The justice mission

Human rights are once again high on the IBA's conference agenda. But can such organisations make any real difference to abuses throughout the world?

Had a bad day at the office? Colleagues or clients been on your back? Train late? Traffic heavy? had to work late? For Turkish defence lawyer, Tahir Elci, his “bad day” at the office started when he was arrested and taken to a police station near his home town in south-east Turkey.

The police began by verbally harassing Elci about his human rights work on behalf of Kurdish villagers who were being forcibly “evacuated” by Turkish authorities.

“If you research human rights violations we will kill you,” police told Elci.

To re-enforce their point they then stripped and beat him. “I was completely naked – they squeezed my testicles violently. This went on for about an hour,” said Elci. He was then left blindfolded in a basement for two days.

Elci's case has been highlighted by Amnesty International along with that of Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir, who has been so severely harassed for defending women's rights she has had to send her daughters out of the country for their own safety.

It is not only defence lawyers that are under threat. In Turkey last month the trial of 11 men accused of killing a leading human rights activist began with the alleged ring leaders openly threatening prosecution lawyers in the courtroom. While in Argentina – also last month – federal judge Roberto Marquevich, who is investigating the abduction of children by the security forces, received an anonymous message written on an army letterhead, stating that he was “condemned to death”.

Such threats against lawyers and the judiciary are all too common, according to Law Society international liaison officer Mel James. Since January this year, the Law Society has written 100 letters to leading government figures in countries ranging from Bahrain to Peru, complaining of at least 28 human rights abuses against legal officials.

James, who is also secretary to the society's international human rights working party, says the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into English law has served to highlight the issue among lawyers.

“I think there is a very strong and growing awareness of the imperative nature of human rights, at home and abroad,” she says.

To capitalise on this interest, the Law Society is setting up “twinning” between local law societies such as those in Newcastle upon Tyne and the Rift Valley in Kenya. Kenyan lawyer Juma Kiplenge spent six months in Newcastle earlier this year only to arrested when he returned to Kenya in April for – among other things – unlawful assembly, and be told by a magistrate before his trial that he would be imprisoned because he was a “troublemaker”.

The Law Society has sent officials to both Kenya and Palestine to investigate human rights abuses such as this.

But do such interventions risk being seen as a former colonial master once again imposing its view of what is right and wrong on a local legal system? “We're not talking about UK standards, we're talking about international standards,” says James. “The Law Society only becomes involved when they are breaking those commitments.”

Nicholas Stewart QC, chair of the Bar's human rights committee, says the observers it sends to foreign trials are not there to sit in judgement of foreign legal systems but rather to “observe and report”.

The committee has carried out nearly 20 trial observations over the past year. Stewart says observers have to take into account the cultural and judicial differences of the court in which they are sitting as well as acknowledging the possibility of their own ignorance on issues surrounding the case.

The Bar Council is devoting much of its annual conference, “A new era for human rights”, on 3 October to the issue.

In addition to dedicated Bar and Law Society human rights committees, Amnesty International in the UK has 1,400 lawyers in its network. However, while the commitment is self-evident in the profession, how effective are lawyers in fighting human rights wrongs?

Amnesty International campaign assistant Tom Fyans, who runs its network of lawyers, admits that success is difficult to measure. He says that while getting a lawyer who is imprisoned released is one way to measure success, it may not be down to Amnesty's intervention alone.

The Bar Council's Stewart adds: “It's difficult to measure the quality and effect of a great deal of work done in the human rights field. In most cases the worst that can happen is that we achieve nothing. If trial observers never go to those countries it is not too difficult to see how the situation could get worse.”

As well as success being difficult to measure lawyers should not expect financial reward or public recognition. Human rights work is done on a pro bono basis and lawyers doing something positive is seen as a oxymoron by the mainstream media. So why bother?

Cloisters barrister Rufus D'Cruz, who has fought a number of cases for prisoners awaiting execution on the US's death row, argues his is a policy of “enlightened self-interest”.

“The rewarding aspect about human rights work is that it is so stimulating,” he explains. “You learn an awful lot from this area of law; it does make you a better lawyer…”

D'Cruz genuinely believes there is a “vocational aspect” to being a lawyer. While he admits that human rights work can often cut deeply into the time available for making a living, he says the feel-good factor brings its own rewards.

Three years ago the International Bar Association (IBA) set up the Bernard Simons Memorial Award, which each year recognises a lawyer's work in promoting human rights. The IBA is also developing one of the most innovative schemes in the field of human rights law through its Human Rights Institute (HRI), which was set up in 1995 and now has 9,000 members from 149 countries.

That reach of members has allowed the IBA to use its legal contacts in countries to argue for change behind the scenes. Leading government officials are often lawyers and a quiet word from former colleagues expressing concerns about human rights abuses can bring about change, according to IBA members.

Some in the IBA privately think this method is potentially more successful than Amnesty's more forthright approach of publicising cases. but incoming HRI co-chairman Peter Goldsmith QC denies it takes a softly-softly stance.

“We look pragmatically at what is going to work,” he explains. “The objective is not to make a stance, it is to make a real change. There are a number of different problems and there are a number of different solutions. You have to look at the individual case to see what makes the difference.”

Goldsmith insists that if there is a need to speak out or issue a report condemning human rights abuses the HRI will not hesitate. But the former Bar Council chairman and astute advocate also knows that human rights matters are, as he carefully puts it, “very complex”.

To that extent, while the HRI acknowledges that unjust laws and governments must be changed, it also seeks to educate judiciaries and lawyers in human rights beliefs as set down by the United Nations. The Bar Council also does this.

The HRI is also careful who it sends into countries where it investigates human rights abuses, looking for lawyers who are culturally and politically aware. A Spanish lawyer was sent into Peru recently and a South African into Kenya. The aim is to make the lawyers be seen less as evangelical human rights preachers from the West and more as international missionaries for human rights.

The global reach of the IBA and the resource of the members it has on the ground means that lawyers can often offer a local resolution to the international problem of human rights abuses.

While the IBA, the Bar Council and the Law Society have different approaches they all have a common goal.

This month, the IBA conference will once again allow them to discuss tactics in the fight for human rights.