Thursday, August 8, 2013

“Only Rights Can Stop the Wrongs”: A Summer Spent Living and Working with the Members of the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance

Nairobi is not for the faint of heart. When I first landed here six weeks ago, I soon realized this summer wasn’t going to be filled with gorgeous sunsets, views of the mountains, and dining at fabulous cafes and restaurants as was my last bit of international travel to the south of France. Nairobi is gritty; the city is busy and crowded, and the streets are dangerous. My host family asked me to be home before dark every night as a matter of safety, and I quickly agreed.

Over the past six weeks, I have indeed found those sunsets (while on safari at Amboseli National Park), views of the mountains (while visiting my host’s family in their small village on the slopes of Mount Kenya), and fine dining (with the help of new friends who have introduced me to hidden restaurants serving fabulous Indian, Ethiopian, and Kenyan cuisine). I have also learned that my summer here in Nairobi will not be defined by the food or the scenery, but rather by the people; the people I am living and working with are kind, funny, brilliant, and brave advocates for sex workers’ rights in Kenya. Experiencing daily life as one of them has already intensified my drive to work in international human rights, as well as deepened my understanding of what it means to be an advocate for truly marginalized populations, such as sex workers.

I spend my days working for the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance, and am generously being hosted by the organization’s co-chair, John Mathenge. The first several weeks of my internship were spent drafting a training manual called “Sex Workers Rights’ Are Human Rights,” focusing on the rights found in international treaties and the Kenyan Constitution which most affect sex workers. This work was familiar to me; after two years in law school, researching laws as applied to a specific population is the norm. The challenging (and most exciting) part began when I started administering the trainings to sex workers in the Nairobi area. I have never met a more motivated, willing-to-learn, and engaged group of people, some with little education, others with paralegal training, all with an ardent desire to learn their rights and apply them to the abuses they face daily from police, clients, soldiers, and healthcare providers.

The trainings have been an emotional and eye-opening experience, as I am realizing that even if a human right is not respected by those in authority, simply owning that right and coming together to fight for protection of that right, has deep meaning for those who are told that they are not deserving of the most basic respect and human decency. The sex worker population in Nairobi is composed of hard-working, intelligent, caring, and respectable people, whose government consistently denies their human rights by allowing abuse and stigma to exist. The work of KESWA has made great headway for the cause: KESWA participates in human rights conferences and events around the world, as well as promotes HIV prevention and positive living for those with HIV/AIDS.

If my experience at KESWA had not been “real” enough so far, an event that took place recently solidified for me the importance of human rights for sex workers, as well as the ongoing struggle that activists in Nairobi must face.  In the middle of the night, John received a call and rushed out of the house. We found out the next day that two of the sex workers and major activists at KESWA, Phelister and Grace, had been spending time at a bar in town, one that is lively and popular with sex workers and clients, when the police raided the bar. Everyone found on the premises was arrested, despite the fact that no illegal activity had taken place: all the patrons, the management, even the wait staff and cooks at work in the kitchen were detained. Sixty-five people in total, including our two friends and colleagues, were carted off to jail for the night. Bail was set at 2,000 Kenyan shillings each (approximately $25).

At that point John arrived with the bail for Phelister and Grace. But rather than go home, while others who could not afford the bail remained, our two friends stayed until everyone was released. They spent the night protesting, leading chants of “Haki Yetu!” (“These are our rights!”), and keeping high the spirits of the sex workers and other bar patrons until around 11am the next morning when all were released with no charges. When I saw Phelister the next day, I was worried and scared about what had happened, but she wasn’t concerned. It had turned into a moment of impromptu activism, she said: “We wanted to show the community that sex workers support each other and we will fight for our rights. We can do good for our community.” 

Monday, August 5, 2013

New Leadership, Old Challenges at the ICC

This summer I am interning with the Open Society Justice Initiative, part of George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, in the far-flung locale of New York City (approximately four blocks from the Leitner Center). Though the Foundations’ main focus is grantmaking—giving away nearly a billion dollars a year to various human rights causes—the Justice Initiative essentially functions as an international public interest law firm, engaging in research, advocacy, and strategic rights-based litigation in national and international courts around the world. In addition to its de facto headquarters in New York, there are sizable Justice Initiative offices in Budapest, London, and DC, as well as a roving pack of lawyers, researchers, and trial monitors elsewhere. I am working specifically with the International Justice Program, doing research and writing on the International Criminal Court.

Now entering its second decade of operation, the International Criminal Court has one conviction and one acquittal. Such a batting average is uninspiring to even the Court’s most ardent supporters, especially as it is estimated that by 2015 it will have cost over $1.6 billion. In addition to its record, civil society commentators and member states alike have criticized the Court for investigatory blunders, insufficient outreach, and a perceived bias against Africa. If the ICC is meant to be the permanent international court of criminal justice it needs to be more efficient and effective. With the recent appointment of its second Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda of the Gambia, and other high-level Court administrators, the Court and its supporters are taking the opportunity to push for systemic changes to its operations. 
I recently attended a briefing at the offices of the Coalition for the ICC by one of those incoming Court administrators, the new ICC Registrar Herman von Hebel. This is a person under tremendous pressure to secure a budget that will support robust investigations and successful prosecutions, in addition to instituting a reliable witness protection program (time ran out before I could ask about the alleged sexual assault of witnesses by an ICC employee in the DRC) and heading outreach efforts. I had attended a similar briefing (same conference room, many of the same attendees, same Mr. von Hebel) in April in my capacity as an intern with Human Rights Watch, just before he was sworn in. In April he was cautiously optimistic and eager for input from the NGOs assembled, saying that he planned to streamline the Registry, prioritize outreach, and work to strengthen cooperation between the Registry and the Office of the Prosecutor.

Herman von Hebel being sworn in as ICC Registrar, April 18, 2013 © ICC-CPI
Three months later, after having confronted the reality of ICC bureaucracy, I half-expected to encounter a defeated man. However, though besieged from all sides by state donors and frustrated civil society groups, Mr. von Hebel seemed fired up, not beaten down. While acknowledging the Court’s continued shortcomings, he outlined concrete proposals for structural changes within the Registry and field offices, double-digit percent budget increase, and a core focus on outreach. The Registrar’s perspective mirrors that of the most effective civil society participation (the Open Society Justice Initiative’s ICC work surely included): optimistic yet realistic, self-aware, open to criticism, and constructively critical themselves. With the tactful support of civil society, the Court’s new leadership will hopefully be able to translate their vision into successful prosecutions of the world’s worst criminals. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Change and Challenges in Cambodia

Cambodia in the rainy season is cool(er), verdant, and lush.  Rice paddies swell, cinnamon-hued roads soften to mud, and the jungle creeps in a bit closer.  After the thrashing madness of afternoon storms that stop as suddenly as they start, motodups and tuk tuks cruise around crater-sized puddles in Phnom Penh in the post-deluge quiet.  People emerge from behind doorways and the streets begin fill to with activity again. 

In the same way, thirty-four years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and the end of a collective national nightmare of genocide and war, Cambodia is getting back on its feet.  This summer I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to play a small role in these reconstruction efforts as a legal intern at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).  As an organization dedicated to recording the Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) era, DC-Cam variously serves as the world’s largest archive on the Khmer Rouge and as a source of research, outreach and education surrounding the genocide.  The organization has been integral to helping Cambodian society cope with the aftermath of the genocide and understand and digest the ongoing trials at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). This is critical in a country that is becoming known abroad for its temples rather than its war history, but where there is still obviously both the need and desire for justice —a tension visible in the split personalities of rapidly developing Phnom Penh, my temporary home.

The Lonely Planet Cambodia edition from 1991 (available at the National Library here) suggests a total of two available hotels in Phnom Penh and lists the Central Market as the only reliable place to procure a meal---that is, assuming you could even get a visa to enter the country.   Today, the city bristles with air conditioned coffee shops offering lattes that cost $2.50 and free wifi---popular with expats stopping between yoga class and a swim at a hotel pool. Outside the city, the countryside is a traveller’s dream of good roads connecting temples, jungles and beaches, staffed by tiny old ladies in checkered scarves hawking mangosteens and Vietnamese iced coffee. At the same time, Cambodia remains shackled to its past. Cambodian soil still holds between an estimated 4 and 6 million land mines that were laid during the 1970s.  Trials at the ECCC grind forward, but maybe not in time to offer survivors the full benefits of truth and accountability.  This spring, Ieng Sary, co-founder of the Khmer Rouge and one of the accused in case 002, died at age 87 while awaiting trial at the ECCC.  Ieng’s death dealt a frustrating blow to a tribunal already mired in delays and allegations of political meddling, and increased the sense of urgency in trying the remaining accused who also are largely of advanced age and in failing health.  As a Leitner Center report from 2011 chronicled, the country also faces a tremendous mental illness burden that is the result of poor treatment options and the scars of genocide—fissures that remain hidden from most foreigners visiting the country.

As an outsider and newcomer, trying to decipher Cambodia is as beautifully reflexive as the correct response to sok s’bay (Khmer for “how are you”---literally meaning “healthy, happy?"; the answer also being sok s’bay) and as complicated as giving good directions to tuk tuk drivers (extremely).

  For more information about the Documentation Center of Cambodia, visit  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Rugby, Soccer, and Race in South Africa

 My first introduction to race relations in South Africa came in 1995, when I was five. My family had just moved to Swaziland from India, and we were going to South Africa on a family holiday. Apartheid had just ended. My mother tried explaining that white people hadn't treated black people or Indian people well. "They're going to be mean to me!" I wailed. Having been born in New Delhi, having gone to an Indian nursery school, and having mostly Indian friends, I thought I was Indian. Eighteen years later, I've returned to South Africa to intern at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, and I now understand that I'm actually white.

The last two days in Johannesburg have been an indication of how far race relations have come, but also how much is left to be done. Two days ago, I visited the fantastically-curated Apartheid Museum. It included the famous episode during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted in South Africa. Mandela, ever conscious of symbolism, shocked the mostly-white crowd by appearing on the field before the game, dressed in the South African captain's jersey. Rugby is traditionally a white sport in South Africa, and thus was seen to represent apartheid. The stadium was stunned, but someone started to chant. "Nel-son! Nel-son!" The rest of the stadium joined in, and South Africa Springboks went on to defeat the New Zealand All-Blacks (whose nickname derives from their jersey) 15-12. Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Matt Damon liked the story so much that they turned it into a movie.

Last night, my brother's friend Warren and I went to a sports bar to watch the Springboks play Italy. Coincidentally, Bafana Bafana - South Africa's soccer team - was playing against the Central African Republic at the same time, and the bar was screening both games. To the left, where the Springboks game was being screened, the room was almost entirely white. To the right, where the soccer was being screened, the crowd was almost entirely black. Warren and I positioned ourselves in the middle, so that he could watch the rugby and I could watch the soccer. Warren leaned over and told me to notice the different reactions if a goal or a try were scored. Bafana Bafana scored! 3-0! The right side of the bar erupted, with people shouting, whistling in joy, and jumping out of their chairs to celebrate. The left side of the room didn't seem to notice. That game ended shortly after, so all screens now showed rugby. A few people left, but most stayed to watch. Italy started pressing, bringing the game to 20-10, but Bryan Habana, a star South African player, broke away from a crowd of tackles to score a try. At 26-10, the game was beyond Italy's reach. A handful of people on the right side of the bar cheered, but it was nothing like before. To my right, I overheard a lady chastise her friend for not cheering. "Habana is black!", she informed him.

But that sports bar is a sign of progress. Just twenty years ago, such a scene could not even have existed. Warren, a white South African, speaks Zulu, Xhosa, and Sesotho. The scars of apartheid are still evident, but there's hope.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Immigration removal defense at Make the Road New York

"Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar."
"Searcher, there is no road. The road is made by walking."

The organization Make the Road New York, where I worked during the past summer, takes its name and its mission from the above quote from Spanish poet Antonio Machado. MRNY is a very active Hispanic community organization with over 10,000 members who participate in everything from worker's rights campaigns to citizenship workshops to English classes. One of the many services that MRNY provides is legal services, and this past summer I had the opportunity to help the organization develop it's relatively new immigration/removal defense practice.

Immigration law is quite a hot topic and practice area right now, and there is a staggering, overwhelming need among low-income immigrant communities for these services. This is an already incredibly vulnerable and marginalized population, and MRNY's team of organizers and lawyers take pride in working together to provide "one-stop shop" assistance for the Hispanic immigrant communities of New York.

My role in all of this was to be a legal advocate for our members who are either in immigration removal proceedings or have an outstanding deportation order: essentially, the emergency cases. One of the strange ironies of US immigration law is that it is often the tragedies in people's lives that make them eligible for some form of immigration relief that allows them to remain in the United States. Victims of crimes or trafficking can receive U-Visas or T-Visas, respectively. Children who have been abandoned or abused by their parents can receive Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. Those who have been driven from their home countries by brutal persecution receive asylum. Much of my summer was spent simply listening to our members tell their stories, working with them to find a way that something positive could come from the difficulties they've encountered and looking for any possible basis for them to stay in the United States with their families.
MRNY members at a worker's rights rally in Union Square. July 2012.

But it was also filled with lots of joy. MRNY is first and foremost a member-based community center, so every day there are meals in the communal kitchen, bachata and reggaeton blasting on the radio, and events from open-mic nights to dance parties for LGBTQ youth. At a major worker's rights rally in July, to which MRNY sent busloads of staff and members, the common refrain during the march was "El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido" "The people united will never be defeated." MRNY does an excellent job of fostering this sense of community and unity, which helps the members feel supported and for the attorneys makes the ups and downs of the legal work much easier to handle.

It was also a historic summer to be involved in immigration advocacy because of the new deferred action policy for undocumented youth announced on June 15. The policy allows undocumented people under the age of 30 who were brought to the US before age 16 and graduated high school here or served in the US military to remain in the United States (though it does NOT confer legal immigration status) and apply for work permits. In addition to my casework, I was able to help with workshops to familiarize and prepare people for the new policy. The response from our members and the immigrant community at large was overwhelming. It has been over 25 years since the last amnesty law. Even though the new policy offers nothing close to amnesty, the response showed the strength and size of the undocumented community, and how eager people are to be recognized and live a full, uninhibited life out of the shadow of "illegality."

It was an incredibly rewarding summer- I'm grateful to the amazing MRNY staff, and most importantly to all my clients who taught me so much and made the work meaningful. ¡Gracias a toda la gente de SHCNY!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Equality Now

I worked with Equality Now for the summer as a legal intern. It is an international human rights organization that works for the protection of the rights of women and girls worldwide. It campaigns against trafficking and sexual violence. The organization also supports and publicizes selected laws prevalent in legal codes and statutes of different countries addressing the most common and significant gender based discriminations in law. 
Summer is a great time in New York. The city presents a different sight even for its residents. Tourists from all over the world pour in and there is a sense of festivity in the air. There is a lot to do for whatever your interests are. Although New York gets that all around the year but during summer it just doubles. I always loved this so-much-to-do air and international character of the city and living here has been a interesting experience. I had never worked in New York before nor even thought about it before coming to Fordham. It was my first experience, working in New York and I found it as impressive as living here. There is always so much to do and my work had an international character.
I was assisting Equality Now’s staff under its two main programs; discrimination in law and Sexual violence against women. I worked on cases of rape, kidnapping, police abuses, and discrimination in law. However, as I sit to down to write this blog, I ask myself this question- what did I learn? Reflecting and recollecting the past weeks, I think I just learnt one word during this summer.
This one word describes how this summer taught me eight valuable lessons in advocacy and campaigning of human rights issues.
E for Everyday life at a nonprofit: This summer gave me a chance to see what everyday life is in a nonprofit. It was a practical exercise in advocacy and campaigning of gender issues. There is a sense of satisfaction when a change occurs through your work. There is frustration when despite efforts nothing comes through. It was also a lesson in the working dynamics of a nonprofit. Moreover, Equality Now highlights abuses of women rights around the globe. The cases that I worked on came from different regions, cultures and legal systems. It broadened my understanding of the gender issues and related laws.
Q for Quality of work matters for advocacy: My work as an intern was closely supervised. I had two supervisors who were constantly giving me feedback. I researched and they highlighted the missing links in my research. I drafted communications and they got back to me with the changes. I could see where I went wrong in my draft or what was missing in my research. It gave me a good tutorial in improving quality of my work.
U for Unequal world, we live in: I worked on cases from different countries and researched on local laws of those regions that exposed me to the prevalent gender discrimination in laws around the globe. It is alarming to see how women are exploited in the name of culture, religion and society. Every society discriminates against women in some way. We are still a long way short from giving women their rights.
A for Advocacy in a different region: Equality Now usually works in collaboration with a local partner and provides the support it needs to pursue a case. I learnt about the importance and mechanism of collaboration with the local groups. Advocacy is better served when you empower the people and there is a struggle from within. It is a valuable aspect of advocacy and campaigning of human rights issues. 
L for Legal research: I was researching on cases from different countries at Equality Now. I would also look for local laws and relevant facts of the case. This research was a unique experience. Facts of a case were often conflicting. Not many countries have data-bases to look up for relevant laws. Finding the most updated version of laws was another challenge. I had to check twice or thrice before passing on my research. It was a good (but tedious) practice in refining searching skills.
I for Intelligent ways of communication for advocacy: Equality Now issues Action Alerts on cases to create awareness about an issue or discrimination in law. It also sends out communications to governments and human rights bodies. I assisted the program officers with these communications and saw how important writing and drafting is for advocacy. I also worked on preparing fact sheets for the cases to authenticate the details relevant to cases. These intelligent ways to communicate could make a lot of difference.
T for Tools of social change: Legal advocacy respects and tolerates local courts and customs. It approaches the local laws with a sense of tolerance and strives for setting a legal precedent in that system. Equality Now supports cases that have precedent setting value in legal systems. It supports victims and helps them come forward to bring about this legal reform. I realized how a case could give justice not only to one victim but also to many others.
Y for Your voice can make a difference: Equality Now issues Action Alerts to draw attention to cases of abuses. It emphasizes much on creating awareness and generating a voice. It pushes for action and provides support by circulating these communications. This awareness and understanding of the people serves an important role in advocacy. These voices can push authorities for action if generated and communicated in an organized way.  
It was a great summer experience learning these lessons in advocacy and human rights campaigning. I expect this word EQUALITY guides me through as a human rights advocate. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Prosecuting War Criminals at the ICTY

I spent this past summer interning at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). I was a legal intern at the office of the Prosecutor assisting on the Radovan Karadzic case.  The ICTY was established in 1993 pursuant to The United Nations Security Council Resolution 827 giving the Tribunal a mandate to prosecute persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law on the territory of the Former Yugoslavia since 1 January 1991. Since its establishment, the Tribunal has issued 161 indictments and is currently in the midst of the prosecutions of the two highest ranking individuals accused of war crimes, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Karadzic, a former president of the Republika Srpska, and Ratko Mladic, a former military leader, are both accused of orchestrating the genocide in Srebrenica and carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

 The Tribunal is currently involved in the prosecution of the two most important cases in its history, and at the same time the Tribunal is also trying to implement the Completion Strategy. In 2003 and in 2004, the UN Security Council passed two resolutions 1503 and 1534 on the completion of the ICTY’s work which called on the Tribunal to finish its investigations in 2004, complete first instance trials in 2008, and finally finish all the work by 2010. However, due to late capture of Karadzic and Mladic, in 2008 and 2011 respectively, the Tribunal’s completion strategy has been postponed, currently setting a deadline of 2014 to complete the Karadzic trial and later completion date for Mladic and Hadzic. 

             With the Tribunal reaching the final stages of the Completion strategy, this summer was a perfect stage to evaluate whether the Tribunal had achieved its mandate.   The mandate was a two-pronged mandate: to prosecute those most responsible for violence and to contribute to the efforts of reconciliation and peace.  The Tribunal has been successful in the prosecution of the perpetrators. In its nearly two decades of existence, the Tribunal has issued 161 indictments and successfully apprehended all of the accused. The Chambers found that atrocities committed in Srebrenica targeted against Muslim men in July 1995 were genocide, and found several individuals guilty of committing genocide. The Tribunal also broke ground in the prosecution of sexual violence crimes, recognizing that rape is not a side product of the war, but is a serious crime that can be prosecuted as war crimes and crimes against humanity.  

While the Tribunal contributed to the expansion of international law, it has been less successful in contributing to reconciliation and peace on the ground.  Bosnia and Herzegovina is fractured between the three major groups, Serbs, Croats and Muslims, each living in their own communities with little interaction. They are all taught a different version of history at school and politicians continue to exploit the war to gain popular support. In June 2012, the current President of Republika Srpska Tomislav Nikolic publicly stated there was no genocide in Srebrenica but acknowledged that grave war crimes were committed.[1] On the first day of Ratko Mladic’s opening statement, news emerged that Srebrenica, the symbol of Muslim suffering, will likely elect a Serb major in October elections. The political take over of Serbs 10 years after the genocide is due to the fact that former Muslims residents are no longer allowed to vote in the mayoral elections.[2]  Against the backdrop of this grim political situation, the Tribunal has in recent years built up and expanded its outreach program with the aim to educate the public in the Former Yugoslav Republics about its work. The ICTY Outreach program has set up workshops around the republics to work with young people and engage them in the dialogue to understand each other, their points of contentions and help them move forward.

I believe that the Tribunal’s legacy will be shaped by how successful the Tribunal is in helping to build up the national judicial capacity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Tribunal is an ad hoc body, one that was never intended to prosecute all the criminals, only the most responsible ones. Thus, the Tribunal in its completion strategy, started to transfer some cases back to the national courts while in 2005 the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina set up War Crimes Chambers and a Prosecutor’s office tasked to prosecute war criminals pursuant to the National Strategy for War Crimes. The OSCE Mission in Bosnia in its report Delivering Justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina: An Overview of War Crimes Processing from 2005 to 2010, stated that in its first five years of existence, the judicial system in Bosnia has successfully prosecuted 200 cases related to the conflict, thus showing a strong commitment to delivering justice.[3]  Further, Human Rights Watch in its report Justice for Atrocity Crimes: Lessons of International Support for Trials before the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, reported that seven years after the establishment of the War Crimes Chamber, most people who were interviewed for the report confirmed that international judges and prosecutors have encouraged public faith in the impartiality and in the day to day work of the Chambers and the Prosecutor.[4] However, despite the positive news, the ICTY Prosecutor Serge Brammertz in its report to the UN Security Council in June 2012 urged the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to donate more money to the judicial system and reaffirm its commitment to pursuing impartial justice.

The Tribunal has not been perfect, and many may argue that it cost too much or the trials last too long; there is no doubt that the ICTY made significant contributions to international law and especially international criminal law. The Tribunal’s commitment to bring justice will not only have a long lasting effect for victims and their families, but also on me, having given me a unique opportunity to assist in the Prosecution of Radovan Karadzic and reaffirmed my commitment to international human rights legal issues.

[1] Srebrenica not genocide- Serbia’ President Nikolic.
[2] As Ratko Mladic trial begins, followers are poised to take power in Srebrenica,
[3]  OSCE. Delivering Justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina: An Overview of War Crimes Processing from 2005 to 2010.
[4] Human Rights Watch, Justice for Atrocity Crimes: Lessons of International Support for Trials before the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.