Frydrych: Looking Through the Lens of International Human Rights
Systematic power and control
is not confined to a violent home, or to an abusive guard or system,
but is institutionalized in both private and public spheres. While
writing my master’s thesis I looked through the lens of international
human rights law and was able to critique the U.S.’s interpretation
of such formal guarantees of justice. This consequentially, opened
me up to thinking about avenues and strategies for reform. During
college and graduate school, my theoretical foundations were informed
by the experience I gained volunteering as a rape crisis counselor,
a domestic violence counselor, and a workshop facilitator for a
self-developed program called ‘Practical Feminism’ for
female juvenile detainees.
Upon receiving a post-graduate fellowship, I moved to Kathmandu,
Nepal to work with the Centre for Victims of Torture. There, I was
able to put my passion for effectively addressing systems of injustice
to use by authoring a comprehensive training manual for lawyers
which equipped them with the tools to seek recourse against human
rights violations. I then decided to stay an extra year and worked
with Advocacy Forum, a network of activists investigating, documenting,
and monitoring conflict-related human rights violations during the
State of Emergency.
The Peoples War has been going on since 1996 but truly erupted in
December 2001, and the year-long state of emergency was imposed
two weeks prior to my arrival. The Maoists have a 40-point plan
which lays out their ideology and demands. Some include: developing
a people’s republic and abolishing the constitutional monarchy,
abolishing the caste system, and land reform. Although many Nepali’s
initially supported the ideology, the tactics of war turned increasingly
On the Maoist side, they bombed schools, destroyed infrastructure,
forcefully recruited citizens, and collapsed the economy by calling
nation-wide strikes and shutting all business down. On the army’s
side, which is what my work focused upon, they arbitrarily arrested
people, tortured detainees as routine conduct, “disappeared”
people, and killed extra-judicially.
At the Centre for Victims of Torture I developed a training manual
for lawyers on prison issues, torture, and a variety of human rights
violations. I also wrote and edited several reports on the impact
of the war on human rights. At Advocacy Forum, I wrote an analytic
research report on access to fair trial and justice, using 456 interviews
the organization conducted with Kathmandu detainees. I also documented
case studies that I compiled through the interviews, and when necessary,
appealed to international organizations for intervention and urgent
actions. In collaboration with the Executive Director, I developed
several programs which address community mobilization and peace-building,
juveniles in the criminal justice system, and women in prison.
Through my experiences in Nepal I learned the importance of not
being silenced. The culture of fear was so pervasive, but several
extraordinary individuals I had the opportunity to work with refused
to be threatened. I also learned how to use different strategies
for different circumstances. I learned how to know when to work
from within, and when to take a stance of opposition and critical
Mostly, I learned that people get away with things like torture
because very few people are watching or demanding that they not.
A pervasive culture of silence lends impunity to those who commit
violations. Consistent documentation and independent monitoring
is critical to the effecting any long-lasting reform.
The system will not work if it continues to police itself and the
importance of oversight cannot be overestimated.
The most common reaction I get from people when I tell them about
the work there is, "Wow, that must be really hard". I
never really felt that way about it. I don’t find myself getting
exceptionally exhausted by the trauma. I joke and say that’s
because I’m not a very compassionate person, but I have learned
in the last few yeas why that really is. When I’m dealing
with an individual who has been tortured or raped, I feel there
are better people out there meant to deal with helping that particular
person at that particular time. My strongest reaction to individual
violations is, “What went wrong in the system to allow for
something like this to happen?” Such violations do not stand
in isolation nor is it coincidental that violations occur in similar
ways all over the world, all the time. Oppression and injustice
is institutionalized, and has to be addressed systemically. I guess
that is sort of my map.
Emily Frydrych is a native of
Encino, California and is planning to make a return trip to Kathmandu.
Currently, Emily is continuing her work with a number of organizations
in the Los Angeles area.