Human rights defenders are fighting on the frontline to realise the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights ideal that all people should be free from “fear and want”. They can be lawyers, journalists, peasant leaders, trade unionists, students, relatives of victims or anyone who denounces and investigates persecution and oppression. They take action when human rights are threatened, break the silence to protect the weak and hold the powerful to account.
Lawyers are at the forefront of this effort to protect human rights because human rights and the law are fundamentally linked in two ways. First, the scope and precise meaning of the term 'human rights' is defined by international law. Second most human rights violations also constitute violations of national law.
Lawyers, therefore, have essential roles gathering information and campaigning on behalf of victims.
The work of Amnesty International would be paralysed without the support, cooperation and information provided by these defenders who are often the only force standing between the mass of ordinary people and the unbridled power of the State.
For this reason, those who defend human rights often find themselves at the forefront of human rights violations. They are assassinated for protesting against State violence. They are jailed for demanding prisoners' rights. They “disappear” because they investigate abductions and political killings.
Defence lawyers involved in political trials have been a repeated target for harassment, prosecution and assault. Over the last year, 17 defence lawyers practising in Diyarbakir, south-east Turkey, and Istanbul were held incommunicado and tried in the State Security Tribunal as part of a clamp-down on lawyers. Their prosecution was part of the “total war” the Turkish state and security forces have declared on the guerrillas of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).
One of the lawyers, Tahir Elci, was taken to Cizre Police Headquarters in November 1993. He was harassed for his work on rights abuses on behalf of villagers forcibly evacuated from their villages.
The police began to torture him, saying: “Bastard, is it your job to represent these peasants? If you research human rights violations…we will kill you.”
Elci told Amnesty International that they beat him up and stripped him. “I was completely naked – they squeezed my testicles violently. This went on for about an hour,” he said. “In the evening I was taken to Cizre Gendarmerie headquarters where I was left in the basement, blindfolded for about two days.”
The fate of the Diyarbakir lawyers is yet to be determined as the trial continues. Meanwhile more arrests have followed, including that of lawyer Eren Keskin, found guilty of “separatist propaganda” and sentenced to two years and six months in prison for a newspaper article she wrote.
The sentence is under appeal but the threat constantly hangs over her as do the death threats and harassment she endures.
“The police see us defence lawyers as members of the PKK,” she says. “They are particularly offended by the fact a female lawyer has taken up the case of a PKK defendant.”
On one occasion, she was detained at the scene of an incident by police who took turns hitting and insulting her. Persecuted for defending others, Keskin's freedom is under threat, yet she refuses to be silenced. She carries on with her work as a defence lawyer, speaking out about human rights violations despite the danger.
Human rights defenders are being put on trial – emotionally and physically – for simply doing their job. At an international level, they receive no special legal protection.
In 1985 the UN Commission on Human Rights established an open-ended working group to draw up a declaration protecting the rights of human rights defenders. However, they have yet to agree to a text.
We must protect defenders and legitimise human rights activism in countries where it still remains virtually impossible. Amnesty International is urging the world's governments to agree to a strong text for this declaration and to adopt it as a matter of urgency.