On being “American”

By Sara Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My colleagues from all over the Americas 🙂

 

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

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

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

 

“Para los pobres, no hay justicia”

By Sara Gold

“There is no justice for the poor”.[1]

All throughout my legal education, I have encountered this statement. In my Law & Poverty class, we examined the many ways laws have contributed to poverty. We discussed how often those in the most precarious of situations find themselves without legal representation due to the expensive fees of lawyers and the various limitations on legal aid in Quebec. When volunteering at McGill’s Legal Information Clinic, I spoke to clients facing hardship who were limited by a confusing and inaccessible justice system. And – at a public hearing during my internship this summer at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights [2], I encountered this statement again – this time directly expressed by a grieving mother who had lost her son.[3]

The Court in session on May 25, 2018.

On March 20, 1999, Walter Munárriz Escobar disappeared after being supposedly detained by police in Lircay, Peru. Although Peru posited that he was released, the Inter-American Commission argued that there was no documentary evidence of that release, that the testimonies brought forward by the State alleging to the release of Munárriz Escobar did not meet the Court’s minimum standards of credibility, and that there was evidence that Munárriz Escobar was subject to physical and verbal abuse while in the custody of the State.[4] Almost twenty years had passed since he disappeared, with the inadequate investigations of the State yielding few results.

During the hearing, I observed the many ways justice is limited for the poor.

First, I watched Munárriz Escobar´s mother, Gladys Justina Escobar Candiotti, testify to how the disappearance of her son changed her and her family´s lives. She declared the above statement in response to an interrogation by one of the judges – this was her first time speaking in a Court – she was never given the opportunity to testify to her son´s disappearance in Peru. She claimed that her family was economically worse-off since he had helped provide for them since her husband had passed. She described her limited access to justice given the many institutional, procedural and legal barriers she encountered throughout the entire process.

Second, as the hearing progressed, I watched the representatives of Peru question Escobar Candiotti. They spoke quickly, in legalese, and showed little empathy. They formulated their questions using complicated words and by making reference to procedural irregularities she knew nothing about. It was clear that Escobar Candiotti did not understand all of their questions.[5] Their inaccessible use of language is another way justice limits the poor – this mirrored the incomprehension I often witnessed parties experience during court visits in Montreal. I thought about whether any guidance was provided to the State representatives on the manner of questioning victims in the courtroom. I wondered if the Court could intervene.  Article 52(4) of The Rules of Procedure of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights indicates than they can.[6]  However, it still remains unclear as to whether this can apply to the victim´s comprehension of a question and to what extent the Court can intervene. Witnessing this part of the hearing reaffirmed my belief that justice is limited for the poor if legal proceedings are tainted with jargon and if legal actors fail to ensure that non-legal actors are fully aware of the nature of proceedings directly affecting them.

Third, I listened to Escobar Candiotti make her closing statements, and emotionally appeal for her son´s remains, declaring that all she wanted was “justice”, “justice to feel closure, justice so that her other children could also feel closure”.[7] The President of the Court directly responded to her plea in pronouncing that “this court administers justice, Inter-American justice”.[8] Witnessing this made me think about how the Court has successfully helped provide a space for so many to achieve justice. The point of public hearings is to allow victims to speak out publicly and to allow for the acts of States and their agents to no longer be shrouded in secrecy. Yet, so many individuals remain left behind. This is exemplified in the statistical data on the activities of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).[9] In 2017, the IACHR received 2494 petitions. 473 were opened for processing and out of those, 17 were submitted to the Court for adjudication.[10] While cases must first be processed by the Commission, and while they may be resolved before making it to the Court, and while the Court definitely does not have enough resources to hear every case, these circumstances do not preclude the reality that many victims of human rights violations in the Americas are left without the opportunity to even make it to the preliminary stages of the Inter-American system. Only State parties and the Commission can refer contentious cases to the Court. Many are left without the opportunity to seek justice.

My experience so far in Costa Rica has been wonderful. I have been privileged to meet extremely kind, intelligent and inspiring individuals. I feel extremely lucky to be here. However, I won´t forget that day. I keep thinking back to Gladys Justina Escobar Candiotti, and to the Court´s role, and my role within and beyond this internship, in working towards a world where justice is an opportunity for all.

My colleagues and I during the session on May 25, 2018.

[1]See 49:48 of Caso Munárriz Escobar y otros Vs. Perú (Audiencia Pública 25-05-2018). Found here: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/galeria-multimedia-en.html

[2] The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is the judicial organ of the Inter-American human rights system. With the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and under the umbrella of the Organization of American States (OAS), it contributes to the protection of human rights in the Americas.  It is located in San José, Costa Rica. It holds hearings on a part-time basis. For a quick explanation of the Court, please see: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/tablas/abccorte/abc/6/index.html

[3] Public hearing of Caso Munárriz Escobar y otros Vs. Perú (Audiencia Pública 25-05-2018), held at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on May 25, 2018.

[4] Please see: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/tramite/munarriz_escobar_y_otros.pdf

[5] See 36:50 and 38:14 of Caso Munárriz Escobar y otros Vs. Perú (Audiencia Pública 25-05-2018). Found here: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/galeria-multimedia-en.html

[6] Article 52(4): “The Presidency shall have the faculty of deciding the pertinence of questions posed and of excusing the party being questioned from answering, unless the Court deems otherwise. Leading questions shall not be admitted”. Please see:http://www.corteidh.or.cr/sitios/reglamento/nov_2009_ing.pdf

[7] See 57:46 of Caso Munárriz Escobar y otros Vs. Perú (Audiencia Pública 25-05-2018). Found here: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/galeria-multimedia-en.html

[8] See 58:20 of Caso Munárriz Escobar y otros Vs. Perú (Audiencia Pública 25-05-2018). Found here: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/galeria-multimedia-en.html

[9] Under the American Convention on Human Rights, cases can be referred to the Court by the IACHR or a Member State. The Court is a measure of last resort; cases can only referred to the Court by the Commission once the State has failed to comply with the recommendations made by the Commission in their process.

[10] For 2017 statistics, see:  http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/multimedia/statistics/statistics.html

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