Working for a better world

The international power of the IBA makes the Human Rights Institute a force to be reckoned with, says Peter Goldsmith QC. Peter Goldsmith QC of Fountain Court Chambers is a former chairman of the Bar and chairman of the IBA's human rights committee on legal systems, procedures and independence of the legal profession.

The International Bar Association (IBA) is well-known as a powerful organisation for education and networking in many areas of law. What is less well-known is the force for change the IBA represents in the public interest field, including human rights.

The IBA has a long history of using its rich resources of thousands of members in more than 180 countries for the public good. In the area of substantive law reform, its committees have carried out much productive work. Two recent examples are a concordat on cross-border insolvency procedures and a draft treaty on the use of the human genome.

But it is in the area of fostering human rights and supporting the rule of law that the IBA's commitment has been greatest and, in recent years, most prominent.

Building on the work of the Human Rights Law Committee established some years ago, the IBA's Human Rights Institute was officially launched on 5 December 1995. One of the lasting testaments to the vision of President Professor J Ross Harper, the institute has already played an important place in human rights work internationally.

In its first year, it acquired almost 9,000 members as well as a sizeable fund drawn from members' contributions. Its many activities include intervention in cases of alleged human rights abuses around the world. It has sent missions to examine the state of affairs in many different countries, including one which investigated the legal profession and the independence of the judiciary in Kenya, producing a detailed report which is now a subject of dialogue between the IBA and the Kenyan government.

In addition, observers have attended important trials.

Recent examples include Malaysia, where the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Dato' Param Cumaraswamy, is facing libel proceedings for making statements arising out of his investigations; and a hearing in the Sri Lankan Supreme Court where a broadcasting bill was held to infringe the constitution and rights of freedom of speech.

The institute also surveys the rights of suspects and accused people in 173 countries around the world.

In these and other ways the institute adds considerably to the work of other organisations. Its strength is the resources which the IBA can bring to bear on these problems. It is an international organisation, represented throughout the world. It can bring legal expertise and political understanding of lawyers from different parts of the world to bear. The Kenyan mission, for example, included a distinguished English lawyer and a South African lawyer.

The IBA also has the ability to harness the goodwill and enthusiasm of some of the world's major law firms and lawyers: its senior officers include the New South Wales Director of public prosecutions, a Norwegian human rights lawyer, a past president of the American Bar Association, the president of the Law Society of Uganda and a senior Scottish judge.

The institute's action plan up to 2000, which will be debated in New Delhi, includes: human rights workshops in Hong Kong, Pakistan and other countries in Asia, North America and Europe; continuing missions in Nigeria, Yugoslavia and Pakistan; interventions; and the publication of its survey results.

The institute will also continue to develop its liaison with UN and EU bodies. One of its most exciting projects has been to assist the UN in the production of a training manual for judges and lawyers which is designed to assist in the teaching of human rights.

The institute is also working closely with the IBA twinning committee, which helps developed Bars to aid those that are less developed.

The institute needs the support of lawyers from all countries. Those lawyers in the UK who are interested in helping with the work should join the institute.

The IBA's commitment to human rights and its standing in that field can perhaps best be summed up by considering its 50th anniversary celebration in June. It was held in the UN buildings in New York. The keynote speaker was the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. And the best-attended meeting was a plenary session in which human rights was the sole topic of debate.