International Human Rights Day speech

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On 10 December, Jonathan Smithers, president of the Law Society, delivered a speech at the Law Society’s International Human Rights Day reception.

Introduction

Ladies and gentlemen.

Some of you may already have met me or heard me speak earlier today, but my name is Jonathan Smithers and I am the president of the Law Society of England and Wales.

Today we celebrate International Human Rights Day.

It is a day for us to remember that the principles of freedom, justice and the rule of law are the pillars on which democratic societies are built.

This day commemorates the day on which in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Two years later, in 1950, the assembly passed a resolution inviting all states and other interested organisations to observe the 10th of December of each year as Human Rights Day.

The Law Society is one of these organisations.

This day is just as relevant now as it was then.

In this reception, we are celebrating the people who are on the frontline of the defence and promotion of human rights.

Continuing Human Rights Speech…..

Presidents of law societies and bar leaders across the world have a duty to represent lawyers in their own countries.

As officers of the court, we have a responsibility to uphold the rule of law and the proper administration of justice. This often means speaking up on issues of human rights and fighting injustice.

This year the world seems to have relieved the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities: ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’.

The best, as this year we have celebrated the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. The document which underpins modern democracy. Human rights and the rule of law. We also saw the publication of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which have a strong focus on dignity and equality.

The worst, as there are many countries which face significant challenges to the rule of law. In these jurisdictions, some presidents and bar leaders deliver their professional. Duties at the expense of their own personal safety, even risking their lives.

Some of us are more fortunate, we live and work in stable jurisdictions. Where we can openly speak of human rights without fear for our lives or livelihoods.

However, we have a correlative moral duty to assist where we can our legal colleagues who are less fortunate. Through their stories we bring human rights to life.

Let’s have a look at the world:

Europe: Turkey

Tahir Elci was the president of the Diyarbakir Bar Association in South East Turkey.

Although conscious of the great risk to himself, he was a courageous defender of human rights:

  • He represented numerous applicants before domestic courts in his country on criminal matters. Mainly individuals victimised by clashes between the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Turkish Army.
  • He repeatedly called for an immediate end of the conflict and a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue.
  • Since 1992, he took cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Helping victims to access justice after exhausting domestic remedies.
  • One of his most recent cases was to represent a journalist who had worked for the Associated Press. And other media organisations, and was now facing trial for simply doing his job.

At the end of November he was giving a speech appealing for peace between the security forces and Kurdish rebels.

He was shot and died.

Tahir Elci paid the ultimate price for defending and speaking up for values which many of us take for granted.

He was a great friend of our Law Society. Well known to many of my friends and an inspirational defender of human rights. The legal community will miss him greatly.

Africa: Tunisia

Mohamed Fadhel Mahmoud is the president of the Tunisian Bar. I had the great privilege of meeting him a few months ago at a conference in Valencia.

In 2013, Tunisia was a country in turmoil. The Islamist-led government, which had been elected following the protests that overthrew the government and sparked the Arab Spring, was writing up a new constitution that disregarded the views of the secular opposition. This led to street clashes and extremist views being voiced openly.

The country was on the brink of civil war.

Mohamed, along with three colleagues, decided to do something about it:

  • They set up a coalition of Tunisian union members, employers, lawyers and human rights activists. To encourage dialogue across all sectors of Tunisian society.
  • Brokered talks between the opposing forces, which led to an agreement on a roadmap. That included compromises on the constitution, a caretaker government and an independent election commission.
  • They paved the way for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and contributed to stopping the spread of violence in Tunisia.

Through their work they helped to prevent the Jasmine revolution from descending into chaos. As has tragically happened in the course of uprisings in other Arab Spring countries.

By doing so they made a ‘decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy’.

Mohamed and his colleagues were awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for bringing stability to their country. Through asserting that revolution must be followed by the establishment of the rule of law. Only then can democracy flourish.

He did it as a lawyer.

We salute him.

Asia: Pakistan

Rana Khalid Abbas was the president of the local Daska Bar Association and a local party leader.

He was an active campaigner for the restoration of an independent judiciary, free from corruption. And was very well known as a legal practitioner in the community.

Following a confrontation between a group of lawyers and staff from the municipal administration. Which then escalated into a protest, he was shot dead on 25 May.

Rana Khalid Abbas, a colleague, was a courageous defender of justice and ended up paying the ultimate price.

We salute him.

The Americas: Colombia

Professor Sara Chandler is the vice president of the European Bars Federation and a Council member of our Law Society. Sara, along with her colleagues, set up the ‘Colombian Caravana’, a group of international lawyers who monitor the human rights situation of lawyers and human rights defenders in Colombia.

Being a human rights lawyer in Colombia is risky: this year alone 69 human rights defenders lost their lives. Through their work, Sara and the Caravana have:

  • Conducted fact-finding missions to assess the situation of practitioners across Colombia, including in the most remote regions, such as Buenaventura – one of the areas of Colombia with the highest level of human rights violations.
  • Monitored the current peace negotiations to ensure truth, justice and reparations for the victims are at the centre of any agreements.
  • Sent intervention letters to the Colombian president and other officials.
  • Published reports with their findings and policy recommendations.

The work of the Caravana continues to be crucial in giving visibility to individuals at risk and for showing to the government and other parties that the eyes of the international community are on Colombia.

The Caravana are publicly defending human rights, the rule of law and justice in Colombia.

And for this we salute them.

UK: International Action Team

At the Law Society, our International Action Team is a network of pro-bono lawyers and law students who intervene on behalf of lawyers at risk across the globe.

The programme seeks to:

  • Defend the independence of the justice system and the legal profession from undue restrictions or sanctions.
  • Tackle gross or systemic violations of the rule of law.
  • Protect and support lawyers and judges who face intimidation or physical attack for carrying out their legitimate professional duties.

Since I have been president, the International Action Team have drafted letters of intervention in cases in India, Bahrain, Tajikistan, Thailand, Argentina, Iran, Cambodia and many more.

These volunteers spend many hours researching, drafting and analysing the cases to help these lawyers at risk.

And for this, we salute them.

Close

Inspirational stories like these show that some of us have to take considerable risks when it comes to representing the legal profession and upholding the values we share.

So, whether it is the season of light or the season of darkness, whether it is the spring of hope or the winter of despair, or whether we have everything before us or we had nothing before us, we are all part of the same global legal family.

Poorer and weaker apart, better and stronger together.

Together we can, we must, continue to help each other.

We can do so by telling the stories of brave colleagues, like the ones I have mentioned today, by offering each other assistance and by sharing our expertise.

But, just as importantly, as legal professionals, we must all stand together to uphold and defend the rule of law and the proper administration of justice at home and abroad.

I would now like to handover to Andrea Coomber, the director of Justice.

We hope you will like this humans rights speech for schools and this easy and simple words speech. If you really like this humans rights speech then tell us in the comment section that which part of speech you like the most.