Fighting on the legal front line between truth and power
Activists and social justice lawyers are at the forefront of positive change, but it is an arduous and dangerous process
The foreword to The Revolution Will Not Be Litigated is by the actress Jane Fonda. Initially, I thought this bizarre.
But her words are eye-opening. A high-profile anti-Vietnam War protester in the 1970s, she is still at the barricades, inspired by young people striking for climate justice. “Where are our elders?” they ask her; “we can’t even vote.”
In 2019 she decided to break the law every Friday by demonstrating outside the US Congress, and was duly arrested six consecutive weeks. Subsequently, tailed by police after a demonstration in 2021, 83-year old Fonda experiences a flashback to 1970. “How disabling it can be when the abuse of ‘law and order’ justifies crackdowns on those who speak truth to power,” she writes. But, like the hundred-plus activists and advocates, lawyers and lobbyists within the book’s 26 chapters, she is a doer.
Unquestionably, these are very brave people. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” writes Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson, best known for defending WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. “The fear is part of my experience of being human,” says Njeri Gateru, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Kenya.
In Robinson’s case she is pushing back against superpower governments, the US in particular, which has used every legal trick and political machination to extradite her client. Gateru leads the resistance to Kenya’s harsh antihomosexuality laws, which gnaw at her identity and represent a real risk of her being prosecuted.
On the spectrum of human rights abuses detailed in the book, Robinson’s and Gateru’s respective battles are comparatively less appalling. That would sound ridiculous to Assange, facing 175 years in prison for contravening America’s Espionage Act by releasing millions of documents that are clearly in the public interest and that mainstream New York Times, Washington Post and Le Monde journalists have admitted they would have dreamed to have accessed first.
But the book includes chapters on extensive atrocities against villagers in Myanmar, and the ongoing perpetration of female genital cutting in many African countries. For underresourced and poorly educated people in these communities the law is an invaluable weapon, assuming it can be accessed at all.
This is the “revolution” of the book’s title. Each chapter is either an essay by a legal activist or an interview by one of the editors with an activist, about a part of the world where a front line struggle is happening.
Besides Mark Gevisser as co-editor, two South Africans feature among the stories. I wasn’t aware that in the past decade Kumi Naidoo was executive director of Greenpeace and secretary-general of Amnesty International. He cut his activist teeth aged 15 in SA’s anti-apartheid struggle. The most interesting part of his conversation with Gevisser centres on an anecdote about consciously and deliberately breaking the law in the Greenlandic Arctic in 2012, landing in jail, and his resultant epiphany about how to better use legal channels to widen the scope and global impact of Greenpeace’s activities.
Mark Heywood’s chapter is one of the drier sections, perhaps because, rather than focus on the dynamic story of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he has opted to write philosophically. Unlike the other contributors, he comes across as world-weary and daunted. “I admit that I am more terrified of the threats we face,” he says. His honesty is sadly refreshing, especially knowing that Heywood’s work with the TAC saved an estimated 5-million lives.
One of the shortest chapters is Gevisser’s interview with Russian human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov, which took place before the invasion of Ukraine. Chikov’s dog has been poisoned, he has been declared a foreign agent, a grenade was found at his parents’ apartment, his deputy has been prosecuted. Is there any hope for his work when Russia’s sole opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, is serving 30 years in a penal colony? Three of Navalny’s lawyers have just been detained, too.
The chapter’s postscript provides a late 2022 update: more than 20,000 people have applied for legal assistance from the human rights body Chikov leads. They include soldiers and conscripts refusing to go to war, anti-war street protesters, journalists, and government critics on social media. “We are one step away from massive repression. Still, I am in Russia, and personally safe so far,” he says.
The most forceful episodes in the book are those relating to co-editor Katie Redford’s work in Myanmar and as co-founder of EarthRights International. As a first-year law student interning for a human rights organisation in 1993, she stumbled upon the travesty of what US oil and gas company Unocal was doing in Southeast Asia. To lay a pipeline from offshore gas fields in the Andaman Sea through the country to Thailand, Unocal callously colluded with Myanmar’s military regime. Environmental destruction, forced labour, brutal treatment and forced removal of villagers: Unocal, now part of Chevron, was the capitalist force behind atrocities and human rights abuses.
In 1995 Redford teamed up with a local activist, Ka Hsaw Wa, who had been tortured and had spent five years in hiding from the regime. The story of how they formed EarthRights, how they brought a legal challenge against Unocal in American courts, and how over 15 years successive legal battles were won to give some kind of restorative justice to the people whose lives were destroyed, is shocking and heroic.
It’s Redford as editor who makes one of the book’s key points — that litigation, no matter how successful, is only part of the solution. Real social justice requires sociopolitical empowerment. The law can enable that, but it is an unreliable instrument unless supported by dedicated, forceful and patient activism.
The second point, mainly Gevisser’s, is that the human rights lawyer’s work is made far easier by storytelling. When people, en masse, are moved by a story, a groundswell of public opinion can influence legal decisions and help reframe laws.
It’s clearly with that in mind that ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Litigated’ has been published. Partly, as in the stories of Unocal in Myanmar and Jennifer Robinson’s experiences with Julian Assange and the freedom movement in West Papua, it succeeds. Other sections are less emotive, and — like a catalogue of the causes of a progressive think-tank — they lack persuasive power because there is no attempt to present a comprehensive background to the respective issues. Readers interested to learn more will need to follow the references at the end of most chapters.
But do not be put off by this, or by what may be interpreted, per the book’s title, as a left-wing agenda. If you reflexively avoid reading about human rights issues, about the work of organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, this book will ease your head out from under the sand.
• “The Revolution Will Not Be Litigated: People Power and Legal Power in the 21st Century” is edited by Katie Redford and Mark Gevisser and published by OR Books.
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