Defending the Defenders: The Successful First Year of an ABA Human Rights Program
Human rights advocates prosecuted dictators for genocide in Guatemala. They advocated for women’s rights in Latin America. They defended pro-democracy activists in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. They did all of this in the face of violent threats, harassment, detention and even torture.
The ABA’s Justice Defenders (JD) Program, housed in the Center for Human Rights and created in 2011, provides pro bono legal assistance to human rights advocates working in difficult environments and vulnerable circumstances. “We’ve raised more than $600,000 in in-kind labor,” said Brittany Benowitz, director of the Justice Defenders Program. “It doubles what we spent on the program, a 200 percent return rate.”
An effort to mobilize lawyers to donate the equivalent of more than a half million dollars’ worth of time in the first year of a program is impressive, said Deborah Enix-Ross, chair of the ABA Center for Human Rights.
“It shows that people want to be able to have an impact,” Enix-Ross said. “They need an outlet to do that.”
The JD program provided pro bono assistance to human rights advocates in 30 cases around the world.
The program volunteers helped raise awareness of sensitive cases, supported local lawyers, suggested legal strategies, and observed and analyzed trials.
Those volunteers include law professors, senior partners, judges, translators and law students.
“We claim to stand for certain principles, particularly in the American legal profession, and there are people in various countries around the world, lawyers, who are effectuating those principles in the direst of circumstances,” said Michael Pates, director of the Center for Human Rights and AIDS Coordination Project with the ABA. “I for one am very proud that we have this program to help them do that and being as effective as they can be.”
Michael S. Greco, a former ABA president and recent past chair of the ABA Center for Human Rights, said he thought it was a natural fit when the funder asked if the ABA would be interested in starting the program.
“I said, ‘Of course we’re interested,’” he said. “It’s exactly what the ABA Center for Human Rights does. We protect the human rights of not only people, but lawyers around the world who are being persecuted for protecting the rights of people, and we need to help.”
Greco said the program embodied the ABA’s Goal IV, which is to advance the rule of law and hold governments accountable for human rights abuses. He stressed that the ABA would have to maintain its independence as to whether it helps a particular advocate in a particular country.
“Some governments try to punish human rights advocates by falsely accusing and incarcerating them in an effort to get the lawyer out of circulation or to intimidate the local legal profession so other people will not be tempted to represent people who are critical of the government,” Greco said.
Though the JD program helps many lawyers who work as human rights advocates, the program also defends environmental activists, labor leaders and journalists.
Benowitz said the program can reach virtually any country. The program facilitators are sensitive to the varied political and factual circumstances of a case, especially the situation “on the ground.”
Some of the program’s most notable works this past year include: preparing an amicus brief, which argued that there could be no amnesty for genocide in a case before the Guatemalan Constitutional Court; in the Middle East/North Africa, volunteers advocated for the release of an attorney who has been imprisoned for two years because he provided legal assistance to human rights victims; in Eastern Europe, they advocated for the reinstatement of attorneys disbarred for representing opposition candidates; in Asia, they monitored the trial of land rights activists; in Sub-Saharan Africa, they provided legal assistance to lawyers representing trafficking victims.
Because of security concerns, the JD program cannot reveal details of some of the countries in which they worked.
The JD program also collaborates with other ABA entities such as the Rule of Law Initiative and the Section on International Law, in addition to the International Commission of Jurists, Human Rights Watch and the International Bar Association.
The often-brave work of defending the defenders is actually a response to a criticism of the human rights community, Benowitz added.
“The human rights community and international organizations will come in and talk with local activists and publish findings and then local activists are left to deal with the consequences and oftentimes they are killed or targeted as result of that,” Benowitz said. “The international community is more and more recognizing that in order to really have a sustainable impact, we need to support the people on the ground who are the most invested in holding their own governments accountable and to protect them. Their protection should not be an afterthought.”
This year, the JD program will release a Justice Defenders Manual: A Guide to International Fair Trial Standards, and a “Report on Threats Against Human Rights Advocates in Guatemala: The Right to Consultation in Extractive Industries” and a “Report on Misuse of Counterterrorism Laws Against Civil Society Leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa.”