Advocating for Human Rights Defenders Around the World

Houle, Elizabeth A.

Law Now, Vol. 29, Issue page 27, August/September 2004.

Those of us who practice law in safe environments such as Canada owe a duty to those who risk not only their freedom but also their lives in order to protect their clients’ rights.

— Gail Davidson LRWC Founder

Between January and November 2001, the International Commission of Jurists monitored forty-five countries around the world and found more than 300 incidents in which jurists (lawyers and judges) had been subjected to reprisals for carrying out their professional duties. Of these, thirty-eight people were murdered, five had disappeared, and forty-four had been prosecuted, arrested, detained or tortured.

Around the world, lawyers and other human rights advocates who defend human rights are singled out as targets of repression, much of it perpetrated by governments or government-controlled agencies. Because human rights violations are committed by states and human rights advocates are seen as against the state and are often the target of false prosecutions, assaults, threats, unlawful arrests and intimidation.

In January 2000, Vancouver lawyer Gail Davidson gathered together some like-minded colleagues and founded Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC), a non-profit society that would introduce legal critiques to effort to provide support to lawyers in danger around the world. LRWC’s mandate was threefold: to campaign on behalf of lawyers and other human rights advocates whose rights, freedoms or independence are threatened as a result of their human rights advocacy; to produce legal analyses of national and international laws and standards relevant to human rights abuses against lawyers and other human rights defenders; and to work in cooperation with other human rights organizations.

LRWC’s first project was to campaign on behalf of Karpal Singh, a prominent Malaysian human rights lawyer being prosecuted for sedition. The charge against Mr. Singh was unprecedented in common law jurisdiction—it was based on words spoken by Mr. Singh in court while conducting the defense of his client Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, on human rights charges. LRWC wrote and published an analysis of the validity of the prosecution of Mr. Singh and Vancouver attorney Richard Gibbs Q.C. attended the trial to hold a watching brief on behalf of LRWC. The Attorney General of Malaysia ultimately withdrew the charges against Mr. Singh, specifically referring to the representations the government had received from national and international legal bodies, and acknowledging that he had considered those representations in deciding to abandon the prosecution.

Recently LRWC and the London based Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) have been campaigning for a proper investigation of attacks on leading Mexican human rights lawyer, 38-year-old Digna Ochoa y Placido, who was found shot to death in her office on October 19, 2001. Ms Ochoa had won international acclaim for her work with PRODH, an independent human rights organization, and had represented some of the most difficult and politically charged human rights cases in Mexico, many of which involved allegations of torture and murder by Mexico’s military and security forces.

Representatives of LRWC and BHRC have traveled to Mexico on two separate occasions to interview investigators and other government officials, colleagues of Ms Ochoa and others familiar with the Digna Ochoa case. LRWC and BHRC have produced reports, articles and public statements and communicated with Mexican government officials and concerned human rights organizations.

Since 2000, LRWC has sent lawyer representatives to observe trials, to monitor safety provisions for lawyers and judges and to conduct in investigations in Singapore, Guatemala, and Mexico. Now in its fourth year, it has grown to over 150 members across Canada and has incorporated a ‘sister’ society, LRW(Legal Research)C that has charitable tax status. This society is mandated to do legal research and education work relating to the integrity of legal systems and the right of lawyers and other human rights defenders to engage in independent advocacy.

With the help of an all-volunteer staff, LRWC has continued to broaden the scope of its human rights advocacy. In addition to sending lawyer representatives to monitor cases abroad, LWRC participates in joint campaigns with other human rights groups such as Amnesty International, and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC). Member-volunteers produce legal analyses, reports and articles.

In the field of international law reform, LRWC members have participated in the formation of the International Criminal Bar and are currently preparing a proposal for presentation to the United Nations to extend the right to counsel to include the right to be represented by foreign counsel. LRWC lawyers have observed that, where safety and independence safeguards are inadequate, local counsel are unable to provide vigorous representation. In Sierra Leone, LRWC and BHRC are providing support to advocates by restocking the Freetown law library, destroyed during the decade long civil war, and stocking a new law library for the Sierra Leone Special Court. LRWC also manages its own web site and produces its own newsletters, keeping members up-to-date on campaigns, including letter-writing campaigns, conferences and the progress of developments in international human rights law.

An on-going challenge is the management of LRWC letter-writing campaigns. LRWC receives more than a dozen bulletins per month requesting help for human rights defenders in danger because of their advocacy. Volunteers circulate the bulletins and prepare background information – that can cover anything from the international conventions to which the countries are signatories to the current political situation – which are then sent, with requests for letters, to members of the letter writing committee.

Lawyer-volunteers write to the government officials directly responsible for the issue, copying them to various other government and police officials, members of the press and concerned NGOs. Not infrequently, these letters must be sent to volunteer translators before they can be dispatched.

To date, LRWC has written letters on behalf of human rights defenders in over 30 countries. The cases have involved many abuses including kidnapping, assaults, wrongful arrest and detention, malicious prosecution, death threats, illegal surveillance, office break-ins, theft of files, torture and murder.

From letter writing to the design and maintenance of the web site to monitoring trials, conducting investigations, interviewing government officials, preparing reports to keeping records and administering the database, LRWC’s work is done entirely by volunteers and is funded solely by members’ fees and donations.

The lawyers who attend trials and conferences or write letters, the researchers and translators, the writers and editors, the web site designer and all those who manage the increasing volume of information in this growing organization, do it all in their free time, on a volunteer basis. Members also donate airline points to enable LRWC members to travel to monitor trials, attend conferences or travel on other LRWC business, and office equipment.

LRWC volunteers come from across Canada and around the world, communicating via email and telephone, in some cases never having set foot in the LRWC office. Volunteers include people with and without legal skills: lawyers, students, journalists, computer specialists, immigrants from countries where abuses occur, people wanting to learn about international human rights and others who share a common interest in the fight for human rights.

Lawyers Rights Watch Canada is uniquely positioned to advocate specifically on behalf of human rights defenders and generally on rule of law issues. Given Canada’s record in developing human rights standards and the perceived objectivity of the Canadian legal system, the contributions of members of the Canadian bar to these issues is particularly cogent.

In the absence of vigorous advocacy, human rights are illusory and without safety and independence guarantees, vigorous advocacy is unlikely or impossible. In countries with inadequate safeguards, the ability of lawyers and other advocates to provide any legal representation often depends on support from groups such as LRWC. LRWC’s work monitoring trials and security provisions, identifying and publicizing abuses, calling for reform and writing reports and articles is necessary to international human rights implementation and enforcement.

LRWC Executive Director Gail Davidson hopes LRWC’s successes will inspire the formation of similar ‘watchdog’ organizations around the world and the creation of an international network–advocates for advocates working to protect and promote the rule of law and the universality of human rights.

Through the excellent work of volunteers LRWC has made and will continue to make a contribution to the international human rights enforcement. However, the need for support for human rights defenders around the world far outstrips LRWC’s resources. There is an urgent and ongoing need for the involvement of more Canadian lawyers to participate in campaigns—traveling abroad to investigate complaints and monitor trials, writing letters, supervising legal research, engaging in human rights advocacy education, managing campaigns and networking with other groups. Volunteers are always needed to handle the day-to-day work necessary to the administration of existing campaigns: research and writing, office administration, record keeping, data management, correspondence, communications.

Find out more by contacting Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada at 3220 West 13th Avenue, Vancouver, BC, Canada, V6K 2V5

Phone: (604) 738-0338 fax: (604) 736-1175

E-mail: web