Going to a town

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Next month will mark 13 years since I’ve become a practicing lawyer. It’s been 13 very, very long years, during which I’ve learnt more about managing the long term effects of sleeplessness than anything else. Every year I reflect on the context of the practice of human rights law, and every year I find myself questioning this commitment, until I reach the same answer: I would never do anything else.

The last 12 months have not been quiet and comforting for this profession. Our colleagues in the magistrature have become enemies of the people. Our friends and peers in Turkey have been arrested and detained in an authoritarian purge. Across the Atlantic, we de facto represent dangerous dissent. Suddenly our work becomes more political than it’s ever been. It means it’s also more than necessary than it ever was.

This little note has been inspired by two conversations on Twitter, a platform of predilection for lawyers it seems, which confirmed two strongly held beliefs of mine: one, we are profoundly unhappy and deeply cynical, as illustrated by a thread on the (otherwise excellent and erudite) Secret Barrister’s timeline, asking practitioners to detail the consequences of their job. The answers ranged from high levels of alcohol intake to breaking down of marriages. Long hours, for some, low fees (yes), sexism, poor to execrable relationships with the press, never ending debates on jurisdiction and uncertainty of political decisions lead to the difficulty to see purpose in fulfilment in the practice of the law.

Two, in my specific area of practice, counter terrorism, defense and security, we are drowning under the weight of government secrecy on one side, and a culture of disinformation on the other. Few other issues are as inherently manipulative as security, few depend so much on perception and emotive reaction.¬†Our attempt as lawyers not only to carry on with our day-to-day activities, monitoring emergency, accessing suspects in detention, ensuring the compliance of counter-terrorism legislation with transnational and international provisions, no small feat in itself, now also includes a self-imposed duty of information. I say self-imposed because none of us are under any obligation to develop any sort of public profile or to publish on non-academic platforms. There has been a wider desire to understand the inner workings of a system that was evidently destroying lives, to shine a light on principles of accountability at a time when moral outrage isn’t significant enough to effect change.

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I have always maintained, to the dismay of some, that the practice of human rights law is not advocacy. The universal application of norms demands universal enforcement; scrutiny must be exercised on an equal footing; and judicial redress demands unequivocal commitment to the right to truth. Alleging a human rights violation must not be lodged with the purpose of attaining a political score; it isn’t about hammering a rhetorical point home. Human rights, fundamental or derogating, translate into very real protection, in war or in peace, in heightened or low threat, against state power the same as against non-state armed groups. Yet the politicization of those rights, always predictable, too often inevitable, has now completely undermined the enforcement of those norms. If we lawyers can do a better job at explaining our role within the immense machine that are human rights organisations and institutions; if we can provide another element of access to necessary information, and spread knowledge of rights to which every individual is entitled, now is that time. We do not always reach the target, but we place critical tools into the public domain. It’s a priceless endeavour if the goal is to raise support against legal aid cuts, provide financial cushion to provide protection to refugees and asylum-seekers, to highlight changes in legislation that isolate individuals from courts.

While I have often worked alone and would continue to do so, and generally avoid large-scale debate because trained the old-school way, it matters to meet like-minded colleagues that push the practice forward through expertise, respect for the craft, and commitment to values. Public interest academics, professors and all-around commentators such as the invaluable Kevin Jon Heller have proven time and again how irreplaceable their input was. From violation of fundamental rights of refugees in Australia to briefing UN member-states on the ICC’s aggression amendments, Heller is not only contributing to a historical legacy of international criminal law, he is also steering not-so-young lawyers such as myself in the right direction. It is also more than worthy of note that Darragh Mackin, the young solicitor from Newry, whose mind absorbs information and focuses on legal detail in a stunning and breathtaking way, has now been named partner at the seminal legacy and human rights Belfast firm KRW. Few of us can boast of having achieved that level of excellence at his age; the reason why Mackin makes such a difference in the practice of his work is his unparalleled dedication to the people and causes he represents, from the Hooded Men to Ibrahim Halawa. This isn’t about publicity. It’s about the practice of law being a proxy for the maintenance of peace and the access to an equality we are sworn to uphold. It matters that it is being recognized, and that once in a while, perhaps once a year, under the sentimental cover of anniversaries and commemorations, we celebrate that we are part of a much larger group of people that, underneath it all, work towards inscribing change.

To answer that stranger in a strange social media land, yes, I am proud of the way I was educated and trained, I am humbled by the work of my colleagues, most of whom I would have never dreamt to call peers. This follows years of whispering to one another, “it will get worse before it gets better”; there will many more sleepless nights and many deplorable incidents of violence, death, torture, aggression, occupation, before we see a new dawn break, like it happened before. We are vessels; we are, in essence, the evolution of international relations away from belligerent status quo and lethal inequality.

But this is never something we could have done without journalists, without activists, without citizens of the world, without committed representatives. Before the elections in France, Brexit negotiations, peace talks in Syria, disarmament affairs, states of emergency, ad hoc tribunals, access to documentation of torture, mass surveillance, and destruction of hospitals continue to be a staple of our everyday lives, here’s to human rights defenders and those who defend them.

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