Sunday, November 29, 2009
Thursday, November 26, 2009
- John Hummel, Carter Center Director (and host extraordinaire)
- Musu, David, and all of the talented staff at the Carter Center
- “L” at JFK Hospital
- Professor Rice for the helpful insights
- Peter Chapman (Carter Center) and Fin Young (ABA) for the terrific legal research
- Frederick Jayweh and ALLA for pre-travel information
- Jennifer Hazen for helpful referrals and going out on the town in Monrovia
- "G” for sanity-saving workouts
- Ralph Bunche for the pre-travel advice and referrals
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
The Senatorial candidates, Geraldine Doe and Clemenceau Urey, are now in a run-off after neither won a majority among the multiple candidates two weeks ago. (I try to imagine the U.S. with ten strong parties and wonder if we’d get some fresh ideas or if it would look much like last year’s Democratic debates where everyone spent most of their 90 seconds to speak repeating, “Yeah, what s/he said…”) Some see today’s election as a referendum of the Sirleaf government and, since the vast majority of the Liberian population lives in Monrovia, a harbinger of the 2011 Presidential election. (Despite a population of over one million in Monrovia alone, Montserrado County has 496,508 registered voters - and 989 polling places.
Most agree that the 2011 election will be critical in determining whether Liberia continues on a path to stability or retreats into conflict again. Some say that President Sirleaf and George Weah have done so much speaking on behalf the candidates that Doe and Urey haven’t gotten much of a word in edgewise and it’s hard to know the candidates’ stance on various issues. Since that’s about the extent of what I’ve gathered during my week here, I’ll direct you to more authoritative sources for more info, below:
Click here for statements from the US Ambassador, urging peace, patience and honesty in the election process, quoted in The Analyst. http://www.analystliberia.com/liberia_under_global_spotlight_nov23_09.html
More calls for peaceful elections by allAfrica.com: http://allafrica.com/stories/200911231842.html
Last week’s coverage in the Daily Observer addressing accusations of buying votes. http://www.liberianobserver.com/node/3000 (Signs around town read: to have good Senators, you must be a good voter - don’t sell your vote!)
allAfrica.com’s coverage of the initial by-elections and some problems that arose: http://allafrica.com/stories/200911110708.html
Waiting to hear tomorrow who won….
(Update - still waiting, but very interesting reaction from people I've asked about the election. Turnout was low because, it seems, people have truly lost all faith in all politicians here. The problems seem to be two-fold - one, there are few debates, so people don't know for what the candidates truly stand and two, regardless of who is elected, they become "self-interested" and don't work on behalf of the people. Even in the time they are granted to go to talk to their constituents, most apparently jaunt off to Europe and the U.S. People are truly disheartened and have little faith in the system. An extremely bright young man today told me that he'd rather go into the private sector than politics as "politics is dangerous here in Africa." He was quite the young JFK, saying people should not ask what their country would do for them, but what they can do for their country.)
Check back in regularly for updates from Piper as she's in the field. Also - be sure to mark your calendars for November 30th at 4pm, when Piper will host a conference call to talk about her trip to Liberia and the upcoming trial. Feel free to post any questions you have for Piper in advance!
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
While the shirt brought a smile to my face, many signs here have not. In a country that elected the first female President in all of Africa, you would hope not to need billboards reading “No Sex for Jobs” or “Stop Rape - It Could Be Your Ma.” Someone involved in training the military here told me that female candidates had to be told to stop washing the clothes of the male candidates. (I wonder if they had to be told more than once?) From what I hear, treatment of women in the interior is much worse than that in Monrovia. There, men can beat “their woman” and then pay the police to not bring any case against them.* The schools in the interior need vast improvement and children there are often needed to help with the farming. As such, most young women living outside of Monrovia do not receive as much education and often have children at a much younger age. And in other areas, it’s not uncommon to have more than one wife at the same time.
As you have probably gathered by now, I like to leave you with a more hopeful note, so will share that I have also had the pleasure to meet a few young women in Monrovia who are enrolled in school and love it. Murals are a popular way of spreading messages here (“Stop Malaria - Use a Mosquito Net for Your Family” and “There’s no cure for HIV - use protection”). One series of murals depicts one of various female leaders here with the caption “Another great Liberian woman - You Could be the Next.” Let’s hope that reaches many young women!
*Speaking of bribes, I forgot to mention that another person and I were stopped at a checkpoint coming back to downtown Friday night. (Note to my parents: stop reading here.) It was past sundown and we were not in a large vehicle that commands respect (read: emblazoned with the logo of an NGO (non-governmental organization) or other established entity like the UN), so the police flagged us down to stop. With flashlights shining in from my side of the car, they asked the driver if he had a license. He did. They paused, looked at me, then asked him to show them what was in the trunk. A few moments later, he returned to the driver’s seat and, as we drove off, said the officer told the driver to “find something for [him].” In response, the driver gave him “small small money.” (Around 40 Liberian dollars, I think.) The driver was clearly frustrated, explaining that the newer officers were the ones who abuse their authority, while the older, better-trained police apparently do not. A few minutes later, we were stopped again by another set of officers. Again, they looked in from the passenger side and the driver explained we’d just been stopped not five minutes ago and nothing had changed since then. They paused and asked if he had his license. Not one to be silent for long, I turned and answered with a firm, “Yes.” (Because being gruff with cops at night in a foreign country is always a good idea.) Another pause. Ok, they said, go ahead. I know some say, “When in Rome…” but, as a lawyer, it’s frustrating to see even the smallest example of corruption in the system. After all, the ultimate impact on the system as a whole and the average citizen’s faith therein is not “small small.”
Monday, November 23, 2009
As I packed my bag this morning, I tossed in a few snacks, expecting that the men on the trip would not think to do so (more tomorrow on the situation for women in Liberia). Well, “R“ proved me wrong (and yes, I’ll admit, made me quietly regret my earlier sexist assumption) when we picked him up and, with a big smile, distributed packs of ginger cookies to all aboard the truck out of town. Through mouthfuls of the crunchy snacks, someone mentioned how hungry he had been since he skipped breakfast… and the conversation turned to how “R” had been so hungry at times during the war that he could hear ringing in his ears. “Bbbzzzmmmm,” he demonstrated. He recalled that his son had just been born at that time, so when he was able to find food, he gave it to his wife for her well-being and so the baby would be able to have breast milk. Around that point in our journey, we reached a bridge over one of the many beautiful rivers in Liberia. Men in the car recalled a time during the war when food was so scarce in Monrovia that women had to swim across the river to the more lush area and swim back with food for their family on their heads. But the lush areas were where the rebels hid and, more often than not, the women were raped before they were able to return. People knew this…but they also knew that men would be killed if they went, so the women went instead. These stories prompted one passenger to ask others if they were still with the women they had been with during the war. “Oh, yes,” they said - that sort of thing is a stronger bond than any band (wedding ring), they replied.
Our driver, it turns out, had worked with the TRC, or Truth & Reconciliation Commission, collecting stories from war survivors. According to our driver, those who participated in the peace talks in Ghana that ended the war in Liberia (read: mostly warlords that committed war crimes) decided that a TRC a superior option to prosecutions to hold those who committed war crimes responsible (shocking, eh?). As we made our way over some paved and many unpaved roads, he pointed out sites of several massacres and, as we crossed a bridge, explained how people’s bodies had been severed from their heads and allowed to drop into the river while the heads were displayed along the entry to the bridge. Cutting out human hearts to display on the bridge was not uncommon either. One of the worst stories I heard today was about a woman whom rebel soldiers hung upside down and stuffed her “lily” with hot pepper “until it was full.” She survived and reported what had been done to her to the TRC. With stories like this, one has to wonder what horrible scars people have both on their bodies and in their hearts after what happened here. But that violent past is simply reality - mid-sentence about other incidents of torture, one passenger broke off to point out the window and tell me, “That’s how we make palm wine here.”
Eventually, our conversation turned to how the war crimes had come to pass. How can people do such heinous, heinous things to each other? The consensus in the truck was that those fighting had no training in any semblance of rules of engagement and, once armed, they solved old grudges with gunfire. Without commanders who took responsibility for the actions of their subordinates or punished those who wronged civilians, fighting spun out of control until you had fighters who would readily shoot a civilian for the nice shirt on their back. Add to the equation the copious amounts of drugs most fighters were taking throughout the war and you have a recipe for the disaster Mama Liberia experienced. When asked about the source of the drugs, no one knew for sure but said, matter-of-factly, that drugs always follow fighting. If only distribution of useful medications were so efficient.
Talk turned to Taylor, Sr., who one passenger called a “gruna man,” or crook. Another agreed, saying Taylor was “a wicked, wicked man,” who tried to control every aspect of his country, usurping democratic channels and using brute force to terrorize his citizens. And yet he still has supporters in this country who, based on the conversation today, liked what Taylor did for their personal finances so much they overlook what happened to the people during the wars. The idea of the man who campaigned with “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him” as a slogan returning to power boggles the mind. But the consensus seems to be that people are increasingly accepting that he will not return - and neither will the terror that occurred during his administration.
I recognize that those of you who work in human rights are accustomed to all that I’ve written here, while those of you who don‘t might appreciate ending on a more uplifting note - so I’ll mention that I had the opportunity to meet a man today who is over 100 years old! He remembers figures in Liberian history from, well, nearly 100 years ago. And when one person with our group tried to translate points of historical reference into American terms, saying, “He would be like your JFK,” another dismissed him saying, “No, no, that would be 1963, this is more like the Taft era.” Wow. The knowledge of American history far outside of the US never ceases to amaze me. I’m also attaching some pictures to give you a sense of the beautiful sights around this area of the country.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Friday, November 20, 2009
To this end, I am grateful for the training we at Human Rights USA received from Karen Hanscom at Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma. Karen explained the psychological and physiological ways that being tortured changes one’s understanding of the world and undermines the basic lessons of one’s place in the world learned as a child. Based on Karen‘s training, I understood the need to give the clients I met today a tour of the building where we were meeting, ensuring everything felt open and accessible, and to allow them to sit closest to the door so they didn’t subconsciously feel trapped in the room. And as we began to talk about various aspects of the case, the differences in how our clients have processed what happened to them became remarkably clear. While one gains strength, another remains bitter; where one accepts the past and moves forward, aiming to ensure it is never repeated, another cannot forget and does not want to forgive - not yet. So we discussed legal options and legal reality, as well as the wishes of one’s family and the fact that, no matter how many cases one files, the what is done can never be undone.
On a lighter note, the Liberian expressions of the day are “take time” and “dress.” “Take time” means “mind where you’re going” or “look out,” often said to people who wander into the street without paying attention to the traffic (which puts any rush hour in the U.S. to shame - oh, and “shame” here means shy). “Dress” is what you say to people when you need them to make more room, such as in the back of a crowded taxi: “Dress, dress! I need to get in.”
Thursday, November 19, 2009
There’s something fun about an expat community where everyone shares a bond of coming from another country and exploring the same new one. Similar to the quote about learning another language to truly understand your own, I think it is when you see life in another country that you begin to understand your own…. And, at the same time, you may see things in a new country that those who were raised there don’t. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many people who live here or visit regularly - including a fun family of missionaries, Embassy employees, NGO employees, visiting doctors and academics. (I'll share interesting things I've learned from locals in a later blog.) And, not surprisingly I suppose, there are as many opinions as people. Many note marked improvement since 2006, when President Sirleaf took office. Some look at particular issues and say the administration isn’t doing enough. For example, some lament the relative lack of programs for child soldiers, while others argue resources are too limited and the child soldiers who survived shouldn’t get the resources that could go to the next generation of children who need to be in school. Schools, by the way, are not free in Monrovia and, if you can believe it, children can be turned away despite paying tuition if they don’t arrive in the proper uniform, down to the right shoes. (Ok, I must interject my own opinion here: While I see a benefit in requiring clean, respectful clothing, I have a hard time thinking about children being denied the opportunity to learn for not having the right shoes in a country where some have none at all.) Some here say that while many “talk the talk” of a religious life, they don’t live the teachings of their respective churches, which others collaborate from a more secular perspective saying that no one cares about the person next to them. Some see consistent, gradual progress while others lament the amount of money that is siphoned out of the reconstruction process by corruption and greed. Many question what will happen surrounding the 2011 presidential elections - will Sirleaf run again? Will the football star who lost last time have enough sway this time with young voters? (Which makes a huge difference in a country where around half of the population is under 18.) Will peace continue to grow or will some event be the catalyst for more fighting? Right now most have questions and not answers, but the vast majority of those with whom I’ve spoken have hope for a stable, peaceful country .
And on the legal side of things, here’s an interesting read about the status of the laws in Liberia - in short, determining the relevant laws damages is not as easy as finding good search terms on Westlaw. Word on the street is that President Sirleaf would like to address this issue but already has a considerable amount on her plate. Some would like to see the laws widely distributed, such that Banks has to either accept their distribution or bring suit - and have this matter settled once and for all.
On a happier note, there are groups that are generously furthering the availability of legal texts (and books in general) in Liberia. For example, Books for Africa has provided an entire “law module” to the law school here. In a country without publishing houses, bringing in books is critical. I encourage any law students reading this to consider an alternative to selling back those horribly large texts for a few cents on the dollar. Fore more info, click here. (You can mail domestically via media mail to Minnesota.)
Lastly, to answer questions about food: We made great progress on the case today and, to celebrate, “R” and I had a proper lunch (which was around $5 USD) - where I learned another Liberian expression. I’d ordered fufu, a dumpling-type bread made from cassava and was excited to try it. (see: - I’ll note that my peanut soup had a more generous serving of meat and fish) But then the server returned and said, “Fufu finish.” There was a pause for me to process this - I hadn’t finished my fufu, since I hadn’t gotten it yet…and then I realized, finish = out. They were out of fufu! Sigh. I had the peanut soup and rice instead which was spicy and delicious - and happily I have several other days to try some fufu. Rice is a common part of meals here and, when served without a soup, is called “dry rice.” As opposed to “oil rice” which, with a Liberian accent, sounds a bit like “allright.” So when someone asks you how you are doing (“how da body?”), they might ask if you are “dry rice or oil rice.” I’m looking forward to asking my clients tomorrow if they dry rice or oil rice.
More on legal progress, culinary adventures and other matters tomorrow…Hope you readers are all oil rice!
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
After months of phone calls (carefully timed to reach people in network as rainy season clouds allowed), it’s wonderful to see our clients in person. They were tickled by the recorded greetings all of us at HRUSA prepared and sent via camcorder (isn’t technology great?) and are pleased to have more concrete preparations for the December trial underway. One client, “R,” is so diligent that when I suggested this afternoon that we take a break for lunch, he looked at me with surprise and said, “No, we must keep working!” So we split the protein bar in my bag and back to work we went. There is no “trying slow” here! (Expressions in other countries are delightful and Liberia is no exception so I’m trying to learn as many as I can while I’m here. “Trying slow” means one is putting in much effort but the results are slow in coming.)
Work in this setting is incredibly rewarding and exciting in a way that can’t be duplicated in the States. Here, our clients are more like partners than clients - they know the country, the places, the people, and the way to get things done and are absolutely invaluable. The feeling of working together toward justice and contributing to the positive outcome of their own case is one I believe we are all enjoying.
In the evening, I had the opportunity to meet with several Carter Center fellows as well as law students from Washington & Lee who are here under the tutelage of Professor Thomas “Speedy” Rice. The Carter Center fellows work in various government ministries and government projects in Liberia while the students are visiting for several weeks to learn more about the challenges facing the Liberian justice system and the reality on the ground in a post-conflict country. It’s encouraging and inspiring to see such a high-level of interest and dedication in this new generation of attorneys! With any luck, a few generations from now, we’ll all be out of business (i.e., human rights will be consistently respected worldwide). One can hope, no? ~Piper
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Tomorrow I will hit the ground running on collecting documents for trial. Some say that one needs a machete to cut through the red tape around here, but thanks to several helpful individuals with whom I spoke before leaving the States, I should be able to get a good start. Another obstacle, of course, is that some documents one might expect to have in other countries are not available here - when a country is mired in a civil war, survival is your top priority - not making sure files are in order. We’ve known this but it will be interesting to see what is available.
I hope to be able to blog fairly regularly while I’m here. If anyone following HRUSA abroad has questions, feel free to ask me, ask me, ask me. I’m happy to answer them as I’m able. ~Piper
Thursday, November 12, 2009
In just a few days, Human Rights USA International Justice Project Director Piper Hendricks will arrive in Monrovia, Liberia, to gather information needed for our civil proceeding in the United States. This trip is the culmination of years of work with survivors of abuses inflicted by Charles Taylor Jr., a U.S. citizen, and his subordinates.
While in Liberia, Piper will meet with our Liberian clients who survived atrocities during the Liberian civil wars, which took place between 1989 and 2003. While there, Piper will accompany our clients to their interviews with the U.S. consulate to apply for visas to travel to the United States for the civil trial scheduled in Miami in December.
For these brave survivors and for HRUSA, the trial represents years of work toward accountability under U.S. law, as well as reestablishing justice in Liberia. In 2008, Taylor Jr. was criminally tried and convicted by a Miami jury and is now serving a 97 year sentence. While HRUSA applauds the work of the U.S. Government in convicting Taylor Jr., real justice for his victims does not end there. The civil case is a chance for several survivors to tell truth to justice and gain a sense of closure after facing the man who so gravely wronged them. In addition, the civil case provides an opportunity to obtain monetary damages to remedy their medical expenses and other costs stemming from the torture to which they were subjected.
The preparations for the trip have been extensive, both logistically and legally. Obviously, any journey of thousands of miles is complicated, but in this case, traveling with a goal of obtaining justice has made it more so. In addition to receiving several vaccinations and obtaining a visa, Piper has had to make plans for travel to various parts of Liberia, where roads often make the travel quite long. During her stay, Piper will be working with the clients to get passports and visas, as well as medical records and other evidence to use at trial.
The legal work that HRUSA has done to prepare for the case in the US also has been extensive. Since filing the civil case in January, we have spent the last year drafting various motions, gathering expert information on the long-term effects of torture, and preparing logistically for the challenges of international justice. The work is all worth it because with patience, perseverance and support, this case will provide a sense of closure and justice for survivors, and represent progress for the nation of Liberia.
Please post any questions you might have for Piper as comments to the corresponding blog posts.
After the trip, on November 30th at 4pm EST, HRUSA will host a conference call with Piper to provide you, our supporters, the chance to ask questions about the case and learn more about her trip to Africa. To participate, please contact Brenden Sloan at bsloan [at] humanrightsusa.org or call (202) 296-5702. Piper looks forward to answering your questions. Thank you for your support!
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
In January of this year, the Second Circuit court of appeals decided the plaintiffs could proceed with their case, stating "The norm prohibiting nonconsensual medical experimentation on human subjects has become firmly embedded and has secured universal acceptance in the community of nations." In response, Pfizer petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing U.S. corporations doing business abroad should not be held liable in such cases. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce (in the news lately for their opposition to climate change), supports Pfizer's position.
This case provides an opportunity for the Obama administration to explain how U.S. corporations - entities that exist courtesy of U.S. laws - should be held accountable for harms they cause in operating outside of U.S. borders. We will keep you informed as the Solicitor General responds in this important matter.