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Canadian Pro Bono Lawyers Amplify the Calls for Justice Worldwide: 30th Anniversary of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers

For the past two decades, Canadian lawyers have been speaking up for lawyers and human rights defenders in danger in dozens of countries under the auspices of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC). In 2005, LRWC was granted United Nations (UN) consultative status. Since then LRWC has regularly advocated for lawyers and other defenders at the UN Human Rights Council (Council) and other UN bodies.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which recognize the importance of ensuring access to justice by protecting the rights of lawyers to provide independent legal representation without “persecution and improper restrictions….” In 1990 the UN General Assembly welcomed the Basic Principles by consensus, yet in many countries lawyers are increasingly at risk.

This report summarizes LRWC’s 2020 interventions at the UN with emphasis on the grim plight of human rights lawyers and defenders in the Philippines, Turkey, and China. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified rights violations around the world, creating greater urgency for LRWC and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to engage with the Council through video and online participation.

Philippines: LRWC joins calls for UN intervention to halt assassinations of lawyers

The election of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in July 2016 launched a so-called “war on drugs” and a campaign of extrajudicial killing. Up to 27,000 extrajudicial killings have resulted, including targeted assassinations of hundreds of defenders and journalists and dozens of jurists. President Duterte has incited the murders, repeatedly threatening to kill defenders. Since 2016, LRWC has been working with organizations in the Philippines, other parts of Asia, and Europe calling for UN intervention to halt the killings and to ensure investigations and accountability for the perpetrators.

LRWC contributed to worldwide advocacy that led to a resolution (Resolution 41/L.2) by the 47 member States of the Council in July 2019. The resolution mandated reports by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2020. The High Commissioner’s 4 June 2020 report, based on hundreds of written submissions, confirmed that “at least” 208 defenders, journalists, and union leaders, plus dozens of legal professionals have been killed, “many of whom were working on politically sensitive cases or advocating for land and environmental rights of farmers and indigenous peoples and housing rights of the urban poor.” The High Commissioner’s report called for an “on-the-ground independent, impartial investigation into human rights violations in the Philippines.” On 25 June 2020, 31 UN independent experts added their voices to the insistence on an international investigation.

LRWC added to the global outcry by submitting a written statement to the Council in June 2020 indicating that attacks on jurists had continued unabated at the rate of more than one every month since the adoption of Resolution 41/L.2. LRWC’s statement contains an appendix listing the names of 74 jurists and legal workers murdered or surviving murderous attacks between July 2016 and July 2020. The list “stands as stark and tragic evidence” that the Philippines has failed to take the measures required by Resolution 41/L.2 “to prevent and investigate the extrajudicial killings and attempted killings of jurists and hold perpetrators accountable.” In the fall of 2020, LRWC has continued its joint work with other organizations seeking a strong Council resolution for creation of “an independent, impartial, and effective investigation into extrajudicial executions … and other human rights violations committed since 2016.”

Turkey: Lawyers jailed en masse for representing clients in politically sensitive cases

Turkey has also been the subject of dozens of LRWC volunteers’ letters, reports, an amicus brief to the national court, and numerous interventions at the UN since 2006. The need for international advocacy was intensified by the extreme crackdown on dissent following the attempted coup in July 2016.

More than a thousand lawyers have been arrested and subjected to pre-trial detention. Hundreds have been convicted in unfair trials and sentenced to lengthy imprisonment under vague and overly broad “terrorism” laws. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled the legislation internationally unlawful.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put prisoners, including unlawfully jailed lawyers, at heightened risk of illness and death in overcrowded prisons.

LRWC intervened at the Council in July 2020 with an oral video statement underscoring the fact that the Turkish chair of Amnesty International has been subjected to illegitimate “terrorism” charges and sentenced to six years in prison. LRWC intervened again at the Council’s September session, pointing out that tens of thousands of political prisoners, including human rights lawyers and defenders were excluded from the April release of 90,000 prisoners aimed at reduction of COVID-19 risks.

Human rights lawyer Ebru Timtik was among those excluded from release. She was one of a group of 18 lawyers known for representing people who have criticized the Turkish government. These lawyers were arrested in 2017, falsely charged, and convicted under the illegitimate terrorism laws after grossly unfair trials. In March 2019 Ebru Timtik was sentenced to 13.5 years in prison. In October 2019 the appeal court upheld the lawyers’ convictions and sentences. In a final plea for fair trials for herself and her unfairly jailed colleagues Ebru Timtik began a hunger strike in February 2020. On 30 July the Istanbul Forensic Medicine Institution released a report that she should be released from prison because of her declining health. Ms. Timtik’s lawyer submitted the report to the court with a request for her release. The court declined, ruling that her detention would continue in hospital. Observers found that hospital detention conditions were worse than those in prison. On 27 August 2020, Ebru Timtik died in custody despite global advocacy, including a joint letter to Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council by 17 lawyers’ organizations, including LRWC. On 2 September 2020, thirteen UN Experts called for an investigation into her death, saying that it was “entirely preventable.” The Experts also called on Turkey to release other defenders.

LRWC joins international efforts to hold China accountable for grave violations

LRWC has regularly intervened at the UN since 2005 to identify China’s human rights violations. China’s laws, courts, and prisons are used to maintain absolute State control. Critics, whether actual or potential, their representatives, and people reporting on dissent are subjected to arbitrary arrest, illegitimate charges, and automatic convictions by executive-controlled courts. China has a 99.93 percent conviction rate.

Lawyers, journalists, and others suspected of furthering State criticism are frequently detained incommunicado in secret locations. Detainees are subjected to torture and other internationally unlawful treatment without access to remedies or counsel.

China also conducts widespread surveillance, enforced disappearance, and torture of dissidents and ethnic and religious minorities. The litany of allegations against China includes the forced detention of up to a million Uyghur people in Xinjiang. There is now compelling evidence of systematic forced organ harvesting; victims include prisoners from religious and ethnic minorities such as Falun Gong practitioners.

In June 2020 fifty UN independent experts called for “decisive collective measures” to address the repression of fundamental freedoms in China and of protest and democracy advocacy in Hong Kong. In the run up to the September/October session of the Council, LRWC joined with more than 300 other organizations to support the call of the UN experts for an international mechanism to monitor and report on China’s rights violations.

LRWC’s September 2020 UN statement objected to China’s unlawful imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong which criminalizes “peaceful dissent and human rights advocacy” and has resulted in the arbitrary detention of hundreds of dissidents.

Other countries

Other countries have also been the subject of LRWC interventions at the Council in 2020. In June 2020, systemic racism, extrajudicial killings, and excessive use of force by US authorities attracted international attention, including an urgent debate at the Council. Legal observers and journalists were among those subjected to unlawful use of force against peaceful protestors. LRWC joined hundreds of other NGOs in a joint oral statement led by the American Civil Liberties Union. The NGO campaign, together with the intervention of 54 African countries resulted in the Council’s adoption of a consensus resolution for an investigation of systemic racism and unlawful use of police violence against peaceful protesters.

In July 2020, LRWC made statements to the Council on Colombia, Myanmar, and Saudi Arabia. In September/October, LRWC submitted statements on Cambodia, Iran, Myanmar, and Yemen.

UN Human Rights Council urgent debate on systemic racism. June, 2020.

LRWC contributions to UN “Treaty Bodies”

LRWC has been involved in interventions with other UN bodies, including human rights treaty bodies. Each of the core UN human rights treaties has a Committee (“treaty body”) elected by the States Parties to the relevant treaty. In February 2020, LRWC provided input into a General Comment of the UN Human Rights Committee on freedom of peaceful assembly published in July 2020. In August 2020 LRWC weighed in during a UN General Assembly review of Treaty Body effectiveness, emphasising the need to preserve the independence of the treaty bodies by ensuring that only independent, impartial, and expert persons are nominated and elected to the treaty bodies.

Growing demand now outstrips LRWC’s resources

Thanks to the visionary work of LRWC’s founding Executive Director, Gail Davidson, from 2000 to May 2020, LRWC work is increasingly welcomed by UN bodies and other human rights advocates around the world. This means Canadian lawyers significantly amplify the international voices seeking justice and the rule of law worldwide.

In addition to its interventions at the UN, in 2020 LRWC volunteers have conducted legal research and prepared letters, amicus briefs, reports, and publications. LRWC’s research and education projects have led to several manuals on international human rights law to assist its volunteers and those of other organizations. LRWC’s latest publication is, Attacking Defenders: The Criminalization of Human Rights Advocacy, published in May this year.

LRWC is a volunteer-run organization that maintains independence from governments and corporations. LRWC is funded exclusively by membership fees and private charitable donations. LRWC volunteers are now unable to keep up with all requests for its intervention. To increase its capacity LRWC is now seeking to move towards paid staff.

LRWC welcomes Canadian lawyers as members. With a current membership of a couple of hundred lawyers, LRWC is marking the 30th anniversary of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers by seeking an infusion of new members and donors from across Canada to secure independent financial support for expansion of its work to meet the demand for Canadian contributions towards implementation of international human rights.

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