In December we will be honoured to host the third annual Sir Henry Brooke Awards for Human Rights Defenders. The awards will be an opportunity to celebrate the commitment of our beloved late patron Sir Henry Brooke, and the lawyers and other human rights defenders we protect, to the rule of law. This is increasingly prescient as civil liberties and human rights lawyers come under increasing fire in the UK and all over the world.

The annual ceremony reminds us of the challenges that rights defenders face in contexts where the rule of law is weak. They are vital to the defence of fundamental freedoms, for which they often pay with their own lives.

In recent years the UK legal profession has come under fire from all angles; attacked by the government and the media as out of touch and ill-at-ease with the concerns of everyday people and favouring their clients over the rule of law. Following a knife attack at an immigration firm, the Law Society has written to the Home Secretary about its public statements about ‘activist lawyers’ and the risk it puts professionals upholding the rule of law.

Being a lawyer is by no means easy in this country, but looking overseas puts things somewhat into perspective. We work in eight countries where being a human rights lawyer means daily attacks, threats and intimidation. With human rights lawyers under threat all over the world, we need to raise our voice and stand in solidarity with them so they can continue to fight for the rule of law.

The freedom to uphold the rule of law is one which every legal professional should have, but, unfortunately for the lawyers that PBI supports, this is not the case. At the Sir Henry Brooke Awards, PBI invites British lawyers to reflect on the privileges that are unfortunately not enjoyed by the lawyers we work with.

“I wanted to help because it was obviously something well worth supporting.”

We also want to reflect on the resilience we have seen in human right defenders working in times of adversity. The pandemic has changed the lives of everyone, perhaps permanently. We may struggle with the outbreak and its consequences, and we can gain strength from hearing the stories of those keeping their communities safe and continuing to defend their rights against repressive governments and inadequate healthcare systems. Around the world, communities are stepping up to tackle the global health crisis: organising mutual aid; donating time and money to the vulnerable; and taking risks to guarantee the safety of humanity. Monitoring human rights violations and government abuses, HRDs have played an invaluable role within their communities becoming the first point of contact for support and help during the COVID crisis. Often neglected from government programmes.

Finally, we want to celebrate the support of the UK legal community to the defence of justice around the world, as they support the effort of human rights defenders working in countries where the rule of law is weak. Their financial and pro bono assistance is essential for human rights defenders to be able to protect the rights of the most vulnerable.

Sir Henry Brooke CMG

The awards will be presented in honour of our much-missed late patron. Sir Henry was a man of remarkable conviction, integrity and generosity, whose life and career were characterised by his tireless commitment to justice, equality and human rights. We have chosen the award winners on the basis of the qualities he valued most, this year with a particular focus on defenders who have demonstrated commitment to the rule of law and protecting freedom of expression.

A lawyer at Fountain Court Chambers who went on to serve as a High Court Judge, Sir Henry’s many achievements included chairing the Bar’s Race Relations Committee, which introduced racial awareness training for English magistrates and judges. As a judge, Sir Henry travelled widely across the world to speak about human rights, penal reform, access to justice and equality issues.

Sir Henry became a Patron of PBI UK in 2006. Explaining why, he said that: “PBI is a unique institution. When I meet the lawyers from Colombia and other countries, I am very struck by how single-minded they are. They put their clients’ interest first and foremost, long before their own safety. PBI provides them with accompaniment without which they could not do their work... they save them from being killed.”

Four years later, he founded the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk, stating that: “The launch of the Alliance marks an opportunity for lawyers in the UK, individually and through their firms and Chambers, to fulfil our commitment to the protection of human rights around the world and help our fellow professionals.”

Sir Henry contributed enormously to PBI’s work with his expertise and commitment to supporting human rights defenders at risk through generous financial contributions, life-saving intervention letters, and making statements to protect the lives of legal practitioners around the world. In recognition of this invaluable contribution, Sir Henry was presented with an ‘Invisible Mandelas’ award in 2017.