Defending Defenders: The Right to Know Rights | The Advocate, January 2021

This article was originally published in The Advocate, January 2021 edition 

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The Advocate is published six times each year by the Vancouver Bar Association and is made available to all lawyers in British Columbia, Canada.


Catherine Morris*


The first two decades in this millennium have seen dramatic increases in risks to those reporting or protesting rights violations or advocating human rights, particularly in relation to land rights, environmental issues, and climate change.[1] The protection of human rights lawyers and defenders around the world requires knowledgeable advocacy based on international human rights law and standards. In Canada, relatively few lawyers have studied international human rights law in law schools or through continuing professional development (CPD).

Lack of systematic human rights education in Canada has resulted in gaps in knowledge for lawyers wishing to engage in international advocacy to uphold the rule of law and protect lawyers and other defenders at risk because of their human rights advocacy. CPD can be costly, and lawyers need to focus their training dollars on seminars directly related to the domestic practice of law. Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (“LRWC”)  addresses these gaps by provide international human rights education free of charge. This report describes a few LRWC publications and other educational initiatives over the past decade.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) states in its preamble that the realization of human rights depends on “common understanding”[2] of the UDHR’s global mandate that “… every individual and every organ of society… shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms”.[3] Effective implementation of internationally protected rights depends on broad public knowledge of rights, particularly by jurists. During the past decade LRWC educational initiatives have included events in Cameroon, Canada, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Switzerland, as well as publication and global distribution of books, reports, briefs, videos of lectures. Some events and publications are produced in partnership with other organizations.

In 2011 LRWC undertook research to examine the state of human rights education in Canada and BC. The project examined the extent to which Canadian human rights organizations, law enforcement agencies, journalists, educational institutions, and jurists were cognizant of international human rights treaties binding on Canada. The research measured provision of human rights education in British Columbia against standards set out in the United Nations (“UN”) General Assembly Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training that had been adopted by consensus of all UN member countries in 2011.[4] The preamble of the Declaration affirms that “[e]veryone has the right to know, seek and receive information about all human rights and fundamental freedoms and should have access to human rights education and training”.[5] The researchers concluded there was “an alarming lack of knowledge about international human rights treaties ratified by Canada…”[6] on the part of various stakeholders interviewed or surveyed, including B.C. jurists.

Since that time, LRWC has hosted, co-hosted, or contributed to many seminars about international human rights law including the right of access to effective remedies for rights violations, and the rights of Indigenous Peoples.[7] LRWC has produced handbooks on the right to legal aid, the right to pre-trial release,[8] the right to dissent,[9] and the right to defend human rights.[10] Topics covered by LRWC working briefs include reviews of internationally protected rights to counsel,[11] trial by civilian courts,[12] medical care for prisoners,[13] freedom from exile,[14] and the rights of Indigenous Peoples.[15]    

New LRWC publications: The Right to Counsel and the Right to Defend Rights

In 2020, LRWC published Attacking Defenders: The Criminalization of Human Rights Advocacy[16] with a Foreword by Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders from 2014 to 2020. Production of this unique guide was inspired by increased attacks on human rights defenders and the use of national laws to criminalize both human rights advocacy and the exercise of internationally protected rights. As stated by Michel Forst, Attacking Defenders “shows how criminalization has become over the years a tool for the powerful to muzzle the powerless and how the law has been used to attack rather than to protect.” The book identifies international human rights law and jurisprudence developed by the UN, the Organization of American States, the African Union, and the European Union to protect human rights advocacy and the diminishing rights of human rights defenders.

The Toolkit for Lawyers at Risk[17] was released on 24 January 2020 by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute in partnership with LRWC, the Bar Human Rights Committee in the UK, Human Rights House Foundation, and Lawyers for Lawyers in the Netherlands. The Toolkit consists of three Modules accompanied by a Legal Digest and was produced to enable wider use of international human rights law to ensure the professional independence and safety of lawyers.

LRWC’s forthcoming manual, The Right to Counsel: A Guide to International Law Rights to Legal assistance and Representation sets out the international law provisions that guarantee this right.[18] In 2020 CanLII published two of LRWC’s publications, Attacking Defenders[19] and the 2017 book, The Right to Dissent.[20] LRWC publications are for public use and are available for download free of charge from LRWC’s website.

New LRWC webinar series on UN human rights treaties and mechanisms

In December 2020, LRWC launched its plans for a series of free webinars on international human rights law for LRWC members, volunteers and others. CPD credits in BC were approved for the first webinar, an overview of the UN Human Rights System, on 10 December 2020, International Human Rights Day.[21] Subsequent webinars are planned in 2021 featuring core UN human rights treaties and instruments on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders,[22] the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers,[23] and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.[24]The purpose of the webinars is to enable LRWC volunteers and other lawyers, law students and defenders to engage effectively in international human rights advocacy.

LRWC has held Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council since 2005. LRWC is volunteer-run and is funded by membership fees and private donations.[25] Canadian lawyers are particularly welcome to join LRWC’s pro bono team of advocates.


* Catherine Morris was appointed as LRWC’s Executive Director on 1 June 2020, succeeding LRWC’s founding Executive Director, Gail Davidson.

[1] Global Witness, “Global Witness records the highest number of land and environmental activists murdered in one year – with the link to accelerating climate change of increasing concern,”  29 July 2020, online: Global Witness <>.

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN General Assembly, G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 71 (1948), online: UN <> [UDHR], Preamble. (“Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge”.)

[3] Ibid.

[4] UN General Assembly, United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, A/RES/66/137, 19 December 2011, online: OHCHR <>.

[5] Ibid, Preamble.

[6] LRWC, The Right to Know Our Rights: International law obligations to ensure international human rights education and training (Vancouver: LRWC, 2012), online: LRWC <>.

[7] See LRWC’s seminars on rights of Indigenous Peoples at <>.

[8] Lois Leslie, Pre-trial release and the right to be presumed innocent: A handbook on international law rights to pre-trial release (Vancouver: LRWC, 2013), online: LRWC <>.

[9] Lois Leslie, The Right to Dissent: International law obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the right to participate in public affairs by engaging in criticism, opposition and dissent (Vancouver: LRWC, 2017), online: LRWC:  <>, and CanLII <

[10] Lois Leslie, Attacking Defenders: The Criminalization of Human Rights Advocacy. A guide to international law rights of human rights defenders (Vancouver: LRWC, 2020), online: LRWC <>.

[11] Samantha Black, International Law Right to Timely and Confidential Access to Counsel. Working paper (Vancouver: LRWC, 2017), online: LRWC <>.

[12] Erika Chan, Gail Davidson, and Catherine Morris, Right to Trial by Civilian Courts: International Law on the Use of Military Tribunals to Determine the Rights of Civilians. Working Paper (<Vancouver: LRWC, 2015), online: LRWC <>.

[13] Grace Cheung, updated by Temisan Boyo Fano, Prisoners’ Right to Medical Treatment International Law Provisions. Working paper. (Vancouver: LRWC, 2019), online: LRWC <>.

[14] Gail Davidson, Joshua Lam and Aliya Virani. Freedom from Exile: International Law. Draft Working Paper, 2019, online: LRWC <>.

[15] LRWC, Canada’s international human rights law obligations to suspend construction of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline and stop use of force against the Wet’suwet’en (Vancouver: LRWC, 2019), online: LRWC <>

[16] Supra note 10.

[17] International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, The Tool Kit for Lawyers at Risk, 24 January 2020, online: IBA <>.

[18] LRWC, The Right to Counsel: A guide to international law rights to legal assistance and representation, forthcoming.

[19] Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, Attacking Defenders: The Criminalization of Human Rights Advocacy. A guide to international law rights of human rights defenders (CanLII Authors Program, 2020 CanLIIDocs 2383), online: CanLII <>.

[20] Supra note 9.

[21]  LRWC, International Human Rights Day: An overview of the UN Human Rights System, webinar on 10 December 2020, see online: LRWC <>.

[22] UN General Assembly, Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms : resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 8 March 1999, A/RES/53/144, online: Refworld <>.

[23] United Nations, Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, 7 September 1990, online: Refworld <>.

[24] UN General Assembly, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples : resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 2 October 2007, A/RES/61/295, online: Refworld <>.

[25] For information on how to join or donate, see LRWC’s website at