While the majority of the other interns in McGill’s international human rights internship program this year spent their summers in different countries, I completed my internship in the faraway land of Halifax, Nova Scotia. I had never actually been to eastern Canada, but, unsurprisingly, the totality of my culture shock consisted of having to adapt to drivers who actually paid attention to and respected pedestrians (in sharp contrast to the attitudes of Montreal drivers).
Prior to starting at the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), I hadn’t considered what it would mean to complete an “international” placement in my own home country. While many of the other interns were immersed directly in the country that their organization primary worked in, I spent my twelve weeks sampling the laws and policies of countries from various regions of the world, without setting foot in any of them. Of course, this did not make my placement (or the placements of other students who were also placed within Canada) any less “international.” Organizations can be “international” for the purposes of this type of experience, in multiple ways – by virtue of their location, or by virtue of the scope of their work (although, of course, these categories are far from discrete). But, as I learned, analyzing legal frameworks from afar is a unique endeavour – one that comes with distinct challenges.
I spent most of my time at CLD creating country-specific legal mapping documents, which laid out the legislative frameworks surrounding various rights in those countries and highlighted potential areas of concern. These documents were meant to be primarily focused on the laws and official policies themselves, not the practices on the ground. However, as I discussed in my previous blog, separating these two from each other was nearly impossible in many cases – it would be disingenuous to commend a country’s law on an issue if the law is never abided by in practice. Because of this, it was necessary in all cases to seek out at least basic information about how the relevant laws were applied. This is where the challenges of being across the world from many of the applicable countries arose.
In order to obtain information about practices on the ground, I scoured news websites and reports from other human rights organizations, and the legal officer at CLD spoke with members of partner organizations located in the relevant countries. This allowed us to identify issues that were not readily apparent in the laws themselves and provided, in many cases, a much more complete depiction of the legal environment. However, we were still limited by the realities of our distance.
With respect to news and secondary sources, an obvious, but problematic inverse relationship hindered my search – the more that freedom of speech is restricted in a country, the less secondary information is available about this restriction. In addition, information about certain smaller countries was nearly impossible to find. This was the case, for example, with the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville). Information on the reality of civic space in the Congo is drowned out in search engines by information about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Even after wading through these results, very little information appeared. Unsurprisingly, this was also the case for Niger – results were by-and-large related instead to Nigeria. Of course, the comparative size of different countries was not the only cause of this difficulty. In many cases, the availability (or lack thereof) of information was clearly tied to political realities – countries that receive more foreign aid also tend to be the focus of more research and monitoring.
While direct communication with individuals located in the applicable countries mitigated these challenges in many ways, distance still created obstacles to obtaining accurate information. When the person on the other line seemed closed off, it was hard to determine why. Was it an issue with the fluidity of the translator? Was the technology just lagging? Was it just a matter of the individual’s personality? Or was it due to self-censorship resulting from a combination of the threat of surveillance and harsh content-related speech laws?
Of course, labelling these contextual factors as “challenges” to international work seems flippant in some ways. Being physically distant from the countries I researched and wrote about meant that I did not have to worry that my work would put my safety at risk – a reality for human rights workers in many of the countries I looked at. As my coworkers were also all located in Halifax (except during their many international trips), it also meant that I wasn’t at risk of jeopardizing their safety. While my work was exclusively used on an internal basis, I would not realistically have had this bubble of protection if I was located in one of many other places, where government surveillance of digital communications is a reality and human rights defenders are often targeted.
In this way, my placement at CLD showed me what it means to work for an internationally-oriented organization; it highlighted to me both the privilege and the limitations inherent in this type of work. This will be something I consider in future employment in order to properly situate the role that I (along with my organization) am meant to play. I will ask myself, what privilege do I have by virtue of my position (both spatially and functionally)? What limits does this position place on my ability to obtain complete information? What does this mean for my work?