This summer, I am working with REDRESS in London, UK. This NGO does a wide range of work against torture, by pursuing both individual cases in national and international forums and in global advocacy. It’s a small group, but in the area of torture it is surprising what just a handful of lawyers can achieve.
My principal work is gathering research for the various reports that REDRESS publishes. The organization works out of a building owned by a publishing company, and there are so many reports coming out that it sometimes feels like REDRESS is another publishing company! As part of a project that will end with a report on the global state of torture, several smaller regional reports are cranking through the system. Of course, these regional reports are rather grand in their own right – Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East and North Africa all have their own reports. It has been fascinating to look into the legal systems and law enforcement practices of countries all over the world, from Indonesia to Russia to the U.S. It’s been amazing to realize that, as different as circumstances and cultures are across the world, the motivations behind State torture are often quite similar. The words “national security” are thrown around a great deal, and torture to extract confessions is still prevalent across much of the world.
I’ve also learned a great deal about the value of simple perseverance when taking on tough cases. These are cases that understandably face great odds against success – no government is anxious to reveal what goes on behind closed doors. Many cases drag on for years, first through domestic courts, then through regional courts, with a possible submission to a UN body along the way. The problem of gathering evidence, when often there is only a victim’s statement, perhaps bolstered by a medical report or family testimony, is a real challenge, especially when the all the witnesses and physical evidence are located in a distant, uncooperative country. When challenging State practice or international norms, strategic thinking comes into play as well – which case has the best chance of shaping the law in a desirable direction? This kind of litigation is constantly walking the line between big picture advocacy and getting the best result for individual clients.
Living in London is a great international experience as well. Although not as exotic as many other Fellowship locations, it can really drive home the geopolitical reality of international human rights work. As I strolled down New Bond Street a few days ago, I was surprised to see that the vast majority of shoppers were Arab families, the women variously clad in burqas or hijabs, the men in sunglasses and polo shirts. Shopping bags from Louis Vuitton, Armani, Rolex, Cartier, and other luxury shops were ubiquitous. I was reminded of the point made by a woman whose husband was still locked in a Bahraini prison for being a human rights defender – it is very well for the UK government to say it disapproves of human rights abuses, but imagine the reaction if it closed its borders and the luxury stores of London were no longer open for business to those facing credible accusations of human rights violations. A small sanction perhaps (not unlike the Magnitsky Act in the US), but a small action could do more than big words.
The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center. As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.