Shifting the narrative: why human rights matter

All members of the Bar can be part of a positive shift and feed the energy of those, across the world, who work to restore dignity, equality and freedom


It’s easy to be disheartened and to become disengaged by the global dialogue on human rights at a geo-political level. As the space for civil society shrinks in a problematic global narrative, the unique pro bono work that the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) does is valued through the ever-growing demands for our barristers to monitor trials, conduct training and provide legal statements and observations in support of those many groups of people across the world that would otherwise feel alone.

We have a long history of conducting important trial monitoring, producing reports that are cited internationally and with effect, for example in the Zaman journalists’ trials in Turkey last year, or Aya Hegazy, in Egypt. This year already, we have conducted trial observations in Turkey in the Open Society Foundations trial of Osman Kavala, and the trials of Selahattin Demirta, a former member of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (Parliament) and Presidential candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, as well as Turkish lawyer Veysel Ok. We have sent experienced observers to Zimbabwe and Colombia, and continuing observations are planned later this year, including in Egypt. We also have been granted observer status at Guantanamo Bay to observe the military trials, which will finally begin in 2020. Some of these observations are done in partnership, for example with Article 19 with whom we work in Turkey, and in 2019, we have been building new partnerships with international legal organisations to ensure joined-up cover where required in international trials where the presence of observers will shine a spotlight across South and Central Asia. We anticipate the need for our experienced observers will continue to grow.

We continue to nurture and grow our links with international Bar associations and lawyers with whom we work to protect and strengthen the rule of law, human rights protection and capacity building. Training projects are in the pipeline for work in Pakistan, Kazakhstan and India this Autumn, with further projects planned across South and Central Asia as well as Nigeria next year. Our work tackles a range of topics including advocacy for vulnerable witnesses and victims of sexual violence, as well as a wide and practical variety of international human rights law topics. We try, where we can, to adopt a ‘train-the-trainer’ method, so that the benefits can ripple across, away from urban centres and to create change more widely.

Meanwhile, the ad hoc demand for our support and intervention continues to grow. One of our unique capabilities is the ability to react flexibly and quickly to developing situations. One example is the set of legal observations which we drafted and published in June, in response to the Hong Kong Extradition Bill in conjunction with a number of our partners. So too, a detailed UPR Submission on Turkey to the UN. We have supported lawyers and human rights defenders who are facing serious harassment in India, in Zimbabwe and Turkey. We continue to work with human rights defenders in Bahrain. We are building networks of support and knowledge with lawyers from Pakistan to Nigeria.

Why your support is crucial

All of this needs support and, crucially, funding. We are a small pro bono organisation and whilst we work without payment, the practicalities of this work requires funds. This is where you, members of the Bar, come in.

You don’t need to practise in human rights law to join BHRC. You can specialise in family, shipping, commercial or tax law. You just need to believe in the rule of law, the right to fair trials and the safeguarding of human rights defenders and lawyers. That is something every member of the Bar will take for granted. So, please, contribute to our work by supporting us.

One reason which stops me being disheartened by the state of the global dialogue on human rights is the sheer energy of those, across the world, who work to restore dignity, equality and freedom – through human rights – tirelessly and selflessly. Your support allows us to be part of that energy, and contributes to a positive narrative. 

Join BHRC: www.barhumanrights.org.uk/join/

Schona Jolly QC is Chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee.


Kirsty Brimelow QC: best and worst times as BHRC Chair (2012-18)

‘My worst moment was when I received the news that Boko Haram had blown up UN House in Abuja Nigeria. I felt desperate for my friends and colleagues in UNICEF. Twenty one people died in that attack. And so I am proudest of BHRC holding strong with UNICEF Nigeria and implementing its planned training in child rights. To date, BHRC has trained around 800 lawyers, judges, social workers and the National Human Rights Commission and National Judicial Institute. This led to the setting up of Family Courts and the first prosecutions in some States for sexual offences committed against children.’

Some key BHRC achievements

  1. Fact finding and mediation in Colombia resulting in historic public apology of President Santos to San José de Apartadó peace community.
  2. Trial observation and diplomacy in Bahrain. All 24 defendants accused of ‘terrorism’ were pardoned.
  3. Multiple trial observations in Turkey and Egypt including in Zaman (many released) and Aya Hegazy (released).
  4. Trial observations of ex-President Nasheed in Maldives (released). BHRC report was referred to by Chair of UNWGAD which ruled his detention in violation of Article 5.
  5. Legal Tools for Commonwealth Africa project – trainings for those who acted in successful abolition of mandatory death penalty in Malawi and Uganda.
  6. Fact finding in Kosovo on UN administered criminal justice system led to joint statement by late Robin Cook and Kofi Annan and overhaul of justice system.
  7. Trainings in Nigeria (child rights) and Zimbabwe (free and fair elections). In Nigeria the 10 years’ legal work led to establishment of first family courts and, in some States, the first prosecutions of rape cases of children.
  8. UN petitions in Malawi contributed to release of Ralph Kasambara. He went on to be appointed Attorney General.
  9. European Human Rights Advocacy Centre set up by BHRC and others resulting in the most successful legal group at bringing ECtHR cases from impecunious litigants against former Soviet Union countries.
  10. First BHRC mission to Malawi, 1992; securing the release of political prisoner Vera Chirwa.
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Schona Jolly QC

Schona Jolly QC is Chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee.