In today’s world, as some nations reinvent themselves, some deal with emerging economies, and others cope with the aftermath of disasters, legal expertise is a critical resource – and often in short supply among those who need it most. Helping to meet that need is the Rex Foundation’s 2004 Bill Graham Award recipient, the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP).
Founded in 2001, ISLP was the brainchild of two attorneys, Tony Essaye and Robert Kapp, old friends who after long careers with different firms were nearing retirement. “We talked about working together on some project,” Essaye explains. “We’d both done a lot of international work, Bob more in human rights, while I’d done more in business law; we thought there’d be a lot of lawyers getting to retirement age who might be interested in volunteering their time to work on projects overseas. So we pursued and explored that possibility, got a little funding to see whether there would be a lot of interest and whether there would be needs and opportunities overseas that Western lawyers could take part in and be effective. The initial research was positive, so we started in.”
Over the last decade, ISLP’s volunteers have provided assistance in over 50 countries. Today, with a staff of nine, an office in New York and a newly opened branch in Paris, they focus chiefly on two areas: human rights and access to justice, and using the law for equitable economic progress. During the weeks in which the Middle East was erupting in revolution, we spoke with Essaye and ISLP Executive Director Jean Berman about ISLP’s current work.
Rex: How do you find projects–or how do they find you?
Tony Essaye, International Senior Lawyers Project: We either get in touch with organizations we think may need some assistance of this kind–or now that we’re better known, a lot of them hear about us and come to us. We determine whether we have an effective partner to work with to help build their capacity, let them identify what their needs are, and try to respond. Then we go out and try to enlist lawyers to help them.
The staff has done an excellent job of matching capable attorneys with the needs of the organizations with which we work. We’re still of moderate size, but we’ve been able to do an awful lot of projects over the last nine years of active programming.
Rex: What are some examples of the programs?
Jean Berman, ISLP: In 2010, we sent 80 lawyers overseas on 113 project-related trips, and we recruited about 40 law firms for support of those lawyers or other desk-based work. We have projects all over the world, in Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, but we have a few geographic areas where we have a significant focus, in particular Haiti and Liberia–Liberia for several years, and Haiti for the past year and a half.
Rex: Since the earthquake in particular?
Jean Berman, ISLP: Well, we originally went to Haiti in February of 2009, about a year before the earthquake. We decided to focus on Haiti for a couple of reasons: we had just hired a new staff attorney who was born and raised in Haiti, so we had the language capacity and some of the cultural knowledge, and Haiti is, as you know, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. So it seemed a place where we could really make a difference.
That led us to reach out to the Organization of American States and tell them who we are and what we do. From that we developed an initial project involving a reform of the disability rights laws there. Haiti had just signed on to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Disabled, and they needed to adopt a statute to implement it. So we recruited a very experienced French Canadian lawyer, himself disabled and very active in the rights of the disabled, who took the project on as a volunteer.
Based on the trip that our staff attorney and I made to Haiti that February of 2009, we developed quite a few projects; we submitted a grant proposal to fund them to the National Endowment for Democracy and received that grant award–three days after the earthquake.
Most of our work in Haiti has been in the area of criminal justice. At the time we first went, the Haitian government had recently set up a network of legal aid offices around the country with support from the United Nations and the Canadian Development Agency, but these legal aid offices are staffed by extremely junior people, just trainees really. So a large part of our program was sending down experienced legal aid lawyers to work with them, train them, develop manuals and that sort of thing.
Another part of our work is with a very significant human rights organization in Haiti called the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux which works on prisoners’ rights and healthcare issues. They’re also working on sexual violence issues in the camps; we’ve been working with them for the past year and hope to continue working with them. We’ve also done some economic development work with a Haitian microfinance organization and with legal aspects of the reconstruction of the main port, which was badly damaged by the earthquake.
So it’s sort of a wide-ranging program in Haiti, which illustrates the breadth of our services as well, because we draw on volunteers from across the legal profession with expertise varying from legal aid to high-level corporate law; from administrative law and government service to prosecutors. We view ourselves as a full service law firm for poor countries, including for human rights and other civil society organizations.
Rex: Are any issues particularly front and center?
Jean Berman, ISLP: Some areas have come into focus, emerging out of the requests for assistance as a result of the work we’ve done. In economic development, one key area with least developed countries is extractive industries and natural resources. We’ve assisted a number of African countries, particularly Liberia but also several others, in either negotiating major international agreements in the extractive sector or training in best practices, contract management, and legislative reform in the natural resource sector.
A second area of focus is our freedom of expression media law program, where we’ve done significant work in the Middle East. One of our board members is a media law expert; he was outside counsel to the Associated Press during his career. He’s now retired, and we’ve done a fair amount of work on that issue for parliamentarians in various countries and for civil society.
Another area where we’ve made a significant contribution is legal aid. We’ve done a lot of legal aid work in Eastern Europe, in Haiti, some in Africa and some in Asia. We’ve also worked with women’s rights organizations.
One area we’re exploring is called business and human rights, the whole idea of focusing on the obligation of private businesses to respect human rights, human rights treaties and statutes. Some cases are clear and dramatic, such as companies that have been accused of using military protection for an enterprise that results in violence against local citizens; or businesses that use child labor, or are involved in the diamond trade where there are slave-like conditions.
Or land-grabbing, which is a big issue because of the issue of food security. Many countries, particularly China, are trying to secure for themselves large tracts where there isn’t clear ownership. Farmers think they own the land, and it’s sold out from under them. There was a large story about this in Mali recently. The UN is trying to develop a mechanism by which NGOs and civil society and ordinary people can bring a claim against governments and companies and develop a forum for negotiating with them.
Many companies don’t want to violate human rights. They certainly don’t want to be exposed as violating human rights. Many of them aren’t even quite aware of what might be going on. If we can develop a usable mechanism for bringing issues to the attention of the company and the broader community, I think everyone will benefit ultimately, and the UN is working on that. Because we have so many volunteers who are very committed to human rights, but also very knowledgeable about corporations and how they work, we feel we can make a contribution there.
Rex: How do you ensure that the projects you work on are truly driven by the needs of the local people and not by some external agenda?
Jean Berman, ISLP: We try our best to do a couple of things. First of all, we view ourselves as a voice for clients. The clients will tell us what their needs are: whether it’s a government or an NGO, they come to us with a need, and they initially define what it is they need.
That’s the premise; obviously there are always going to be situations in which our lawyers might say, “Well, if you want to accomplish this you should do it this way.” We try to orient our volunteers; we have many countries in which we’ve had volunteers returning for several years, so we share volunteer experiences. Our volunteers are always put in touch with others who have been there. We try to choose volunteers who have a certain amount of humility (laughs).
Most of our volunteers are pretty sophisticated, experienced people. Most of them do a lot of background preparation before they go anywhere–that’s one of the wonderful things about using senior lawyers, you really can trust them, for the most part, to prepare themselves very well. Most of them have traveled; they are really doing it because they want to make a difference, and at the same time most of them are aware of the constraints that our clients and partners are working under.
I think that the notion of the attorney-client relationship, that we are here to help you achieve your goal–not that we are here to help our government achieve its goals (laughs)–really makes a difference. Obviously mistakes will be made, no one’s perfect, but I think that helps address that problem.
Tony Essaye, ISLP: We’ve been very fortunate to be able to enlist really able, committed people. We started with a focus on just retired lawyers, and soon found that senior lawyers still in practice, while they couldn’t take off for six months, might be able to take off a couple weeks. We’ve been able to find excellent people in both groups, and our staff has done a very good job of matching up volunteers with program needs, ensuring that they’re properly oriented and the project is well is thought through.
Jean early on started a process that I think is very important–coming up with a memorandum of understanding for each project, which would be agreed to by the group we’re working with overseas, by ourselves, and by the volunteer, which would not be a legalistic document, but would just lay out what the project is and what are the mutual objectives, so everyone would start out on the same page.
Jean Berman, ISLP: When I say the client defines their objectives, that’s true, but we help them elaborate on them. A group will come to us and say something very vague about helping them organize a coalition of women’s rights advocates to do something. And then we refine that.
One way our MOUs help ensure that we accomplish our goals is that they’re very detailed. If we’re sending a volunteer to an NGO for, say, two months, what’s going to happen in the first week when they get there, which is going to set the tone for the whole thing? Early on we discovered that if you didn’t have that set out in detail, the volunteer could sit around for a couple of weeks and things could get off on the wrong foot. Even when you depart from what the MOU originally said, because life changes things, as long as it starts out well, the project progresses well.
Rex: What do you see as the crisis and opportunities emerging in the Middle East?
Tony Essaye, ISLP: I think in Egypt, as opposed to some of the other countries in the Middle East, there is a very strong and sophisticated legal community. They’ve been suppressed for many years, but they’re there, and they certainly seem to be coming to the fore in terms of rewriting the constitution themselves and moving that forward.
Where we may be able to be particularly helpful though is in an area where we’ve already been doing some work in the Middle East: in freedom of the press and related issues through our media law group. As Jean mentioned, one of our board members, Dick Winfield, has a coterie of 20-30 media lawyers, some retired, some still in practice, who have gone to quite a number of countries, including some in the Middle East, to try to help civil society come up with ways and means of moving forward with press freedom and freedom of information, gaining access to government information, and breaking down the walls of secrecy.
We even did that in Yemen–we have been assisting three parliamentarians from the opposition party in Yemen who are pursuing legislation that would provide more freedom of information. As these revolutions occur, the hope is that there will be a whole new playing field, and the opportunities and needs for sophisticated advice in the legal area will certainly be substantial.
Jean Berman, ISLP: We have also provided a number of volunteers to work weeks and even months on site with human rights NGOs and legal aid providers. And I see the possibility at least that women’s rights in particular will be an issue in these Middle Eastern countries, whether going backwards, as possibly in Tunisia and Egypt, or going forward, as in other countries.
We have volunteers who would be prepared to go over and work with these groups on site. One of the major contributions a number of our volunteers have made is to the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Mongolia, to help them build coalitions and help them get a seat at the table with government–this organization is focused primarily on environmental issues arising out of the mining industry. I see that as also a possibility in the Middle East, depending on how dangerous the place is, working with NGOs that are pushing the human rights agenda forward. We’ve done that also in Afghanistan with one group, and may really have strengthened that organization.
Tony Essaye, ISLP: On the other hand, to contrast a bit, in a country like the newly emerging South Sudan, where they don’t have a legal community of any significance, we could potentially make a much broader contribution. Each country is different, obviously; we’ll look at all these countries, and if we’re asked to, we’ll consider where we can make an effective contribution.
Jean Berman, ISLP: There are so many pressing needs. We are tremendously grateful to the lawyers who come to ISLP from a variety of countries, willing to contribute their considerable expertise, pro bono, to efforts to advance human rights, equitable economic development and the rule of law.
We also have the deepest appreciation for funders like the Rex Foundation who supported us during our earliest days, believing as we do that to bring about real, long-term, sustainable change, sound legal frameworks and institutions must be developed, and commitment to the rule of law must take root.