Coming back to the Bar in London in 2008, after 14 years in Hong Kong, I sometimes felt like Rip Van Winkle. When I went to a meeting of the Bar Human Rights Committee, which I founded, most people there had not heard of me. Since then several people have urged me to record how the Bar Human Rights Committee came about, so that the story is not lost to posterity.

In mid-1991 the then Chairman of the Bar, the late Anthony Scrivener QC, was invited to address a meeting at Amnesty International. Without any prior consultation, he announced that the Bar was setting up a human rights task force of senior barristers willing to travel anywhere in the world at short notice to intervene on human rights issues. His speech received much media publicity, and the Bar followed up with a circular inviting volunteers to serve on this task force.

At that time I had been at the Bar for just three years, having previously been a civil servant in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Overseas Development Administration (now renamed the Department for International Development). I had been desk officer for Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen, and was also very interested in human rights, so the task force sounded interesting. I wrote to Anthony Scrivener, whom I did not know, and said I would like to volunteer, although I was not a ‘senior member of the Bar’. His reply was immortal; ‘Dear Paul. Thank you so much for writing! Your name is top of the list.’

I heard nothing more for six months, so I phoned the Bar Council Secretariat. ‘Oh, this is very embarrassing. We are being inundated with letters to the chairman about human rights issues and we don’t know how to deal with them. You couldn’t possibly form a kind of little cell with a few like-minded friends, and help the chairman to answer the letters?’

I took the hint and got together three good friends, Bill Bowring, Sailesh Mehta and Adam Stapleton. The Bar Council told us that we would be a sub-unit under the Bar’s International Practice Committee. Our first meeting was attended by the chair of that committee, who told us firmly that we were to do nothing without consulting her. She left the room and Adam said ‘Right. Now what do we want to do? Let’s get on with it.’

Human rights is a huge field, and one small committee of one profession can only do so much. We decided only to deal with human rights outside England and Wales, as human rights at home were either the concern of the whole Bar, or a political issue for political parties. Our role would be to help judges and lawyers overseas who were being harassed or persecuted for doing an honest job upholding justice. In England judges are assumed to uphold the law, and people here do not realise that in many places judges and lawyers who act with integrity are a minority, and often persecuted for doing so. Even limiting our work to these situations, we had to be very selective, even after we were joined by more volunteer members, notably Philip Baker, our treasurer, and Kathryn English.

Being under the Bar’s International Practice Committee did not really work. That committee is about developing the Bar’s overseas practice, including events such as garden parties and receptions. It was not sensible to share a budget, and have to decide whether it should be spent on a garden party or a human rights mission. When I saw Anthony Scrivener’s successor, Gareth Williams in January 1993 and explained this to him, he proposed to the Bar Council that the Human Rights Committee should become a semi-autonomous institution, funded by the Bar, but regulated by its own management committee, and this proposal was accepted. I became the first chairman.

I had to be very careful with this new institution to take up causes which most members of the Bar would be inclined to support, and try to avoid causes bound to divide the Bar’s membership. For that reason I tried to avoid getting involved with either Palestinian/Israeli issues or Northern Ireland issues, though ultimately I had to give ground on this and sanction missions to the West Bank and to Northern Ireland, the former a modest success, the latter not, for reasons outside the Committee’s control.

It should go without saying that a committee concerned with upholding the rule of law cannot give support to violent armed organisations, but this did not stop such organisations from trying to manipulate us. First to try was the Sendero Luminoso, the Peruvian Shining Path guerrilla movement. I received a letter from an unknown organisation in Peru, asking the Bar Human Rights Committee to send an observer urgently to a trial of a person whose rights were being violated. I was suspicious of the letter so I took it to Peter Archard, then Amnesty International’s Peru researcher, who identified it at once as from a Sendero Luminoso front organisation. The walls of his office were covered with death threats sent to him personally by Sendero Luminoso. I wrote a short polite letter back saying we could not assist, and by return of post received a ferocious diatribe threatening that important people in London would be protesting about how I was running the committee.

A few days later I was phoned by Michael Mansfield QC, saying he had had a complaint about me from people involved with human rights in Peru and could I explain what was going on. I told Mike what had happened, he accepted my explanation, and that was the last I heard of Sendero. However, during my two-year term as chairman, both the Kurdistan People’s Party and the Tamil Tigers tried exactly the same trick, with the same furious response when I did not cooperate.

Our first overseas mission was to Malawi, formerly the British colony of Nyasaland, where we thought the Anglophile dictator, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, might be sufficiently impressed by a delegation from the English Bar to release two Lincoln’s Inn barristers, Orton and Vera Chirwa, sentenced to life imprisonment on trumped up charges of treason and in prison for many years. That mission deserves an article on its own. Suffice it to say, we met Banda and got to see the Chirwas in prison. Orton, who was in visibly poor health, died a few weeks later, but Vera was released a week after our report came out. We helped Vera, who had endured eight years in solitary confinement, to come to London and talk about her experiences. Introducing her to some of the ‘fat cats’ of the commercial Bar was very salutary for all concerned.

The mission led to a long connection with Malawi, with Adam and Kathryn leaving the Bar to work for NGOs there. Sailesh, whose implacable insistence got us in to meet Banda on our first mission, also managed to see other political prisoners and brought them food parcels. On his next meeting, after the dictatorship had fallen, Sailesh managed to walk into the private deliberations of the new constitutional convention, on which many former political prisoners were sitting. There was a startled silence as he appeared in their midst in this private gathering, broken by a loud shout of ‘Thanks for the cheese, man!’

The Malawi missions established the Committee, and it has never looked back. Before my term ended we had also conducted missions in Colombia, Turkey, Kenya and Hong Kong. The Hong Kong mission led to me moving there to set up the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, to try to keep the rule of law alive in Hong Kong after the 1997 handover to China. But that is another story. 

Paul Harris SC was the founding chairperson of the Bar Human Rights Committee. He is a barrister in London and in Hong Kong, where he is one of the territory’s leading public law silks. Before coming to the Bar he worked for what is now the Department for International Development.