Acting in the world's interests

With the activities of the IBA's high-profile Section on Business Law attracting most attention, other IBA activities have been somewhat sidelined.

But one area in which the IBA has a respectable track record – human rights – is fighting back with the establishment last December of the Human Rights Institute.

“A global lawyers' organisation had in itself a potential to do much more than we did,” notes Tor Bohler, a partner at Oslo firm Hagen & Bohler, who acts as institute co-chair. Before the institute was founded, human rights work was largely done by a committee of the Section on General Practice, whose main function was to keep the IBA president abreast of human rights issues. But the system had limitations.

“The role of being advisory made the whole system a bit too passive,” says Bohler.

Yet moves to shape a more creative role met some res istance. Bohler recalls that when the idea of restructuring human rights activities was first mooted 10 years ago, it was received “not exactly negatively, but not so enthusiastically because it meant new work and finding new funds”.

But the seed had been sown and during the past 10 years a strategy to create a formal structure has been devised. “The main idea was to centralise the human rights activities of the IBA and give it a higher status than it had previously,” says Bohler.

The final push came from the president, Ross Harper, who Bohler says was “driving force” in establishing the institute after last year's annual conference.

Based in London, the institute draws on the resources of member Bar associations. It is chaired by two lawyers well-known in the human rights field: Nicholas Cowdery QC, Director of Public Prosecutions in the Australian state of New South Wales, and Bohler, a commercial lawyer whose interest in the area stemmed from his time as head of the Norwegian Bar's human rights committee.

Six operational committees have been set up: legal systems, procedures and the independence of the legal profession; interventions and observations; workshops and education; liaison with international organisations and lawyers' associations; fundraising; and publications and surveys.

With the structure in place, a more active approach is likely to be encouraged, drawing on the IBA's extensive network of contacts around the world and its ability to mobilise the opinion of the judiciary and the profession in other countries.

Bohler notes: “We can be an effective element in pushing governments and other relevant people because we can reach every corner of the world.”

But does such action bring results? “It depends,” says Bohler. He cites the positive reaction of the Japanese authorities, where an IBA delegation and report on the condition of prisoners may have helped improve the situation.

The same is not always the case with authoritarian regimes in developing countries. An important activity of the IBA in the human rights fields has been its interventions on behalf of lawyers detained for political activities. In the past couple of months, Harper has sent letters to government officials from Indonesia, Tunisia, Algeria, Mexico and the Palestinian authority in Gaza.

Another key activity over the years has been to send missions abroad to report on human rights. Trips to Kenya and Nigeria are planned, and one to Palestine is being discussed.

But typically such governments are suspicious of foreign involvement and sometimes wilfully obstruct the activities of foreign observers. The Nigerian mission, for example, has been hampered by the failure of one IBA observer to obtain a visa.

Bohler is pragmatic. “We are fully aware that we will not achieve everything. But we try and believe that we have duties to members in these countries.”