A column by Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger

Human Rights
Resilience against Injustice

Lawyers as Human Rights Defenders
Prokhorow and Kara-Murza in Court

Lawyer Vadim Prokhorov (l) in a Moscow court with his client, liberal opposition politician Alexey Kara-Murza on 6 March 2023. Prokhorov has also been prosecuted since then.

© picture alliance/dpa/Moscow City Court | Moscow City Court

Pitting yourself against a state apparatus that suppresses freedom and fundamental rights is an incredibly courageous thing to do – especially in states that are in the process of dismantling or are already utterly disregarding any adherence to the principles of the rule of law. All over the world, courageous lawyers are facing the choice between their own well-being, professional integrity and commitment to their clients.

Lawyers are the most important professionals for denouncing human rights violations and defending human rights. In doing so, they encounter enormous challenges. They stand up to judicial delaying tactics and harassment while representing their clients in court and demanding equal rights. They themselves become the focus of persecution and attacks. Lawyers are threatened, are forced to surrender their licences, are interrogated on flimsy grounds or even arbitrarily arrested; they can end up in prison for a long time or seek refuge in exile. Lawyers are among the most persecuted of professions.

Autocratic regimes deliberately seek to prevent lawyers from acting in accordance with the rule of law, but they also seek to destroy the trusting relationship they have with their clients, especially if the latter are themselves persecuted opposition politicians, journalists or activists. What is worrying is the trend towards initiating legal proceedings against lawyers even on account of their defence work.

Protests for Can Atalay

Protests for arrested human rights lawyer Can Atalay on 29 September 2023 in Izmir, Turkey

© picture alliance / | Murat Kocabas

For lawyers, too, the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders marks an achievement for the human rights protection system. Like other professional human rights defenders, lawyers have the right to lodge complaints and petitions against individuals and state bodies before national and international judicial authorities and institutions. The Declaration grants human rights lawyers the right to participate in public hearings and to form an opinion about compliance with national law and applicable obligations under international law. It is intended to grant lawyers not the privilege, but rather the right to provide professionally qualified legal assistance to their clients.

Human rights lawyers will always be at the forefront of the struggle for fundamental and human rights under the rule of law. This makes it all the more important to consider them as human rights defenders and to support them in their work against governments that are hostile to freedom and have contempt for human rights. Therefore, it is our duty to recognize that they are often the last hope for persecuted opposition activists, journalists and cultural workers. This is their purpose and will be discussed in this paper.

Dr. Salim Amin, Niklas Malte Müller, Dr. Michaela Lissowsky
"Resilience Against Injustice - Lawyers as Human Rights Defenders"