May 26, 2021 International Senior Lawyers Committee

Global Threats to the Legal Profession

Program Notes | Robert L. Brown

Watch the video replay of Global Threats to the Legal Profession.

The May meeting of the SLD International Senior Lawyers Committee, chaired by Bob Lutz and Aaron Schildhaus, discussed global threats to the legal profession.

The independence of the legal profession is under threat in many countries today. Lawyers, judges, legal educators, and human rights defenders are attacked, threatened with personal physical and family harm, intimidated, arbitrarily detained, and prosecuted, tortured, and killed. The global legal profession may have a role and, arguably, a responsibility to defend the rights of those legal professionals who suffer such abuse. In a very direct way, the rule of law depends on the ability of lawyers to practice their profession independent of such forces.

The meeting focused on how serious this problem is, and what are the most effective ways for lawyers and the organized legal profession, globally, to combat it.

Speakers

The program featured presentations/discussions with the following leading advocates of the global profession:

  • Michael Pates, Director of the ABA Center for Human Rights (CHR), 
  • Jasmine Cameron,  Senior Staff Attorney, ABA Center for Human Rights (Eurasia),
  • Mooya Nyaundi, Senior Staff Attorney, ABA Center for Human Rights (Africa), 
  • Sophie de Graaf, Executive Director, Lawyers for Lawyers
  • Jacqueline Scott, Co-chair of the Lawyers at Risk Committee, Union Internationale des Avocats (UIA).

Center for Human Rights (CHR)

Mike served as moderator for the program. He explained CHR is first a policy shop on issues it covers. Its larger mission is to catalyze ABA’s human rights potential and to institutionalize human rights as a core element for the ABA. He cited several of its initiatives, including the Justice Defenders Program, which supports human rights defenders globally and works collaboratively with the ABA International Law Section, the Rule of Law Initiative, and others.

First question for Mike was what does “lawyers at risk” mean. To him, it includes arbitrary disciplinary proceedings, frivolous charges, and legislative attacks on the bar itself. As to how to defend against these, public advocacy provides support for those attacked, raises support from the government, adds support from the media, and provides correct information.

He turned it over to Jasmine and Mooya to provide examples of lawyers at risk. Both are senior staff attorneys in the Justice Defenders Program. Jasmine noted that, in the last several years, negative trends have increased in Eurasia. The form depends on the country and the manner of the violation. It determines who conducts violations against lawyers – state action (disbarment, threats) and non-state.

What can we do about it? Jasmine says there is a lot that can be done. CHR works with bar associations through advocacy. In Belarus, for example, an assessment mission report was issued and as a result the government pulled back on some of its actions. All in all, it is a long process.

Mooya addressed actions in Africa, where bar associations are more willing to protect members. She felt democracy declined in the world since COVID-19 as governments strengthened autocratic rule. There has been an increase in threats to lawyers who represent unpopular clients or when speaking out for themselves. Forms of threats depend on the country and situation. A Tanzanian minority leader, for instance, was shot at 16 times. The ABA plus five other bar associations conducted fact finding. Another leader in Tanzania and two other lawyers faced charges. Lawyers who were arrested and disappeared are now facing money laundering charges.

When there is public advocacy, Mooya believes it has impact on governments which frequently ease their repression. In Zambia, the government lifted sanctions on lawyers. UN Special Rapporteur on judges and lawyers is often too busy to address all issues and often focuses on limited areas. The Current Rapporteur, for instance, focuses on Latin America and Europe, with less focus on Africa. The ABA has the same issue. Its members more focused on the status of lawyers in China. She is hoping for a Special Rapporteur for Africa under Africa Council.

While threats to lawyers are increasing, unfortunately, there is a lack of data. There is no systematic or coordinated data. Journalists, for instance, track and generate more public interest through their tracking reports on abuse of reporters. While human rights lawyers are vocal, other lawyers sit back and do not object. This ultimately affects commercial law and lawyers, since often human rights are usually only the first step. Mooya believes we need to engage commercial lawyers.

Mike added that the ABA may not necessarily expect governments to stop abuse as a result of ABA objections. Rather, the ABA is focused on mitigating abuse and harassment so lawyers can continue to fight another day.

Lawyers for Lawyers

Sophie then discussed Lawyers for Lawyers. Based in the Netherlands, it is an independent, non-political lawyers’ organization merely funded by lawyers, law firms, and other legal organizations. Its goal is to protect the legal profession and is committed to the belief that lawyers must be able to operate without manipulation in order to advance the rule of law. She stated there is pressure on lawyers in many countries – all over the world. Her organization is even receiving requests from lawyers in Europe.

Lawyers for Lawyers provides support to lawyers and becomes their advocates by consulting with lawyers and other stakeholders. The Justice Defenders program of CHR is an ally. She emphasized that governments must be reminded that others are watching.

Its three areas of emphasis are defense, empower, and influence. In terms of defense, it issues reports and monitors trials. It also campaigns to free lawyers from long prison sentences. In addition to advocacy, it provides a human touch for those imprisoned by, for instance, encouraging members to send them cards and messages. (Its Free the Lawyers campaign on how to send greeting cards can be found at https://lawyersforlawyers.org/campaign/). Empower refers to best practices for professions, including training. For instance, last year it provided legal training in Uganda. This includes online training. Influence engages with the UN and other bodies to gather their support for lawyers. The issues it addressed are not covered by most organizations. Recently, it worked on issues in Belarus, Tanzania, etc.

Lawyers at Risk Committee, Union Internationale des Avocats (UIA)

According to Jacqueline, UIA was established in 1927, and now has member associations in 110 countries. It promotes the rule of law and independence of the legal and judicial profession. It also focuses on access to justice and independence in rule of law activities. It supports lawyers across the globe, including their arrest, torture, and murder. It primarily works through bar associations, which it finds is most effective. Its goal is to help attorneys at risk, not jeopardize their status. In this regard, it writes to governments about abuses, issues statements, observes trials, and organizes missions. It warns governments that the world is watching their actions. Working with other bar associations, it recently organized a “faces in courage” exhibit featuring photos of 12 lawyers at risk. It also recently co-hosted a 24-hour webathon on rule of law. (Rule of Law Webathon YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmsQriH1wcIYhwON5ncdUuQ).

It believes that bar associations have important roles as there is power in numbers. Endangered lawyers need a unified and louder voice. Lawyers under attack are in many countries, with the number of requests for help constantly increasing. Recently, Philippine lawyers were shot. In China, those who are critical of the government are in grave danger. Attorneys in Cameroon who represent LGBT clients are under attack. Those representing local farmers objecting to government action are also at risk.

In Turkey, attorneys have been in grave danger for many years. One of the gravest dangers is the lack of fair trials. Over the past 10-15 years, most trials have been shams since the alleged coup in 2007. Defendants are not allowed to submit evidence, and opposing witnesses appear on screen with their covered faces. Recently, 18 lawyers were found guilty of membership in a terrorist organization because of their joint efforts defending accused criminals.

“We must all get engaged,” she emphasized, “not just human rights lawyers.” She closed by quoting a Saudi lawyer sentenced to 15 years in prison who pleaded, “Please do not forget me.”

Questions

Aaron noted the German bar association has a powerful display of lawyers without rights (https://lawyerswithoutrights.com/) and noted ultimately these abuses affect rule of law in the nation and region.

Bob asked if the ABA could do more? Mike replied any organization can do more theoretically and practically. The ABA has diverse operations in terms of timing and frequency, and it is addressing those now. Other speakers agreed that small organizations can do so much more by collaboration.

Bob, Aaron, and Mike discussed ways to collaborate among all these organizations since ABA rules have limitations on collaboration.

On a question from Michael Van Zandt, chair of SLD, Mike Pates indicated the US Department of State and Department of Justice have supported the work of CHR.

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The primary initiative of the International Senior Lawyers Committee is to educate members about international legal developments and to develop projects, programming, policy, and publications related to such developments.