By Josuha Sealy-Harrington
For this edition of Law Matters on Canada’s international legal obligations, I had the privilege of sitting down with Vincent Wong, an impressive young Canadian lawyer. Vincent is a Human Rights Fellow at Columbia Law School (www.law.columbia. edu/news/2018/10/2018- 2019-human-rights-fellows), a prestigious position demonstrating his exceptional experience and potential in international human rights advocacy. Before coming to Columbia, Vincent worked as a Staff Lawyer for the non-profit Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, where he used his cross-cultural background— he was born in Hong Kong, but raised in Canada — to provide legal services to Ontario’s Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian communities. And, on a more personal note, Vincent’s intellect and kindness are immediately apparent. We met early on in the LL.M. program at Columbia over a passionate discussion about recent Supreme Court jurisprudence adversely impacting the Chinese and Southeast Asian community; there is no doubt in mind that Vincent will be making waves in the Canadian and international legal community in the years to come.
1. What is your general impression about the effectiveness of human rights mechanisms at securing and promoting human rights domestically and internationally?
Generally, my view is that mechanisms aimed at protecting human rights are going to be very limited if they cannot result in a legally binding remedy. International human rights treaty bodies face this problem all of the time, where their recommendations are routinely ignored by States. But even when compliance rates are low, there is still some compliance, which can mean a great deal for those affected. The international human rights system can also act as a much- needed vehicle though to apply political pressure to States who refuse to respect human rights or are violating human rights en masse. But when it comes to building an effective system for respecting, protecting, and fulfilling human rights, the heavy lifting must be done at the domestic and regional level given our current state of world politics. That is where human rights are made justiciable and can be made an integral part of policy making in all aspects of governance. People also need to remember that human rights permeates many more spheres of public life than those which are explicitly labelled "human rights". Our criminal justice system, housing laws, cybersecurity policies, labour laws, immigration system, and relationship with Indigenous Peoples (among others) all necessarily implicate internationally recognized human rights — even if that is not immediately obvious in the title.
2. How have your respective experiences in Canada and the United States informed you about what each country does right and wrong regarding human rights, and in terms of how countries should generally approach human rights?
Every country has its own unique challenges when it comes to human rights, but we should not accept the premise that human rights and their substantive contents are subject to whatever a particular country's government thinks. All countries have a duty to respect, protect, and fulfill their human rights obligations. We also need to realize that the human rights issues of other countries increasingly affect us in this interdependent world. For example, Trump's policies on refugees has foregrounded the Safe Third Country Agreement and the political reality that Canada cannot take even America's human rights record for granted. A turn for the worse in the human rights situation in one country oftentimes generates difficult political, legal, and moral questions for its neighbours.
3. Have your practical experiences in human rights generally left you more or less optimistic?
Much more optimistic. I've had the privilege of working under someone who I personally think is one of the best Canadian human rights lawyers of this generation — Avvy Go of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. The clinic provides free legal services to low-income and non-English speaking members of the Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian communities in Ontario. Working at the clinic and learning from Avvy and my other colleagues has been an amazing experience and a testament to what impact a grassroots legal organization can do to further the human rights of the most vulnerable. Whether it is doing casework, law reform, test case litigation, community organizing, or public education, the experience has taught me there are a whole host of effective methods to do human rights work.
4. What is the most rewarding human rights experience you’ve had so far?
There has been a lot of them. I would say the happiest I feel is when I stay a deportation or win a humanitarian and compassionate case that keeps a family together here in Canada. Seeing the joy on the faces of the parents and children is definitely memorable, particularly in light of the hardships that they had to go through up to that point. I am also privileged in being able to speak Cantonese and have these clients feel comfortable in opening up to me about their very personal stories of struggle and resilience — stories that they might not be able to get through to other legal clinic lawyers.
5. What contemporary human rights issue interests you the most, and why?
I am most interested in the intersection between global migration and human rights. Countries around the world are doubling down on restrictions at their borders and within their immigration and citizenship systems, but the push factors of migration will continue to get stronger and stronger. Climate change alone will likely create hundreds of millions of refugees in this century. What are we doing to prepare for this? Is the solution for human migration in the 21st century spending all of our money and energies building walls, greater immigration enforcement and border security, and separating the children of migrants from their families? Surely there are better, more comprehensive, and more creative policy solutions that we can come up with that sufficiently respect national sovereignty, facilitate human mobility, and fulfill human rights obligations. But that conversation is currently not happening in what is a highly politically and emotionally charged discourse in Canada and elsewhere.
6. People are sometimes critical of law students citing an interest in “human rights”, and claim that there are no real opportunities in that field. What would you say in response to that, and what would you recommend to law students or young lawyers interested in working on human rights issues?
I think a lot of people come in with a somewhat skewed notion of what a human rights career entails. They hear human rights and immediately think of a job with a large international NGO like Amnesty or Human Rights Watch, or a position with a human rights commission or a Geneva-based human rights body. If you think narrowly in this way, then yes, the opportunities are quite limited. But as I mentioned earlier, human rights encompass a much broader section of work. If you are a criminal defense lawyer, you are protecting your client's right to a fair and speedy trial, the presumption of innocence, and due process. That is human rights work. If you work with trade unionists, you are protecting your client's right to work and achieve an adequate standard of living. That is human rights work. There is no need to lament the seemingly limited professionalized opportunities in human rights when one takes a broader view of what human rights work is and how human rights defenders around the world are creatively doing their work. If students keep that in mind, then I am sure they can find something in their legal careers to scratch that itch.