Interning Abroad from Home - The Domestic Law Checklists

Welcome to my second blog entry covering my remote internship at International Bridges to Justice, Geneva! In the previous entry, I wrote about the first assignment I was given - completing a ‘checklist’ of sorts of internationally recognized defendant rights. The next assignment, though of a similar vein, would be drastically more arduous. IBJ’s network of 30,000 legal defenders operates in countries around the world, particularly those in the Global South, such as Myanmar, Burundi, Sri Lanka, and DR Congo, to name a few. While international law may be acknowledged by these nations, many naturally have their own justice systems with their own set of defendant rights and state obligations as well. As previously mentioned, the COVID-19 pandemic has been far more intimately connected with my work this summer than I could have imagined, even after it became one of the defining events of 2020. My long-term assignment, shared with a fellow intern, has been to write similar defender ‘checklists’ for each of these nations, summarizing defendant rights in the context of the pandemic, national emergencies declared during the pandemic, state responses to expressions of dissent, and related issues tied to the current crisis.

For many, this would be a relatively simple affair. Nations like India and Myanmar base their criminal law on models imposed under British rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover, due to the polyglot nature of their populations and the administrative structures put in place during that time, law continues to be published officially in English. Language would pose more of a challenge in other countries we assembled checklists for, such as Burundi, where the most accessible renditions of the criminal code (at least to an intern like me) are to be found in French. I last studied French when I attended high school as a member of my school’s International Baccalaureate program, so I was delighted to finally use my French in pursuance of a practical matter. Even so, I have had to adapt to French legalese to be able to find some of the provisions common to our ‘checklists’ (such as state obligations and detainee rights in the context of a prison). It has been our hope that checklists like these, particularly when we have the opportunity to write them with the cooperation of IBJ members on the ground (with whom Zoom calls have been a regular affair), will be a boon to attorneys advocating for their clients and countering government injustice. 

It is important to acknowledge, however, that government offenses in the realm of criminal justice are hardly exclusive to the Global South. As people of the world rallied against racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May of this year, state responses have run the gamut from respectful of free speech to trampling on basic civil rights. Just this past weekend, there were stories coming out of Portland, USA about unmarked federal law enforcement officers seizing protesters and detaining them without charge. Whatever the reason, whether it is due to the heightened agitation caused by the COVID-19 quarantines or due to some political calculation, such abuses are and should be held to be unacceptable in this day and age. This is part of the reason I was pleased with another assignment we were given this summer: to contribute to the Defense Wiki maintained by IBJ. That, however, shall be covered in the next blog post.