Security in focus at meeting for human rights lawyers
Human rights lawyers in Burma/Myanmar play a key role in strengthening rule of law; yet they are often threatened, harassed and even detained. This was clear when a group of human rights lawyers came together in Yangon earlier this month to discuss their needs in order to improve their work.
The nine lawyers, who came from different parts of the country, expressed a need for better protection for lawyers, many of whom take great risks in the course of their work. They see the greatest risks when representing marginal groups or vulnerable individuals in sensitive cases against powerful adversaries. This is further aggravated by the lack of independence and widespread corruption within the justice system, which leaves a bias in favour of the most powerful party.
The lawyers emphasised the need for capacity building, in particular relating to organisational management, legal advocacy and human rights. They also highlighted the need for independent associations for legal professionals. For the lawyers to be independent from the state, and seen as such, was identified as central to ensure that justice sits at the very centre of their work. The emergence of independent professional associations could help form self-regulatory mechanisms that would help individual lawyers in the course of their work, but also gradually address the low esteem and reputation of lawyers held by the population at large.
The lawyers also visited a press conference held by the International Commission of Jurists to launch a report, “Right to Counsel: The Independence of Lawyers in Myanmar”. The report confirmed many of the concerns raised by the lawyers, and highlighted the prevalence of corrupt practices throughout the judicial process. It concluded that lawyers working on sensitive cases, for example connected to human rights defenders, human rights abuses or cases involving people from ethnic minorities or political groups, are particularity vulnerable to state interference.
The three-day meeting of human rights lawyers was organised by Civil Rights Defenders in follow-up of a study tour to Serbia that took place six months previously. For two weeks, they visited and discussed mutual concerns with a dozen legal aid organisations in Serbia.
– It was like a Beijing Opera, where one hero follows after another, said Mandalay based lawyer Thein Than Oo about his Serbian peers, whose legal aid toolbox is more varied.
The Serbia experience gave insights into new working methods that they are increasingly testing out at home, in particular coalition building with civil society, outreach to forge trust with marginalised groups, legal advocacy, and trial monitoring.
During the follow-up meeting in December 2013, one of the ten was unable to participate as she has been detained since July 2013 on charges that apparently sought to block her peaceful activism.Prominent human rights activist, Bawk Jar, who has been at the frontline for housing rights, women’s rights and environmental issues, was arrested on 18 July 2013 for an incident that allegedly took place in 2009. People within her activist networks are certain that the allegations serve the sole purpose of silencing her.
Bawk Jar is currently in police detention, where she was able to speak on the phone to the other Serbia travellers and Civil Rights Defenders representatives.
– They treat me well here, she said, but she also expressed concern about her situation.
– I hope you can help highlight my case to the international community so that they intervene.
For years, Bawk Jar, a revered community leader in Kachin State, has used the court system to protect the rights of others. She has filed numerous lawsuits for victims of forced evictions, while providing humanitarian support to them as well as taking active part in peace negotiations.
She is now facing charges for the death of a victim of forced evictions, to whom she reportedly provided unofficial medical care. The family and other witnesses on the side of the plaintiff have testified in favour of Bawk Jar. But it remains to be seen how the court will judge her. Like in many other sensitive cases, one delay is currently following another in what appears to be a deliberate strategy to shake off international interest and pressure.
Bawk Jar’s case is in many ways a litmus test of whether the court is able to show integrity and independence in a case such as this, and whether it is able to deliver a fair trial. As several human rights defenders have been imprisoned during 2013, her case will also give an indication on how closely engaged the international community is in pushing for protection of human rights defenders.
Tags: Cambodia, Human rights, and SouthEast Asia.