not come close to describing the experience.

Now and again, when I crawl out from the comfortable and ergonomic cubicle of an office territory that bears my name and lurch over to the Foundation’s chocolate bowl in search of a caloric boost, a cultivation process that I have come to treat as if it were a mandatory and hourly ritual, I catch myself smirking at the very idea that there are people who get paid a salary to read, write, think, and research about interesting things, which is essentially how I define my work. Since day one, I have been trying to make sense of the fact that this type of labour time could ever give rise to alienation or be compensated for. I can’t make sense of it and I have yet to understand it. I could never have imagined that the work I do would be considered “work.”

So as I reflect on the dynamic range of emotions that have guided me in my current experience, I can’t help but chuckle at how stressed I had first been  and how freaked out I was to confront the unknown when I arrived in Denver. At the very least, my experience suggests that not all exciting things begin with frolicking and cheer. Trepidatious though it may have been to get here, the trepidation was not in vain.

First weeks at OEF: the ambiguity and appeal of terrorism

By: Léa Carresse

Researching 1968 onward in West Germany for my undergraduate degree brought to my attention the ambiguity of the terms “terrorism”, “terrorist” and “terrorist activity”. I never really thought about it before, my knowledge restricted to 9/11. In the 2018 Western world, it almost goes without saying what, unfortunately, the stereotypical terrorist profile looks like: Muslim, brown, probably of North African or Middle Eastern descent, predominantly young and male, often single, former petty criminal, targeting civilians. Cause: “religious extremism”.

Forty years ago, in West Germany, your terrorist profile was the following: Christian, white, “urdeutsch” (the Nazi term for “ethnically pure” German), predominantly young and female, often married with middle-class or wealthy backgrounds, well-educated, attempting to exclusively target West German State officials, businessmen and the US military. Cause: “radical left-wing ideology”. The plasticity of the terrorist profile, of terrorist activity and of the terms used, is brought further to light in my work at OEF.

As an intern in the Stable Seas project, my work so far has concentrated on maritime security in sub-Saharan Africa and, because the project is expanding, to North Africa, in the countries of Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya, among others. The areas of maritime security that I focussed on include researching those of illicit trade (including arms, drugs and wildlife trafficking, but also that of cigarettes, oil, cosmetics, foodstuffs and more…), piracy and armed robbery and Yemeni terrorism as embodied by the Houthi rebels, AQAP and ISIS.

Through my time at OEF thus far, I discovered that concepts of criminality, instability, terrorism and general conflict are even messier than I previously imagined. There is no international or common legal definition of terrorism, though some domestic criminal codes, such as the 1995 Australian Criminal Code, and international treaties or organisations will attempt to include examples of terrorist activities as an effort to define terrorism. These include hostage-taking and hijacking. But how then would that be different from piracy and armed robbery at sea, for example, where those very same methods are employed? An answer would be that a terrorist’s goal is primarily political, while criminal activity at sea, particularly in underdeveloped regions with limited or no economic opportunity, is centered on financial gain. That answer doesn’t take us very far, however. How do you define political? How far can “religious extremism”  be termed as “political”? And what about the existence of a crime-terror nexus, where terrorist groups will financially invest in and benefit from certain organised crime groups? An example is the trafficking of Libyan antiquities by ISIS to the Italian mafia, or the Italian mafia adopting “terror” tactics to protest against the anti-mafia drive in Italy of the 1990s.[1] These are all questions that I am faced with at OEF.

As a final observation, a “fun” link that I discovered here between the contemporary terrorist group ISIS and that of the West German terrorists, RAF, is the “marketing strategy” that served both groups well. Ironically, though both anti-capitalist, the groups still engage(d) with branding to attract recruits and attention to their cause.

The film The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008) on the RAF illustrates this perfectly: Sexually liberated women with heavily made-up eyes and mini-skirts brandishing guns, “exotic” training camps in Yemen, their youthful faces splashed on the front news pages of tabloids, adopting particular styles of talking and writing to facilitate in-group dynamics. Their aesthetic proved so successful that it was appropriated by the fashion industry, which rebranded it as “Prada-Meinhof”, a play on the group’s other name, “Baader-Meinhof”.

Similarly, ISIS develop their own brand:  Their “poster girls”, “tastefully accessorized” (as an ISIS blog notes) with AK47s and their fellow gangster Jihadis in Nikes against graying American counterterrorist bureaucrats in suits; Twitter hashtags such as #accomplishmentsofISIS; the mass dissemination of “atrocity porn” with rehearsed beheadings shot in a Hollywoodesque style; filmed “testimonials” of fighters in paradisiac settings on how they found their true selves in ISIS; and even video games.[2] Those are all part of the evolving dimension of terrorism infiltrating the cyberspace, the progress of which we have yet to fully track and understand.

[1] Tamara Makarenko and Michael Mesquita, “Categorising the crime-terror nexus in the European Union” (2014) in Global Crime.

[2] Simon Cottee, “The Challenge of Jihadi Cool” (2015) in The Atlantic.

Pirates and fraternities, Colorado and the high seas

2015 Venney MarilynBy Marilyn Venney

Telling people that I’m spending the summer in Boulder, Colorado while interning at an organization that works to combat piracy usually elicits some surprise. I’ve become used to questions like “Oh, you mean online piracy?” or “…in Colorado?”. And it has been strange in some ways. Boulder is absolutely beautiful, and has a reputation for being a city full of outdoorsy, active hippies. It’s also a place where college students drive shiny new Range Rovers and spend their summers playing beer pong on the lawns of their frats. It’s a place where it took me three weeks to find a store that sold cucumbers for less than 4 dollars apiece. Where, as of the 2011 census, 88 percent of the population were white and only 0.9 percent were black or African American. This is the backdrop for my evenings and weekends here.

My weekdays, on the other hand, are spent in an office full of people who are very passionate about and committed to various development issues. One Earth Future operates with the ultimate mission of preventing armed conflict and promoting peace through better, more effective government. Of the number of different projects within OEF, this summer I’m working with Oceans Beyond Piracy. Despite my background being in international development, before this summer my familiarity with piracy issues was basic at best. That changed quickly though, as I was thrown into the frenzy leading up to the release of OBP’s annual report assessing the economic and human costs of piracy. Everyone in the office was coming in early and leaving late, doing everything they could to make sure the messages were clear and the numbers were adding up. They have good reason to be so diligent: OBP is only a few years old, but in that short time it has become a respected authority on piracy issues. Its State of Piracy reports gather a great deal of attention each year and have solidified the role of OBP as a crucial actor in the maritime community’s efforts to combat piracy.

I work in the West Africa section of OBP, which means that I spend a lot of time sifting through legislation from West African countries, translating them, and pulling out provisions that are relevant to our work. The nature of piracy in West Africa is fundamentally different from that off the coast of Somalia, and therefore requires different solutions. Ships travelling off the coast of Somalia are usually only passing through, and have little reason to stop in Somali ports. As they never enter Somalia’s territorial waters, they are never subject to Somali law. Ships travelling off the coast of West and Central Africa, on the other hand, make frequent stops in ports and must regularly enter territorial waters. As a result, the responses to piracy that have been so effective in Somalia — the use of armed guards has been a key deterrent to pirate activity off the Horn of Africa — are unworkable in West Africa where ships cannot legally bring teams of armed security guards into a state’s territorial waters. Similarly, the prosecution of Somali pirates was delegated to other states in the region, since, as a failed state, Somalia had little capacity or desire to prosecute. West African countries, however, have a more important role in arresting and prosecuting pirates. The problem is that, as far as OBP can tell, there have been no prosecution of pirates in West Africa.

These challenges are the bases for the two projects that I’ve been working on lately. First, I’ve been helping to locate and analyze any legislation relating to a state’s ability to prosecute pirates, either for the crime of piracy or for some other crime, like armed robbery, assault or murder. Second, I’ve been researching private security legislation as part of an effort to help shipping companies and private security companies understand what the actual policies of each West African state are with regard to whether ships can use armed guards.

So that’s how I spend my weekdays: immersed in the legislation of West African countries and discussing the enormous impacts of piracy on seafarers in West Africa. And then I go home, where I spend my evenings and weekends in beautiful Boulder, hiking, camping, and watching a real-life frat movie unfold across the street from my house. It’s weird.

Human Rights Protection & The Game of Thrones

2012 Laura Rhodes 100x150 bLaura Rhodes

One of the cultural differences I notice, is that when Americans speak about whether Obama should intervene militarily in Syria, there is a certain heft to their consideration. As a Canadian, my impulse is toward diplomatic solutions, perhaps reflective of my status as a citizen of a middle power and realistic in terms of the action I might expect of my government. It also leaves me with less responsibility for the tough decisions. After all, Canada would only ever be a member of the “coalition of the willing”, not the spearhead. Does the relative effectiveness of our national strategies to enact global political change impact the depth and tenor of our respective cultural dialogues and moral deliberations ?



At the Canada Day party thrown by our American colleagues


We sat down to discuss different options in Syria as part of our reading club. Syria is starting to be seen by some as as a failure of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) resolve to intervene to protect civilians from war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide (Stewart M Patrick, online: <http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/06/does-syria-mean-the-end-of-the-responsibility-to-protect/276866>). As recently as 2011, RtoP was invoked by the Security Council to authorize “all necessary measures to protect civilians” from widespread and systematic attacks by the Qadhafi regime in Libya.

Our group agreed at least on the minimization of Syrian civilian deaths as a moral good. Yet, we totally disagreed on the strategies, and I noticed my naïveté and discomfort with the language of geopolitics. Over the course of an hour, an initial position advocating for intervention in support of the Free Syrian Army’s just cause had been substantially counter-weighted with an empirical argument in support of al-Assad as the most likely candidate to end the conflict first, thus minimizing the number of deaths. The consensus in the room had started to converge toward the option of the US doing nothing, although really no conclusion had been reached. Of course, we all seemed to agree that everything that could be done from a humanitarian perspective should be immediately deployed, just short of intervening in the civil war. When asked for our Canadian perspectives, I said something about Canada as a peace broker to resolve the larger political tensions in Syria, convening Russia and the US, the new Iranian president and the Saudi Arabian leadership.



Mass Protest in Syria

It was a deeply uncomfortable human rights conversation in a conference room in Broomfield, CO, about the lives of people in Aleppo, Homs, Qusair, Khalidiya and other Syrian communities. The vision of the One Earth Future Foundation, “an Earth beyond war”, started to seem remote, as did the the RtoP principle of “respond(ing) to situations of compelling human need” (ICISS, “The Responsibility to Protect: Core Principles”).

Overall, looking forward to resolving some of the ambiguity I feel, and perhaps accessing better tools for deliberation in human rights, especially for discussion of the jus cogens crimes / human rights violations covered under RtoP.

And, appreciative of the opportunity to have my deeply Canadian peace-keeping assumptions thrown into sharp (geopolitical) relief.

Difficulties of Somali Remittance Companies – Explained with Animation

2013 Jim Burman 100x150Over the summer, most major banks in the United Kingdom began closing the accounts of the small companies which Somali migrants use to send money home to their families.  The group I’m working with, Shuraako, put together an informational video which explains the situation.

I plan to write a longer post with a bit more background, including a review of the anti-money laundering/couter-terrorism finance laws which contribute to the reluctance of banks to service this sector, but I wanted to share the video while it is still fresh:

You can also read more about the situation on the Shuraako’s website:



Piracy, Universal Jurisdiction, and Domestic Law in the United States

Andrew Higdon, One Earth Future Foundation. Broomfield, Colorado, USA.

2013 Andrew Hidgon 100x150On November 7, 2008 the Bahamian flagged cargo ship CEC Future was attacked by Somali pirates on the high seas in the Gulf of Aden. The attackers, armed with AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades, fired shots and boarded the ship. The ship and her crew (eleven Russians, one Georgian and one Estonian) were released a month later when the Dutch ship owners paid a $1.7 million USD ransom. In order to negotiate with the outside world, the pirates employed Ali Muhammad Ali who acted as a facilitator and interpreter onboard the ship.  Ali made $16 500 USD from his cut of the ransom, and negotiated an additional $75 000 USD from the ship owners for coordinating the release – all without leaving Somali territorial waters for any significant length of time.

In addition to being a pirate negotiator, Ali also served as the Director General of the Ministry of Education of Somaliland – a fact that neatly conveys at the scale of the problems facing Somalia. US prosecutors used his position to lure him into the US by inviting him to a fake education conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. Upon arrival he was immediately arrested and charged under US piracy and hostage taking laws. How could the US claim jurisdiction over a non-national who committed a crime in another country against a ship sailed and owned by foreign nationals?

Under international law, states must have jurisdiction over the person and the offence in order to affect a legitimate prosecution. In the case of piracy, nations rely on customary international law and the UN Convention on the law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982) to ground their jurisdiction. Unique among crimes, piracy has long been treated as an offense that any nation can prosecute. Unlike other theories of jurisdiction (such as “the territoriality principle” which gives states jurisdiction over events that take place within their territory,  or “the nationality principle” with gives states jurisdiction over actions committed by a their nationals) piracy is a crime that requires no nexus for a state to properly assert jurisdiction. Basically, any state that finds a pirate on the high seas can prosecute him. Traditionally, this unique jurisdictional aspect of piracy has been viewed as a consequence of the fact that pirates committed their crimes on the high seas, outside of anyone’s jurisdiction, and against the international community at large.

But Ali hadn’t operated on the high seas; he had helped facilitate piracy from Somali territory. The prosecutors charged Ali under 18 U.S.C. § 1651 – the US law that prohibits piracy – which states that individuals commit an offence where they commit piracy as defined by international law. This meant that the court had to examine the provisions of UNCLOS. Despite a long history of academics and law makers articulating the belief that piracy was something that could only occur on the high seas, the court took the opposite view. Brown J. ruled that since the sub article criminalizing the facilitation of piracy did not explicitly mention a high seas requirement (while other articles did) this indicated that no high seas requirement existed. While the position is defensible, it does suggest a challenge to the accepted order of jurisdiction.

It is highly unusual for a state to claim jurisdiction over the actions of a foreign national who committed a crime within the territory of his own nation, and where there is no other nexus with the prosecuting state. This is predicated on the understanding in international law that states will not interfere with the internal affairs of others. With this ruling, the US appears to be signalling its willingness to do so in certain situations. Perhaps the court decided as it did because of the fact that in Somalia there is little chance that men like Ali will ever see a courtroom. It seems unlikely that they would have decided the same way in a case that concerned a more developed nation. In any event, it illustrates the seriousness with which US prosecutors regard international crime and their comfort with dealing with it domestically. It is something that I think we should watch carefully.

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