International Bar Association. Peace-keeping force

With 180 member organisations representing 2.5 million lawyers, 18,000 of whom are individual members, there is no doubt that the International Bar Association (IBA) is big.

Its biennial conferences, often held in such glamorous locations as Cannes and New Orleans, attract suitably large numbers, with thousands turning out for successive dinners, workshops and seminars.

Such powerful audiences bring in big-name speakers. When the IBA gathered in New York recently, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, no less a light than the recently installed secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, addressed the celebrants.

But can the IBA put its undeniable clout to purposeful and effective use?

Or is it so large and unwieldy, and incorporating such a disparity of views and directions, that the over-attended beanfeasts are the most that it can achieve?

Desmond Fernando, the Sri Lankan president of the IBA, stresses the organisation's high moral purpose. "We are here first and foremost to work hard to ensure the rule of law," he says. "In doing this, it is important that we promote the independence of the judiciary and of the legal profession, which are essential elements of liberty and democracy."

But Fernando insists that, without compromising principles, the IBA is probably the most practical of all organisations promoting human rights. It has far greater resources than Amnesty International, whose primary function, in any case, is to report abuses rather than set them right. At the same time, the IBA has none of the political constraints of the UN.

Its most recent intervention was in Kenya, where the attorney general accepted the need for change based on criticisms made in a report for the IBA by Sir William Goodhart QC.

Another example is the reform of the Dayo-kongo system in Japan, under which suspects were detained and interrogated by the same officers, without access to a lawyer, for 21 days. Following IBA representations, interrogation and detention were separated and the right of access to a lawyer became immediate.

In a case not cited by Fernando, the IBA also provided resources to a human rights group in Sri Lanka to fight and win a supreme court case that struck down legislation designed to stifle criticism of the government.

In Turkey, protests from the IBA put an end to human rights lawyers being arrested and held indefinitely without charge. The IBA is also involved in the problem of supplying legal representation for the tens of thousands of Rwandans currently incarcerated on capital charges.

Peter Goldsmith QC, a member of the IBA council and chair of three of its committees, admits that it is only in recent years that the IBA has begun to realise its full potential for pro bono work.

One new initiative, which Goldsmith has helped to bring to fruition, is that of twinning Bar associations and law societies in the jurisdictions of developed countries with those that are less well off.

"There is a great deal that can be done in this way," says Goldsmith. "It can vary from training programmes or advice on legal aid to supplying a computer system, which is something we did recently."

He attributes the revival of the IBA to the presidency last year of Ross Harper, the Scottish criminal lawyer and erstwhile leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. One of Harper's ideas was for the 8,000 members working in rich countries to each contribute £25 to advance legal organisation in developing countries. "If that alone could happen," says Harper, "it would justify the IBA's existence."

Probably the most potent sign of change at the IBA was the establishment, last year, of the Human Rights Institute under the co-chairmanship of Tor Bohler and Nicholas Cowdery QC. Although the institute is rapidly assuming the role of the IBA's most high-profile enterprise, it took Bohler 10 years of tough lobbying to bring it into being.

"At first, people said the IBA had no staff, and no financial backing," says Bohler, "and it was feared that many politically delicate situations would arise."

But despite the struggle, Bohler is in no doubt that the IBA is the institute's best home, the place where it can do most good. "First, we are lawyers. Second, we have a global organisation with a centralised staff and local players," he says.

Aside from the increasing importance of pro bono work, Dianna Kempe QC, a cross-border insolvency practitioner based in Bermuda and now entering her second term as IBA secretary general, has no doubts about the association's effectiveness. Far from being unwieldy, she asserts that it functions as a network of specialist committees, each with a clear and focused remit.

As an example, Kempe cites the work of the insolvency committee, Committee J, in setting out the Insolvency Concordat, a document intended to help coordinate cross-border liquidations. It is now being used by the prestigious American Law Institute, the foremost organisation for law reform in the US, as a basis for the development of US insolvency law for the North American Free Trade Association.

"In my own area of practice," says Kempe, "being a member of Committee J is mandatory. You cannot find a better forum in the international arena. You meet the people you work with, you get to hear about all the latest cases. It is absolutely essential as a means of continual education. It is outstanding."

If its prominent members are to be believed, the IBA has the will and the means to put justice where is deserves to be – at the top of the world agenda. It is to be hoped, for the sake of human rights the world over, that it can put their words into practice.