Canadian Group Takes Up Defense of International Human Rights Advocates

Houle, Elizabeth A.

Law Society of Upper Canada (December 2002)

The Ontario Criminal Lawyers Association Newsletter for the Defense Vol. 23 No. 6, 2003

The Criminal Trial Lawyers Association Newsletter Vol. 15 No. 2 November 2003

Guatemala, September 1990. Anthropologist Myrna Mack was stabbed to death as she was leaving her office. She had been investigating the living conditions of indigenous people displaced by the civil war. In March 1990, Ms. Mack released a report concluding that the military were treating them as prisoners of war.

Malaysia, January 2000. Karpal Singh, prominent human rights lawyer, deputy chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party and former opposition member of parliament was arrested on a charge of sedition. The charge arose from statements made by Singh in court while conducting the defense of his client Anwar Ibrahim, former minister of finance and deputy prime minister of Malaysia.

Singapore, July 2001. J.B. Jeyaretnam, lawyer, human rights activist and opposition member of parliament faced the final appeals in defamation suits that could bankrupt him and bar him from practicing law and sitting as a member of parliament. They were the culmination of twenty-six years of defamation litigation initiated in 1976 by Lee Kuan Yew, senior minister and former prime minister of Singapore, and members of the ruling party.

Mexico, October 2001. Digna Ochoa y Plácido, a lawyer who had worked on some of Mexico’s most politically charged cases, was found shot to death in her office. Prior to her death, Ochoa had been the target of threats and assaults for six years and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights had ordered the government of Mexico to investigate the acts against her and bring the perpetrators to trial.

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 had been subjected to reprisals for carrying out their professional duties. Of these, thirty-eight people were murdered, five disappeared, and forty-four were prosecuted, arrested, detained or tortured.

Because most human rights violations are committed by states, defenders of human rights are often seen as enemies of the state and become targets of false prosecutions, assaults, threats, unlawful arrests and intimidation from their own governments. When this happens, human rights advocates who represent unpopular clients or causes must often rely on international watchdog groups, such as Amnesty International, to intervene on their behalf.

Traditionally, these watchdog groups have not had the resources to produce detailed legal analyses of human rights violations or of the offending states’ responsibilities to protect the security and independence of human rights advocates. Nor have they advocated primarily on behalf of lawyers. In January 2000, Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) was founded as a federal non-profit society to supplement the work of these existing international agencies.

LRWC’s primary goals are to protect advocacy rights and the rule of law internationally by campaigning on behalf of lawyers threatened as a result of their human rights advocacy; producing legal analyses of human rights abuses against lawyers and other human rights defenders and working in cooperation with other human rights organizations. By using their legal training in the analysis of human rights violations, LRWC members bring added clout to the international fight for human rights. Given the extraordinary contribution by Canadian jurists to the development of international human rights and the perceived objectivity of the Canadian legal system, support from Canadian lawyers has the potential to be particularly compelling in the international arena.

There are now more than 100 members of LRWC in Canada. Since its inception, LRWC members have written letters on behalf of more than sixty human rights advocates in twenty-five countries; sent lawyers representatives to Singapore, Malaysia, Mexico and, on two occasions, to Guatemala; published three campaign reports and produced a legal analysis of sedition.

The outcomes have been encouraging. There is evidence to suggest that at a minimum, LRWC initiatives have caused offending governments to be more attentive to allegations of human rights abuses and to the safety of human rights advocates.

Of the cases cited at the beginning of this article, retired General Edgar Augusto Godoy Gaytan, and Colonels Juan Gillermo Ovica Carrera and Juan Valencia Osorio were tried as the authors of the murder of Myrna Mack and on October 3, 2002, Colonel Osorio was convicted. Throughout the process investigators, prosecutors, judges and witnesses were subjected to threats occasioned by their involvement in the trial. Two people involved in the case were murdered and several, including a judge and a prosecutor, were forced to flee the country. In September 2002, LRWC sent lawyer representative Brenda Wemp to the concluding stage of the trial to monitor and report on the adequacy of security and independence safeguards for everyone involved in the trial.

Richard Gibbs Q.C. attended the commencement of Singh’s sedition trial to hold a watching brief on behalf of LRWC, the Law Society of British Columbia and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. Prior to that, in the summer of 2000, LRWC had sent an analysis of the validity of the prosecution to the attorney-general of Malaysia. The LRWC analysis was published in the September 2001 edition of Criminal Law Forum: An International Law Journal. In January 2002 Malaysia’s attorney-general eventually withdrew the charges against Singh, citing representations from international bodies and other circumstances.

In a joint initiative with Amnesty International, LRWC sent Vancouver lawyer Howard Rubin to attend and report on Mr. Jeyaretnam’s appeals in Singapore. On March 23, 2002 the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) passed a resolution affirming that Jeyaretnam’s statements were a legitimate exercise of free speech rights and sharply criticized the proceedings as an attempt to silence Jeyaretnam and remove him from parliament. Ingeborg Schwarz of the IPU, which represents 142 member parliaments around the world, said LRWC’s report “was instrumental not only in the decision to declare this case admissible but also to make it public.” The report will be published as an appendix to Francis T. Seow’s “Beyond Suspicion: The Singapore Courts on Trial.”

Upon hearing reports that the investigation into the murder of Digna Ochoa was stalled due to a number of factors, including lack of political will, LRWC and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) sent Canadian lawyer John McAlpine Q.C. and British barrister Nicholas Stewart Q.C. to Mexico in March 2002 to assess and report on the conduct of the investigation and the adequacy of government safeguards for the security and independence of lawyers. The Canadian government is now participating in funding experts to review and report on investigation findings. LRWC and BHRC plan, again as a team, to revisit Mexico in 2003 when the experts’ report has been completed.

While the response to LRWC interventions inspires optimism, 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—monitoring trials, writing letters, preparing amicus curiae briefs, and doing legal writing and research. In addition to providing legal expertise, LRWC members can contribute much-needed membership fees and donations, and become involved in other areas such as public relations, fundraising and fostering the creation of Lawyers Rights Watch groups in other countries.

To become a member or to find out more about Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, you can visit their website at or contact them at: 3220 West 13the Avenue, Vancouver, BC, Canada, V6K 2V5

Phone: (604) 738-0338

Fax: (604) 736-1175