The open letter from the protestors will always stick with me:

For 108 days, we have continuously been admonished that we should “let the system work,” and wait to see what the results are.

The results are in.

And we still don’t have justice.

This fight for the dignity of our people, for the importance of our lives, for the protection of our children, is one that did not begin Michael’s murder and will not end with this announcement. The ‘system’ you have told us to rely on has kept us on the margins of society. This system has housed us in her worst homes, educated our children in her worst schools, locked up our men at disproportionate rates and shamed our women for receiving the support they need to be our mothers. This system you have admonished us to believe in has consistently, unfailingly, and unabashedly let us down and kicked us out, time and time again.

And this is the heart of the matter – the real truth of what’s happening.

We can talk about the Ferguson decision. There was a lot of injustice in this case; as I understand it, a grand jury should almost always be able to indict in such a case, and the evidence presented certainly meets the probable cause standard. But the prosecutor simply didn’t try, and he may have been biased – I believe – due to his own family background and relationship with the police. We didn’t have an unbiased grand jury hearing here. The fact that we couldn’t even get to a trial where there is clear evidence that Darren Wilson shot a young man — Wilson has admitted to this himself — clearly shows that something was up. Something was wrong.

This case is emblematic of the larger issue of injustice and structural racism in our courts, our deeply flawed justice system which always works for the rich and never for the poor, for the White but never for the Black. We have an issue of racism in the justice system in this country.  This is why the famed Bryan Stevenson supposedly wrote and filed a “Motion to Treat My 14 Year-Old Client As a 75 year Old, White, Privileged Corporate Executive.”  Because our system is not neutral. The law is not neutral and it is not just. The system is actually skewed from beginning to end against Black people and racial minorities, because most of it has been created and perpetuated by White people.

But let us also not forget that this is a matter of structural injustice. Yes, it is about racism and police brutality, the brutal racism that causes a cop to view an unarmed young man as a threat, that makes the police consider a man as an animal who “charged” at him and looked like a “demon.” It’s racism that is making cops view a 6’4″ Black man automatically and inherently as a threat. And then it’s racism built into the very fabric of our laws and court systems that makes him be able to get away with this.

But it’s also about the broader subjugation of African Americans in this country since slavery. It is about the continued legacy of subordination and discrimination and oppression. As the protestors wrote, we are in this position because we have never fully ended the harms of slavery. This ‘system’ is continually making sure that Black people are sent to prison at high numbers, unemployed, in the poorest housing and in the worst schools. Michelle Alexander writes in the New Jim Crow about this legacy and about how the mass incarceration of Black people is just a continuation of the Jim Crow laws, but in another name. And the foundation is racism: which allows the justice system to see Black people and Black men as threats, as dangerous, and as criminals. This is just another system, a system of keeping Black people in the underclass of our society. Ferguson is about Mike Brown, it is about all the people killed unjustly  by police brutality. But it is ultimately (I think, echoing only what the protestors say and not trying to displace their movement!) about structural injustice and racism in our country in every arena that works so hard to subjugate Black people in America, decades after the civil rights movement.

The results are in. And we still don’t have justice.

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Hello friends! Yet another (shameless?) plug: I recently organized an Online Symposium for the Harvard Human Rights Journal on access to justice, particularly via customary and informal systems, and we received a range of fascinating submissions from scholars and practitioners around the world. Read more below and check out these illuminating articles:

From the Informal to the Formal: Examining Access to Justice and Customary Justice Mechanisms 

The HHRJ Online Symposium this year centers on issues of access to justice to the poor around the world, with a particular focus on examining the challenges that exist within informal, customary and traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution.

In many countries, the formal state-governed justice system exists alongside various informal methods of justice delivery and dispute resolution, often termed “informal,” “non-state,” “traditional,” or “customary” mechanisms. Due to the barriers faced by litigants attempting to access the formal justice system, many have began to shift a focus to informal methods of dispute resolution in a range of cases – such as family law, land and property disputes, and issues of economic and social rights. There has been an increased emphasis on mediations and on engaging with informal justice mechanisms that already exist at the grassroots level, such as the  shalish in Bangladesh, the bashingantahe in Burundi, or the shura Jirga in Afghanistan. Although informal systems of dispute resolution are often more accessible and familiar to communities, they come with their own challenges and considerations, particularly in relation to gender and human rights norms.

Alongside such concerns, however, there have been innovations and experiments that are promising in their initial stages, improving access to justice in ways that comport with human rights norms, both via formal state-run systems as well as NGO-led and non-state mechanisms.  We have published five pieces by leading scholars, academics and practitioners in this field that build upon this theme and explore in greater depth the complexities inherent in working to promote grassroots access to justice to communities, and especially the added questions raised by customary justice systems:

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Last Friday, I organized a symposium at Harvard Law School hosted by the Harvard Law & International Development Society (LIDS) and titled “Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Rebuilding from Emergency to Development,” which brought together practitioners, experts, and academics across the country and world to discuss issues of economic growth and development, and supporting the rule of law in countries arising from conflict.

It was a great success, with lots of insights gained and ideas exchanged.  It was my first real time organizing an event of this scale, and I was so excited to see the vibrant outcomes and exchanges from it!  Especially close to my heart was the second panel, focusing on justice and security reform after conflict. Vivek Maru, of Namati, spoke about their work promoting the use of grassroots community outreach workers (modeled after the “community health worker” model), and how this model of “community paralegals” can be especially effective in supporting ordinary people in accessing justice in fragile countries such as Sierra Leone, post-conflict. In such situations where the justice infrastructure is damaged and often difficult to access by much of the population, supporting justice can be done through the use of paralegals who can help mediate disputes, access information about their legal rights, and address injustices both individual (e.g land rights disputes, family law matters) and collective (mining abuses, collective actions). In the absence of a strong formal justice system in post-conflict countries, the grassroots justice model offers a place to start — and to start with the people rather than at the top-down institutional level.

Here are a few pictures below! Click here for the LIDS website and to access more information on the event, photos, and videos.

IMG_0572Keynote speaker, Dr. Donald Kaberuka – President of the African Development Bank – talks about post-conflict reconstruction and promoting economic growth across Africa.

DSC_0848The first panel focused on building institutions and driving economic growth in countries after conflict. 

DSC_0854The panel included practitioners from across institutions such as The Asia Foundation, USAID, and the World Bank. It was a great look into the tricky challenge of how to rebuild institutions in fragile states.

IMG_0648The second panel focused on developing the rule of law, stability, and security in countries after conflict.

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Here’s quite a fascinating TED talk by Kimberley Motley,who I know has been somewhat of a controversial figure in Afghanistan in the past. She has some interesting thoughts on what it’s like to be a lawyer, representing clients and promoting rule of law in fragile states such as Afghanistan. She represents an interesting array of cases, including gender-based violence and human rights cases in Afghanistan.

Her main thrust in this talk, which I have always agreed with  – is that in many countries, there are already many laws on the books that could protect and promote human rights. Even within Shari’a law, there are ways to interpret key statutes and the Quran in ways that are gender-equitable. There are many laws relating to family and criminal law on the books in Afghanistan and elsewhere that are indeed, good for rights. The problem is that these laws are not being used. When they are implemented effectively by lawyers who are good at advocating for their clients, you can truly foster a culture of ‘rule of law.’

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Hello friends!  For those of you in Boston/Cambridge area, I’m organizing an exciting Symposium on behalf of the Harvard Law and International Development Society, focused on Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Rebuilding from Emergency to Development!

Date: Friday, October 31, 2014
Time: 12:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Location: Harvard Law School, Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East BC (2nd floor)
Evening Reception at 4:30 pm at the Hark South Dining Room

On Friday, October 31st, experts, practitioners, and academics working on issues of development and reconstruction in post-conflict countries will convene at Harvard Law School to discuss strategies to best promote growth, stability, and long-term development in countries arising from violent conflict. In light of recent conflicts in countries such as Syria and Iraq, and keeping in mind the long, expensive, challenging – and in many cases, still ongoing – efforts to rebuild and develop in countries such as Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Cambodia, it is a particularly critical inquiry that will shed light on how we can help countries move forward from ongoing conflicts. Countries arising from conflict have often had basic infrastructure and institutions destroyed, poor prospects for economic growth, and face lack of security and rule of law.  The Symposium’s speakers will highlight barriers that countries from Rwanda to Afghanistan have faced in the process of transition, as well as the best practices employed in moving forward — including in promoting economic growth and development, institutionalizing the rule of law, and implementing justice and security sector reform.

Lunch will begin at 12pm with the Keynote Speaker, Donald Kaberuka, President of the African Development Bank, and former Minister of Finance and Economic Planning in Rwanda.  Other notable panelists hail from the UN, World Bank, USAID, The Asia Foundation, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative, and Namati.  The two panels will be followed by an evening reception with speakers in the Hark.

Agenda:

12 – 1 pm: Lunch and Keynote Speaker: Donald Kaberuka, President, African Development Bank

 Dr. Kaberuka is currently serving his second five-year term as President of the African Development Bank Group (AfDB). A national of Rwanda, he was the country’s Minister of Finance and Economic Planning between 1997 and 2005. During this period, he oversaw Rwanda’s successful economic reconstruction after the end of the civil war there. In Rwanda, he initiated and implemented major economic reforms and introduced new systems of structural, monetary and fiscal governance, laying special emphasis on the independence of Rwanda’s central bank. These reforms led to the widely-recognized revival of Rwanda’s economy, and to the sustained economic growth that enabled Rwanda to obtain debt cancellation under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative in April 2005.

1:15 – 2:45 pm:  Panel 1: Driving Economic Growth and Building Institutions After Conflict

 Catherine Anderson, Justice and Conflict Advisor, World Bank Justice Reform Practice Group

 Sarah Cliffe, Special Adviser for East Asia and Pacific Region, World Bank

 Robert Jenkins, Deputy Assistant Administrator, USAID Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA); Executive Director, USAID Task Force on Syria                             

Barbara Smith, Senior Director for Governance and Law, Asia Foundation

 Michael Woolcock, Lead Social Development Specialist, World Bank Development Research Group; Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government

3:00 – 4:30 pm:  Panel 2:  Developing Stability and Security: Post-Conflict Security Sector and Justice Reform

Angela Conway, Director of the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) Division, American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative

David Marshall, Senior Rule of Law Advisor, New York Office, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

 Vivek Maru, Founder and CEO, Namati

 Christina Murtaugh, Senior Program Officer, United States Institute of Peace, Rule of Law Center

4:30 – 6:30 pm:  Evening reception  (Hark South)

Come to our reception to mix and mingle with speakers, faculty, staff and students interested in law, development, and post-conflict reconstruction! Refreshments will be served.

Please register to let us know you’re coming! http://bit.ly/1qE6Dlq  (RSVP not required, but helpful).  Join the Facebook page for regular updates. And come say hi to me!

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This Saturday, Article 25 - a new global movement of people who believe health is a human right – will be launching the first-ever Global Day of Action for the Right to Health. This is incredibly exciting, as health activists and everyday people in 58 countries will be coming together to launch a rising global, grassroots movement to combat global health inequity.

The Day of Action is being coordinated by Article 25, a nonprofit advocacy group working with more than 50 partners to build a global movement for the right to health. On Saturday, public health and social justice activists will hold teach-ins, rallies, workshops, and candlelight vigils to raise awareness of health disparities across the globe and demand political action to address them.

The day of action is particularly important to highlight how stark global health inequity is, and to begin building and mobilizing communities around the world to demand political action to change the status quo.  Only political action will pressure states, governments, and intergovernmental actors to make the right to health a reality. I think this quote by one of Article 25’s activists sums it up perfectly:

 Collective action is change in itself. A social movement for the right to health can change everything by incorporating grassroots organizations that really work closely with their communities and have passion for change and transformation. We have to show that this is a health crisis to our leaders and make them know that health is is not a privilege — health is a right. And citizens or communities can demand it any time they it has been deprived from them. — Chacha Baru Peter, Kenya, U-Terna

Check out Article 25’s website to find an action near you, and participate! Join in on October 25th to show your support and solidarity for a movement for the right to health.

If you’re in Boston this weekend, I’ll be attending the Rally for the Right to Health, held on Sunday October 26th. Come and join the movement!
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As someone who works on issues of domestic violence, one question I frequently ask is: how can we rely on the state’s violent, coercive power to counter and resolve another issue of ‘private’ violence? The criminal justice system and prosecution of domestic abusers is a solution often put forth when it comes to providing accountability and promoting deterrence in cases of gender-based and domestic violence. Perhaps if we prosecute more often (considering the rate of prosecution is incredibly low for a variety of reasons — patriarchal beliefs among police and the justice system, the intimate relationships between abusers and survivors, the mistrust of many communities of the police and criminal justice system, etc) we can drive down the rate of violence by sending a clear message that this kind of behavior is not tolerated in our society, that we are on the side of victims and survivors.

But I often question our ability to turn, automatically, to the criminal justice system to resolve GBV and DV cases. This system is in itself incredibly violent, unjust, and racist, at least in the United States. Here, the criminal justice system is in essence mass incarceration of minorities, especially African American men, as expounded so perfectly by Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow.” There is a disproportionate incarceration and conviction of black men, so the justice system is not enforced equally on all racial and ethnic groups that may be engaging in violence against women at equal/similar rates. Beyond this, the prison system is incredibly flawed. The conditions can be horrific — not just in the U.S. but around the world. In the U.S., prison rape is incredibly common, frightfully so. There are gendered dynamics and hierarchies within prisons, and prisons can be incredibly violent places that create more trauma.  Can a system that produces more injustice, including violent rape, be used to help solve patriarchy? I simply don’t think so, and I am deeply disturbed by these dynamics.

My question is — can we really rely on one inequitable, incredibly unjust system to fix another problem of injustice? In my mind, the criminal justice system involves deep inequity and oppression; and so does patriarchy. We cannot really depend on criminal justice until this system is fair and equitable, in itself.

This excellent article by Victoria Law speaks to this problem in a more eloquent way. She writes,

Casting policing and prisons as the solution to domestic violence both justifies increases to police and prison budgets and diverts attention from the cuts to programs that enable survivors to escape, such as shelters, public housing, and welfare. And finally, positioning police and prisons as the principal antidote discourages seeking other responses, including community interventions and long-term organizing…..

As these examples demonstrate, strategies to stop domestic violence frequently require more than a single action. They often require a long-term commitment from friends and community to keep a person safe, as in Piepnza-Samarasinha’s case. For those involved in devising alternatives, like the women in Halifax, it may require not only creating immediate safety tactics, but long-term organizing that addresses the underlying inequalities that exacerbate domestic violence.

By relying solely on a criminalized response, carceral feminism fails to address these social and economic inequities, let alone advocate for policies that ensure women are not economically dependent on abusive partners. Carceral feminism fails to address the myriad forms of violence faced by women, including police violence and mass incarceration. It fails to address factors that exacerbate abuse, such as male entitlement, economic inequality, the lack of safe and affordable housing, and the absence of other resources.

I would agree that a sole focus on criminalization is not necessarily productive. We need a more holistic, deeper look at the origin of violence against women and patriarchy, and the social determinants and results of this problem. Moving to criminalization means we are relying on one unjust and patriarchal system (which too often fails survivors and even imprisons them, as the article talks about) that fails to empower anyone or attack the root causes of violence. Until we fix the criminal justice system, in the U.S. and internationally, I don’t think we should feel too comfortable pushing for criminalization as a solution to gendered violence.

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Today (after a long pause between ‘Feature Fridays!’) I’d like to highlight an exciting new community-based lawyering organization in Nigeria, Justice and Empowerment Initiatives.  I’m truly excited about their approach, which truly aims to be far more community-based and involves not just litigation but community paralegalism, advocacy, and mobilization/movement-building.

JEI’s three prongs of work are: training community-based paralegals, engaging in movement building, and finally – strategic advocacy. JEI trains, monitors, and supports networks of individuals providing community-based paralegal services in rural and urban poor communities in Nigeria. A particularly exciting aspect of their model is their community-owned initiatives in Nigera. JEI helps to set up a membership association called the Community Legal Support Initiative (CLSI).  Before joining CLSI, communities set up  ‘community legal support committees’, which join the membership of CLSI and take an active role in overseeing and implementing activities to support paralegal services. CLSI subcommittees work closely with JEI to train, supervise, and mentor paralegals who show capacity and commitment to justice.

Second, through the paralegal network and more broadly, JEI supports movement-building and inter-community solidarity within and between poor and marginalized communities. Finally, when necessary, JEI undertakes strategic advocacy or litigation to backstop the work of paralegals and the activities of the broader community-based movement.  JEI provides direct litigation and advocacy support to individuals and communities in need. Priorities for strategic litigation and advocacy are identified by communities. JEI undertakes litigation before Nigerian courts, regional/international human rights bodies (e.g. ECOWAS Court or the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights), and advocacy before the National Human Rights Commission or the World Bank Inspection Panel. JEI works to make this sustainable through the Community Legal Services Initiative, where member communities establish community-managed funds for litigation and advocacy.

Check out this video highlighting JEI’s work in the Otto Ilogbo community in Lagos, Nigeria, which has been sacked by fire and violence that has chased hundreds of innocent residents from their homes.

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A great post on OpenDemocracy recently by Chris Jochnick discussed human rights tools of litigation, and how the law can be harnessed to address some of the root causes of poverty. I especially liked the following questions he asks at the end, which I think are absolutely spot on:

  1. Can resources be mobilized at scale to support human rights work that directly confronts poverty, inequities and vested interests? The longstanding bias of human rights funders against ESR continues to limit this work.

  2. Can lawyers and litigation be incorporated into grassroots struggles without co-opting them? The legal training, the proximity to power, the allure of lawsuits, the mythologies of legal expertise all conspire against good faith efforts of lawyers to serve rather than lead campaigns.

  3. Can transnational human rights advocates find a way to work closely and collaboratively enough with those living in poverty, while retaining a strategic focus on broader structural issues? The rise of stronger human rights groups in the global south, connected to social movements and networked to international platforms (with a helpful infusion from the Ford Foundation) represents a promising, if fragile, step in this direction.

These questions often pique my interest when working in the human rights field. I often question: how can we mobilize individual struggles and direct legal services into broader change, and at the same time how can human rights advocates engaging in high-level litigation or “impact” cases while still maintaining a close connection to communities?  Especially, as he writes above, the “legal training, the proximity to power…” often make it appealing for lawyers to take leading roles in campaigns rather than a backseat. At the same time, often working to provide legal services or working with clients on an individual, one-on-one basis can be particularly difficult, not to mention can be challenging to make any systemic reform.

A great post summing up some of the debates in human rights/transnational lawyering and advocacy work, and absolutely worth checking out.

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Hello, friends! I am excited to announce that I’m organizing an online symposium for the Harvard Human Rights Journal on a topic I am deeply passionate about:  assessing barriers to and successes in promoting access to justice to the poor, both via formal and informal justice systems and mechanisms.  We’ve already got a couple of fantastic pieces, but I also wanted to post here to spread the word to those of you who might be interested.

TOPIC: From the Informal to the Formal: Barriers and Successes in Promoting Access to Justice to the Poor

This year, we are excited to publish an online symposium focusing on issues of access to justice to the poor around the world. We invite submissions focused around the challenges of expanding access to justice to grassroots communities around the world, both through the formal justice system, customary and traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution, and through civil society and non-profit organizations.

In many countries, the formal state-governed justice system exists alongside various informal methods of justice delivery and dispute resolution, often termed “informal,” “non-state,” “traditional,” or “customary” mechanisms. Due to the barriers faced by litigants attempting to access the formal justice system, many have began to shift a focus to informal methods of dispute resolution in a range of cases – such as family law, land and property disputes, and issues of economic and social rights. There has been an increased emphasis on mediations and on engaging with informal justice mechanisms that already exist at the grassroots level, such as the shalish in Bangladesh, the bashingantahe in Burundi, or the shura jirga in Afghanistan. Although informal systems of dispute resolution are often more accessible and familiar to communities, they come with their own challenges and considerations, particularly in relation to gender and human rights norms.

We invite submissions discussing the challenges of strengthening access to justice through either informal, formal, or civil society mechanisms as well as case studies of successful approaches and new insights on the methods of navigating the complex informal and formal systems that exist around the world.

Style and Length: Our Online Symposium will be published on our website, at http://harvardhrj.com/symposia/ (see for examples of the type of content we publish). We welcome pieces that are more academic in nature as well as personal reflections from experience in the field. We seek pieces that are between 2,000 and 3,500 words. We welcome submissions from academics, practitioners, and students.

How to Submit: Email the Online Editors at hhrjonlinesubmissions@gmail.com with your piece, or with any questions or concerns.

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