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Image: “States should respect and protect lawyers who promote and defend human rights defenders”

“States should respect and protect lawyers who promote and defend human rights defenders”

The report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Judges and Lawyers will be presented to the UN General Assembly today, 21 October 2016. The report gives clear recommendations on the actions States and bar associations should take to ensure the independence of lawyers.

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Special Rapporteur recalls that “a significant number of attacks against lawyers and restrictions to the free and independent exercise of the profession” have been brought to the attention of successive Special Rapporteurs. She calls on States to “acknowledge, respect and protect the status of lawyers who promote and defend human rights defenders,” and to “adopt domestic legislation that recognises the vital and important role played by lawyers in upholding the rule of law and promoting human rights.” 

Read the report of the Special Rapporteur in English or in Russian.

Florian Irminger, Head of Advocacy at Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF), commented: “Lawyers are instrumental in the protection of human rights and human rights defenders, but they face increasing threats to themselves and to their work. This report by the Special Rapporteur highlights these threats and elaborates on the need to support these lawyers. It outlines strong guarantees and immunities for lawyers working on human rights and gives clear recommendations on to implement them. States and bar associations must implement these recommendations, and the international community must ensure that they do so.” 

HRHF organised consultations for civil society to give input to the Special Rapporteur on 11 and 12 June in Belgrade. The Special Rapporteur references these consultations in her report and addresses many of the issues raised. 

The consultations were attended by more than 50 prominent lawyers, legal professionals, and human rights defenders from the Human Rights Houses, HRHF’s International Law in Advocacy (ILIA) programme, and lawyers working with HRHF partners such as the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) and the Council of Europe. These lawyers from Europe, Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Balkans gave input in written form as part of a questionnaire, and formed working groups to identify threats to the independence of lawyers and to give clear recommendations to the Rapporteur on how to overcome them. 

Read the recommendations from these consultations in English and in Russian

In September 2015, HRHF highlighted the growing intimidation and persecution of human rights lawyers and made the case for strengthening the protection they receive in its report Human Rights Lawyers at Risk.

Measures and standards to protect the independence of lawyers

The Special Rapporteur’s report elaborates on international standards and additional protections for the independence of lawyers. The standards that are particularly relevant for lawyers working on human rights include: guarantees against disbarment as a sanction; protection as human rights defenders; representation at international bodies and freedom from travel bans; freedom of expression and association; non-discrimination and admission to the legal profession; and human rights education.

Guarantees against disbarment as a sanction

In the report, the Special Rapporteur writes that “state authorities too often use their control over the licensing of lawyers to prevent certain persons from entering the legal profession, or to exclude lawyers they deem to be problematic,” and that “these lawyers are often those who take human rights cases or other sensitive cases such as police abuse, corruption, or terrorism-related cases.”

The Special Rapporteur asserts that such “licensing systems managed by State institutions are against international standards on the independence of the legal profession,” and that “situations where the State, in particular the executive branch, controls all or part of a bar association, or its governing body… are clearly incompatible with the principle of the independence of the legal profession.”

The report recommends that bar associations should “foster democratic standards and enforce them internally,” that “the requirements of democracy should be observed within bar associations and should be applied in their external activities,” and that “bar associations should establish independent and impartial bodies in charge of disciplinary proceedings.”

During the consultations in Belgrade, the Special Rapporteur asserted that Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia is “one of the regions in the world that has the highest fear of disbarment of lawyers.” This is particularly the case in Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia.

Protection as human rights defenders

The Special Rapporteur states that “when lawyers provide professional services aimed at promoting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of their clients, they qualify as human rights defenders,” and that States should “acknowledge, respect and protect the status of lawyers who promote and defend human rights defenders.”  

Representation at international bodies and freedom from travel bans

The Special Rapporteur writes: “In some countries, travel bans – sometimes followed by detentions – make it practically impossible for lawyers to carry out their work.”

The Special Rapporteur asserts that “since States are bound by their international human rights obligations, the right of lawyers to communicate with their clients also includes instances where they may represent clients before international and regional human rights courts and bodies. Even if they are not members of their national bar association, lawyers engaging in such representation should be awarded the same guarantees and protection due to lawyers litigating in local tribunals.”

Freedom of expression and association

The Special Rapporteur writes that “all State institutions, including the judiciary, should respect and protect the right of lawyers to freedom of opinion and expression… should not identify lawyers with their clients or their clients’ causes… [and take] measures aimed at preventing the occurrence of such identification.”

She further calls on “international associations of lawyers, together with international non-governmental organizations” to “build networks to act in coordination and solidarity to defend and protect lawyers from attacks.”

Non-discrimination and admission to the legal profession

The Special Rapporteur writes that “only a legal profession that is representative of the composition of society will be in a position to ensure legal services that answer the needs of all sectors of society.” She calls on States and bar associations to “ensure that anyone can enter the legal profession without discrimination,” and for admission procedures to be “clear, transparent, and objective.”

Human rights education 

The Special Rapporteur made clear her support for human rights education during the consultations in Belgrade, and her report reflects this: “States and bar associations should ensure that the quality of the legal education and training of lawyers is appropriate, and that lawyers have access to opportunities for continuing legal education, including in international and regional human rights law.”

She continues: “Quality legal education and training for lawyers are essential so that they may be properly equipped to represent their clients independently, adequately, effectively and in full compliance with their ethical duties.”

Related content

  • Report of the Special Rapporteur in English or in Russian.
  • On 16 June 2016, HRHF welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s efforts to gather first-hand information from civil society, highlighted the risks human rights lawyers face in the course of their work, and called on the UN Human Rights Council to address threats to the independence of judges and lawyers.
  • HRHF coordinates the International Law in Advocacy (ILIA) programme, which provides education in international human rights law, strategies on how to implement human rights standards at national level, and entry into an active, international alumni of human rights lawyers.

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