Colombia’s lawyers under attack

This post was contributed by Professor Bill Bowring, of Birkbeck’s School of Law.

Lawyers in Colombia face daily threats of a severity that lawyers in Britain can hardly imagine, including murder.

On 13 June 2013 I was one of the signatories to a letter in The Times on Colombia’s lawyers. The letter was initiated by the Solicitors International Human Rights Group, and signatories included the President of the Law Society, former Court of Appeal judges and other supporters of Peace Brigades International, whose volunteers risk their lives “shadowing” lawyers at risk. We commented on the fact that while Colombia’s President Santos was in London the previous week, lawyers in his country continued to face great dangers. Six lawyers were killed between 24 January and 21 March 2013. Between 2002 and 2012, 4,400 lawyers were threatened, attacked and killed.

The letter referred to the Report of the Third International Caravana of Jurists to Colombia, dated 21 May 2003, entitled “Colombia: Protecting Access to Justice”. The Caravana consisted of 42 lawyers, mostly from the UK, barristers and solicitors, including the Chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC), Kirsty Brimelow QC. I was a founder of BHRC in 1992, and am a member of its Executive Committee.

The Report observed that “The most serious concern for the Caravana is that threats, attacks, persecution and the killing of lawyers continue. Lawyers are hampered in their work by having to defend spurious proceedings against themselves and by burglaries of their offices, and cyber-attacks on websites and vandalism of their office equipment. The legacy of the surveillance by the state intelligence agency…  has interfered with the protective measures which some lawyers should receive. In addition to the problems of state interference in their work are the risks that many lawyers face of physical violence and possible assassination. The lawyers most at risk work with clients such as political prisoners, those with problems related to the use of or rights to land, those accused of collaborating with the guerrillas, and representatives of minority or repressed communities.”

I signed the letter as Professor of Law at Birkbeck, and also as President of the European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights (ELDH), which was founded in Paris in 1993 and is now celebrating its 20th birthday.

As well as teaching and researching at Birkbeck, I am a practising barrister, taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights, and a human rights activist. In 2003 I founded the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) which represents hundreds of  applicants against Russia and other countries at Strasbourg.

ELDH has grown over the years, and now has member organisations in 10 European countries and the Basque Country, and individual members in a further 8 countries. In England I am the International Secretary of the ELDH member association, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, founded in 1930, with some 500 members, barristers, solicitors and people interested in law.

Birkbeck Law School and the Haldane Society have very close links. Several Haldane members teach in the Law programmes, and in each of the three years of its operation the Law School’s “Law on Trial” week in June has included a Haldane Society evening. This year Stephen Knight and Natalie Csengeri, young barristers in their 20s, gave brillian presentations and led a lively discussion on “legal Education – Socialist Survivors”. I am organising this year’s Cumberland Lodge weekend in September for Birkbeck law students on the theme of “Radical Lawyering – Theory and Practice”, with Mike Mansfield QC, Haldane’s president, and Liz Davies, its Chair, and other speakers.

Finally, back to Colombia.

On 24 January each year for the past two years ELDH and its partner organisation the European Democratic Lawyers (AED-EDL) have organised a “Day of the Endangered Lawyer”. Two years ago the focus was on lawyers in Turkey, especially ELDH member the Progressive Lawyers of Association of Turkey (ÇHD), still very much under attack. We picketed the Turkish Embassy. On 24 January this year Haldane members gathered outside the Spanish Embassy in protest against the treatment of Basque lawyers in Spain, and Mike Mansfield QC handed in a petition.

And on 24 January 2014 the Day of the Endangered Lawyer will focus on the situation in Colombia. Join us outside the Embassy of Colombia!

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