Reporting from the Commonwealth Law Conference

Richard Harvey, Head of Garden Court International, writes about his fascinating trip to the 18th Commonwealth Law Conference in South Africa.

Boma Ozobia and Richard Harvey

Past President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, Mrs Boma Ozobia of Sterling Partners, Nigeria and Richard Harvey.
Photo: Anthea Davison

I have just returned from a week representing Garden Court at the Commonwealth Law Conference in Cape Town. I was also invited to speak on climate justice litigation at the University of the Western Cape, together with Sarah Burton, Deputy Programme Director of Greenpeace International

You don’t often get the chance to learn from and chat with 800 activist lawyers from Malaysia to Mauritius, Jamaica to Australia, Canada to Nigeria and many more. I also met with old friends and made new ones among South Africa’s legal community. Three outstanding human rights keynote speeches were given by Judge Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Kate O’Regan, former judge of South Africa’s Constitutional Court; and our own Lord Chief Justice, Igor Judge.

I’m pleased to say that I was able to meet for an hour with Justice Pillay and we talked in greater detail about the interconnectedness of all human rights and the need for human rights training for lawyers and judges in many countries, as well as the importance of balancing development rights with human and environmental rights.

South Africa has the world’s finest constitution, explicitly founded on “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms, non-racialism and non-sexism.” We learned at first hand how the Constitutional Court has reinforced these human rights principles throughout its 19 years.

I was able to contribute to discussions on a wide variety of topics including defending human rights defenders; promoting public interest law in Southern Africa, fighting Big Oil in the Niger Delta and the Arctic, keeping homophobic governments out of the bedroom, and obtaining access to justice under austerity regimes. I participated in a session on legal aspects of the mining extractive industries addressed by Martyn Day of Leigh Day & Co. I spoke from the floor about hydraulic gas “fracking” as a threat to human rights.

It is always easier to speak out against injustice in other countries than to stand up when it is your own government and security forces that are the threat. This was true for Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson in the North of Ireland. It is true today for Beatrice Mtetwa, Vice-President of the Zimbabwe Law Society and for Chief Justice Bandaranayke, illegally removed from office by unconstitutional “impeachment” in Sri Lanka.

Conference held an emergency session chaired by Lord Lester on the Rule of Law in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Having heard courageous lawyers from both countries, we passed a resolution calling for the suspension of Sri Lanka from the Councils of the Commonwealth.

Resolutions alone don’t resolve problems; that requires activism. And conferences are often dry and academic, in the worst sense. But the Commonwealth Lawyers Conference surpassed my highest expectations by being both activist in tone and determinedly optimistic in outlook. Outgoing CLA President Boma Ozobia of Nigeria (see picture) and the rest of the conference organisers are to be congratulated on an outstanding job. Another friend, Mark Stephens, CBE, was elected to succeed her and I look forward very much to the next CLA Conference, to be held in Glasgow in 2015.

Finally, a few hours before flying back to the Karadzic Trial in The Hague, I spoke at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), together with Sarah Burton. The subject was “Climate Justice” and, as we were greeted by Pro Vice Chancellor, Ms Patricia Lawrence and Professor Werner Scholtz, I was deeply moved to discover that we were to speak in the Kader Asmal Moot Court Room. Kader Asmal, who died in 2011, had been a lifelong friend and mentor to me. He was chosen by Nelson Mandela in 1994 as his Minister for Water Affairs and Forestry. With his photo smiling down on us, we held a fascinating dialogue with teachers and students in UWC’s LLM public law programme.

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