Earlier this week a trainee solicitor complained to me about how their boss was bullying them. How they were being expected to work more than 60 hours a week and were given neither support nor recognition. Whilst I have every sympathy for the trainee I was forced to think of another lawyer suffering a more extreme degree of “bullying”. Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer in China was persecuted for exposing official abuses within his country. In 2005 Chinese officials initiated a forced abortion and sterilisation campaign against women in the Shandong province in part to maintain their “one-child” policy. Their actions were illegal and Chen put his head above the parapet to say so. However Chen’s comments were neither welcome nor tolerated. He was beaten, abused and put under house arrest. In June 2006 he was charged by local police for damaging property and organising a mob to disturb traffic (witnesses allegedly dispute this). In August Chen was sentenced after a two hour trial to four years and three months’ imprisonment.  There must have been a lot of damage to property. Tragically he is not alone. 

To such an extent that in 1990 the United Nations General Assembly endorsed the Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers. It was drafted to assist states promote and ensure a proper role for lawyers in a democratic society. In many ways it was drafted to protect members of the legal profession against threats, intimidation, physical violence and, indeed, death. It is rather unnerving that such a principle, such a basic principle (sic) is in fact needed in a democratic and “free” world.

The Basic Principles cover a number of areas such as access to lawyers and legal services and qualifications and training, requiring Member States to ensure that their citizens have adequate access to lawyers; and further that such lawyers are “able to perform all of their professional functions freely without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference”.   So far so good, you would think. Also of some concern is Principle 23 which states that “lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly.” It is perhaps somewhat scary that the UN feels it is necessary to indicate that even lawyers should be entitled to basic human rights!

But as Neville Chamberlain found out to his costs in the 1930s a piece of paper even with the best intentions in the world does not always provide a suitable level of security or protection. 

In April 2006 three leading Nepalese lawyers, known for their criticism of the ruling monarch, King Gyanendra, were forced to disembark from an aircraft before the flight was allowed to proceed to New Delhi. The incident came less than 48 hours after Nepal's government had agreed before the international community in Geneva to respect the rule of law and rights of human rights defenders and fulfil its legal obligations.

Following the plane incident approximately 1500 Nepalese lawyers took part in a pro-democracy rally organised by the Nepalese Bar Association to protest against King Gyanendra and to demand the restoration of civil liberties. The rally was shattered as the police opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas resulting in injuries and fatalities, followed by a number of lawyers being arrested. Unfortunately Nepal is by no way unique in its treatment of lawyers. 

In Algeria two lawyers have been charged with offences relating to the illegal transfer to detainees of “money, correspondence, medicine or any other unauthorised object”.  The illegal objects were nothing more than the minutes of the court hearing relating to a detainee’s defence and a simple business card containing the lawyer’s contact details. Is it truly coincidental that both lawyers are human rights activists who have spoken out against the current regime?

Every day in some of the most dangerous places in the world, lawyers risk everything. Risk everything by simply doing their job. For many there is more at stake than just money or career development. At risk are their lives and their liberty. Be it in the face of intimidation or harassment. Why? Perhaps because they believe in justice? Perhaps because they believe in international laws and human rights. Or even because they simply believe in the rights of man.

But without wanting to sound too clichéd perhaps more importantly it is because they believe that one person can make a difference.