Human rights lawyers in Britain may face the scorn of the Daily Mail and David Cameron, but we don't get killed for our activities. Elsewhere in the world the decision to devote one's professional skills to the defence of human rights means taking real risks - putting life, liberty, family and livelihoods on the line.
The National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL) in the Philippines is committed to using legal strategies to stand up for the marginalised and oppressed - rural communities, workers, fishing communities, the urban poor, indigenous communities, political groups and human rights defenders. They are currently representing the families of two ‘disappeared’ students.
Part of that process has involved issuing a warrant for the arrest of retired major general Jovito Palparan, a fugitive who is avoiding prosecution and shielded by the authorities.
They represent the Morong 43, health workers who, while carrying out medical training, were accused of being members of the New People’s Army, arrested and detained in appalling conditions for 10 months without any trial. They are still fighting to clear their names.
An accusation that human rights defenders are really terrorists is just one of the weapons used by repressive states to silence their critics. But the NUPL finds itself defending its own members as well as its clients. Twenty-seven lawyers have been killed extra-judicially since January 2001.
Attorney Juvy Magsino of Mindoro, a vocal advocate against military abuses and mining projects, was riddled with bullets while driving her car. Attorney Tersita Vidamo was handling controversial land and labour disputes at the time she was shot.
Lawyer members of the NUPL were among the dead in the infamous Maguindanao massacre in November 2009 when 58 people including 34 journalists were killed by political opponents. NUPL secretary-general Edre Olalia says: ‘In the Philippines, the security forces pound on the lawyers, especially human rights lawyers.’
Human rights defenders from the Philippines, Dagestan, Belarus, Colombia, Palestine, Swaziland and Syria will be coming together at an event on 24 February, Defending Human Rights Defenders. Organised by the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers in association with Amnesty International and European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights and supported by solidarity campaigns, the conference will consider extra-judicial killings, censorship, imprisonment and criminalisation.
The delegates will have an opportunity to share experiences and publicise their struggles. Most importantly, we will discuss how we can provide practical solidarity to all of our comrades who regularly challenge human rights abuses, and have to face the state acting with impunity.
While it is true that in mainland Britain, lawyers, journalists and other activists can stand up for human rights without fear of significant consequences, in Northern Ireland that was not the case. We remember our comrades Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, who were murdered for the crime of representing their clients, as well as journalists and other activists who lost their lives in defence of human rights. This conference is dedicated to their memories, as well as those we have lost around the world.
For more on the conference, see the website of the Haldane Society. A version of this blog post was originally published in the Morning Star.