Attacks on lawyers: A threat to democracy

By Gill H Boehringer, Stuart Russell, Kristian Boehringer and Julio Moreira
Alternative Law Journal

In Shakespeare’s day, lawyers were not very popular, thus the rebel’s cry ‘First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’. Understandably, because the lawyers were largely employed in maintaining the exploitation and repression that enabled the less than one per cent to live in a world of wealth and pleasure denied to the great majority.

Today, while the one per cent still live with wealth and pleasure, lawyers are often on the other side, challenging the policies and practices of states and large corporations that destroy the environment and create social and economic conditions that threaten the well-being of hundreds of millions. Lawyers are resisting what has become an onslaught against democratic traditions and institutions in many countries.

Lawyers, and other human rights defenders (‘HRDs’), are currently under attack. In The Perils of Defending Human Rights (2014) 39(3) AltLJ 183, Hina Jilani provided a valuable overview of the precarious position of HRDs in the world today. They are caught between state forces on the one hand, which are attempting to ensure the fulfilment of pro-development and often anti-people, neo-liberal practices and policies and, on the other hand, non-state actors (‘NSAs’) such as para-militaries, private armies and hired assassins, acting on behalf of private interests.

It is impossible to get precise figures on the extent of attacks on HRDs, but available research indicates they are targeted in large numbers around the globe. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, the media has for years given considerable exposure to the deaths and other attacks on journalists. And so they should, as journalists are also fighters for rights and freedoms, essential for the preservation, or establishment, of democracy. But the daily toll of attacks on HRDs is surely much higher and deserves more prominence in the media. A recent French report indicates that in Colombia alone there have been 400 lawyers killed since 1991.

Jilani rightly pointed out the need for more comprehensive and more efficacious protection of HRDs. At the same time she noted the lack of it from governments, despite their obligations under national constitutional provisions and international obligations under conventions and declarations such as the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Greater and better coverage by the media of what is happening to HRDs would be an important positive step toward developing the mechanisms and public consciousness needed to provide the protection so obviously needed for HRDs.

For some years now the International Association of People’s Lawyers (‘IAPL’) has seen the lack of protection of lawyers against state and non-state forces as a major concern. It established a Monitoring Committee to research the problem and develop strategies to deal with the problem of attacks on lawyers — physical and non-physical — which interfere with their ability to fulfil their legal professional duties. The first report of the Committee deals with the Philippines where lawyers are under severe pressure from many quarters; they face killings, disappearances, false charges and detention, death threats, harassment and intimidation.

One of the main points to come out of the IAPL research is the continuity of killing despite a dramatic change in the political leadership. Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was a divisive figure who pushed a US-inspired neo-liberal agenda and presided over a corrupt regime which saw an increasing gap between rich and poor, with substantial repression against labour, peasants, fisherfolk, and environmentalists. President Arroyo’s successor is BS Aquino, the son of former president Cory Aquino, widow of the great hero and human rights campaigner Senator Aquino, assassinated by the Marcos regime’s gunmen. The younger Aquino was seen as the great hope of the people, promising as he did the end of corruption, poverty, homelessness and hunger. As we shall see, that promise has not eventuated for the ordinary people. Nor did the change in regime translate into a substantial change in the rate of lawyers’ deaths. As Jilani pointed out, it is not governments but the people, and importantly the national and international community of HRDs, who will provide the protection needed for the HRDs.

It is hoped that the publication of the data from the Philippines will help to raise the consciousness of the international community to the extent of the danger to lawyers and other HRDs, and add resonance to Jilani’s call for more adequate protection.

Lawyers killed in the Philippines

There are presently a number of different organizations researching this problem, including the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the National Union of People’s Lawyers (‘NUPL’), Karapatan (the Alliance for Advancement of People’s Rights, an NGO that keeps records on all extra-judicial killings and disappearances (‘EJKs’ and ‘EJDs’)); the Philippine National Police Task Force USIG, and a network of NGOs centred on the Law School at Ateneo University, Metro Manila. In some cases the numbers of lawyers killed appear to be significantly different, in part because of the criteria for inclusion: whether the lawyer was killed in the course of, or because of, their professional legal work.

The report of the IAPL Monitoring Unit is based on what is believed to be a comprehensive set of figures covering the period 1 January 1999 to 31 December 2014.

The sources of the data are the following: the Philippine media; the Report of the Fact Finding Mission of Lawyers for Lawyers, 2006; the Alston Report on Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines; the Integrated Bar of the Philippines; NUPL; Karapatan; Philippine National Police; personal knowledge, and interviews with Philippine activists, academics, individual lawyers and others, largely in and around Metro Manila.

There is a debate in the Philippines about who is responsible for these killings and those of other HRDs. Our data does not provide a basis for determination of responsibility. It is clear that lawyers are being attacked by NSAs, eg hired gunmen, paramilitary elements or private armies. Further, it is generally believed that the Armed Forces of the Philippines and, to a lesser extent, the Philippine National Police are responsible for a high percentage of killings and disappearances of HRDs. Both organizations deny complicity in the killings. The general view that state forces are often involved has been challenged in a recent study of Filipino journalists killed, in which the authors argue that the killings are mainly local private payback for investigative journalism that threatens the grip of local politicians and business interests.

We mention this debate because each country has a specificity that includes complex social, political, economic and cultural causal factors, thus the patterns of killings, perpetrators and victims can be quite different.

for gil-article on lawyers attack

It is a truism in criminology that crime figures are unreliable due to, among other things, definitional problems in the categorisation of events. One significant difference between our figures and those of others may be that we include all lawyers killed whether or not they can be thought to have been killed as a result of their legal professional work. We believe this inclusive approach is appropriate for several reasons.

First, it is often difficult to know why a lawyer was killed, although generally we would assume that they were killed for some reason related to their legal work. Second, the publicity given to the assassination of a lawyer potentially can have a chilling effect on the work of others in the profession, thus we believe it is important not to ignore any such attack on a lawyer. Third, lawyers’ associations in a number of countries, such as Pakistan and India, have shown the importance of bringing pressure on governments regarding their policies toward the legal profession, and such action is strengthened by the understanding that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’. Fourth, understandings of crimes, including the killing of a lawyer, can be complicated. Context and circumstances are important in categorising criminal behaviour. Even a robbery/homicide, having nothing directly to do with the victim’s legal work, could be said to be because the perpetrator assumed the victim had made a pile of money as a lawyer. Thus indirectly it could be said that the killing was related to legal professional work or status. This may be true especially in less economically developed countries where it appears lawyers are at the greatest danger of being killed.

Average number of lawyers, judges and prosecutors killed, per month, under Presidents Arroyo and Aquino

There were 78 killed under President Arroyo, who served 108 months, making the average per month 7.22.

There have been 36 killed under President Aquino, who served 54 months (to the end of 2014), making the average per month 6.7.

Percentages of total killings during the terms of Presidents Arroyo and Aquino

President Arroyo had twice as many months of service as President Aquino (to the end of 2014) —108 to 54 — and a little more than twice the number of lawyer killings during her term — 78 to 36.

The percentages of the total number of lawyer killings (114) attributable to the tenures of the two Presidents are roughly consistent with their time served:

President Arroyo: 68.4 per cent

President Aquino: 31.6 per cent.

From the empirical data, it appears that the Aquino government’s focus on economic development and ending corruption, both of which were unsuccessful, has not brought about a significant reduction in deadly attacks on lawyers. Although attacks on lawyers of other kinds — such as threats and other forms of intimidation; harassment; surveillance; unjustified detention; false charges and arrests; as well as other manoeuvres intended to impede the work of lawyers — are constantly reported to the NUPL, Karapatan and the media, we do not have comprehensive hard data on such matters. Nevertheless, it appears from reports we have seen that such attacks have continued relentlessly under the Aquino regime. It is clear that relying solely on a government to solve the problem is akin to joining a cargo cult.

For further information, comments, inquiries, or to submit country data on attacks against lawyers, please refer to the — and —

GILL H BOEHRINGER, STUART RUSSELL, KRISTIAN BOEHRINGER and JULIO MOREIRA have all taught, or are currently teaching, law at various universities around the world. The authors are members of the Monitoring Committee on Attacks Against Lawyers of the International Association of People’s Lawyers.

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