Shining a light across the Atlantic with the Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers Group

Solicitors and barristers are drawn to the legal profession for a multitude of reasons. For some it is the prestige of entering one of the oldest and respected vocations in the world. For others it is the chance to join an international firm or top chambers and reap the financial reward that is synonymous with doing so. Others still, do so simply because they are passionate about making a real difference in our society.

While the work of the conveyancer or corporate lawyer may rarely make the headlines, and be far from the material required for a Hollywood thriller, I would hazard a guess that at some point all legal practitioners, regardless of their speciality, saw the law as a calling and relished the chance to fight for the underdog against the forces of injustice and oppression.

We rarely think, though, of lawyers being the ones that are oppressed and in need of assistance from others. This is especially true of human rights lawyers whom much of the public view as doing exceptionally important work for the most vulnerable in our society. That is unless of course you happen to be the home secretary, Theresa May, or the justice secretary, Chris Grayling.

I recently met professor Sara Chandler, chair of the Law Society’s Human Rights Committee. She filled me in on her work with the Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers Group, a group of international lawyers that monitor the human rights abuses faced by legal professionals in Colombia.

Chandler told me that the Law Society will be part of a joint delegation from the UK, together with the Bar and CILEx, to participate in this year’s Caravana, when it visits Colombia in August.

“The purpose of the delegation is to support human rights lawyers who face considerable risks in Colombia,” advised Chandler. “Because of the kind of human rights cases they undertake, lawyers receive death threats from para-militaries, and are physically attacked and killed.”

Just one example of this involves the case of two high-profile Colombian lawyers, Jorge Eliécer Molano and Germán Romero, who recently announced that they would be forced to suspend their work, unless protection measures were implemented on their behalf.

The two human rights defenders reported that during 2014 they had been victims of a number of security incidents. These included attacks on their families to break-ins at their homes and theft of information. They have even experienced cyber-attacks on their emails and website. The lawyer in Colombia may well be considered an endangered animal.

“UK lawyers have been supporting Colombian human rights lawyers over a ten-year period, and have organised delegations since 2008,” said Chandler. “There will be over 70 lawyers in the international delegation this year from Canada, the USA, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain Germany and Italy. The huge spotlight that this group will focus on the situation in Colombia reflects the grave concern of the international legal community.”

The idea that lawyers are being targeted for trying to protect the fundamental human rights of their clients is chilling. In the UK we generally take human rights for granted and the worst that many specialists have to contend with are misleading Daily Mail headlines and right-wing propaganda stories railing against the ‘European Human Rights machine’.

The threats facing those human rights lawyers in Colombia may seem a world away and scantily worth the notice of the vast majority of UK legal professionals. But as Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, once said: “Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the centre of the universe.”

Let us all hope that the work of the Caravana will be act as a beacon that shines brightly on Colombia this summer. It is undoubtedly a worthy initiative and one that I will be reporting on more when the group returns to South America.

This blog was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 25 June 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.