How to Protect Lawyers
How to Protect Lawyers from Attacks, Threats, and Harassment
Article by Gill H. Boehringer
The bad news first: total protection is not possible. As we have seen in the Philippines where social movements and political organizations have great solidarity with the progressive lawyers, and considerable “private security” is provided by those organizations at meetings and conferences, about 50 lawyers, including judges, have been assassinated in the past 15 years.
In general, there is almost total impunity for extrajudicial killings and disappearances, so there is no investigation, or inadequate investigation, in most cases, therefore the perpetrators are not officially known. It is generally believed that these killings are carried out by members of the private armies of landlords and political dynasties, or paramilitary death squads protected by the police and military. Some cases of extrajudicial killing and disappearance are undoubtedly the work of state forces, mainly military. Hired gunmen are cheap in the Philippines but they are more likely to be involved in killings other than lawyers.
There is really no way of preventing every one of these killings in the circumstances which exist in the Philippines and many other countries. Nevertheless, there are ways of reducing the risk of these dangers, and also to reduce the impact on current or future progressive lawyers that the killings and other harms and threats might have. So there is some good news!
The first question to be asked is: why are lawyers targeted? The obvious answer is that they are doing their job, their duty. They defend the falsely charged or imprisoned; the tortured; the weak, the poor, the victims of capitalist exploitation and accompanying repression; and the activists who are in the front line resisting state and corporate abuses of human rights, the denial of civil rights and the destruction of the environment. I sometimes think back to the Phoenix Program of targeted assassinations which the USA aggressors used in the rural areas of South Viet Nam. They targeted civilian leaders in villages all over a country they were said to be defending, killing an estimated 25,000 civilians in order to try to break the people’s resistance. Today, that is a useful, if tragic, demonstration of the extent the capitalist elite and their imperialist masters will go to make the world safe for their profits. The threat to lawyers is almost a necessity for the exploiting class.
The only possible protection for progressive lawyers generally, is in solidarity with the people, nationally and also internationally. Information about the dire situation for lawyers must be gathered and disseminated. The dark deeds must be brought to light. Exposure, both international and national, of what is happening to lawyers is a major weapon in the battle for social justice and the end of exploitation. There should be linkages with such organizations as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and lawyer organisations such as the Dutch Lawyers for Lawyers, the National Lawyers Guild of the USA, the Haldane Socialist Lawyers of the United Kingdom, and, of course, the International Association of People’s Lawyers. Such organisations can bring the spotlight of international opinion to bear on a country, thereby bringing pressure on governments to take action to protect lawyers and to end impunity. Nationally, there are an array of organizations and state agencies which can be used to try to reduce the scope of impunity and to seek justice, e.g. a Human Rights Commission; an Ombudsman with powers of investigation and sanction; special inquiries including “local people’s tribunals”; the formal lawyers’ associations (bar associations and law
*Comments made at the 5th Congress of the IAPL, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, February, 2014.
societies); organizations such as Karapatan, in the Philippines, which records and investigates all reported killings and harassments through local rapid response groups, and monitors the state response to all such incidents. Sadly, that their work has been effective is evidenced by the many Karapatan volunteers who have also been the victims of extrajudicial killings.
While some lawyers will be killed or forced to retire from the battle, others must take their place. Those “recruits” must renew the struggle with equal vigor as those who preceded them. How can that be achieved? The analogy I use is that of the military in the trenches. How are they made willing to die? How can wave after wave of soldiers “go over the top” into withering enemy fire, knowing they are likely to be killed, having seen it happen to those who went before them? We can learn from the bourgeoisie for whom those soldiers died so gallantly. For the answer lies in ideology and chauvinism. Those soldiers were induced to believe they were fighting for their country, very possibly against lesser beings. More than that, they were trained within a military tradition in which there were narratives of bravery and comradeship, there were heroes to honor and emulate. And there was, at bottom, a deep commitment developed through hardship and shared dangers and difficulties, to protecting and never letting down one’s mates. I believe we need to develop and maintain our own traditions of solidarity, a people’s lawyers’ culture, and to pass these on for the generations to come. Stories we have heard at the IAPL 5th Congress about the courageous lawyers in many countries, their legal battles, victories and suffering, the solidarity with the people and amongst their lawyer comrades. These should be recorded and made available to others around the world. To inspire other lawyers when they need it, as we all do from time to time.
In a sense we are really discussing a fundamental problem which progressives, lawyers and others, face constantly. That is the hegemonic ideology of the bourgeoisie and their imperialist masters. A major task of progressives is to expose the myths by which the bourgeoisie maintain their dominant position, e.g. that they stand for the rule of law, that they protect and abide by the constitution, that the judges are independent and impartial, that there is a separation of powers, that they control the police and military so that those organisations protect the people, etc. Finally, that democracy exists! All of this is questionable, of course. Yet populations believe these things. And the corollary is that all will be lost if progressive lawyers and those they represent are allowed to pursue their goals.
Again we can see why lawyers are targeted. It is not only their immediate role in getting some activist out of prison for example, but it is their crucial role in combating bourgeois myths, for lawyers in particular know the emptiness of those myths which play such a powerful part in maintaining bourgeois domination. Further, the lawyers are the ones who can, and do, tell important stories, developing a counter-hegemonic tradition, which challenges and exposes the myths which help to keep the people prisoners of the “democratic” capitalist system. Interestingly, when Shakespeare has the rebel say-“First thing we do, we kill all the lawyers”, he was aware how important the lawyers are to the maintenance of a dominant class. Conversely, today, the people’s lawyers are an important battalion of the rebel army on the march to victory. Speed the day. Remember the words of the great English poet, Shelley: “ye are many, they are few”.