Kirsty Brimelow QC
Chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee answers five key questions from a personal and professional perspective on her involvement with the BHRC.
What are BHRC's aims and its relationship with BC?
Former Bar Chairman Anthony Scrivener QC founded the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales. It was established in 1992 to fill the vacuum caused by the lack of a Bar organisation dedicated to human rights. It was approved in its infancy by Anthony Scrivener QC's successor, Gareth Williams QC (the late Lord Williams of Mostyn). It sits alongside other committees with the Bar's name that are independent of the Bar Council. Since its foundation, BHRC has expanded substantially. Its remit remains international and extends to all countries of the world.
BHRC was founded by the Bar Council but is distinct from the Bar Council. It has its own constitution and elections but reports to the Bar Council, whom it depends upon (and is thankful to) for funding for its one member of staff and trial observation unit.
BHRC consists of barristers called to the Bar of England and Wales, pupil barristers, law students and legal academics. Its members include some of the UK's foremost human rights barristers and legal practitioners. Our members offer their work pro bono alongside their independent legal practices, teaching commitments and legal studies.
BHRC provides training, resources and guidance to support the development of human rights protections and rights in countries where legal systems are lacking or failing; it raises awareness of human rights abuses through trial observations and fact-finding missions; it intervenes in human rights cases by submitting amicus curia briefs in international courts and sending letters of concern to government officials in various jurisdictions. Its vision is for a world in which human rights are universally protected through every government and state actor's adherence to international law obligations and internationally agreed norms.
BHRC's is an organization that punches far above its weight - small finances but huge energy. Over the last two years alone, it has addressed human rights abuses in over 30 countries. As examples, BHRC sent trial observers to more than 15 different hearings in 9 cases in Cameroon, Egypt and Turkey with the defendants in Egypt and Cameroon being released without conviction after the observations were published. Close to my heart is the extensive training in Nigeria of child rights with over 300 judges and magistrates trained in 2016 alone.
Another one that remains with me is BHRC's fact finding into the demolition of the Calais refugee camps. But I may be getting ahead of myself.
Our aim is continuing to expand and deepen the international human rights work we are doing and strengthen partnerships to maximize results.
What drives your personal connection with this kind of work?
It is difficult to know where the drive starts and where nature and nurture combine and separate.
I do know that I was incensed as a young child at the treatment of my mum by her employer. She was sewing pieces for a catalogue and paid by the hem or zip. One evening I was tasked to collect the money from her employer when he came to our bungalow. He explained to me that he was withholding 50 pence, as one of the zips was wonky. I remember looking at it and thinking that there was nothing wrong with it. I was about 8 years old. I remember the unfairness. I always felt the struggles of my family.
I am very privileged to have been able to have the education that was not accessible to them. It was on the back of support and sacrifice.
As to work in international human rights, I still have the pictures in my mind of families in Colombia desperately seeking their loved ones who had disappeared; the blind and disabled adults and hungry children lining the road as I - the lucky one -was transported in a Unicef vehicle from Abuja to Kaduna in Nigeria; the fear in the eyes of the children in the Jungle in Calais as the camp exploded into flames and sank into smoke and the accounts of the survivors and family members of the 1988 massacre in Iran. I picture the 86 year old grandmother who, 30 years later, continues to wait for her son to come home or to be located in a prison somewhere in Iran; I remember the father who spoke of when he last saw his daughter and how she had been violently raped. He couldn't say the words. He described how she walked. She then joined the 30,000 or so people who were executed in 1988.
I don't have a personal connection to this kind of brutality and suffering but I do have the connection of being human. I am in an advantageous position as Chair of BHRC and as a Q.C. and feel a responsibility to do what I can through expertise in law. I also acquire fulfillment working with the fantastic barristers who make up BHRC; wanting make a difference.
BHRC - through the skills and energy of the barristers within it - brings access to justice to and introduces and strengthen protections and rights to the most vulnerable people. It has demonstrable success. That is a pretty powerful driver all by itself. And I remain in awe of the barristers I work alongside.
What do you think are some important issues for BHRC to focus on this year?
In February we signed an MOU with the Nigerian Bar Association to train its lawyers upon protections and rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Last year I read a report from Unicef, which warned that 90,000 children in North East Nigeria could starve to death by the end of 2017. Around the same time I met the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, AB Mahmoud SAN. A connection formed around a common goal.
In February BHRC conducted the first training in international and regional protections and rights of IDPs to NBA lawyers from the North East. This also is the first time all the branches of the North East have come together. We now are working in partnership with our Nigerian colleagues and are starting to consider strategic litigation.
After many years work on the human rights abuses arising from stigmatization of children as witches and beliefs that the body parts of persons with albinism bring luck, I was privileged to moderate a 2 day conference at the UN in October last year. Working together with incredible NGOs and activists we convened the first of these conferences at UN level. We are building on this and working towards a UN resolution.
Colombia's 52-year-old internal armed conflict has taken approximately 220,000 lives since 1958. After the signing of the Peace Accord between Colombia and the Farc a battle over land and the farmers is being played out in the rural areas. There is a spike in murders ofcommunity leaders in Colombia as the country slides around under the peace accord and the forthcoming elections. There is a real concern that it could go backwards into violence. This remains a BHRC focus, working closely with our partners in Colombia.
Also, Turkey and Egypt's locking up of Judges, lawyers and journalists and Israel's Military Courts detention of children and lack of due process remain in focus, particularly for our trial observation work.
The killings and displacement of the Rohingya people in Myanmar are another focus. Also, we are seeking the setting up of a UN Inquiry into the 1988 massacre in Iran.
What is the benefit to barristers becoming involved with this type of work?
The work of BHRC has real impact and results.
I remember receiving a letter from Human Rights Lawyer Dr. Amin Mekki Medani in South Sudan. He was then 76 years old and suffering from various medical ailments. He had been unlawfully detained in 2014. BHRC wrote a statement of concern. He was released and his trial terminated. He wrote to me expressing his gratitude and appreciation for BHRC's strong stand. He said that the result would not have happened without BHRC's action and that of others.
In Nigeria, BHRC helped set up the first Family Court in Cross River State. We ran an intern scheme there with local lawyers and a UK charity, Safe Child Africa, for a year. Also, we have received widespread feedback that the lawyers we trained in child rights have used their skills to bring cases of sexual offences before the courts. In Edo State we were informed by one lawyer of 45 cases pending before the court and 16 successful outcomes that could not have been achieved without the training.
As well as benefit to others, trainings and trial observations are beneficial to barristers. It is enriching to see other legal systems and to work with courageous local lawyers in applying international law to enforce protections for those who, often, are unfairly caught up in those systems. It also develops you as a person. I am completely humbled by the people I meet through BHRC work; this includes BHRC's executive and members who do such incredible work.
What is the most stand-out case to you that you've worked on?
Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world.
One community which refused to be displaced San José de Apartadó Comunidad de Paz.
This is a community of Cacau farmers - around 1000 people who set up their own space in 1997 with rules which included not getting involved in the conflict, no alcohol, no weapons. They have suffered greatly as a result of this stance - with 260 of them having been murdered.
In 2005, whilst they were in discussions with government institutions, 8 members of the community were macheted to death- including 2 children. The community then cut off all dialogue with the state.
I first met this community on a fact-finding representing BHRC in 2012. By March 2013 the community agreed that I could open talks with the Colombian government over a Constitutional court Order made in 2012. Part of that Order included that the Colombian State should apologise to the Peace Community for past stigmatization.
I had a personal meeting with President Santos on 29th November 2013 at the Presidential palace in Bogotá. I requested the public apology.
On 10th December 2013, he apologized and asked forgiveness of San José de Apartadó. He apologized specifically for the stigmatization by former President Uribe of San José after the 2005 killings.
This is an extract of what President Santos said: "For me, as President of the Republic, I have only profound admiration and respect for the Peace Community, and I regret and rebuke all the past accusations, which have been made against its good name.
"We do not agree with phrases or attitudes, which stigmatise those who strive for peace and reject violence. On the contrary, we consider that every defender of peace and human rights must be praised and protected.
"For this we ask for forgiveness. I ask for forgiveness. And I do so with the knowledge that forgiveness is a condition for peace, and that peace is the only guarantor that there will be no more victims."
I received a transcript of what the President was going to say as I was heading to court in London, on the morning of International Human Rights Day.
It brought a tear to my eye then; it still does now.
Kirsty Brimelow QC
Chair Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (since 2011)
Barrister Doughty Street Chambers
To learn more about BHRC and how to join visit their website www.barhumanrights.org.uk