“When I first learned I would be working with the Refugee Law Project’s legal aid clinic, I had in mind several types of issues I might be dealing with,” says 4L Kelly McMillan, who is spending 12 weeks in Uganda this summer. “Refugee status determination and appeals, tenancy law, family law… Witchcraft certainly wasn’t on the list.”
The practice of witchcraft is widespread in the Ugandan refugee community, McMillan explains, and is a subject that has come up multiple times in her meetings with local officials and refugees.
“Far from an expert on legal pluralism, I have been racking my brains to remember what my first year Foundations class might have had to say about reconciling something like witchcraft with a modern legal system like the one in place in Uganda,” she wrote in a blog post in early July.
McMillan, who has a background in international development, sees her internship with the RLP as a good opportunity to combine her passion for community-based development work with the legal skills she has acquired at McGill. One challenge of her work is figuring out how to provide refugees with the means to meet basic needs – food, medical care, protection from violence – while also equipping them with the legal information necessary to ensure access housing or education.
“A majority of my clients’ problems are not really legal, but medical or financial…” she says. “For a person who has just lost everything, a start-up loan could go a long way…”
Three weeks into his internship at the Ateneo Human Rights Center, 3L Christopher Maughan came to a grim observation that often strikes people working in human rights: “What is often the reality of human rights legal work [is that] you can set up all the commissions and send all the rapporteurs you want, you can write reports, you can call people out in the press, but things will not change overnight.”
Maughan was reacting to the news that three journalists in the Philippines had been killed – most likely in politically-motivated acts of retribution – in the past seven days. A former journalist with the Montreal Gazette before taking up his studies in law, Maughan felt a personal connection to their tragic deaths.
He turned to his work at the Center for a sense of hope: “In addition to the academic research I’m doing for the Center, I’m involved in… the planning of a national public awareness campaign,” he explained on the blog he has been keeping during his internship. “Staff from the Center will be holding public forums on extrajudicial killings at over 60 locations all across the country.”
He also put his journalist’s hat back on, interviewing Nonoy Espina, a veteran reporter from the Philippines, about what it’s like to work as a journalist under such threatening conditions. His questions elicited some remarkable moments of candor and some truly harrowing tales from Espina, including an account of various encounters with soldiers and hired killers.
“There are a few other times where I’ve practically French-kissed the muzzle of a gun,” he recalled. “Probably the worst thing that happened to me was getting a text message that said, ‘Tomorrow, you’ll be writing about your family.'”
And when asked about what legal recourse might be available to stop extra-judicial killings of journalists, Espina was frank: “You know, there really are too many laws in this country… If our leaders were serious enough about this, probably all they would need to do is just give a clear, unequivocal order to get the killers and stop the killings. And we’ve been asking [President] Gloria [Arroyo] to do that for nine years. She’s never done it.”
“Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is slow and incremental change,” Maughan said, reflecting on the realities of his work. “This week, though, it feels like change cannot come soon enough.”
Read more blog posts from Christopher, Kelly and other human rights interns at blogs.mcgill.ca/humanrightsinterns