Reflecting on COVID-19 and Human Rights

Alice JeonBy Alice Jeon

A silver lining of this quarantine-filled summer was that it left me with a lot of time to sit down and reflect. One thing that I have been thinking about is how this COVID-19 pandemic might alter the course of human rights work. Which human rights issues will become prioritized? Which advocacy strategies are still possible and preferred? Does the pandemic call for any changes in how we should think about ethical issues related to human rights? These are questions that I have continued to think about as I wrap up my internship at the HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

For one, my experience during the internship has showed me that the pandemic inevitably places certain human rights issues at the forefront of our attention. For us at the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, it has been the skyrocketing rates of drug overdose since the start of quarantine.

Statistics from Toronto Public Health reported that there were 287 suspected opioid overdose calls and 25 deaths in May 2020, the highest number of fatalities since September 2017.  The ongoing opioid crisis was compounded with the unique social circumstances caused by quarantine to create one of the worst periods of drug overdose in the past few years.

In this way, the pandemic has inevitably moved certain issues (e.g. child abuse, access to health care) to the forefront of the human rights agenda. At the same time, it is important to clarify that many of these issues are by no means “new.” COVID-19 may have exacerbated them but these social issues stem from deeply rooted, previously existing inequities that have merely become more exposed at this moment.

Furthermore, I have also been thinking about how COVID-19 may change what human rights advocacy looks like. Our organization is lucky in the sense that our work was only impacted on a minor level; our hearings were delayed and of course, we had to do work remotely, but that did not stop us from doing most of our legal research-based work. However, the reality is that a lot of human rights work consists of field work, working with people on the ground to figure out what is happening first-hand. This becomes very difficult with closed borders and two-week quarantines in place. Even without these hurdles, human rights work will definitely be harder in the sense that workers will be at higher risk of falling sick. This said, some would argue that infectious viruses have existed before COVID-19, something that has never stopped them from doing their work.

Here is another question that I have thought about: if we are in a situation where human rights issues must be put “on hold” in order to help contain the pandemic, to what extent should we do so? Or should we have to at all? For instance, how should we balance our right to privacy with the need to track the movement of the virus? Another question related to my internship work: to what extent is it acceptable that supervised injection sites are temporarily closed as a result of minimizing social interaction; and at what point does the closure become unacceptable? This seems like an important question, for I hypothesize that these closures may be related to the staggering number of overdose deaths.

At the moment, it seems like there are more questions than answers. However, even if a vaccine is eventually found, COVID-19 and its consequences are most likely here to stay. I would not be surprised if it permanently altered the field of human rights work, whether it is the issues that are prioritized, the type of advocacy that becomes preferred, or the way we think about ethical questions in relation to human rights. Uncertainty abounds but at least we can start making sense of which questions must be asked.

 

 

On Pandemics, and Changing Course

Kayla Maria RollandBy Kayla Maria Rolland

“How would you respond to unforeseen challenges during your internship?”

On my application I submitted to the IHRIP program in November 2019, I wrote about the possibility of culture shock, compassion fatigue, issues posed by my lack of travel experience, and other challenges I imagined I could face through the program. As with everyone else, the idea that a pandemic would ground global travel just four short months later was beyond comprehension.

While undoubtedly disappointed that I would no longer be able to visit the beautiful state of Colorado to spend the summer with the One Earth Future Foundation, I had a really wonderful opportunity to spend the summer with the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, working on the Disability and Climate Action Research Programme (DICARP).

The opportunity meant shifting direction from a summer in another country, to a summer working remotely in my childhood home, and from human rights topics related to peace-building to disability rights and climate justice.

Pink stone on sidewalk, painted to read "in it together."

A note from a neighbour, found on one of my daily walks.

On a professional level, the shift has meant exploring topics and human rights issues that were relatively new to me. I am enjoying learning about the intersection between climate justice and disability rights, how global climate negotiations occur, and how relevant stakeholders make their voices heard. As part of my role, I am really happy to have gained greater knowledge of how to make web content and events more universally accessible, and it is a skill I will take with me moving forward.

On a personal level, this shift has meant riding out this crazy time with the people that I care about most. It is not the summer I imagined, but I now couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

Not all challenges are foreseeable four months in advance, but I am still very happy with the course I have taken.

Finding a New Normal and Focus

Nilani AnanthamoorthyBy Nilani Ananthamoorthy

Finding a New Normal and Focus

When I first learned that I was going to intern with the Yukon Human Rights Commission, I was thrilled. While applying for the internship program, I had done research on the Commission and was interested in the opportunity to do legal work in the North. I sensed that the Commission’s work was an invaluable resource for its community, helping to protect the rights of its people. I received the offer letter in December 2019, at the end of the first semester of my second year at McGill law.

When I returned to school the following term, the internship was never far from my mind. I took a course entitled “Discrimination and the Law” in preparation and began familiarizing myself with the role of human rights commissions. I also took the time to consider what it would mean to work in the North and how I could respectfully engage with the particular issues faced by that community. Needless to say, I was excited to finish the semester and fly to the Yukon.

Of course, as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, it became clear that I wouldn’t be travelling north. We needed to change course, quickly. Ultimately, we settled on a remote internship. I moved back to my parents’ home in Mississauga, Ontario, and prepared for a different kind of internship than the one I had originally envisioned.

To be truthful, adjusting to this new normal with the world around me in flux was difficult. As I struggled to find a way to stay motivated and to work effectively, I also felt a sense of guilt watching how those around me were being impacted by the pandemic — losing loved ones and jobs. My frustration began to grow: Why couldn’t I find my footing when I was with my family, within the comfort of my home? And then, a few days into the start of the internship, my grandfather fell ill. His health had been deteriorating for some time, but within the context of the pandemic, caregiving had become a much more complex task and required the entire family. I learned quickly that I couldn’t stick to the strict schedule that I had aspired to follow.

Now, however surprisingly, despite not going to the Yukon, I have still been able to develop a friendship with my fellow intern and receive valuable insights from my supervisors at the Commission. My first task, for instance, was to provide summaries of the Yukon Human Rights Board of Adjudication decisions that could be easily consumed by the public. Sifting through the decisions has helped me better understand the processing of human right complaints and the particular issues that are brought forth to the Commission. But at the same time, translating the decisions into plain language has really made me reflect on the accessibility of the law. Human rights law is designed to protect the rights of individuals — who are often marginalized — and to provide them an avenue through which they can seek proper remedies. Yet, the legal language at times feels abstract and removed from the situations faced by real people.

The application of the Yukon Human Rights Act requires a knowledge of the proper legal tests and the legal definition of key terms. For example, when establishing discrimination, the Board is looking for prima facie discrimination. If the discrimination occurred in the workplace, the employer has a responsibility to accommodate, to the point of undue hardship. To understand the reasoning of a board’s decision, one needs to know the definition of prima facie discrimination and the threshold for undue hardship. At the appellate level, decisions become even more abstract. At times, the cases I was assigned to summarize hinged on the legal interpretation of key words and relied on the interpretations provided by other court decisions. Even with two years of legal education, I found myself reading these decisions once or twice to find the thrusts of the case. So, while detailed accounts of the court’s reasoning are necessary to ensure confidence in the court, it is clear that as is, fraught with legal jargon, they can’t be considered accessible.

Additionally, while preparing the summaries, I often thought of the “open court principle”, which is an important aspect of procedural law. The open court principle requires that courts are open and accessible to the public. In Canada, this includes the right to access to documents associated with proceedings.[1] In Endean v British Columbia, the court recognized that there is an educational aspect of the open court principle — it provides the community an opportunity to learn how the law being applied in courts could affect them.[2] My work with the Commission has taught me that this is only possible if decisions are provided in plainer language.

Through all this, the internship has been thought-provoking, both on a personal front and a legal one. The pandemic presented new challenges — and this required me to adapt as best I could, to restructure my work plan and most importantly, to be kinder to myself. As well, this experience has truly highlighted the importance of focusing on those whom human rights law is meant to serve.

[1] Jane Bailey & Jacquelyn Burkell, “Revisiting the Open Court Principle in an Era of Online Publication: Questioning Presumptive Public Access to Parties’ and Witnesses’ Personal Information” (2017) FIMS Publications 143 at 167—168.

[2] Endean v British Columbia, 2016 SCC 42 at paras 66 & 85.

Empathy in the Covid-19 Era

Sara WrightBy Sara Wright

When I received my offer letter from the Yukon Human Rights Commission (YHRC), I was ecstatic. It was mid-December and I was looking forward to the summer when I would swap my theoretical classroom discussions for practical hands-on work. Of course, COVID-19 had other things in mind. I was suddenly ordered to quarantine and McGill started shutting down in-person activities. I watched anxiously as international internships were cancelled in March, holding out hope that I would still be able to fly out to Whitehorse. In early April, McGill banned inter-provincial travel connected to the university and I fought back bitter disappointment and frustration as I tried to come up with an alternate plan.

Through it all, I felt remarkably selfish for these moments as many people lost family members and faced financial fears. Empathy is often demanded in times of hardship and, yet, with the distance and solitude many of us face, it is more difficult than ever to infuse empathy into our lives as statistics on deaths become normal visuals and days pass without seeing a familiar face in person rather than through a screen. It also was an emotion I packed away to help rationally try to piece my summer back together and manage the undeniable effects the solitude had on my mental health.

Since starting my internship, I have found myself in a precarious balance with empathy. I volunteered to work on the sexual harassment side of the human rights work of the YRHC and that has reignited the sense of empathy I had previously deadened. I have tried to protect the empathetic flame my work has sparked, gradually feeding it to start engaging with emotions I had selfishly cut off.

Working on a topic I am passionate about has given me newfound energy that had been lacking in the monotony of self-isolation. However, as with COVID-19 related statistics, it is sometimes all too easy to shut off emotions that arise in the work. Such a shutdown is partially needed to be able to get through the challenges presented by working from home. Reviewing a decision from a human rights tribunal may evoke a moment of disgust. I may feel the bile rise as I read what an applicant suffered at the hands of their harasser and of the failure of corporate respondents to protect their workers, but the moment passes as I note down colder facts such as the price tag attached to the applicant’s suffering. I may feel my frustration at the judicial system rise as I describe my work to friends and family, but there is always a distance present.

Empathy is hard to connect to consistently when working in law. Too much empathy and it can be difficult to work on cases that involve something as demeaning as sexual harassment. Too little empathy and we risk being unable to connect to the pain of the people who we are helping. I have found the balance to be particularly precarious with the distance COVID-19 has introduced in our work lives, with so few human faces being attached to names. However, overall, I have found that working for the YHRC has allowed me to reengage with empathy in a meaningful way and renew my passion for the legal side of human rights. In a time when so many of us feel a loss of connection, my work has been a reminder of why I chose to go to law school, and I am very grateful for that.

What happens to a community divided by an international border when the border closes?

Maya GunnarssonBy Maya Gunnarsson

Like most other communities in the world right, the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted the Mohawk community of Akwesasne.  However, while many of the disruptions to daily life Akwesasronon (Akwesasne community members) are experiencing may be familiar to outsiders, such as the need to practice physical distancing, working from home, and wearing a mask in public, one way in which this pandemic has impacted Akwesasne is quite unique: the Canada-US border closure.

A Community Divided by the Border

Akwesasne, a community of approximately 13,000 people, straddles Ontario, Quebec, and New York—a jurisdictional headache at the best of times. Larissa Parker, last summer’s intern at the Akwesassne Justice Department, blogged about Akwesasne’s unique jurisdictional challenges and the impact of the international border on Akwesasronon. To further complicate things, the part of Akwesasne that is in Quebec is an exclave—meaning it is only accessible by land via the US. In short, crossing the Canada-US border is an unavoidable daily reality for those living and working in Akwesasne.

Source: Meredith Holigroski (The Walrus)

All non-essential land travel between the Canada and the US has been shut down since March 21, 2020, as a way to limit the spread of COVID-19.  Initially announced as a month-long measure, this restriction on cross-border travel has been extended 4 times already, with predictions that it will stay in place for the foreseeable future. Further, anyone entering Canada from abroad is required by law to quarantine for 14 days. This has meant that my internship with the Akwesasne Justice Department has had to become remote. The Justice Department office is located in the Quebec exclave part of Akwesasne, meaning I would need to cross the border and report entry twice to get to the office and twice to get home every day.  Although there are exemptions to this border closure for critical healthcare and infrastructure workers who need to cross the border to get to work every day, my internship does not qualify for one. Closing the border and requiring 14 days of self-isolation following any border crossing for Akwesasne residents, however, is simply not practicable.  Residents need to cross the border to buy groceries, go to work, and access essential services such as banks, daycares, and healthcare providers.

Indian Status and the Right to Freely Pass

From the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the Jay Treaty of 1795, to the Treaty of Ghent in 1812, the US and Britain signed a number of agreements establishing part of what is now the Canada-US border.  These agreements are ultimately what led to the community of Akwesasne being divided across jurisdictional boundaries.  Also included in the Jay Treaty and then reaffirmed in the Treaty of Ghent, is a recognition of Indigenous peoples’ right to freely pass the border. However, while the US recognizes the Jay Treaty, Canada does not.  That being said, residents of Akwesasne have been granted an exception under the current border closure, so long as they identify themselves at the border with their Indian Status card.  The majority of Akwesasronon have Indian Status, meaning they are allowed to continue to cross the international border that runs through their territory throughout this pandemic.  However, those without a Status Card have been left stranded in the part of the territory where they live.

Border officials are only accepting Indian Status Cards (issued by the federal government), and not Tribal Identification Cards (issued by the St Regis Mohawk Tribal Council on the American side of Akwesasne) to cross the border.  Indian Status eligibility is set out by the Indian Act, and has been subject to many criticisms due to its history of gender discrimination, its criteria that focuses on “blood quantum,” and the fact that it gives Ottawa the right to determine who is an “Indian,” rather than First Nations, themselves. This requirement means that Akwesasronon who are accepted as Mohawk by their community but are not eligible for or do not currently have a Status Card are unable to traverse their territory freely. These individuals are subject to all the border restrictions currently in place for other Canadian and American citizens. These restrictions, in turn, are severing family bonds in the community.

Many families in the region have a mix of Status and non-Status family members.  As of 2011, only about three-quarters of First Nations people in Canada were Status Indians, although Akwesasne-specific data is not available. The child of a Status Indian and a non-Status Indian or non-Indigenous person may or may not be eligible for Indian Status, depending on which provision of the Indian Act their parent received their Indian Status under.  The current border restrictions could prevent a non-Status child from seeing both of their parents if their parents live in different parts of the territory, or one lives off-reserve.  The restrictions could also limit the ability of one parent to bring their child to the other parent’s home. Furthermore, there have been cases of non-Indigenous spouses not being able to attend funerals or other important (socially distanced) family gatherings as a result of this border closure.

In addition to the way this closure is impacting families, it has also cut off many Akwesasronon from home services.  People like cable technicians, appliance repairpersons, plumbers, and electricians are unable to access the homes of many people in Akwesasne as a result of this border closure.  Even where they may technically be eligible for an exemption as an essential service provider, many are unwilling to come to Akwesasne due to the intense scrutiny they face when crossing the border.  And as for those residents who are still able to cross the border, there have been reports of increased harassment by border agents who are weary of Akwesasronon’s constant border crossings and concerned about the perceived health risk this poses.

Staying Safe during the Pandemic

Akwesasronon have valid concerns about their continued ability to traverse the international border that cuts through their community. However, they also have fair reason to be concerned about the spread of the coronavirus in their community—the Canadian provinces and American state that surround Akwesasne have some of the highest infection rates in each country. In Canada, Ontario and Quebec have had the highest number of cases throughout the pandemic, with approximately 39,000 and 59,000 cases, respectively, confirmed to date.  Combined, this accounts for 85% of all cases in Canada. In the US, the state of New York was the epicentre of the pandemic towards the start, and now has the third highest number of cases confirmed, with 418,000, accounting for 10% of total cases in the country. So how is the community protecting itself from the spread of the coronavirus amid constant cross-border movement between regional hotspots?

Akwesasne has imposed its own quarantine requirements. Anyone who enters the territory from outside of the 50-mile (80-km) radius surrounding Akwesasne is required to self-isolate for 14 days.  This means that anyone coming from any of the major city hotspots near Akwesasne (Toronto, Montreal, New York City) is required to self-isolate upon entering Akwesasne, regardless of whether they crossed the border.

This approach seems to be working.  Since the start of the pandemic, there have been a total of twelve COVID-19 cases in Akwesasne.  Considering its proximity to hotspots and its unique jurisdictional challenges, this low infection rate is all the more laudable. But, if Akwesasne’s own quarantine requirements seem to be effective at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, why are non-Status community members being excluded from travel exemptions?  The answer to this is probably the same as to the question of why community members are forced to go through border checkpoints every day in the first place—the Canadian and American governments have a history of interfering with and challenging Akwesasne’s sovereignty, and the actions taken during this global pandemic are no different.

Ultimately, Akwesasronon are used to dealing with border troubles.  From racist encounters with border agents, to heavy fines for delaying or failing to report entry, Akwesasronon have faced more than their fair share of border woes over the years, with a class action against the Canada Border Services Agency launched last year.

The community has adapted to having an international border run through their community, and they will adapt once again to the current border restrictions. But with no end in sight for this border closure, one has to wonder what the long-term impacts of these restrictions will be on the community.  While people around the world are wondering when life will return to normal, some Akwesasronon are left to wonder how many more months it will be until they can visit family members a mere 15-minutes away.

Ressentir

Sandrine RoyerPar Sandrine Royer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Un été doux-amer

Jasmine RazaviPar Jasmine Razavi

J’ai été, pendant longtemps, de ceux et celles qui roulaient des yeux en entendant parler de la COVID-19. Comme beaucoup, je me disais que ce n’était qu’une mauvaise grippe qui s’éteindrait naturellement à l’arrivée du beau temps.

Ce n’est que lorsque l’Université McGill a annulé toutes les activités planifiées pour le reste du semestre, et que ses portes ont fermé, que j’ai réalisé l’ampleur de la situation – et de mon erreur. Comme des centaines de milliers d’autres personnes, j’ai annulé les vacances que j’avais planifiées pour la fin de ma quatrième session d’université, et je me suis confinée avec ma famille pour les mois à venir.

Je me sens aujourd’hui privilégiée de pouvoir vivre mon stage à la Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (la Commission). Malgré les circonstances particulières, l’adoption au sein de la très sympathique Direction des affaires juridiques a été presque immédiate, et l’on m’a accordé du travail intéressant à accomplir dès mon deuxième jour. Depuis, mes journées ont été bien remplies de tâches à accomplir pour les avocates de la Direction des affaires juridiques. Les questions variées auxquelles je touche me permettent de me familiariser avec le mandat de la Commission.

La Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, organisme indépendant du gouvernement créé par la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne, a comme mission d’assurer la promotion des droits et libertés de la personne affirmés par la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne, des droits reconnus à l’enfant et à l’adolescent par la Loi sur la protection de la jeunesse et la Loi sur le système de justice pénale pour les adolescents, ainsi que de veiller à l’application de la Loi sur l’accès à l’égalité en emploi dans les organismes publics. Pour veiller au respect et à la promotion des droits de la personne, la Commission peut, entre autres, mener des enquêtes, sur plainte ou de sa propre initiative, diriger et encourager la publication de recherches, analyser des lois du Québec et faire des recommandations au gouvernement.

En tant que stagiaire à la Commission, j’assiste les avocates dans leurs tâches quotidiennes. Cela signifie que je fais beaucoup de recherche sur des questions pointues (et souvent, jamais posées en Cour auparavant) pour des cas de première instance, où la Commission représente une personne du grand public alléguant que ses droits ont été bafoués, mais je fais également de la recherche pour des cas portés en appel, j’assure les communications avec des membres impliqués dans des litiges, je rédige des mémos juridiques, je traduis des documents officiels, je recense des données utiles à l’interne (par exemple, les dommages accordés dans les litiges portant sur des droits de la personne au Canada) et plus encore.

J’ai également eu la chance d’assister à une première journée de formation pour l’entièreté de la Commission, portant sur le racisme et la discrimination systémique. J’ai été impressionnée du niveau d’engagement des membres de la Commission lors de cette journée. Bien que la Commission voie des cas de discrimination raciale au quotidien, j’admire la volonté de ses membres de continuer à en apprendre sur le sujet et d’entendre l’opinion et le témoignage d’experts de la communauté juridique à ce sujet.

J’ai le sentiment d’être utile, et d’être au service du bien commun en voyant mes recherches reflétées dans le travail de la Commission. Je suis heureuse de pouvoir faire du travail à vocation sociale cet été, surtout devant l’envolée du mouvement Black Lives Matter, même si je me sens souvent impuissante devant l’ampleur de ce mouvement, comme si je ne pouvais jamais en faire assez. Je mesure l’importance du travail que j’accomplis en travaillant sur des cas qui affectent directement la vie de personnes qui s’en remettent à la Commission. En effet, la Commission traite des cas de discrimination raciale de toutes formes depuis ses tout débuts, et voit un nombre impressionnant de cas de discrimination raciale au sein des services de police.

Certaines journées, le télétravail pèse plus lourd sur l’âme. Évidemment, il est parfois plus difficile de rester motivée, mais c’est surtout de lire des décisions sur des sujets extrêmement sensibles lorsque je travaille seule qui peut s’avérer poignant. C’est le côté doux-amer de la nature du travail de la Commission.

Amer, parce qu’il est parfois oppressant de voir défiler la misère du monde devant ses yeux. Doux, parce qu’il y aura toujours des gens s’appliquant à faire changer les choses.

Learning about International Law – Home edition

Andrea SalgueroBy Andrea Salguero

The old adage “life is what happens to you when you are making other plans” was never so true than in March 2020. At that time, despite worrying signs that the effects of the global pandemic were only increasing in gravity around the world, I still planned to spend my summer interning at the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Within a couple short weeks, however, the impossibility of international travel became evident—McGill University cancelled all international internships and the Inter-American Court suspended its work for the safety of its staff. In the midst of so much uncertainty, I was relieved to be closer to family and a familiar environment during the crisis, despite the realization that I might have to forgo any sort of internship this summer.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks later, I was delighted to learn that an opportunity to intern remotely in the field of human rights was still possible. Even more surprisingly, the remote internship would still be connected to human rights issues in South America. For these reasons and more I am so pleased to be interning at the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (RWCHR) is “a unique international consortium of parliamentarians, scholars, jurists, human rights defenders, NGOs and students united in the pursuit of justice […]”.[1]  The centre’s work is inspired by the heroic humanitarian acts of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who, at the height of Nazi totalitarianism, used his position to save over 100,000 Jews in Budapest, Hungary from the horrors of concentration camps over the course of six months. The Centre’s work is organized around five pillars of pursuing justice which encompass: commemorative and educative initiatives around the importance of human rights and the prevention of mass atrocities; promoting accountability for violators of human rights; defending the rights of political prisoners; and the advancement of women’s rights, as a multi-faceted approach to combatting global injustices.

My work this summer largely consists of legal research and falls under the RWCHR’s broad initiative to pursue justice through combatting the resurgence of global authoritarianism, and through securing justice for victims while seeking greater accountability for human rights violators. More specifically, my research is focused on the developing human rights crisis in Venezuela. In recent years, evidence of increasing brutality, alleged crimes against humanity and other human rights violations carried out by the Maduro government against civilian populations has been of growing concern to human rights advocates around the world.[2]

Through the leadership of RWCHR founder and Chair Prof. Irwin Cotler —who was among the first to investigate the Venezuelan situation as part of an independent panel of experts designated by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS)— the Centre remains committed to promoting accountability for these crimes. My research task supports this aim by exploring aspects of international law that may inform advocacy strategies for the RWCHR or other organizations within its network.

While challenging, this work has been rewarding when thinking of the overall impact against a culture of impunity that may be achieved through the cumulative effort of many human rights advocates working for the cause of justice around the world. This work has also helped me recognize that one does not need to be physically abroad to meaningfully contribute to international issues. At this midway point in my human rights internship, I look forward to seeing what the rest of the summer will bring!

Photo of Raoul Wallenberg

[1] “The Centre” (last modified 2018), online: Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights <https://www.raoulwallenbergcentre.org/the-centre-en>

[2] “Panel of Independent International Experts Finds “Reasonable Grounds” for Crimes against Humanity Committed in Venezuela” (29 May 2018), online: The Organization of American States (OAS) <https://www.oas.org/en/media_center/press_release.asp?sCodigo=E-031/18>

 

La distance n’est pas un obstacle

Marie-Denise VanePar Marie-Denise Vane

Il y a moins d’un mois, le 25 mai dernier, George Floyd était tué par un agent de police lors d’une arrestation à Minneapolis, au Minnesota, États-Unis. Une semaine plus tard, un homme était victime de brutalité policière au cours d’une arrestation, à Cape Dorset, au Nunavut, Canada. Notre fil d’actualité des dernières semaines est rempli d’événements de ce genre : tragiques, frustrants et décevants, pour ne nommer que cela. Et bien que l’attention médiatique soit à son comble présentement, force est d’admettre que l’abus policier et le racisme — systémique — ne sont pas des problèmes nouveaux.

J’effectue présentement mon stage à la Commission des services juridiques du Nunavut (ou l’aide juridique pour les intimes). En réponse à l’incident de brutalité policière de Cape Dorset, mon avocate superviseure en droit criminel m’a demandé de créer un pamphlet informant la population de la procédure à suivre pour porter plainte contre un membre de la Gendarmerie royale du Canada, qui est le service policier desservant le Nunavut.

Le pamphlet a été partagé sur les réseaux sociaux. C’est bien peu, me diront certains. D’autres considèrent que chaque action compte. J’imagine que j’appartiens aux deux catégories. Je pense qu’il est légitime de se sentir frustré.e par le manque de progrès, ou lorsque progrès il y a, du fait qu’il ne mène pas à l’émancipation totale et à l’égalité réelle recherchées. Par contre, je pense aussi qu’il faut se forcer à agir et que tout débute par un effort de conscientisation, puisque l’excuse des mains liées ou celle de l’ignorance n’en sont alors plus une. Dans tous les cas, il n’est pas nécessaire d’être sur place ni de vivre la chose personnellement pour ressentir cette frustration et pour agir. C’est ce que la crise de la Covid-19 m’a particulièrement appris.

J’étais extrêmement déçue, et c’est le moins que l’on puisse dire, de ne pas pouvoir vivre mon stage « en entier ». J’avais tellement hâte de partir vivre à Iqaluit, « up North ». Même si l’expérience est incomplète et donc assurément différente, je suis néanmoins heureuse d’avoir la possibilité de la vivre. Je travaille depuis près d’un mois dans le domaine du droit criminel et du droit de la famille. J’explore à distance les défis que représente la pratique juridique auprès des personnes défavorisées du Nunavut. Je ressens de la frustration à l’idée que 2052 km m’empêchent de surmonter moi-même ces défis. Je suis chaque jour conscientisée à de nouveaux enjeux. Derrière mon MacBook Air et ma recherche juridique, je tente de sortir de ma zone de confort. J’apprends. Je forge ma personnalité de future professionnelle du droit. Puisque la distance n’est pas un obstacle au travail, à l’effort, au changement et au progrès, la Covid-19 ne m’aura finalement pas volé cette opportunité. J’espère sincèrement me réveiller un jour et avoir eu tort, mais pour l’instant je suis convaincue que le travail est partout et qu’il ne s’arrêtera jamais.

P.S. : Bien désolée de ne pas avoir de photos à vous partager, ni d’anecdotes touchantes à raconter… la distance complique la chose. Toutefois, je peux vous affirmer sans hésiter que les avocates qui me supervisent sont des femmes passionnées et sincères. Pouvoir les rencontrer en personne n’aurait été qu’un plaisir encore plus grand que celui d’avoir la chance de travailler virtuellement à leurs côtés.

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