By Sébastien OFFREDO

It’s important to receive an eye-opening lesson at the beginning of any new experience. In our first week, interns were called together to a conference room to watch a hearing through Zoom regarding an alleged violation of human rights. We watched as the counsel for the victims began with a passionate opening. Initially, the lawyers for the defendant State were notably absent.

The counsel carried on anyways, but the State lawyers eventually arrived late, abruptly interrupted the call, and demanded a delay claiming that they were unprepared. With the case having been going on for months, one might assume that the State would’ve had enough time to prepare. Despite this, the court granted the delay.

The legal officers in the conference room sighed in disappointment. This was an insult to the victims who had been waiting on this hearing for months. We were then told that unfortunately, this was nothing unexpected. Human rights mechanisms are hardly perfect for any victims, but despite the setbacks, human rights work is what victims need when their States fail them. Through my work so far, this has become apparent as I’ve been able to look at the African human rights system, The Gambia’s impending legalization of FGM, and migrant/refugee rights in Francophone Africa.

Understanding the African Human Rights System

My internship at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) has been very rewarding, with all my initial worries worn off after six weeks in. The IHRDA is an NGO located in The Gambia that provides pro bono legal services to victims of human rights abuses, conducts training workshops, and disseminates information on African human rights to promote them. From the beginning of my internship, I had to quickly familiarize myself with the main mechanisms and treaties of the African human rights system and the regional ECOWAS Court of Justice.

Interns at the IHRDA are always balancing multiple assignments at once to keep busy. My first project involved the Children’s Charter, the continent’s main instrument for protecting children’s rights, and forced labor in the Lake Volta region of Ghana. The protections granted by the Children’s Charter are so strict that even Canada wouldn’t comply since it permits child marriage and recruits sixteen-year-olds into its military.1 I drafted recommended reparations for the victims based on international standards and African Committee jurisprudence.

I’ve learned more about human rights through researching violations of the African Charter committed by the extractive industry and revising an academic paper on enhancing compliance with African Commission recommendations. Additionally, I’ve been able to complete a collaborative case analysis between the IHRDA and the Transnational Justice Clinic on an ECOWAS Court ruling regarding police brutality in Nigeria.

Empowering the Media in the Face of FGM Legalization

It’s easy to shy away from the truth until it’s put right in front of your eyes. The most powerful experience of my internship thus far has been an FGM conference hosted by the IHRDA. The IHRDA and partners met with leading journalists of the Gambian Press Union to train them on addressing FGM from cultural, medical, and international human rights perspectives. Many have been anxiously watching as The Gambia could become the first country to ever repeal an FGM ban.2

The moment that the invited medical expert projected explicit photos of the scarring, pain, and damage caused by FGM was the moment that the room went silent. People were stunned. Strong emotions plastered the face of every journalist. We were told that sexuality is a taboo topic in The Gambia, meaning that many have never seen the images presented or haven’t been able to discuss them.

There was a growing frustration amongst the journalists that legislators and influential imams have been ignoring these medical complications. An issue identified by the panelists was that The Gambia initially banned FGM by decree without educating the public of its harm at the same time. This is where the media could step in and play the role of educator. The conference ran overtime and successfully empowered these journalist to recognize their influence in this public debate.

Le bilinguisme en Afrique de l’Ouest

One of the reasons why I was drawn towards the IHRDA was the opportunity to gain legal experience in both English and French. As bilingualism and trilingualism flows through the office, coffee break conversations can be heard in English, French, Wolof, and other languages. Analytical reports have involved researching French-language statutes and human rights reports, among other sources.3

While writing a profile on independent human rights institutions in Cameroon, I was intrigued to learn that like Canada, it’s officially bilingual and maintains a bijural system where civil law operates in the Francophone regions and common law in the Anglophone regions.4 Having learned so much about Canada’s bijural nature at McGill, it felt like I was discovering its twin from across the Atlantic.

One of the most insightful experiences I’ve had has been participating in a three-day training conference for Francophone human rights lawyers of West Africa. The main topic of the conference was freedom of movement and migrant/refugees rights. Attendees came from twelve countries, with a Sébastien du Burkina Faso finding great amusement in meeting a Sébastien du Québec. A passionate debate session covered subjects such as the continuous effects of colonialism on fractured national identities, combatting statelessness, and how to increase international bargaining power for African States. It was nice to see that despite the clashing opinions, these lawyers stayed united through a shared language identity and a commitment to strengthening migrant/refugee rights.

Finding Happiness in the Smiling Coast

“Nice to be nice” is a slogan you’ll hear thrown around if you ever visit The Gambia, making for a welcoming environment. I’ve used my weekends so far to visit places such as the Senegambia strip—the heart of Gambian nightlife—and Banjul proper, with its Arch 22 landmark and bustling Albert Market. I’ve had brunch with my coworkers in Bijilo and recently went on a boat trip through the Tanbi mangroves on the Gambia River. Though I’m still here for six more weeks, I already know that I’ll soon be missing the local cuisine and my daily café touba. Of all the sights I’ve seen, this blog post may as well be replaced by a photo album, though I’ll save that for my Instagram for the sake of professionalism 😁.

  1. Shirley Cardenas, “Child Marriage Is Legal and Persists across Canada”, McGill Reporter (12 January 2021), online: <>; Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Child Soldiers Global Report 2004 (London: Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2004) at 122. ↩︎
  2. “The Gambia Votes to Reverse Landmark Ban on Female Genital Mutilation”, Al Jazeera (19 March 2024), online: <>. ↩︎
  3. I’ve also had the opportunity to review documents from Cabo Verde and Guinea-Bissau in an effort to refine my Portuguese skills. ↩︎
  4. Charles Manga Fombad, “Update: Researching Cameroonian Law”, GlobaLex (January/February 2023), online: <>. ↩︎