Human Rights

THE BLIND MEN AND AN ELEPHANT: WHY GALA IS NEEDED

Before going into detail on GALA’s partners and the specific role GALA will play collaborating with partners around the world, I wanted to focus on the overall ‘why’ of GALA; why do we need an international organization focused on legal aid? How can GALA be effective when every country has its own laws, cultural norms and legal proceedings that are so country and region specific? I could blunder my way through the legal explanations and probably lose my audience in the first sentence or I can suggest a parable that provides an excellent example of the “why” and the “how” behind GALA.

There is an allegory that appears to come from India and is recounted by Buddhists, Hindus, Sufi Muslims and many disciplines. The story begins with six blind men (sometimes four or five, depending on the person sharing the story) who, having never seen an elephant before, are invited to the Shah’s palace to stand in one’s presence and touch the animal to learn more about it. Each blind man had their own opinion prior to visiting as they had heard stories about an elephant being powerful enough to scare away adults and children alike, strong enough to haul kilos of material for miles and yet gentle enough that the Shah’s daughter would ride one. Most of them skeptical, they were eager to have the chance to feel one for themselves.

Arriving, each one felt a different part of the elephant; “It is like a rope,” scoffed the man who touched the tail. “It resembles a pillar,” believed the blind man who touched the leg. “I’d say it’s a snake,” believed the man who touched the trunk. “This animal is similar to an oversized hand fan,” believed the one who touched the ear. “It’s like a sharp spear, believed the man who felt the tusk. “It is exactly like a big wall,” thought the one who touched the belly. Resting afterwards, the men began discussing the experience and discovered that all of them disagreed with what an elephant was. Becoming boisterous, the Shah heard them and came out to hear what the problem was. Immediately the Shah realized what had happened and announced: “you all are correct and yet you are incorrect at the same time. All of you have a partial understanding of the elephant and must come together to understand what is the structure of a true elephant.”

Attacking one element of injustice gives a limited and oftentimes inaccurate perspective of the big picture!

Attacking one element of injustice gives a limited and sometimes inaccurate perspective of the big picture!

How does this relate to GALA? Social injustice occurs in many forms and in many places yet all of these injustices contribute to the cycle of poverty and oppression. It is only by addressing all of these issues that real change can occur and the rights of the poor can become what the name implies yet struggles to fulfill: a right. GALA works with expert lawyers who have the perspective that comes from years of training in Universities and practice in their field. GALA also works with local law practitioners who may be willing to step out of their areas of expertise to help those who need representation the most. Most importantly, GALA intervenes on behalf of the poor and marginalized when the government or regulator fails to protect the poor due to corruption or lack of capacity.

GALA’s commitment to act as a defender of the public’s right to have clean air, water and a planet free from harmful toxins; to eat safe, nourishing food that is appropriately labeled; to have access to electricity and to medicines that heal is what makes it necessary. Without an organization like GALA, those fighting for social justice can’t “see the whole elephant,” and address the plethora of legal issues in developing countries where an injustice has been committed and as a result, a poor individual or community has suffered.

GALA is looking to partner with individuals, lawfirms and organizations who feel that same call to justice and want to join the movement that not only encourages discussion and communication, but demands action and accountability by those who are privileged with power. If you fill any of these categories, we are looking forward to having you on the journey!

 

GALA NATURAL JUSTICE: PARTNERS IN ENVIRONMENTAL AND HUMAN RIGHTS

GALA has centered its mission around three core areas: human, consumer and environmental rights. Although expansive, GALA believes it does not have the luxury to focus on just one as all three are core components to social justice issues facing the world’s poor and ignoring even one of these three focal points would detract from the mission to help the poor reclaim their rights. The blog will focus on all three issues highlighting specific cases GALA is representing as well as the importance, or more emphatically, the necessity for an organization like GALA to exist. While many cases and country partners will confront simultaneous breaches on the rights of the poor, we hope to highlight one specific injustice and what GALA is doing to fight back.

Recently I had the privilege of speaking with Gino Cocchiaro, an Environmental Lawyer based in Capetown, South Africa working for Natural Justice, GALA’s South African partner. Natural Justice focuses on the preservation of the environment specifically through the protection of indigenous populations and their land. As their website states, “Our mission is to facilitate the full and effective participation of Indigenous peoples and local communities in the development and implementation of laws and policies that relate to the conservation and customary uses of biodiversity and the protection of associated cultural heritage.” Until my conversation with Gino, I understood that biodiversity and indigenous rights were important but I hadn’t quite grasped the intrinsic importance of their shared value in sustaining a healthy and livable planet. My conversation with Gino emphasized how human rights and environmental rights are not separate issues but completely complementary.

Gino Cocciaro, a lawyer for Natural Justice and a partner to GALA based in Capetown, South Africa.
Gino Cocchiaro, a lawyer for Natural Justice and a partner to GALA based in Capetown, South Africa.

Natural Justice works in over a dozen countries around the world and partners with institutions including the World Bank and other international financial institutions providing legal advice, interpreting laws and working with local governments to develop tools where communities can connect through law. In many of the more remote regions of the world, people who have lived on the land for centuries have valued the importance of protecting the environment and lived in harmony with nature. Minorities including the Awá in Brazil, the Native Americans in the United States, and the Maori in New Zealand have all suffered the consequences of ‘modern land development.’ In areas where Natural Justice works, communities now have an opportunity to seek legal council and voice their concerns.

One such example of the importance of Natural Justice’s work can be found in Lamu, Kenya. Lamu, an island off the coast of East Kenya, is in the center of negotiations to build a port that will be a ‘gateway to the Horn of Africa,’ a project the Kenyan government believes will bring tens of thousands of jobs to the region. However, the project will also displace thousands of locals. Initially, plans and itineraries for the project were developed without consulting any of the local leaders, a concern that brought attention to the plight of Lamu to Natural Justice. Since then, Natural Justice has worked with those living in Lamu to bring their concerns to government officials and business leaders. In addition, Natural Justice identifies local organizations and lawyers who are then fully integrated into the process. Natural Justice connects local leaders to the national and international discussions on the formation of new laws and the interpretation of existing ones.
Their ability to work locally along with a team of internationally experienced lawyers provides a platform for dialogue to take place between the government, consultants and community leaders.

Gino’s vast knowledge of biodiversity and land issues is clearly established within minutes of speaking with him. What I really wanted to delve into was how he took his expertise and applied it to the specific case he was involved in, something that always proves a challenge when assessing an organization like GALA’s impact across international boundaries. Gino’s responses were enlightening and also demonstrated the challenges that will be a constant trial for GALA in their aim to change the face of legal aid internationally. As Gino explained, establishing who are the people and communities Natural Justice is representing and how the issue (in this case the Port) will affect their livelihood, culture and traditions is not always straighforward. This is where establishing firm relationships on the ground with the community members and local business and political leaders becomes critical. From there, Natural Justice is able to use their legal expertise to set out certain principles for discussion and obligations the government must abide by. Heavy capacity training also enables the process to take on a participatory approach and bringing community leaders into the model completes the circle. In effect, natural justice.

Lamu Island, Kenya.
Lamu Island, Kenya.

 

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