On Thursday October 1st, lawyers all over the country came together to celebrate the start of the legal year. As we commemorate a ceremony dating back to the middle ages, at PBI we want to consider the present situation of the rule of law all over the world, and the role that human rights defenders play in upholding it. A millennium after the Magna Carta, how strong is the rule of law today?

In recent years the UK legal profession has come under fire from all angles; attacked by the government and the media as out of touch and ill-at-ease with the concerns of everyday people. Being a lawyer is by no means easy in this country, but looking overseas puts things somewhat into perspective. We work in eight countries where being a human rights lawyer means daily attacks, threats and intimidation. We may struggle to precisely define the ‘rule of law’ in a varied and changing world, but the freedom of lawyers to return home to their families without being murdered is surely the first step.

As we look forwards to another year of relative judicial stability in this country, we want to put a spotlight on some of the human rights lawyers we work with. They risk their lives every day to support the rule of law, and build global respect for justice and civil liberties.

Reynaldo Villalba

Reinaldo Villalba manages penal and national litigation for The José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective (CCAJAR), primarily criminal defence and the representation of victims of serious human rights violations. He has been vilified by the authorities and characterised as a defender of terrorism and an auxiliary of guerrilla forces, particularly since his work on a case implicating the former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. The case is based on allegations of witness tampering and fraud relating to crimes committed during the country’s five decade civil war.

‘Managing a case of this kind generates a huge potential for risk and danger and we are extremely aware of that.’ - Reinaldo Villalba

Villalba has been a member of CCAJAR for 27 years. CCAJAR is a Colombian non-governmental human rights organisation, which aims to contribute to the fight against impunity and the construction of a just and equitable society. The organisation is recognised nationally and internationally for representing emblematic cases of human rights violations in Colombia, both within the Colombian justice system and before the Inter-American System of Human Rights. The high profile nature of the cases it takes on has exposed the organisation to sustained attacks, threats and intimidation since its foundation.

Earlier this year we spoke with Reynaldo Villalba about the illegal intelligence carried out by the Army, which was revealed by Semana magazine in May of 2020. During 2019, the activities of at least 130 journalists, political opposition members, unionists, and human rights defenders, including CCAJAR members, were the target of online surveillance. For Villalba, “it is no surprise what ended up happening with the military intelligence.” CCAJAR has been working with victims of the armed conflict for 40 years and “they were 40 years of constant persecution.”

Why did the Army resort to illegal intelligence? According to the lawyer, “these operations not only attempt to find out what we do, the victims we represent, the cases we work on, who we plan to bring before the justice system, and the principle incidents of impunity that we are going after, but they can also be a prelude to much more serious actions such as threats, smear campaigns, judicial setups and attempts against life.”

Mandira Sharma

Lawyer and human rights defender Mandira Sharma co-founded Advocacy Forum in 2001, Nepal’s trail blazing organisation of human rights lawyers. Mandira grew up in a remote area in western Nepal and, encouraged by her mother, became the first woman in her village to become a lawyer. She studied in Kathmandu and gained a scholarship to do her L.L.M. (Master of Law) at the University of Essex.

Nepal’s civil war, which stretched from 1996 to 2006, resulted in thousands of cases of torture, killings, forced disappearance, sexual violence and other abuses. Both sides - the monarchist forces and the Maoist rebels – stand accused of grave human rights violations, but not a single perpetrator has been held to account for their crimes. Many remain in high positions in the government and military.

Mandira and her colleagues represent the victims and work to achieve justice by bringing their cases to courts in Nepal as well as harnessing media attention and international support to campaign for legal reforms. Their successes have led to them being seen as a threat by those they are trying to bring to justice. They have experienced direct and indirect threats, assaults, and defamation and incitements to violence in the media.

“I just hope the government of Nepal understands the gravity of the issue at hand and starts a process to end impunity for torture and gross violations of human rights in Nepal.”

On 3 January 2013, UK authorities arrested Colonel Kumar Lama of the Nepal Army and charged him with two counts of torture under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction. Due to their work relating to the case, Mandira and her colleagues were called traitors in the media in Nepal, elements of which also incited violence against them. The District Administration Office also informed Advocacy Forum that there would be an investigation into its activities.

Mandira Sharma, founder of Advocacy Forum, said: “Regardless of the decision not to re-prosecute Mr Lama, the case has already established that the door of universal jurisdiction for the victims of torture and other gross violations is open in the UK and beyond.

"This case helped address the deep rooted problem of impunity and empowered human rights defenders and victims to explore new opportunities"

Pro bono partners

In such trying circumstances, the support of the international community is vital. We are so grateful for the pro bono support of our partners, who have provided legal expertise, financial support and professional solidarity with lawyers working in countries where the rule of law is fragile.

The Alliance for Lawyers at Risk

The Alliance for Lawyers at Risk is an independent UK-based pro-bono network, founded in 2010, that provides moral and legal support to lawyers and human rights defenders working in precarious circumstances. The Alliance was founded in 2010 by our deeply missed and beloved patron, the late Sir Henry Brooke, and has since then been collaborating closely with PBI in providing legal expertise to the human rights defenders PBI accompanies. Since 2015 they have written and signed 18 letters to governments and members of the international community in support of human rights defenders in need, sent two lawyers delegation to the field as well, taken part in capacity building and training sessions and met more than 25 human rights defenders on speaker tours in the UK.

Last year, they hosted environmental rights lawyer Donald Hernandez, from the Honduran Centre for Community Promotion and Development, as part of a European advocacy tour. Donald works tirelessly to pursue justice for environmental defenders and protect the rights of marginalised communities against powerful interests, defying incredible personal risk. Meetings with the Alliance boosted awareness of the work of Donald and CEHPRODEC among the UK legal community and committed them to action in certain areas, such as research, training, and the possibility of sending a delegation. CEHPRODEC was invited to join the newly formed Business and Human Rights Consultancy network within the FCO to provide strategic information to policy makers in the UK.

The visit was an opportunity for Donald to enquire as to the status of the UK’s submissions to the UPR of Honduras to key stakeholders and officials, such as the FCO desk, and to inform them of the human rights situation in Honduras. Partnerships were developed with other members of the legal community such as the Law Society, where he discussed collaboration on Amicus and the establishment of a network of environmental lawyers in Honduras and coordinated training on International Human Rights Law.

In May 2020 we launched our Portraits of Resilience, Hope and Solidarity webinar series, which we ran in partnership with the Alliance. We wanted to shine a light on the heroic efforts of brave individuals to expose human rights violations and support vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 health crisis.

These online sessions were an opportunity to hear the stories of human rights defenders and learn about the innovative strategies they are developing to keep their communities alive. Together we explored the impact of COVID-19 on defenders and the wellbeing of the marginalised communities they support, as government measures encroach on basic rights and civil liberties. 

Thank you to Alliance President Sir Patrick Elias and the Executive Committee for their committment to PBI and human rights defenders over the years. The Alliance was founded by our deeply missed and beloved PBI UK Patron Sir Henry Brooke CMG

“The Alliance has a powerful role to play in identifying and challenging threats to the rule of law in those countries where it is under threat” - Sir Patrick Elias

Simmons & Simmons

We are also very grateful for the ongoing dedication and support of Simmons & Simmons lawyers, who we have been working with since 2016 to develop our Human Rights Defenders Toolbox.

The toolbox comprises a range of legal fact sheets designed to inform and assist human rights defenders in their struggles to uphold the rule of law in the face of corporate aggression. The fact sheets focus on the obligations of companies to respect human rights, as set out in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The project seeks to address the fact that, despite the existence of these principles, gaps in their implementation mean that human rights defenders confronting corporate interests still face escalating violence.

The project was initiated by Colombian lawyers from CCAJAR with the support of PBI UK. Former president of CCAJAR and human rights lawyer, Luis Guillermo Pérez visited the UK and met with PBI UK and lawyers from Simmons & Simmons to consult on the production of these fact sheets.

We continue to roll out the toolbox to the various countries in which we work, and have updated them to match shifting standards of international law. This year, we held two webinars on business and human rights impacts during which defenders, lawyers and academics discussed protecting our future through corporate accountability and environmental rights and the legal community, each watched by around 400 people.

We are extremely grateful for the support of everyone at Simmons & Simmons, especially Victoria Channing (head of pro bono, pictured right), Chris Owen (partner), Olga Hancock (former head of pro bono) and Richard Dyton (pro bono partner, pictured middle).

“Ever since then I think people have been very impressed by the organisation. But I think there is, underlying all of that, deep respect for human rights defenders and admiration for their courage. We have pride in the production of these fact sheets and keeping them updated.” - Richard Dyton

The toolbox was nominated for the 2019 Law Society Legal Excellence Award. We are also partnered with the Law Society and want to thank Marina Brilman, Lizzette Robleto de Howarth and Tony Fisher for all their work in support of PBI. In 2020 PBI, as part of the Collective Campaign for Peace (a network of peace and human rights organisations in Nepal – COCAP) jointly submitted a UPR report on Nepal to the UN Human Rights Council, with the Law Society of England and Wales. This action was the result of a meeting between Nepalese Human Rights Defender Saroj Nepal and the Law Society International Department, organised by PBI UK.

Without the support of organisations like the Alliance, The Law Society and Simmons & Simmons, we would not be able to continue to provide the support that human rights lawyers need to survive. Being a lawyer in the UK isn’t easy, and yet we are constantly amazed by the beneficence of the legal community in providing pro bono support to their counterparts in parts of the world where the rule of law is weak. On behalf of every human rights defender we work with, thank you.

“Accompaniment by PBI goes beyond the actual individual receiving the accompaniment, it also helps the victims that CCAJAR supports to feel more secure.”

Reynaldo Villalba