Tough tasks to be faced in Melbourne

As that conundrum and wonder of the international legal world, the International Bar Association, prepares for its biennial get together – this time in Melbourne – the old questions about it bubble to the surface.

After two years in Claude Thomson's safe hands, the internal state of the organisation is undoubtedly in a lot better shape than when he took over. There is more of a sense of the body pulling together in the same direction.

Much progress was made on the issue of rights of lawyers and judges abused or under threat around the world. The more robust approach has paid off and the IBA has grown in stature.

The rights of lawyers are self-evidently a proper area of operation. But is this not a very narrow vision of human rights?

As incoming president Ross Harper asks (page 16), do not some issues transcend the IBA's resolve to stick to law and eschew politics? His example of slavery may be rhetorical, but that of child labour definitely is not. Should the IBA be passing resolutions and acting on such issues? A bill of rights produced by the IBA might have glaring omissions.

But if the IBA becomes too embroiled in politics, it could jeopardise other activities. The approach has to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic.

In potential conflict areas such as the GATT or relations between local and foreign firms in developing markets it has to be able to play a part, but this will be very much the art of the possible in the prevailing circumstance.

But for most lawyers there, Melbourne will be a week of frantic networking, which is the reality for the individual members of the IBA.

Ironically, the IBA may still be dominated by the Anglo Saxon mould, but its prestige is highest in the Third World. The association needs to get something of that standing transferred back to western countries.