Monday, April 16, 2018

Lawyers' Shared Responsibility for Defending Human Rights and the Rule of Law

A recent ABA Journal featured a cover story on women human rights lawyers.  I'm sure that many of us have noted that there are a lot of women in the human rights field.  One of the lawyers profiled, Sarah Belal of the Justice Project Pakistan, observes “I don’t think that’s a coincidence that women engage in human rights law and stick around with it longer."  She adds, “Work in human rights law is thankless. Women are better at being resilient and getting through that, and [it comes] at a huge personal cost.”

Whether you agree with this essentialist view or not, the three women  profiled in the piece -- Belal in Pakistan, Azadeh Shahshahani in Atlanta, and Kimberley Motley of Afghanistan -- are all doing incredible work against long odds, and deserve recognition for their sacrifices and commitments.

Reading this article, however, also reminds us how much more difficult their work as human rights lawyers would be in the absence of the rule of law, which supports each of their efforts to expand human rights for individual clients and marginalized groups. 

In the U.S., the "rule of law" has often referred to casually, as a given in the American governance system.  But today, as the basic precepts of the rule of law are one by one dismantled by the current administration -- through conflicts of interest, bullying tweets, abuses of executive power, and criminal cover-ups -- we can no longer take the rule of law for granted.  

It's important to remember, then, that domestic human rights lawyers have a critical role to play in vocally defending the rule of law at home as well as abroad -- i.e., defending judicial independence and limits on executive power, doing everything we can to implement human rights through courts and legislative initiatives, using skills of framing and persuasion to shift the conversation and public opinion along with it. 

For certain, there are many women who have provided leadership on these issues in the human rights community.  Thank goodness for all of them.  Still, the "thankless" task of defending human rights and the rule of law is work for everyone.  

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