Wednesday, 9 May 2012

I grew up herding cattle, now I want to be an aeronautical engineer - Richard, 13

I'm feeling a bit inspired these days. This could from managing to finish a bunch of larger projects today; it could be because I was up until 4:00am finishing those projects. In any event, it has been an interesting and eventful month.

First, and probably most exciting, my parents came to visit me and my fiancĂ©e in April. I took some (much needed) leave days from work, and we went down to Arusha, Tanzania. Arusha is an interesting place. It is a small-ish city that has experienced somewhat of a boom in population and urban planning. This is for two reasons: (1) tourism - this makes the most sense, as Arusha is an ideal gateway to many fantastic safari opportunities (more on that later), and (2) because of the amount of human rights and international criminal justice initiatives that have centred there. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is located in Arusha, as is the African Court on Human and People's Rights. If I'm not mistaken, it's also the home of the East African Court of Justice. These institutions, especially the ICTR, has given Arusha a distinctly cosmopolitan flavour, mixed up nicely with a rural, traditional lifestyle.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere, since I'm distinctly pro-International Criminal Justice, and because of things like this:

And this:

I think we maximized the sight-seeing potentials in Northern Tanzania, visiting Tarangire Park, Lake Manyara, the Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti. I generally tend to shy away from things that I consider to be 'too touristy', but going on game drives in this region truly is amazing. I think I can safely check that off my list, at least for sometime. There is something rather satisfying about having the patience to wait for a leopard to descend from its tree (while most other people have driven by, taken a few snaps, and moved on), pose, and then absolutely disappear into the grass. For some reason, it made me want to get back into rock climbing.

Game drives aside, though, the human rights field has been considerably buzzing. First, Thomas Lubanga was convicted for war crimes, largely for conscripting child soldiers. That is a massive win for international criminal justice, despite what some people think. And it is definitely more relevant than the Kony 2012 video that caused such a stir. Not only that, but on April 26th, the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted Charles Taylor of 11 charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and serious violations of international humanitarian law. This is the first time a Head of State has been held accountable for his actions. In both cases, we are awaiting the decisions on how the two men will be sentenced (supposedly the prosecutors are looking for an 80-year sentence for Taylor).

This has been a busy month for International Criminal Justice. The decisions serve a clear warning to the political elite around the world that they will be held accountable for their actions (directly or indirectly). There has been some criticism levelled on the International Criminal Justice mechanisms, especially with regards to the amount of time and money that has been spent, with so few results. But I feel that most of these criticisms do not reflect a clear understanding of International Criminal Justice - even in domestic courts, criminal trials can take years to be resolved. And domestic cases generally revolve around one victim, and one event, in which the accused is directly linked. International Crimes exist on an entirely different paradigm, and have entirely different issues and characteristics. It is about prosecuting those most responsible for large-scale violations of human rights. It requires careful investigation (there will be no DNA evidence, no 'gun with fingerprints on it'), careful deliberations, and intensive legal work.

I have no doubt that the two verdicts will be appealed by the accused. Both the accused and the lawyers have too much invested in this process to simply let it stand. More importantly, because this is new ground that is being broken, in both cases, there is a substantial amount of legal principles and concepts of International Criminal Justice that are not yet universally agreed upon. So that leaves a large chunk of lawyerly work left to do. But, even if they appeal, more legal consideration is only a positive thing. One of the most important aspects of trial procedure is that the decision serves as an historical reference point for International Criminal Justice, and one that will be used to guide further progress, both with its successes and failures.

I was also fortunate to attend a TED event in Nairobi. This event was called 'TEDsalon', and was part of a worldwide talent search that is being undertaken by the people at TED, in order to find young and brilliant talent.

I say fortunate because (a) there had been minimal advertising for the event, which was crazy, since it was free, and TED is rather a global phenomenon now, so we were lucky to find out about it, and (b) because it is now the rainy season here, traffic is generally crazy, and was worse today because of all the accidents. We squeezed into the doors, just as they were closing, and got our minds blown, along with the other 500 or so people packed into the small auditorium.

The topics ranged from wildlife conservation to alternative fuel sources to slam poetry to journalism, and everything in between. The format of TEDsalon was for each participant to inspire the crowd in 6 minutes. We were instructed to give standing ovations, or boo, as individuals, and try and be active participants in the process. The facilitators who had given us these instructions were not from around here, or at least were used to British crowds, because I don't think they were prepared for the Nairobi crowd. We were raucous, loud, and incredibly supportive - I feel like every speaker probably felt pretty good about themselves. Here are some of my favourite moments:

  • Richard, a 12 year old boy, invented a system, using a car battery, a signal switch from a motorbike, and LED lights, to scare off lions from the cattle that he was responsible for herding and protecting. Simultaneously, he protected his father's wealth, and contributed to lion conservation - lion populations have been rapidly declining as human settlements creep closer and closer to lion territory. Thanks to that invention, which is being implemented in many different communities, Richard has secured a full scholarship to the country's best high school. Now he wants to be an air plane engineer.
  • A man walks on the stage, wearing a ski mask, and a baseball hat with beads hanging down, so we can't see his eyes. He is an undercover journalist, who has dedicated himself to 'naming, shaming, and jailing' those people that take advantage of the vulnerable. He works with Al Jazeera, and uncovered some of the most disturbing evidence of the treatment of Albinos in Tanzania, and Psychiatric Patients in Ghana. In each case, he goes 'undercover', assuming an identity (such as a psychiatric patient), so that he can gain access to situations most journalists and prosecutors are unable to. He builds a story, builds evidence, and literally takes down the bad guys.
  • A 19 year old girl comes on stage, and delivers probably the best piece of poetry I've ever heard live. It's called 'Call me Africa'. It speaks of prejudice, independence, misconceptions and spirit. But the most engaging thing was the response from the crowd, who was seemingly living and breathing with the whole thing. Immersive, and a little spine-tingling.
  • There was a lot of talk about toilets. We tend to take our waste for granted. We flush it down the toilet. But in Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum (and indeed, in all the informal settlements in Nairobi, which house 2/3rds of Nairobi's population), where does that waste go? Well, as a few people recognized, it doesn't go anywhere (because of a lack of sewage and piping), and worse, it goes to waste. Instead, some people have taken the notion that 'Human Investment' (or 'shit', as one of the presenters was quick to point out) is now being used in these areas as a viable source of fuel. There are now several 'bio-centres' in Kibera that, on one end, are public toilets, and on the other end, fuel gas stoves for kitchens and cafeterias. Although, as one presenter pointed out, more work has to be done to involve the individuals, especially when it comes to preserving human dignity. After all, 'who wants to cook in a toilet?'
The whole event was a bit awe-inspiring. It was a great reminder of resourcefulness of human nature, and a reminder that there is a very different story behind the 'malnourished, dangerous, crushed by poverty' Africa.

I'll end there, but expect more updates soon - I am going to Nigeria next week, to present a paper at the African Network of Constitutional Lawyers. It will be good, epic, or both.

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