Success!

Just a short post, but a jubilant one – DFAIT has decided to continue with their International Youth Internship Program! You’ll remember from my previous post, that I and a few of my colleagues had written to Minister John Baird, due to the concern that the Canadian Federal Government was going to end the international internship program. Looks like that campaign was successful.

Now, to see if any funding through that program is available to send young lawyers abroad, like I was fortunate enough to be able to do.

See a report from the Ottawa Citizen here.

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My Open Letter to DFAIT

As you may know, I was incredibly fortunate to be selected as an intern for the Canadian Bar Association’s Young Lawyer’s International Internship program. If you want an idea of how awesome it was, check out the blog of my time in Kenya.

However, given the severity of cuts to International Programs, and the Canadian Government’s dismantling of the Canadian International Development Agency, the internship program that sent me to Kenya and gave me a life-changing experience has lost funding. Worse, the entire Youth International Internship program is up for review. I, and several of my colleagues, wrote a letter to the Hon. John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs, urging the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to continue to fund international experiences for Canadian youth. I think that would be a terrible shame both for our youth, and for Canada’s reputation abroad, to lose something like this.

You can read my letter here: JLam – IYIP Support Letter

Or, you can read a better written, more impressive letter by my colleague Gloria, at her blog.

Human Rights Day: Celebrate What?

As International Human Rights Day comes, it is tempting to write about Nelson Mandela. His passing signals the loss of one of the great leaders of all time, and his life story is one of the most inspiring imaginable. But there have been many, many people who have written great things about this great man, often in ways far superior than I could ever do. Suffice to say, he was a complex man, in a complicated time, who worked tirelessly towards making his country, and the world, a better place. Definitely a model for what a proper Statesman should be. I highly recommend reading ALL the articles about him, and getting a full picture of his life, accomplishments, and controversies.

But, I am not going to write about Nelson Mandela.

Mandela certainly was a champion of human rights, but this day celebrates human rights, not individuals. My question, though, is how do you celebrate human rights? You can commemorate and memorialize an individual for his work, life, and achievements. Can you do the same thing for human rights? Should you?

Our focus, so often, is on how human rights have been violated, how individuals and groups have been persecuted, and, occasionally, how largely people have protested. It would be tempting to look at some of the major protests, or individuals like Malala as human rights inspirations. Of course, in many respects, they are. But, they are also individuals or events that occur under circumstances of extreme oppression, poverty, or other social ills. For example, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is celebrating its 20th Anniversary on this day – Look at the picture they’ve chosen to represent their anniversary celebrations.

This year, I think it’s important to make a conscientious effort to remember that Human Rights are not simply a bare minimum standard for human survival. Something like Universal Primary Education is not an accomplishment, it’s an expectation. An entitlement, even.

Human Rights Day, then, is not about celebration. It’s about Remembrance – taking time to understand and reflect on the severity and number of failures that there have been. And it’s about Resolution – taking time to commit and dedicate ourselves to the idea that Human Rights are more than just tools to fight oppression. They are the signposts towards human flourishing, towards a better world.

Post-script: Justice in the Hague

I have just finished spending a month in den Haag, working with the International Peace & Security Institute (IPSI) as a summer staff member and facilitator for their 2013 Hague Symposium on International Justice and Post-Conflict Transitions. Participants at the conference blogged about their experiences, so you can get a first-hand glimpse of some of the topics covered, lessons learned, and experiences gained through their insights. Their experiences were guided by the syllabus, and the efforts of IPSI staff to give them a comprehensive, immersive introduction to international justice. I don’t know of many month-long conferences, but even after 4 weeks, it seems like there is so much more that we could have covered. It was a successful month, and as a staff member, I was fortunate to learn a lot from the participants. They were from all over the world – India, Colombia, Russia, Zimbabwe…Canada, etc. Overall, a good mix.

But this post-script is not just an article about how great the conference was, or all the friends I made, or how easy it is to get around in Europe. It’s a reflection – a reflection on peace & justice in the world. Not in a cliche or overly intellectual way, but a simple way. While we were attempting to teach a small group of people about concepts of international justice, international justice issues were happening all around us. For example:

  1. Syria
  2. Egypt
  3. Zimbabwe
  4. Detroit
  5. Isreal-Palestine Peace Talks
  6. PRISM & Edward Snowden

In particular, the situation in Zimbabwe, with their elections and the controversies that resulted from them, was something I was keenly interested in. Thanks to some superb participants at the Symposium from Zimbabwe, I was given some first-person insights into a little bit of the background of the elections, and Zimbabwe’s history more generally. As you know, eventually Robert Mugabe won a largely peaceful, but compromised election (although the election was upheld in court). Zimbabwe is particularly resource rich, beautiful, and completely messed up by a history of Apartheid, international intervention, and dictatorship.

Similarly, I recently saw this article, and this picture about the situation in the Middle East. There’s also a really good FAQ on Syria, too.

So, the reflection is this – we brought together a group of people to teach them about international justice, reconciliation, conflict resolution, and peace. And yet, despite the fact that we were in the hub of international justice, so much of the world around us was in conflict. We learned about the concepts of justice and peace, we were given first-hand experiences from world leaders, diplomats, miltary leaders, etc. We gained knowledge, but did we gain skills? We grew as individuals, but for what greater purpose?

Now, all of us are scattered around the world, back in school, back behind desks. In some ways, reality sets back in – we go back to our ‘responsibilities’. We get back into the daily grind of whatever life currently has in store for us.

In some ways, it’s a welcome return to the mundane, the tangible – after a month of learning about the sometimes overwhelmingly large task that international justice faces, it is nice to feel productive, even if you’re writing a 2-page report to a nameless person who likely won’t read what you wrote. That, at least, is one thing on a ‘to do’ list, that you can truly check off. Finding an acceptable resolution to the conflict in Syria? Slightly more difficult.

At the same time, for me (and hopefully for the rest of the participants), a fire is lighted. A fire that won’t go out, no matter how many trivialities obscure it from view. It’s a fire that was fueled by being in the company of a group of people that conscientiously directed their attention to making the world a better place. People that take the time to look at the ugly cracks in our global society and have some motivation to fix those cracks.

When minds like that come together, when memories fade, hopefully the inspiration remains. It’s a subtle thing. It’s a commitment to orientating oneself towards more equity, more equality, more flourishing. Those simple life choices that leave people around you better off.

Those simple choices that can change the world.

(Picture of Clingendael Institute courtesy of Emily Shelton)

Open

While I was working in Kenya, one of the key issues that was discussed, particularly in post-conflict countries, was the need for good governance. And one of the main ‘pillars’ of good governance is having an open and transparent government. That is quite a broad concept – it clearly is a response to the fact that many governments in developing nations struggle with issues of political and administrative corruption. (Don’t worry, it happens in Canada too).

Governmental openness and transparency are uni-directional ideas – the major point is to allow an individual as much access to information about the government (particularly with respect to how it spends money and behaves); at the same time, it does not justify the government openly getting information about individuals (i.e. blanket surveillance). Or, at least, I haven’t been given any particularly good arguments why a Government ought to be able to put its population under blanket surveillance. Intelligence for National Security purposes should be just that, intelligent. But the problem is that, when you’ve got a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Where surveillance happens, it starts to seem like there are more and more people that need to be watched.

That is where these broad concepts of ‘Openness’, ‘Transparency’, and ‘Accountability’ come in. The idea behind open governance and transparency is to promote accountability, to promote informed decision-making of the citizenry, and to ensure the possibility of checks and balances. And hopefully, in some cases, to ensure Democracy.

Often, the main focus of discussions about transparency and openness revolve around the problem of corruption. Corruption is a central, critical problem in today’s interconnected world. If you want to know more about corruption issues, I highly recommend you look at anything published by Transparency International – the main international NGO focusing on fighting and exposing corruption. For example, they’ve published a 2012 report on ‘Corruption Perceptions‘ Index of each of the Countries of the world. Decide what you think about the usefulness and accuracy of such exercises.

Interestingly, though, openness and transparency aren’t simply concepts that magically appear. Not even if States create laws to ‘ensure’ them. Zimbabwe, for example, has an ‘Access to Information’ law, which states that citizens can request information from the government on a variety of topics. So does Nigeria, and a large number of other countries. However, just because the law exists doesn’t mean that openness or transparency exists. States still have the discretion to deny requests for information. Usually the denial should be done according to ‘good faith’ reasons. The problem is that so many governments, all across the world (and throughout history) have often acted in such extreme bad faith, that leaving it up to the government to make decisions about granting requests that could potentially expose its corruption/mistakes/inadequacies/incompetencies is a pretty huge conflict of interest.

So that’s the critical point. Openness and Transparency are key issues for governmental accountability. But getting information about the government involves asking the government to divulge information about itself. That is a big ask. Particularly of governments that have done a lot of questionable things.

Well, that’s not the only critical point. Just because the information is provided or made available, doesn’t mean it is useful. A major requirement for accessible information is that, well, it’s accessible. Here, the general population requires assistance in turning governmental information, which is, for example, data sets and statistics, into meaningful knowledge. This is one of the key roles that the media, as the 4th estate, plays in society. It helps us interpret information. But if the major media houses are controlled by politicians, or have political agendas (consider the fact that a major newspaper and TV channel in Kenya are owned by the family of the current president), it becomes very difficult to know what kind of filtered news you are getting. Knowledge leads to personal power, controlling the flow of knowledge to groups of people is a whole different level of power.

And one more critical point – just because there is access to information, and assuming there is a free and ethical media body, doesn’t mean that accountability will necessarily follow. Openness and transparency still require TEETH. The issues are not simply wagging a finger at a government when it does something bad, the issue is changing a culture of impunity, corruption, and placing a limit on power. That is a tall order, and something like that requires real weight behind it. I haven’t found any examples of states that have effectively done this. Most people would tend to look to the USA as an example of openness and transparency, but while the US has probably the broadest protections for Free Speech (another critical component!), it also has PRISM, laws limiting civic participation, and can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether people like Snowden and Manning are heroes or villains.

As a concluding thought – I was at a conference a year ago, where a good friend of mine chatted about how civil society has been working hard to promote Access to Information laws, and Freedom of Information as a major aspect of democratic governance. However, he pointed out that there is no evidence to show that an Access of Information law has ever reduced corruption, provided a more accountable government, and led to good governance. That’s interesting – often, in working in international relations, development, human rights, etc, we often take certain principles as ‘givens’. We should probably stop that. If we are aiming at accountability, we need to know how to measure it to know how close or far off we are.

(photo courtesy of http://www.getmiro.com)

World Justice Day

A happy belated international justice day to everyone, and a happy birthday to Nelson Mandela.

In celebration of International Justice Day and in recognition of the fact that today is my first day at the IPSI Hague Symposium as a summer staff member, I am going to try to post an update every week for the next month on a ‘relevant’ international justice and/or peace topic. I hope you enjoy!

While Madiba’s birthday initially made me feel like posting on South Africa, I know that there is going to be an amazing presentation on the reconciliation efforts there, post-apartheid. So I will get to that in a couple weeks.

Instead, I am going to focus on something else – Leadership. Nelson Mandela is widely regarded as a hero, a model of what a leader should be. He has ascended to the ranks of people like Gandhi, in terms of his influence and inspiration. And deservedly so.

But, as you reflect on a great person like that, then, inevitably, you also look inward, and wonder – where are the other great people?

It’s a tougher question than it seems – most of our ‘great leaders’ only exist as stories, as myth. For our current world leaders, there is a real sense that their ‘greatness’ is heavily manufactured, focus-grouped, and superficial. Sometimes it seems as though the chief concern of leaders is staying in power. And, by default, this often means that the decisions that get made are the least offensive possible.

It deserves some scrutiny as to what made Madiba a great leader. In part, he was a product of circumstances – South Africa was widely vilified in the international community because of the weight of apartheid. Symbolically, he represented the repressed dreams of a nation of peoples that had been forcefully suppressed. The timing was right, the setting was right. But what seems to have set him apart was his ability to shoulder this massive burden (can you imagine what weight the expectation of millions of people must feel like), to maintain his personal integrity, and to remain committed to his vision.

That is exceptional, and I mean that in the truest sense of that word. Being a leader carries a large amount of responsibility, but, perhaps more importantly, it also comes with a disproportionate amount of power (with apologies to Spiderman). It’s exceptional, because history is full  of people who have taken this power and used it to oppress, to commit extreme acts of violence, and for their own, selfish, aims.

International Justice Day is important, because it should remind us about what leaderships, true global leadership, is about. And it should remind us that there is a system of justice for those individuals with great amounts of power, who would misuse that power.

Gitmo, via Mos Def

This is a hard-hitting video of what standard operating procedures are like when force-feeding detainees at Guantanamo Bay. What this video makes clear is that Yasiin Bey is (a) able to get his hands free and (b) is able to stop the exercise. Those are unfortunately not the options that the gitmo detainees have.

The video was based on documents leaked to Al Jazeera.

What does this have to do with law, peace, or justice? Well, in the total absence of any of those things, there is a lot to learn. And it is a stark reminder of some of the worst things that human beings have done to human beings. The justification for institutions like Gitmo are that it makes America ‘safer’. And protects ‘Freedom’. It’s unclear how much ‘free-er’ or ‘safer’ we are, though. We are being asked to take it on faith that, some times, it is ok to do a ‘little bad’ for the ‘greater good’.

So, a thought experiment for the day: Are there any justifications (moral, factual, logical, religious or otherwise) that truly make these actions reasonable?

For example, had the US managed to arrest Osama bin Laden, and placed him in Gitmo, would that justify its existence, and the use of force-feeding?

Ask yourself, then watch the video again.

(Photo courtesy of Banksy, via the internet)