Training legal practitioners may not sound like a dangerous task, but for the Bar Council’s human rights committee it has been far from safe.
The executive members of the committee, chaired by Mark Muller QC
of Garden Court Chambers, have been in Afghanistan to train practitioners and academics on human and social rights.
Blackstone Chambers barrister Naina Patel joined Muller in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul to educate activists, lawyers and judges on areas including women’s rights and the rule of law.
Patel says the barristers – who included Brenda Campbell of Garden Court and Sudhanshu Swaroop of 20 Essex Street – completed war training before going to Afghanistan. The human rights committee’s project coordinator Naoimh Hughes also travelled to the country.
“We had to undertake four days of hostile environment training in Hampshire with ex-army instructors on how to deal with bombs, kidnappings and worst-case scenarios before being allowed to go to Kabul,” says Patel. “It was pretty surreal and, of course, with us being barristers was a completely different environment from what we’re used to. Some of us certainly felt out of our depth.”
Fortunately, none of this preparation had to be used by the barristers.
Patel says the project, which took place in conjunction with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, was not only about providing legal education but giving Afghans a “half-safe space” to debate issues around the law.
“Even during the training some attendees were getting threatening text messages,” says Patel. “The concept of human rights is seen as so Western and imperialistic by some Afghans that we were attacked as being some kind of Christian missionary group rather than a group of lawyers trying to promote the rule of law.”
Patel says the determination of a group of Afghan lawyers and law students to bring in a strong legal system under these conditions was so immense that three women studying at Nangarhar University attended the training session despite receiving death threats.
The Afghanistan initiative came about three years ago when Samantha Knights of Matrix Chambers, who also travelled to Kabul this year, secured funding from the British Foreign Office for the project.
Patel says since the initiative started, in conjunction with Dr Ali Wardak from the University of Glamorgan, there has been “cascade training”.
“We’ve had reports of people passing on what they’ve learnt to others, although with the systemisation of formal justice remaining relatively non-existent, we’ve little hard evidence of it translating into the courts,” says Patel. “That’s not to say it isn’t slowly happening.”
Patel says monitoring the use of the 10,000 legal textbooks distributed shows there is a slow increase in the awareness of the need for the rule of law.
“The books are still in the government departments and university libraries to which we donated them. This is a relief: there was a concern that they could have ended up being sold across the border to India or Pakistan. And there are lending records that demonstrate that people are using them, which is a great sign.”
The British Foreign Office’s funding has now come to an end, although Patel says she’s confident that the project will continue to move forward.