Human rights come first

The IBA is a little like the United Nations,” says one insider. “It's got to have a Third World representative from time to time and, if the right candidate comes up, then he will be chosen.”

This is an interpretation that Desmond Fernando, the Sri Lankan lawyer who replaces Professor Ross Harper as IBA president later this year, does not dispute. “Maybe the fact that I did come from the Third World was a qualification,” he says. The last such president was RKP Shankardass, an Indian who ruled the roost between 1986 and 1988.

But Fernando insists he is “not a dark horse”. He was already part of the IBA hierarchy when his climb to the top spot started in 1987 after becoming vice-president of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka. “The Bar Association president at the time was unable to attend a meeting of the IBA council, so I attended in his place,” he says.

And Fernando has not looked back since: first, he became deputy secretary-general, then in 1992 he was appointed secretary-general, and in 1994 he became vice-president.

Although Fernando is not a household name like some other presidents, notably the colourful Guiseppe Bisconti or the high-profile Ross Harper, his election is a popular one.

Francis Neate, a partner at Slaughter and May who heads the Section on Business Law, describes him as “a very distinguished lawyer with an excellent reputation defending human rights”.

Fernando is a commercial lawyer by training, working largely on admiralty matters But over the past 20 years, he has also been at the forefront of the human rights movement in Sri Lanka at a time of great political turmoil and ethnic conflict. His actions have not always been popular with the country's government and he has sometimes carried out his work under threat of reprisals.

Fernando's profile fits perfectly with the organisation's current focus on human rights – a legacy of Harper's presidency which he intends expanding. The two men, says Fernando, “share the same outlook”.

Fernando's priorities in office include enhancing the role of the Human Rights Institute, which was set up in December 1995; setting up exchanges of young lawyers from the developed and developing worlds; promoting fair trials in more jurisdictions; and setting up a committee to look at ways of increasing “legal literacy” in the general public.

But one insider questions whether Fernando will be as “activist” as Harper. By any standards, Harper will be a hard act to follow. He was adept at spreading the IBA message around the world, improving the IBA's profile.

He was, according to Neate, a “good ambassador”. Moreover, he oversaw the organisation's move into new offices in London, an expansion of staffing levels and the creation of the Human Rights Institute which, if it is to work, will require careful thought about long-term funding and human resources.

Harper put the IBA on the map – maybe what it needs now is someone to make sure the plans do not come apart.

Election special

The Biennial IBA Conference in Berlin sees the election of officers for a number of posts. These were voted on in June's committee meeting in Madrid but will be confirmed in at the conference.

Ross Harper hands over the Presidency to Desmond Fernando. Other changes include Klaus Bohloff, who has leapfrogged from his position to become the next vice-president. Diana Kempe QC will be challenged for her position of secretary general by Ghanaian candidate Nutifafa Doe Kofi Kuenyehia.

In the law sections, business law chair Francis Neate will step down and be replaced by the Netherlands' Willem Calkoen. Neate will become treasurer. The Section on General Practice (SGP) replaces US lawyer Robert Trevisani as its chair with UK lawyer Hugh Stubbs. And German lawyer Wolf-Rainer Bentzien will step down as chair of the Section on Energy and Natural Resources Law (SERL) to be replaced by Argentinian Emilio Cardinas.

The voting procedure is complicated and allows each full organisational member to put forward one delegate for each 1,000 members in their organisation, up to a maximum of 10 delegates per organisation. The three sections of the association are entitled to vote along the same lines, up to a maximum of 10 votes.