The ability to claim your human rights in court against governments or corporate interests without personal risk is normally taken for granted in the UK. In many parts of the world, however, bringing forth such claims, or representing individuals subjected to injustice, entails significant risks for the life and liberty of you and your family. In 2016 alone, 281 human rights defenders paid the ultimate price for their sacrifices.
On 17th October, the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk re-launched their initiative of extending moral and legal support to lawyers and human rights defenders working in precarious circumstances. The Alliance was founded in 2010 by PBI UK patron, Sir Henry Brooke, and has since then been collaborating closely with PBI in providing legal expertise to the human rights defenders PBI accompanies.
After an opening address by Colin Passmore of Simmons & Simmons, in whose offices the event took place, Rt. Hon Sir Patrick Elias introduced the audience to the good work of the Alliance. Sir Patrick, who is the new President of the Alliance, spoke vividly about the important work of the Alliance and the purpose of the re-launch, which is to give it a capacity boost and a more explicit focus. Given the valuable assistance the UK legal community can offer many human rights defenders in terms of both procedural and substantive advice, in addition to advocacy and moral support, this initiative is very welcomed. Following Sir Patrick’s words, Lord Dyson, former Master of the Rolls of England and Wales, expressed his support and admiration for the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk.
Several human right defenders were also present at the event, including Marcos Leyva, Rosalinda Dionisio, and John Jairo Montoya. Both Leyva and Montoya took the stage during the evening, grippingly depicting their struggle to bring justice to individuals and communities subjected to human rights violations, in Mexico and Colombia respectively.
Mexican human rights defenders, Marcos Leyva and Rosalinda Dionicio, with Marina Brillman of the Law Society
Marcos Leyva spoke specifically about his critical work providing legal representation for marginalised indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico, whose basic rights are being threatened by economic megaprojects. Leyva explained how the organisation he represents, Servicios para una Educación Alternative A.S. (EDUCA), has been subjected to a vicious smear campaign for their work in Oaxaca and targeted with a number of threats. In Mexico alone, 30 human rights defenders were killed in the first six months of 2017.
John Jairo Montoya, meanwhile, opened his speech with a thought provoking question, asking how many members of the audience had gone to law school literally expecting to give their life to the profession. Montoya reflected on his experiences within the Colombian criminal justice system, and the inadequate protection provided for human rights lawyers in the country. He pointed out that while the rule of law is an integrated part of governance in the UK, in Colombia it is still but an ideal for which many human rights defenders have to pay with their lives. Last year alone, the number of human rights defenders killed in Colombia varies in estimates from 59 to 134.
The re-launch also featured a screening of Invisible Mandelas, a film produced last year to mark the 35th anniversary of PBI. The film seeks to build international support for the many human rights defenders that make invaluable contributions in upholding justice globally without receiving much recognition for their work.
The event concluded with the founder and former President of the Alliance Sir Henry Brooke being awarded an ‘Invisible Mandelas’ prize by Susi Bascon, the Director of PBI UK. The award honours Sir Henry’s long-standing commitment to assisting human rights defenders at risk. A legacy that the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk will carry on with continued vigour following the re-launch.
PBI UK Director, Susi Bascon (centre) presents Alliance founder, Sir Henry Brooke (left), with an award to honour his commitment, as Sir Patrick Elias (right) prepares to take over as President.