Monica Feria-Tinta reflects on Human Rights Day

10 December marks Human Rights Day worldwide. It was the remark of a character, Dick the Butcher, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” which made me reflect on the centrality of lawyers in the maintenance of the rule of law. In the play, the phrase epitomized the henchmen’s plotting in order to break a constituted order.

In a modern system of law, are lawyers somehow the guardians of rights?   It is the job of lawyers, after all, to act when breaches of such rights occur.  As observed by Helena Kennedy QC once in an interview “The legal system is preserved by lawyers being strongly independent and highly ethical – and willing to represent everyone”.

Dialogue between the UK and Honduras

A recent trip to Central America together with Andrew Baker QC, Thomas Raphael QC and Penelope Nevill, members of my Chambers, 20 Essex Street, was instructive in that regard.  We had visited the region to give a series of seminars on the English legal system and the topic of Arbitration.  As part of our activities in Honduras, we met the vice-president of the Honduran Bar Association.  It was the meeting of advocates from two different worlds, a moment to be treasured, an important dialogue that took place.  At our meeting we learned about an alarming fact, that of the high rate of lawyers suffering attacks and even being killed in Honduras. A report by the Honduran Ombudsman this year points out that at least 102 lawyers have been assassinated in Honduras between 2010 and September 2015.

Thomas Raphael QC and Andrew Baker QC at the Honduran Bar Association.
Thomas Raphael QC and Andrew Baker QC at the Honduran Bar Association.

Among those lawyers killed were criminal defence specialists and commercial law specialists, public prosecutors, juvenile-court magistrates and attorneys representing peasant and grassroots organizations, according to the report. Those killed included a former President of the Supreme Court of Honduras. In an earlier report the Honduran Ombudsman had pointed out that because attorneys perform “a special essential function in the defense of human rights and of the rule of law,” the Honduran state must “guarantee that legal professionals conduct their work without any kind of intimidation.”

We had visited Honduras to discuss technical issues concerning dispute resolution such as Arbitration, but embedded in our discussion was a factor that made the English legal system a successful one. To our mind, the ability of barristers to represent cases without fear of reprisals for their work, was key to the success of the English model. We explained to the representative of the Honduran Bar Association about the manner in which barristers are regulated in this country, including the cab-rank rule in our system in England. It was moving for me to see the twinkle in the eyes of the Honduran representative of the Bar Association.  He was interested to hear all about our system and see what worked.

Shakespearean qualities

Actor Sam West enacting Shakespeare at Middle Temple
Actor Sam West enacting Shakespeare at Middle Temple

Upon my return to London, I attended a special event at the Middle Temple Hall.  Entitled, Shakespeare and the Law, it featured actors Samuel West, Alex Jennings and others reading extracts from the work of Shakespeare -including Nelson Mandela’s favourite lines from Julius Caesar, which related to the law. Organized by Peace Brigades International UK, an International Non-Governmental Organization which accompanies human rights defenders as a way to protect them, it honoured the courage of lawyers who take risks on a daily basis to defend the rule of law.  It was special for many reasons, but perhaps it made me proud that actors, barristers, musicians, academics, 250 people, felt it important to support the role of lawyers who strive far away and whose right to security and to work free from persecution, criminalization or intimidation is under threat.

Two weeks ago, Mr Michel Forst, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders visited London to engage with civil society organizations working with human rights defenders around the world.  The result of his consultations will be reflected in his report at the Human Rights Council in March 2016.  Much needs to be done for the role of the lawyer to be properly understood and respected across many countries in the world.  To the extent that such position is more protected and mechanisms for that purpose developed, rights will not become illusory but enforceable wherever this is needed in any part of the world.

Monica Feria-Tinta is a barrister at 20 Essex Street Chambers.