Monday, 20 February 2012

Making the best of a good situation

I realize that I've been quite lackadaisical with my blog updates.  I apologize.  I think I underestimated the amount of thought, insight, and time that is required for successful blog entries.  For me, all those things are in short supply these days.  But that's not necessarily a bad thing, at all.

As mentioned in the last few posts, 2012 has started rather intensely.  There have been developments all over the place, which has led to ICJ Kenya being loaded up with work from all different angles.  Luckily, we've had the pleasure of taking on a couple of new hires to the team.  But there was no honeymoon period - they were marched straight into the trenches and are already being ferried around the country, giving seminars, doing community outreach, and all the other festivities that we call 'programmatic activities' over here.

The new team members are going through precisely what I went through 5 months ago.  Time flies.  But it is worth noting - I came to an organization that has been in existence for over 50 years, and, over the last 20 years, has established itself as close to the best Human Rights NGO in Kenya, and definitely a leading NGO in the East African region.  That is pretty impressive stuff, and wasn't lost on me in my first few days here.

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment.  You are one year out from law school, and have spent that year working at a large general practice law firm in Alberta.  You went into law school on the premise that you wanted to help people, and you have a mild, but naive interest in human rights work.  You go to law school at the University of Alberta - one of the best law schools in Canada, known for building practical knowledge of law.  There are only three professors who teach topics on international law, and only one course in international human rights law.  You take that course, but ultimately, after three years in law school, it is unclear how to actually find work in the human rights field.

You graduate and go on to work at a law firm known for its links to the community, and for taking on cases that are socially relevant.  That is great, and you get to work on some interesting files, but most of the files you work on are insurance defence files.  That is a long way away from promoting and protecting human rights.  And, after all, a law firm is a business enterprise, not a public interest forum.

Now, after all that, you get an absolutely wonderful opportunity - an internship program specifically designed to help young lawyers get their foot in the Human Rights door.  Great.  Even better, it's in Kenya, and they've just made a new Constitution, and they like speaking English.  It's ideal.

You show up in Kenya armed with a mosquito net, the vague idea that human rights are universal, and your spare copy of 'public international law for students'.  You know that in 2007 Kenya had a lot of conflict associated with their elections, and that Kofi Annan had to step in and negotiate a deal.  You know that many people died, and many more were displaced from their homes.

Then you get whisked off all over the country, to monitor the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, and get a massive dose of reality.  You also get asked to help design a legal aid scheme and a reparations policy for the entire country.  That's a little bit different from getting an order for substitutional service in chambers, and writing a research memo on injunctions for a case involving condominium boards.  Don't get me wrong - domestic, 'normal' legal practice is one of the most important jobs in our society.  But for me, armed with basically no practical knowledge of international human rights affairs, it was a little bit intimidating, to say the least.

One of the biggest hurdles to get over was the fact that this was an established organization, with great legal minds and sound administrative structures - how was I going to make a meaningful contribution?  Turns out that contributions come in all shapes and sizes.  I didn't exactly come to Kenya to engage in web design, but it turns out that my work on the ICJ Kenya website will probably have the longest lasting impact with the organization (depending on how my work on the reparation policy goes...can you imagine designing a policy for repairing harms to victims that were suffered from 1963-present day?  If you can, let me know, I could use the help, especially since it's due in less than a month).  And, slowly but surely, my knowledge of human rights issues, transitional justice, and international criminal justice grows on a daily basis.

More than that, my appreciation for the issues here in Kenya has been growing immensely, and often not from the work, per se.  I had a chat with one of our new employees.  He's the definition of a friendly giant - big guy, soft heart.  We were having a conversation about corruption and integrity of political leaders.  I wanted to know if things were getting better - they seemed to be, given all the major reforms that Kenya was undergoing.  He chuckled at that.  Then he told a story about his old roommate's fiancee.  She had been at a party with a local MP in attendance.  He took a fancy to her.  She told him she was engaged.  He pursued her further.  She almost literally ran out of the party, phoning her fiancee to ask for a ride home.  They found her body the next day - she had been thrown out of a moving vehicle.  They contacted the police, gave statements, and hoped that the police would track down the perpetrators.  The story ran in the newspapers.  The next day, the Police Commissioner informed the media that he was taking over the case.  In two days, he gave a statement that it was a road accident, she had been hit by several different cars while crossing the street.  Somehow, there was no mention of the eye witness accounts, where people saw her body being dumped out of a car.

That happened last year.  That is what drives my colleague to fight injustice.

Impunity is a major issue, both here in Kenya, and in basically everywhere else in the world.  The truth is, part of the reason that ICJ Kenya is so busy is because the quantity and scope of major human rights issues are so large.  In a proper functioning society, there is no need for the human rights defender.  I am having an engaging experience because of it, but the work that I am doing has more than just academic importance.  I also have a passion to fight injustice, but have never experienced it on the visceral level as some of my colleagues have.

I may still be very naive about the types of evils that lurk around, but that doesn't change my job description.  I'm here to learn, to help, and to do my best to create a better functioning society.  Sounds like a pretty good plan to me.