Last Thursday, PBI UK and the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk announced the winners of the second Sir Henry Brooke Awards for Human Rights Defenders.
This year, one was awarded to a lawyer who has defied personal risk in order to pursue justice for environmental defenders, and protect the rights of marginalised communities against powerful interests - Honduran lawyer Donald Hernandez. The other was jointly awarded to two women human rights lawyers who have stood out for their commitment to fighting torture and forced disappearance in a dangerous and threatening environment, particularly for women - Mexican lawyers Maricela Vázquez & Carla Palacios.
The awards were presented by Lord Phillips KG QC, the first president of the Supreme Court of Justice, at the London headquarters of Linklaters LLP. They are held annually in honour of PBI UK’s cherished patron and co-founder of the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk, the late Sir Henry Brooke CMG. You can view Manu Valcarce's photos of the event here.
Sir Henry Brooke CMG
Sir Henry Brooke was a man of remarkable conviction and generosity, whose life and career were characterised by his tireless commitment to justice, equality and human rights.
A barrister at Fountain Court Chambers who went on to serve as a High Court Judge, Sir Henry’s many achievements including chairing the Bar’s Race Relations Committee, which introduced racial awareness training for English magistrates and judges. As a judge, Sir Henry spoke on human rights, penal reform, access to justice and equality issues around the world.
Following a distinguished career, Sir Henry stepped down from the bench in 2006, becoming a Patron of PBI UK in the same year. Explaining why, he said that:
As a tribute to Sir Henry's legacy, the awards are presented to human rights defenders who have done exceptional work to build peace and strengthen the rule of law in their own societies. The annual Sir Henry Brooke Awards celebrate the qualities that Sir Henry most admired and reflected in his own life: selflessness, courage, and commitment to seeking justice for the oppressed and the marginalised.
The night featured speeches from renowned figures from the legal community and a chance to hear the stories of defenders from around the world. We were introduced by Sir Christopher Bellamy who celebrated the work of Peace Brigades International UK and the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk on behalf of Linklaters. Sir Patrick Elias followed, and hosted the rest of the evening with an emphasis on the importance of pro bono work to human rights defenders - in particular the Toolbox for human rights defenders developed by Simmons & Simmons in partnership with PBI UK. You can watch Manu Valcarce's short film about the toolbox here:
Lord Phillips presented the awards to three human rights defenders after an impassioned account of the life of Sir Henry. The winners themselves spoke about the risk of defending human rights in Latin America and their gratitude for recieving the award.
The event also featured speeches from Susi Bascon and Frederick Mulder CBE, who discussed Picasso's humanitarianism and the history of linocut before announcing an exclusive raffle of an original Picasso linocut.
Maricela Vazquez and Carla Palacios
Maricela Vazquez and Carla Palacios are two lawyers from Mexico who reflect the values Sir Henry championed throughout his life.
Maricela and Carla work for the Paso del Norte Human Rights Centre, an organisation established to “promote and defend human rights with the involvement and engagement of people, particularly those who have been most affected.” Their work involves representing the families of victims of torture and forced disappearances. They work in an environment characterised by executions, corrupt security forces, impunity and widespread and persistent violence against women. In 2018 alone, 3580 women were killed in Mexico – a rate of nine per day on average.
Their organisation has been the subject of consistent pressure from state and federal authorities, including surveillance, threats, and even a raid following an emblematic torture case in 2011. Their high level of risk is due to complaints they have filed against members of the security forces. Sir Henry would have valued their remarkable determination and commitment to grassroots human rights work, in an environment of extreme danger.
Maricela and Carla are featured in Manu Valcarce's La Busqueda. This film on forced disappearance covers the work of those fighting for truth on behalf of the 40,000 individuals disappeared in Mexico.
“We are filled with enthusiasm and happiness to receive this prize in memory of Sir Henry Brooke, a person who admired and valued all the work done my human rights defenders like us who continue with determination in the search for justice for the most vulnerable, for those people who have been abandoned by the justice system.” - Maricela Vazquez
“There can never be enough prizes for my fellow human rights defenders. But I want to dedicate this award to all of them who strive daily to create a better country for future generations.”- Carla Palacios
Donald Hernandez is a Honduran lawyer who works tirelessly to pursue justice for environmental defenders, and protect the rights of marginalised communities against powerful interests. Honduras is resource-rich, with abundant supplies of iron, timber, gold, silver and hydropower. As a result, according to Donald, “the government is actively pursuing a model of development based on the sale of land to foreign companies for extractive, hydroelectric and agribusiness projects”.
Too often, this leads to large-scale forced displacement. Donald works with the grassroots communities living on affected lands, helping indigenous groups and campesinos to understand their rights under national and international law. This includes ILO Convention 169, which states that indigenous peoples must be involved in decision-making for new projects. As a lawyer for the Honduran Centre for Community Promotion and Development he represents over 30 other defenders, who have been criminalised for protecting their lands. He does this in a country that was described by the IACHR as one of the “most hostile and dangerous countries for human rights defenders” in the Americas. Donald has demonstrated bravery and dedication to human rights in the face of intense hostility, which Sir Henry would have admired.
“We are not used to this kind of recognition and as you have seen, Honduras is a country with a very difficult set of circumstances... I consider myself to be a human rights defender who defends defenders of territory and of land, in a country where to work in that way is to invite stigmatisation, is to be identified as an enemy of development, to be called a persona non grata, to be criminalised... For me as a lawyer it is even more important that I am receiving this prize from my brother and sister lawyers because the sector, and lawyers who work in this field in my country, are not recognised.” - Donald Hernandez