My Domestic Violence Monitoring Mission to Montenegro

FeaturedMy Domestic Violence Monitoring Mission to Montenegro

By Angela Liu, Dechert LLP

“Domestic violence is a “style of communication between the parties.”  It is the “victim’s choice . . . to be communicated to her with violence.”

My jaw dropped.

I then quickly pulled myself together from a momentary state of shock as I listened to a mediator in Montenegro matter-of-factly explain his thoughts on domestic violence. By this point in our mission, I kept thinking that I would get used to the way our interviewees spoke about domestic violence. After all, we had spent an intense week in six cities throughout the country — from the Albanian border to the Serbian border — interviewing members of Parliament, judges, prosecutors, police, social workers, doctors, and even the victims themselves. But in each interview, like in this one with the mediator, I always learned something new.

As a white collar and securities litigator at Dechert LLP, an international law firm, I joined the monitoring mission with The Advocates for Human Rights to Montenegro, having never done any domestic violence work, let alone traveled to the Balkans. But I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity when our firm committed its resources to pursue the monitoring mission in Montenegro in 2015, a country that was a part of the former Yugoslavia and gained its independence in 2006.

Having the honor of learning from Rosalyn Park and Amy Bergquist, two impressive Advocates attorneys at the forefront of the human rights movement, we paired up in teams and started each day early in the morning traveling to a new city so that we could begin interviewing around 9 a.m. Our days were packed with organized interviews that very rapidly revealed that domestic violence was not only a widespread problem in Montenegro – it was also a very private one. I was struck how I took for granted our comparably victim-centered laws, practices, and education, as I heard story after story about how keeping the family together – as opposed to keeping the victims safe – came first. I witnessed the defense and excusal of offenders as interviewees pushed back about depriving offenders their rights: “where will the offender go if evicted?” was a reoccurring theme. In interview after interview, I heard about the lack of coherent coordination and adequate resources. And for the first time, as an associate, I viscerally understood why the rule of law and even how our physical courtroom is set up is so important – something I take for granted every day here in the U.S.

What impressed me the most about Montenegro wasn’t just the rugged mountains that explained why the country is called “Black Mountain,” nor was it the coastline that looked like it was straight out of movie. What impressed me the most was undoubtedly the resiliency and strength of the victims of domestic violence. I had the opportunity to interview one such victim who showed me photographs of bruises all over her body that were submitted to the court. She so bravely explained how she came up against road block after road block with every institutional response and is currently mired in multiple court proceedings to tell her side of the story. I saw victims weaving beautiful rugs at a women’s shelter as they heroically learned a new skill to have some form of economic independence. And as we stayed in that same shelter one night, I was moved by the incredibly strong women that are fighting every day with limited resources to help these victims. Our partners Natasa Medjedovic at SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence – Niksic and Maya Raicevic at Women’s Rights Center were examples of such strength, who challenged the seemingly accepted notion that “just being a patriarchal society” is an adequate response to the problems these victims face.

Liu Blog Post Photo

Pictured above: Angela Liu, Megan Walsh, Maja Raicevic, Rosalyn Park, Milica Milic, Natasha Medjedovic, Tamara Radusinovic, and Amy Bergquist.

This trip, however, could not have been made possible for me without the support from my firm to which I am very grateful, and I would encourage other firms to continue their support as well. What I took away from the pro bono experience was how just taking the time and honing your own fact finding and deposition skills can impact the laws and practices of an entire country in a tangible way. It’s hard not to fall in love with a profession when you get to practice and develop your skills, let alone in a context where you’re seeing prosecutors, police, and doctors begin to consider using particular laws or protocols while being interviewed; or members of Parliament, judges, and even the victims ask for advice or more training to make their country better.

After two years of work, the 200+ page report based on our mission is now finished. It shines a light on the laws and practices in Montenegro, which will be helpful in advocacy in the country and at the United Nations. I also hope that one day domestic violence will never be known as a chosen style of communication in Montenegro.

Advertisements
Featured

Nevertheless, She Persisted

2017-02-25 12.13.08-2
Photo credit: Kaia Kegley

In Homer’s epic poem  The Odyssey, Telemachus instructs his mother Penelope:

“Go back to your quarters… Speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all, for mine is the power in the household.”  

The role of women in society has clearly progressed since the days of Homer.  Indeed, women now comprise 20% of the seats in the US Congress – holding 21 seats in the US Senate and 84 seats in the House of Representatives.    Given this progress, you would hope that the days of men trying to publicly silence would be over.  You would especially hope that the efforts to silence women wouldn’t happen in the US Senate to powerful and accomplished women like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.  You would hope that these women would be allowed to speak – and not be subjected to different standards than their male peers.  But, that is not what happened earlier this year.  It is bad enough when ordinary women are silenced – but, the efforts to silence these powerful women sends a troubling message to the girls of my generation.

In  February 2017, by a vote of 49 to 43, Senate Republicans voted to formally silence Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, during the debate over Jeff Sessions’ nomination for Attorney General.  Senator Warren had tried to read into the record a letter written by Coretta Scott King objecting to President Reagan’s nomination of Sessions to the federal courts back in 1986.  In her letter, King said that Sessions used “the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”   Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell  said that Warren had “impugned the motives and conduct  of our colleague from Alabama.”

Senator McConnell then invoked Senate Rule 19 – a  Senate rule that allows the presiding officer to enforce standards of decorum on the Senate floor (“No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words  impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator”) – to stop Senator Warren from speaking.  He then famously said:

“She was warned.  She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

What stands out about Senator McConnell’s  efforts is the rule used to silence Senator Warren has rarely been invoked since its creation was prompted in 1902 after a fistfight erupted on the Senate floor.  It is hard to imagine that Senator Warren’s comments were more egregious than words spoken by men on the Senate floor over the years.  Was it worse than when in 2015 Senator Ted Cruz accused Senator McConnell of lying?  In fact, Bernie Sanders, only a few hours later, read the same letter and was able to finish without interruption.

In early June, two senators interrupted Senator Kamala Harris while she was in the midst of questioning Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein with respect to the independence that would be given to Special Counsel Mueller.  She had limited time – and was seeking a yes or no answer to what she thought was a straightforward question.   She was interrupted for not providing the witness with the “courtesy” for all questions to be answered.  As the former Attorney General of California, Senator Harris is an experienced litigator.  Some observers have argued that she was held to a different standard then many using the same questioning techniques.

This kind of silencing has not just happened to American politicians.  Back in 2011 in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron, told Angela Eagle, a Member of Parliament to “calm down dear”  as she was trying to make a point during a debate in the House of Commons.   Attacking Mr. Cameron’s “patronizing and outdated attitude to women,”  MP Harriet Harman noted:  “Women in Britain in the 21st century do not expect to be told to ‘calm down dear’ by their prime minister.”

The good news  is that, unlike in the times of Homer, the silencing of these women politicians has not gone unnoticed.  Even girls my age are taken aback at what we see as men applying different standards to women.   However, we are even more heartened by the reaction as people across the country spoke up noting the inequality.  Plus, we are heartened by the fact that neither Senator Warren nor Senator Harris wilted at their silencing.  They just continued to speak up using other channels.

The other day I saw a baby onesie with the phrase “Nevertheless,  She Persisted” emblazoned on the front.  Senator McConnell’s words have become a rallying cry for women and even baby girls.  I wonder if Senator McConnell wishes he had just let Senator Warren speak.

By The Advocates for Human Rights’ youth blogger Jenna Schulman.  Jenna is a high school  student in Washington, D.C.