By Chlöe Shahinian
Within ten minutes of my arrival at the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD), I was partaking in the weekly whole-staff meeting. I tried to keep up with the various staff updates and absorb all of the acronyms being used and the names of the projects being referenced. Later in the day, when the Strategic Litigation (SL) team met separately for a program meeting, and I got to learn more about the ongoing work of the team with which I would be interning, I knew that the Summer was guaranteed to be filled with new and exciting opportunities.
I found out on my second day that a supervising lawyer would be taking me to Magistrate’s Court in Entebbe the following day. Having never been to court in Uganda, or Canada for that matter, I was grateful to have such an interesting learning experience so early in my internship. CEHURD, as part of its legal aid clinic services, was attending court to watch the proceedings in a criminal case where a woman had been raped by a healthcare worker while seeking medical care at a hospital. CEHURD’s mandate to attend court in the case is derived from instructions given to them by the survivor. Upon arrival at court my supervising lawyer guided me to the Registrar’s Office where we handed over various photocopies of the prepared Notice to Watch Brief that were then each stamped and quickly slipped back into our case file. Next, we exited the grounds of the Court to visit the Office of the Resident State Attorney, where our documents needed to be stamped once again. I sat precisely where my supervising lawyer pointed to and watched in rapt interest as discussions in Luganda (a local language spoken in central Buganda, Kampala) took place around me.
Upon the arrival of the State Attorney, our documents received their final necessary stamp, and we were off to the courthouse again, this time walking and talking with the State Attorney as we made our way. Once we arrived in the courtroom, my supervising lawyer and I slotted into two available spots in the front row of the public seating, and we waited as the accused in the day’s cases were guided into the room as well. When our case name was called, we rushed to leave the courtroom and enter the Magistrate’s chambers, where sexual offence cases are typically heard for reasons relating to privacy, and where we finally submitted our paperwork. What seemed like two minutes later, before I could even process what had happened, my supervising lawyer gestured for me to exit, and I realized that we were done at court for the day. “What happened?” I asked my supervising lawyer, “are we done?” I was told that we had adjourned to another day as the necessary Committal paperwork for referral to the High Court had not yet been completed. In the moment, it felt like we had spent half a day of work driving to and attending court, only to be returning to the office empty-handed. However, this experience early in my internship has become an example of a quality I have come to see defines CEHURD as an organization: resilience.
In full transparency, I can’t take credit for the word resilience, I first thought about it as a potential guiding theme for this blog post during CEHURD’s whole-organization Project Review Meeting, which took place in the second week of my internship. At the conclusion of the meeting, CEHURD’s Executive Director, Fatia Kiyange, speaking about the implementation of one of the organization’s largest projects, highlighted the resilience of the project’s implementers in the face of various challenges. It occurred to me that resilience was a fruitful lens through which to consider much of the organization’s work, especially in my position as an intern with the SL team. The importance of resilience in human rights work became especially apparent to me in the first weeks of my internship when I was tasked with working on an organizational report that would analyze cases in which CEHURD had received a negative judgment and lessons learned from the litigation strategies adopted in those cases. Working on the report allowed me to familiarize myself with CEHURD’s past litigation and helped me to better understand how the SL team has modified its litigation strategy, specifically in cases on appeal, when faced with a negative judgment at a lower court. The report, I realized, was in effect an analysis of CEHURD’s resilience.
As time has gone on, and I’ve had the privilege to go into the field and see how the SL team manages its ongoing litigation, I’ve learned that working as a member of the team is a lesson in resilience. For instance, recently at High Court in Mukono, a case in which CEHURD is a co-Applicant was adjourned until the Fall because two Respondents had not yet submitted their written submissions despite having previously been ordered by the Court to do so. As an intern being newly introduced to this system, it is easy for my first reaction to be frustration. However, in observing my colleagues, I’ve come to see how their experiences navigating the Ugandan justice system have made them incredibly resilient. Each appearance at Court, even if it is only to be informed of an adjournment, is an opportunity to speak with relevant state actors to learn more information, to organize possible mobilization efforts with co-Applicants, or even to demonstrate CEHURD’s commitment to the case. Importantly, one of the SL team’s lawyers emphasized to me the impact of showing persistence in always showing up. She highlighted that when state actors, such as the Chief Magistrate, see CEHURD appearing time after time in the interest of their clients it signals that CEHURD is dedicated to following the case through no matter the difficulty of navigating the obstacles posed.
Human rights work is incredibly hard, and as a newcomer in this space, it can be easy to lean into instinctual feelings of frustration, impatience, or even resignation when it feels as if we are not progressing quickly enough toward the justice the client rightly deserves. This is an impulse which I have had to fight since the beginning of my internship. However, watching the SL team at CEHURD, and seeing their perseverance in the face of adverse outcomes as well as their unrelenting efforts in defending the rights of their clients, is helping me to develop a new instinct: trying to always ask “what can I do next?” as a first reaction, instead of lingering on factors beyond my control. With several weeks of my internship remaining, I hope to strengthen this instinct further.