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SO YOU WANT TO BE A HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER?
from Sarah Brown/ ed “Moving on Up” (Ebury Press, 2003).

It would have been anachronistic, when I was at University in the early 1970s, to envisage a ‘career’ in human rights. Then, the very phrase smacked of amateur idealism. In Britain, human rights were something you wished, in an altruistic way, for the rest of the world, but talk of ‘civil liberties’ – especially with reference to Northern Ireland – and you risked being branded a subversive. So human rights was not an interest which careers advisers would recommend pursuing, other than as a part-time, pro bono charitable service for the oppressed, preferably in foreign lands.

I joined Amnesty International, and well remember my disappointment at the first meeting. Our task, we were instructed, was to write grovelling letters to brutal heads of state. ‘Dear General Pinochet,’ I would begin, ‘the Oxford University branch of Amnesty is very concerned at reports of torture chambers in Santiago…’ Or, to ‘His Excellency Idi Amin Dada VC, we respectfully request that you might graciously be pleased to order an inquest to be held into the deaths of the three judges of your Court of Appeal, whose bodies (headless) were found floating in the river outside Kampala.’

It struck me that the human rights movement would never get very far by begging tyrants to be less tyrannical, so I retreated to the study of law – criminal law and international law – which were then entirely separate subjects. It was only when these twain met, many years later, that the phrase ‘human rights’ came to have real meaning. That is because any talk of ‘rights’ is merely rhetoric, unless those rights are capable of enforcement.

The story of how, at the turn into the twenty-first century, human rights began its transformation from a pious hope into a doctrine of international law, with its own courts and enforcement agencies, is astonishing. Just ten years ago it would have been fantastical to predict the arrest of Pinochet or the trial of Milosevic, or the advent of an International Criminal Court. For centuries, the world had worked on the assumption that nation states possessed ‘sovereignty’ – i.e. an immunity which permitted their political and military leaders to oppress their own peoples with impunity, because this was an internal affair in which other countries could not intervene. But today, we recognise that this immunity can be overridden if domestic oppression takes the form of a ‘crime against humanity’ – a crime so heinous that the very fact that fellow humans can conceive and commit it demeans us all as members of the human race. Crimes like genocide (e.g. ‘ethnic cleansing’), widespread and systematic torture, or the mass murder of innocent civilians, can never be forgotten or forgiven: the perpetrators must be stopped, by force if necessary, then tried and punished.

This sea-change in attitudes to human rights has necessarily created a good deal of employment: there are careers not only for lawyers, but for administrators (e.g. in UN operations in Kosovo, East Timor, and Afghanistan), investigators, translators, forensic anthropologists, peace-keepers, election monitors, fund-raisers, journalists, doctors, teachers, refugee workers and the like. Governmental and non-governmental organisations offer positions that can intersect and interchange. Although there will always be a place for the well-intentioned amateur, the future will depend upon workers with full-time commitment and professional expertise. That is why I hesitate to offer my own experience as any model for a successful career trajectory: my generation had no role models, and I sometimes attribute such success as I am credited with to the uninspiring truth that I did not have much competition. When I read the outstanding qualifications of the numerous candidates for the few places in my chambers, or for the vacant positions at the War Crimes Court over which I preside, I realise how difficult it must seem to gain a firm foothold on the first rung of a career ladder that is extending all the time.

There is one experience, however, which I believe all who have made a difference in human rights have in common: they have drawn their inspiration – in fact, their passion – from involvement with victims of human rights abuses. No book, however uplifting, and no television picture, however powerful, can substitute for the emotional impact of sharing their grief or injustice or humiliation, or feeling the sharp end of state oppression. It is through empathy with the victim, recognising the nobility of their will to survive and their determination to overcome suffering, that the dedicated idealism for effective human rights work will be forged.

That dedication will put in perspective the ‘success’ of wealthier contemporaries (who will justify their own insouciance about the wrongs of the world with jibes about ‘liberal consciences’ and ‘do-gooders’). It will, more importantly, get you through the times when missions fail or colleagues get maimed by tropical diseases or land mines or snipers, or when the whole humanitarian cause is derided as offering no more than ‘a bed for the night’ in a world which – at least since September 11 2001 – seems more savage and polarised than ever.

I have been privileged to defend countless victims of state oppression, in many countries, and I unhesitatingly attribute to them the stimulus for my own human rights involvements. Some had been persecuted because they were good – like the Catholic Youth workers locked up for years in Singapore because of their work for the poor. Some were persecuted because they were bad – like Michael X, the murderer I met on death row in Trinidad, who persuaded me to devote a lot of my legal life to stopping executions in the Caribbean. Let me tell you about two prisoners of conscience I met on Amnesty missions in the mid-1980s who became my particular human rights heroes: the one unknown and now untraceable, the other celebrated throughout the civilised world.

Robert Ratshitanga was a prisoner in a country of which I had never heard of until Amnesty asked me to go there. The state of Venda no longer exists – if indeed it ever really did. It was a ‘native homeland’ carved out of South Africa by the apartheid government, which pretended that it was independent, although its laws and their enforcement were dictated from Pretoria. Venda’s ‘statehood’ was a sham, and went unrecognised by any other country: it was condemned by the UN and resented by the majority of black South Africans who were struggling for true independence. Robert Ratshitanga’s crime had been to assist that struggle in the most innocuous way: he was a local shopkeeper, and when three starving ANC fighters turned up at his door one morning, he provided them with a plate of porridge before they went back to the bush. This meant he was guilty of ‘harbouring’ terrorists, a crime which under the Terrorism Act carried a minimum penalty of five years in prison.

The obvious injustice of this mandatory minimum sentence had attracted Amnesty’s concern, and it was a measure of the South African government’s effort to improve its human rights image that prisoners in Robert’s position were (at least while the Amnesty mission was in town) offered a merciful alternative. If they pleaded guilty to a different offence – ‘treason to the state of Venda’ – their sentence would be in the discretion of the judge, who was prepared to order their immediate release. Since the five years mandated by the Terrorism Act at Venda’s typhoid-ridden prisons was often a death sentence, the prisoners all accepted the deal – all except Robert Ratshitanga.

I met him in the cells: he was forty-five, a man of extraordinary presence and dignity. For the six months since his arrest, he had been held in solitary confinement in a stifling corrugated-iron cell in a disease infested bush prison. He had nonetheless managed to acquire a Biro and toilet paper: from the sole of his shoe he produced for me his prison diary, an Andrex scroll in minute but copperplate handwriting which detailed his brutal treatment. As a consequence he was in poor health and believed he would die in prison if he had to serve the full term of five years, but to secure his release he would have to accept a plea of treason ‘with an intention to impair the sovereignty of the state of Venda’. As Robert explained to me, ‘there is no way, absolutely no way, that I can bring myself to acknowledge the existence of the state of Venda’.

There was no moving him. His lawyer tried, and so did I. But this man, for all the suffering and probable death that a five-year sentence would entail, could not acknowledge the existence of Venda as an independent sovereign state. He was right, of course, as a matter of principle: the ‘state’ of Venda was a sick joke perpetrated by the Afrikaaner government as a cover for apartheid. But would it really matter to anyone if, to save his life, he accepted in court that he had impaired its non-existent sovereignty? It mattered to Robert Ratshitanga. With all the integrity which must have attended Sir Thomas More’s refusal to take an oath in full knowledge of the deadly consequences, he unswervingly declined to receive mercy by entering a fraudulent plea. So he was instead committed under the South African Terrorism Act, and was marched off into captivity and obscurity, where subsequent inquiries have failed to locate him. He lives on vividly in my mind as a true prisoner of conscience. Much as I respect the iron will that stayed in the soul of Nelson Mandela, and enjoyed at first hand the feisty righteousness of Bishop Tutu, it was the meeting with Robert Ratshitanga which convinced me of the moral imperative of overthrowing apartheid.

Human rights heroes, of course, often turn out to have feet of clay – which is why I found it easier to admire one whose witty self-depreciation and genuine humility commended him to all except the humourless and incompetent Stalinists whose tyranny he overthrew. I met Vaclev Havel in Prague in the years before the ‘velvet revolution’, when I was engaged on missions to support the Czech Jazz Society which had, improbably, become a target for state persecution. I stood with him on the steps of the city’s central court in 1986 after the society’s president, Kavel Srp, had been sentenced to prison on a trumped-up fraud charge. We looked down at several hundred of his youngish supporters who spilled into the adjacent square, and they began to sing – a ragged, half-crooned chorus of ‘We Shall Overcome’. Havel smiled tightly, and whispered ‘You can tell which are the secret police – they are the ones who know all the words.’

The secret police were everywhere in those years, playing a cat-and-mouse game with this famous dissident, who had served three years in prison for launching ‘Charter 77’, a human rights manifesto which challenged the communist government’s denials of free speech and civil liberties. We would meet in cafés overlooking the Vlatava river, where he would provide crucial information about political prisoners, the families who needed financial support, and the lawyers who could be trusted, alternating this necessary gossip with philosophical observations about the need to revise the map of middle Europe so disastrously drawn at Yalta. He was always nervous – the authorities could return him to prison at any time; always apologetic for his English (which was fine), and always ironic. Once, when I found I did not have enough devalued Czech currency to pay for the meal, I offered US dollars – a currency accepted with alacrity everywhere in the city, notwithstanding an official embargo. Havel was horrified, and explained (I kicked myself for not realising) that he would be immediately arrested by the secret police watching us from the far table, as an accomplice in black-marketeering. ‘This is the first rule of being a dissident – you must scrupulously obey the law.’

I have never much liked jazz – you keep thinking it will turn into a tune, and it doesn’t. I could not at first understand why it was suppressed by the Nazis, and by Stalin, and why the Jazz Society was so feared by the Czech government. The answer became clear when I attended a late night concert one evening at the Lucerna – a cavernous theatre in the heart of Prague owned by Havel’s family. Totalitarians distrust jazz because it’s music you can talk under. The talk under the music that morning was indeed subversive, but only three years later the audience in the Lucerna dispensed with this musical camouflage and, led by Havel, turned the theatre into a people’s convention on how to restore democracy.

Robert Ratshitanga and Vaclev Havel are examples of all the men and women who have suffered by refusing to compromise their principles under the pressure of state tyranny; from such sacrifices human rights workers can summon the spirit to make a full-time career commitment to a cause to which they might otherwise have just sent a donation. But remember, whether you wish to work for refugees or victims of torture, or on the prosecution of war criminals, that these causes now cry out for well-developed professional skills, so idealism may not be a sufficient condition for employment. It will always, I think, be a necessary one.

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© 2005 Geoffrey Robertson QC
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