The origins of the Observatory can be traced back to 2008, when a project named Lawyers at Service of Lawyers, co-financed by the European Union, brought together the French, Spanish and Italian National Bar Associations, Lawyers Without Borders France, and the Paris Bar, to unite their expertise in order to guarantee a greater protection for lawyers whose line of work defending human rights puts them at risk.
The initial project lasted 30 months and organised a number of lawyer training courses (in Algeria, Armenia and Colombia), aranged for emergency aid to be provided for lawyers directly under threat, and launched a first International Observatory of Lawyers with the goal of monitoring the situation of lawyers who are at risk in their country as a result of exercising their profession.
After this European project came to an end, the initial partners wanted to continue their efforts which had proved extremely useful for a number of lawyers around the world. Since they recognised the crucial role that a body such as the Observatory could play, the French National Bar Association and the Paris Bar decided, in 2014, to relaunch the initiative by calling upon their original partners and opening the new Observatory to Bars and law societies which would be interested in taking part.
The purpose of the Observatory is to defend lawyers under threat and denounce situations in which the right to defence is put at risk. It will also track, through monitoring and all other available means, lawyers who are the victims of threats, pressure, torture or any other kind of abuse.
The main work of the Observatory is:
- Monitoring and advocacy (alert letters, publications, group action, mobilising public opinion);
- Emergency assistance (support work, missions, observation teams and emergency material aid);
- Training (preparation and distribution of teaching material and the organisation of training courses).
In response to the recent detention of a number of Turkish lawyers, a number of French lawyers also launched a Facebook-based support group for Istanbul imprisoned lawyers. A very successful campaign to encourage lawyers to send postcards of solidarity to the detainees has resulted in hundreds of such postcards being sent.
As well, the annual report of the World Observatory for Defence Rights and Attacks Against Lawyers ('IDHAE') was recently launched in Bordeaux. The report has been published every year in French since 2005 by nine of the leading European Bar Associations. Chapters in the 248 page report include: assassinated (100), condemned, imprisoned, arrested, tortured, disbarments, death threats, and prohibitions from travelling. The introduction is by Bernard Favreau, the president of the IDHAE, a Bordeaux lawyer and former President of the Bordeaux Bar.
About 300 cases from 65 countries are mentioned in the report, but it notes that statistics are not easy and its figures are not exhaustive. The Monitoring Committee on Attacks on Lawyers of the International Association of People's Lawyers ('IAPL') has documented attacks in 107 countries.
Seven lawyers are highlighted for special attention at the beginning: Walid Abu al-Khair (Saudi Arabia), Samiullah Afridi (Pakistan, the lawyer who allowed the US to find Osama Bin Laden, and who was killed by the Taliban), Wang Yu (China), Nasrin Sotoudeh (Iran), Tahir Elçi (Turkey), Valentin Ribet (the 26-year-old French lawyer killed on 13 November 2015 at the Bataclan theatre in Paris) and Pu Zhiqiang (China).
In a related development, in May the Dutch-based Day of the Endangered Lawyer Foundation announced that in January 2017 the focus of this annual event will be on China, where a wave of repression against lawyers was unleashed in July 2015. Protests will be held in front of Chinese embassies and consulates on 24 January.
Meanwhile, the IAPL Monitoring Committee continues to document attacks against lawyers through its blog - https://defendlawyers.wordpress.com/. Discussions are being held with a number of organisations — including the People's Permanent Tribunal in Rome, and lawyers groups in The Philippines, Taiwan and Hong Kong — to hold a People's Tribunal and an international conference on human rights defenders and lawyers under attack.
STUART RUSSELL is a former senior lecturer at Macquarie University Law School.