Defending human rights defenders


Attacks on human rights lawyers threaten to undermine justice, writes Patrick Ambrose in the July 2018 Gazette.

The role of the lawyer

As the European Court of Human Rights has often recognised, lawyers have a central position in the administration of justice as intermediaries between the public and the courts. For members of the public to have confidence in the administration of justice, they must, therefore, have confidence in the ability of the legal profession to provide effective representation.

As defenders of human rights, though, lawyers can come under considerable pressure from the executive and legislative powers, and sometimes the judiciary and non-state actors. While in the majority of Council of Europe member states, human rights defenders are free to work in an environment conducive to their activities, there is deep concern about widespread harassment, threats, attacks, and reprisals against lawyers in member states such as Azerbaijan, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey.

Problems close to home

There have also been problems closer to home in recent years. In Greece, the apartment of a lawyer representing Syrian refugees was broken into by individuals later identified as police officers, while lawyers in France and Italy have received death threats in connection with their work on behalf of clients. Even in Britain, the prime minister had encouraged the Solicitors’ Regulatory Authority (SRA) to bring disciplinary proceedings against a particular firm of solicitors.

Patrick Ambrose is the Law Society’s representative to the Working Group for the EU Convention on the Profession of the Lawyer at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE). He argues that there is a compelling case for a European convention on the profession of lawyer. This could give binding force to the aspirations in Recommendation R(2000) 21 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the freedom of exercise of the profession of lawyer, coupled with a rapid, simple and effective mechanism for their enforcement. Writing in the Gazette, Ambrose sets out how and when lawyers have come under pressure, and efforts to protect human rights defenders so far.

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