Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada: promoting human rights by protecting those who defend them

Lawyers and others who defend human rights are themselves often targeted by governments and government-controlled agencies for intimidation, repression and worse.

Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) — founded in 2000 by Vancouver lawyer Gail Davidson — is a committee of 225 Canadian lawyers who seek to improve human rights around the world by protecting human rights’ defenders and the rule of law.

“I monitored two high-profile political trials in Malaysia and Singapore as an Amnesty International volunteer in the late 1990s,” Davidson recalls. “I saw good criminal defence lawyers charged with criminal contempt of court and sedition. It became obvious to me that human rights cannot be protected unless human rights defenders are also defended. I knew that Canadian lawyers could play a leading role in that defence work.”

A number of well-known BC lawyers were among LRWC’s founding directors, including the late David Gibbons, QC, Michael Jackson, QC, Stephen Owen, QC, Howard Rubin, QC and Sarah Khan.

LRWC’s actions are specific and on the ground. Since incorporation in June 2000, LRWC has conducted over 200 campaigns in 56 countries, including interventions in court cases, trial monitoring, in-country investigations, letter writing (in Spanish, French, Persian, Arabic and Mandarin, as well as English), and preparation of reports and legal briefs.

In the past few months alone, LRWC has produced briefs on the duty to investigate killings of jurists in the Philippines, and on the rule of law in Singapore, and has issued statements on the removal of the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s chief justice, and on the conviction and imprisonment of the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons.

In 2005, LRWC was granted Special Consultative Status with the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), entitling LRWC to designate official representatives to the UN and to attend and participate in meetings of ECOSOC bodies.

In early 2008 LRWC will be offering a free series of public lectures on international human rights and humanitarian law in cooperation with UBC Continuing Studies. The Honourable Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, will deliver the first lecture on January 26 at the Robson Square Theatre.

“Public awareness is an essential element of human rights protection,” says Davidson, LRWC’s executive director. “Around the world, human rights are being abrogated, often in the name of the protection of democracy. We hope to build on this lecture series by partnering with UBC in future ‘virtual’ events, using podcasting to spread the message of the importance of universal human rights.”

LRWC is operated by volunteers and funded entirely by membership fees and donations. “Financial resources are crucial to our members’ work,” stresses Davidson. “To be effective, we must visit countries with troubled human rights records. We need to monitor events in person, and to represent LRWC at meetings of ECOSOC and other United Nations bodies.”

“LRWC’s membership is still a largely untapped resource,” Davidson concludes. “We have such talented and dedicated people. If we had more funding, we would do so much more.”