Bar Human Rights Committee

Kirsty Brimelow QC, Chairwoman of the Bar Human Rights Committee, explains its work

The Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) was set up by a small group of English barristers in 1991. Its original remit was to provide support and remedies for judges and lawyers, in other countries, who were being persecuted or prevented from performing their professional duties.


Since then, the BHRC has expanded both the scope of its work and its membership base. Today, the Committee has a substantial, wide-ranging membership, which includes an executive of thirteen and over 100 associates. Members comprise both employed and self-employed barristers who work alongside leading academics and committed students. All donate their time to assist in countries where the rule of law is under attack and where people suffer.

The BHRC is active and engaged on many issues across several continents. In recent years, its human rights projects and missions (co-ordinated by Illari AragÓn, a Peruvian lawyer) have answered requests for assistance from countries which include: Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Chechnya, Turkey, Iran, Armenia, Belarus, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Colombia, Jamaica, South Africa, Nigeria, China, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, The Maldives, Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Nepal, Rwanda, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, USA and Sudan.

Universal rights
“Human rights” is increasingly used in a derogatory manner in the UK; just as many countries and citizens around the world are coming to recognize its central importance to modern freedoms. This distorted use of language is particularly sickening as its true meaning lies in every last gasp against oppression and disempowerment. Whereas the UK can absorb opinion that makes light of or denigrates “human rights”, many jurisdictions do not have this luxury due to a lack of independent or skilled judiciary and few lawyers with capacity or freedom to represent their clients without fear or favour.

International support often is sought simply to realize the fundamentals of being a free human. Our work stretches from the displaced of Ciudad Bolívar in Bogotá to the strife for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe, to the “witch children” of Nigeria. The core protest is for the realization of international Convention rights, for citizens to be treated decently by their State. BHRC strengthens the voice of the vulnerable by placing it within the legal framework of international legal norms. “Human rights” should not be beaten into darkness but illuminated with its spotlight seeking out those who must be held accountable. Human rights are universal rights, an internationally agreed concept and an international responsibility. This responsibility should not be a heavy one nor a burden, but rather a part of a safeguard for future generations.

The work of the BHRC
The BHRC’s work is wide reaching and ranges from long-term projects supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UN to instant responses to arbitrary detentions and disappearances. We carry out training with local partners in international human rights law, case management and evidence gathering. In Colombia, for example, this training in 2009 was the first of its kind. I was inspired to lead it after being part of a fact finding mission which was organized by Movimento de Nacional de Victímas de Crímenes de Estado (MOVICE) and facilitated by Peace Brigades International. We conducted it jointly with AsociaciÓn Colombiana de Abogados Defensores (ACADEUM) and with Autonoma University in Bogotá. We compiled the first human rights trainings in Nigeria working in partnership with UNICEF Nigeria, with 4 training programmes of UNICEF’s child protection networks to date throughout Nigeria, training those who will become future trainers, preceded by 2 fact finding missions. This programme continues and in 2013 we will train the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission. Our team has produced three essential manuals on domestic, regional and international child rights, and a DVD demonstrating best and bad practice in interviewing child complainants of sexual offences. Our team devised the concept, wrote the script and the DVD is now being widely used in Nigeria as a model of how best to acquire evidence from a child. The subject matter of our next DVD draws from cases of abuse of children as “witches”.

Observing and intervening
BHRC is experienced in trial observations. The observer does not just attend the trial but, where possible, has meetings with all relevant parties in order to contextualize the trial. The hearing assessment focuses upon whether there is due process in compliance with international and constitutional law and conclusions are published in a report. The presence of the barrister serves to pull trials out of the shadows. On 24th March 2009 BHRC, together with representatives from other human rights organisations, attended the trial of defendants of the Haq Movement of Civil Liberties and Democracy in Bahrain. On 11th April 2009 all 35 defendants were part of 178 detainees “sentenced and accused of security issues” who received a Royal Pardon. The international presence undoubtedly illuminated allegations of human rights violations. The latest published report is upon the trial of 47 Turkish lawyers charged with terrorist offences arising out of their work as legal representatives of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of PKK.

We intervene in litigation through Amicus Curiae briefs drafted by BHRC members. In 2011 one such Amicus was submitted to Colombia’s Constitutional Court in relation to Muriel Mining Corporation’s (MMC) failure properly to consult the Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in Jiguamiandó, Chocó. In 2012, the Court upheld MMC’s suspension from mining and emphasised the requirement for free, informed and prior consent being obtained in accordance with customs and traditions. We advise upon litigation relating to human rights violations and to the death penalty. Currently, we are working closely alongside lawyers in Colombia, Nigeria, Uganda, Nepal, Jamaica, Malawi and Tanzania.

BHRC selects and places interns on death penalty and child rights projects. The recent internship in Nigeria, with Calabar’s Basic Rights Council, resulted in the first applications to the new Family Court and to the Registry in the High Court. This marked a real advance in a country that is frequently paralysed by violence and corruption.

We pursue and hold meetings with government officials –from Presidents to local ombudsmen – to address human rights violations within the context of responsibilities of the State to its people. Recently, meetings with the Colombian Ambassador to the UK resulted in the Corporación Colectivo de Abogados “José Alvear Restrepo” (CCJAR) being able to sit around a table in Bogotá with President Santos to discuss their distrust of the protection measures offered to them by the State. Their anxiety was well founded as the previous head of the organization responsible for their safety, Jorge Noguera of Colombia’s Administrative Security Department (DAS), had been convicted of offences that included conspiracy to murder by allowing DAS to be infiltrated by the paramilitaries of the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia.

We meet with visiting human rights defenders from all over the world, providing a responsive point of contact and partnering other human rights organizations to form a joint approach. BHRC is a member of the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk, the Attorney General’s Bar Pro Bono Committee and the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, and is part of the Justice working group of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network.

We are active in engaging the press and governments through statements of concern. We issued two statements in relation to the impeachment of the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka who was found guilty of misconduct by a Parliamentary Committee. The Supreme Court ruled the Committee unconstitutional and the Court of Appeal quashed its findings. However, in defiance of the Courts, on 11th January 2013 Parliament voted to remove the Chief Justice. On 13th January 2013, she was dismissed with immediate effect. We published a joint statement with the Bar Council addressing pronouncements of the Saket Bar Association and Delhi Bar Association that they would not represent the men charged with the horrific rape and murder of a young woman and a statement concerning the arrest of 15 lawyers in Turkey. Of significance is a statement BHRC issued in relation to lack of due process in the trial of Delwar Hossein Sayedee before the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal. Whilst the impact of statements of concern is inevitably variable, last year communications over the unlawful detention of human rights lawyer Ralph Kasambara culminated in his release. In a reversal of fortune he is now Attorney General and Minister of Justice of Malawi.

The reputation of the Bar of England and Wales does ensure that BHRC statements and communications are not lightly dismissed. In this regard, the Bar Council international work must be credited in its contribution to promoting the transparency, skill and dedication of its members. In turn, the Bar Council can only operate in this way due to the high standard of its barristers.

An ethos without limitation
This has been a brief overview of our recent work. My memories do teem with horrific first hand accounts from families of the dead and disappeared and from survivors of torture. I look at my UN House Abuja pass and remember those killed by the suicide bomber on 26th August 2011. I think of the filthy prisons with bodies piled on top of each other – lives existing behind bars. I cannot forget the children pressed against a UN vehicle trying to reach for a way through the grinding poverty. But above all, I remember the strength of a police officer, in the face of hostile NGO workers, reclaiming her own humanity by speaking of her own struggle; I remember the people welcoming us to an impromptu party in the cruellest slum in Bogotá; and I remember the calm dignity of an NGO leader for indigenous rights as she narrated though the violence to raise up a deep love of her people and also her country. And I remember the words of John Donne:

“No man is an island, Entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend’s were. Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

Finite human and financial resources draw BHRC’s boundaries but its human rights ethos is without limitation. We appeal for your support.

To become involved or donate, contact the project co-ordinator Illari AragÓn at coordination@barhumanrights.org.uk.

Kirsty Brimelow QC is the newly elected Chairwoman of the Bar Human Rights Committee

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