This week marks the beginning of the UK’s 19th Pro Bono Week, which is organised annually by the National Pro Bono Centre, in coordination with a number of charities, NGOs, firms and chambers. Pro Bono Week is an opportunity to recognise and support the voluntary contributions that lawyers in the UK have made throughout the year, providing free legal assistance to those that need it most. PBI UK would like to take this opportunity to champion some of our most dedicated pro bono partners: Simmons & Simmons, and The Alliance for Lawyers at Risk.

 

Simmons & Simmons

PBI UK Director Susi Bascon with Simmons & Simmons lawyers Richard Dyton and Victoria Channing (left to right)

Since 2018, PBI UK have been working closely with law firm Simmons & Simmons our most ambitious pro bono project to date: The Human Rights Defenders Toolbox - the first centralised online resource for rural communities and lawyers. The Toolbox consists of 16 legal fact sheets and video materials designed to inform and assist human rights defenders in their struggles to uphold the rule of law in the face of corporate aggression. The legal areas they cover range from environmental hazards to defamation and free, prior and informed consent for communities. The focus of these fact sheets is the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They have been designed in an accessible format to help human rights defenders to easily understand the obligations on businesses under these principles, and how they can be used to effectively lobby their government and denounce corporate abuse.

Since launching the toolbox in 2018, PBI has consulted with Colombian lawyers and defenders to gather feedback on how it can be expanded and improved. Meanwhile, Simmons & Simmons have been providing continued legal expertise, funding and support for our work in support of human rights defenders. The firm is currently in the process of updating the toolbox so that our defenders have access to the most up-to-date law. In a recent webinar on the toolbox, PBI and Simmons & Simmons were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to listen to two of PBI’s human rights defenders, Donald Hernandez and Alirio Uribe, and hear how they had been using the toolbox to assist their work.

“[The] most useful thing in the toolbox has been that the documents are practical, easy to understand, and very effective.”

– Donald Hernandez (pictured with PBI UK director Susi Bascon)

Donald is a Honduran lawyer and human rights defender, who specialises in environmental issues, particularly mining and hydroelectric projects. He is a member of the Honduran Centre for Community Promotion and Development (CEHPRODEC), coordinating both legal and Human Rights and Environment departments, and plays a prominent role in the National Coalition of Environmental Networks and Organisations (CONROA). Donald explained to PBI UK and Simmons & Simmons how he had been using the toolbox to educate himself and other Honduran human rights defenders. He explained that human rights defenders across Honduras had formed a collective of around 30 organisations who had been familiarising themselves with the toolbox. This allowed them to monitor the application of the UN Guiding Principles by the Honduran State and to question the human rights policies that companies were beginning to produce. The toolbox put Donald and his colleagues in a position where they were able to identify shortcomings by these companies and the State, and demand action. Donald remarked that the greatest advantage of the toolbox for him was its accessible design, “[The] most useful thing in the toolbox has been that the documents are practical, easy to understand, and very effective.”

These instruments can… document behavioural patterns of businesses that help contribute to the truth about the participation of companies in the armed conflict, the dispossession of land in violation of environmental and community rights, and the deprivation of many communities livelihoods as a result of the intervention of companies.”

- Alirio Uribe (pictured, second from left)

Alirio Uribe is a member of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, which represents emblematic cases of human rights violations in Colombia, both within the Colombian justice system and before the Inter-American System of Human Rights. Alirio explained how he had been using the toolbox to ensure that communities affected by corporate human rights violations were able to document the abuses, “These instruments can … document behavioural patterns of businesses that help contribute to the truth about the participation of companies in the armed conflict, the dispossession of land in violation of environmental and community rights, and the depravation of many communities livelihoods as a result of the intervention of companies.” This has enabled Alirio and his colleagues to present reports on corporate human rights violations in Colombia, as they had recently done so before the Comisión de la Verdad. Importantly, Alirio highlighted how the toolbox helped them to read patterns and look for litigation strategies to expose companies and demand their civil and criminal liability.

In recognition of the monumental effort, commitment and dedication that Simmons & Simmons have given to this project and in particular Victoria Channing, Chris Owen and Richard Dyton and its team of pro bono lawyers, the toolbox was shortlisted for the Law Society Excellence in Pro Bono Award in 2019.

 

The Alliance

The Alliance for Lawyers at Risk (ALR) has been providing pro bono assistance to PBI’s human rights defenders since it was founded in 2010. It comprises around 100 individuals and legal institutions. For over a decade, it has supported human rights lawyers and defenders around the world who are persecuted because of their work. ALR offers these defenders support in three key ways: helping to train local human rights lawyers and human rights defenders; intervening in cases by preparing submissions to governments and amicus briefs; and voicing concern when human rights lawyers and human rights defenders are in danger.

This year alone, ALR has embarked on a number of projects with PBI. In January, the ALR provided pro bono expert legal support to human rights lawyers in Indonesia, who had been working on high-profile cases involving criminalised human rights defenders. In February, the ALR sent a delegation to Kenya to discuss the needs of grassroots human rights defenders and their struggle with police brutality and impunity. During that month a conference, ‘Every Voice Matters – collaborative approaches to safety in Nairobi’s urban settlements’, was held in Mathare and attended (in an informal capacity) by Dr Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Dr Callamard stressed the need for international awareness of the issue.

Also in February, the ALR endorsed a joint public letter spearheaded by Lawyers without Borders Canada, which raised concerns about judicial cases involving the Uribe family in Colombia. The ALR continues to support a joint civil society platform which facilitates observation of the ongoing trials. The case concerning Álvaro Uribe gained particular media attention after PBI supported lawyer Reynaldo Villalba (pictured) secured a court order for Uribe’s house arrest - the first ever instance of a former Colombian president being detained.

In addition to ALR’s fantastic work providing assistance and support to PBI’s human rights defenders, the organisation, in collaboration with PBI UK, hosted a series of 6 webinars entitled Portraits of Resilience, Hope and Solidarity, which spanned a range of human rights issues. The topics varied from the exacerbation of human rights issues during the pandemic in Latin America and Kenya, to environmental rights and corporate accountability. The webinars provided a platform for PBI’s human rights defenders to be heard and for the international community to learn about ways they could support human rights defenders, and were collectively viewed more than 3,200 times. Each provided an inspiring and impassioned account of their struggle against human rights abuses and the real threats they faced as a result. The sessions were guided by a roster of esteemed figures from the legal, diplomatic, and humanitarian community, including Susi Bascon, John Dew, Sir Patrick Elias QC, Richard Dyton, Professor Christine Chinkin, and Richard Hermer.

“The Alliance is the voice that speaks for lawyers and human rights defenders who are at risk.”

The achievements of the ALR are particularly impressive in light of the limited financial resources at their disposal. As Sir Patrick Elias, President of the Alliance, has remarked, “Operating with a very small budget, relying almost entirely on the contribution of time and effort from our members, volunteers and support from other groups such as Peace Brigades International, the Alliance is the voice that speaks for lawyers and human rights defenders who are at risk.”

PBI UK is immensely grateful for the continued work of Simmons & Simmons, and The Alliance for Lawyers at Risk. Their support is vital in ensuring that our human rights defenders and lawyers have access to the support they so desperately need and deserve to be able to uphold the rule of law without paying for their lives in their countries.

If you, or your organisation, is interested in offering pro bono assistance in collaboration with PBI UK, please do not hesitate to get in touch.