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Emily Frydrych: Looking Through the Lens of International Human Rights Law
Misty Swift

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 violent.

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 resistance.
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.





The Women’s College Magazine at Santa Monica College
Copyright 2003 Santa Monica College