Thirty years after the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers (see below), lawyers continue to be at risk. For over a year the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) has been working with the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) on the development of a Toolkit for Lawyers at Risk. Its objective is to ‘strengthen the protection of lawyers and those exercising lawyers’ functions who face risks as a result of carrying out their professional functions’.

The Toolkit is divided into three training modules, and two practical tools (the Legal Digest and a directory of organisations supporting lawyers’ work). The modules were launched earlier this year. Module 1 (International legal protection of lawyers and those exercising lawyers’ functions) aims to empower lawyers and those exercising lawyers’ functions with knowledge about international human rights systems and law applicable to lawyers. Module 2 (Risk assessment and risk management in the exercise of lawyers’ functions) guides lawyers on how to develop a personalised risk assessment and risk management strategy in the exercise of their function. Finally, Module 3 (The response chain to violations against lawyers) prepares lawyers to trigger the relevant international response mechanisms when at risk.

The Legal Digest, launched in June, is a unique compilation of international standards whose practical interpretation are summarised with reference to recommendations, standards and the jurisprudence of UN and regional human rights mechanisms. It is aimed as a resource for the drafting of legal complaints relating to violations of a lawyer’s rights. It is also a useful toolkit to assess the level of protection afforded to lawyers in a particular country, as well as a capacity building tool for Bar associations and national institutions.

The drafting of the Toolkit was headed by Helene Santos on behalf of IBAHRI in partnership with the BHRC (a team composed of Executive Committee members Dr Theodora Christou and Kate Stone, and member John Cubbon), Human Rights House Foundation, Lawyers for Lawyers, and Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada. What makes this a unique publication is that we drew from our institutional experience developing mechanisms to protect and support lawyers at risk globally.

A snapshot of the toolkit in action

There are so many instances where the BHRC is called upon to step in to support and protect lawyers at risk. These are all catalogued on our website, and the following is only a small selection of cases which I have selected on no other basis than my personal involvement. It provides a snapshot of the different tools we use when assisting lawyers at risk around the world and which more often than not include references to the Basic Principles.

These tools are, of course, not always successful, but there are many occasions when they have made a measurable difference. For example, issuing a statement and sending a letter to relevant authorities (both local and foreign) had a significant impact on a failed assassination attempt, of the former Malawian Attorney-General Ralph Kasambara who had spoken out about issues of corruption. He was initially refused lifesaving medical care, until international intervention, including by the BHRC, led to him receiving hospital treatment. His and other cases highlight both the importance of the freedom of expression to lawyers’ work (Principle 23) and also the continuing need to remind states of their obligations as set out by the Basic Principles.

In other instances, the willingness of the BHRC to publicly meet and support lawyers at risk, has meant that they often feel more protected. We have heard this from lawyers in Cameroon, Nepal, Mexico and around the world. In Egypt and Turkey we have worked on cases where lawyers have been arrested, disappeared, prosecuted, arbitrarily held in pre-trial detention and subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment at the hands of the authorities. Additionally in Egypt, lawyers have had both their personal and professional assets frozen and are the subject of travel bans. In the case of Malek Adly, a lawyer in Egypt who was involved in a constitutional challenge against a decision of the Egyptian government, he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement for over 100 days in conditions which clearly violated Art 7 ICCPR. It is one of the cases where the BHRC made a written submission to the UN Special Rapporteur for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. He was released, but remains the subject of a travel ban. Among others it illustrates how lawyers are identified with their clients or their clients’ causes (Principle 18). BHRC members often travel to conduct trial observations in significant cases. The presence of international legal observers in the courtroom often has a positive impact on the standard of due process. In turn, BHRC’s detailed observation reports are useful advocacy tools to highlight issues and effect change.

The greatest impact often occurs when we join forces with other groups and NGOs. For example, we often work with Peace Brigades International, meeting and supporting lawyers and Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) who visit the UK. Our statements and interventions are often issued in collaboration with others including, the Bar Council, the Law Society, IBAHRI, and the freedom of speech group, Article 19. Importantly, to understand the context in which we work, we try as far as possible to liaise with local lawyers, HRDs, and organisations.

It is regrettable that 30 years after the adoption of the Basic Principles, lawyers are still being targeted for doing what many of us take for granted – carrying out their profession, representing clients, guaranteeing access to justice, protecting human rights, and speaking out when the rule of law is not being upheld. The work to protect lawyers at risk continues and each one of us can play a positive role. Membership of BHRC is open to everyone at the Bar. Here at the BHRC we will continue supporting lawyers at risk around the world.

The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers

In 1990, the United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers was endorsed by the General Assembly. They were part of a collection of instruments proposed by the UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders to establish a framework guiding states to implement international obligations relating to the right to a fair trial. The Basic Principles sought to highlight the key rights of lawyers which must be protected by states. Like many other non-binding principles, they do not introduce new human rights, instead they draw from existing Treaties and contextualise a state’s obligations in relation to lawyers. They safeguard ‘the right of access to legal assistance, the independence of the legal profession and the liberty and security of lawyers’ (Diego García-Sayán, UNHRC, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers,’ (2017) UN Doc A/HRC/35/31).
A year later, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) was set up. The original core aim of the BHRC was to support lawyers and others at risk around the world who worked to protect the rule of law where it was under attack by governments. This remains one of our core areas of work and the Basic Principles continue to be an important reference.
Lawyers play a key role in guaranteeing and providing access to justice, protecting human rights and ensuring respect for the rule of law. In order for them to fulfil their function as lawyers effectively (Principal 13), states must ensure that they are free to do so without fear intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference (Principle 16), states must ensure that lawyers’ independence is protected (Principle 24) and that they are adequately safeguarded by authorities (Principle 17).


Intervention including by the BHRC secured the release from prison of Egyptian lawyer Malek Adly (pictured right) and access to life-saving hospital treatment for Malawian Attorney-General Ralph Kasambara (pictured left) after an assassination attempt. The Toolkit is free to access.