Initiatives for Supporting the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers

A View from the International Association of People’s Lawyers*

Presented by Gill H. Boehringer  

09 January 2016

I feel privileged to be here today amongst such a distinguished and, I must say, formidable line-up of speakers and conference participants.

And I would like to congratulate our hosts for their splendid work in organizing this historic event and, of course, their hard work and commitment in supporting the Chinese human rights lawyers.

I also wish to pay my respects to our friends and colleagues from Hong Kong for the singular and inspiring work they have been doing for the defence of the Chinese lawyers, but also in providing the rest of the world with so much, and so immediate, information that has allowed the international community to push back against the government in China.

Finally, to the courageous lawyers from mainland China- I salute you.

I have been asked to talk about the work done by the IAPL on this matter of the “709” (July 9th 2015) crackdown in China, and attacks on lawyers generally. It was also suggested that I should indicate what I believe the international legal community and human rights groups can do to assist the beleaguered Chinese lawyers-and the others suffering along with them which includes family, friends, colleagues, and the activists who support them as well as the lawyers who defend them.

You will have a copy of an extract from an IAPL concept paper, “Defending the Defenders: Attacks on Lawyers-a problem in search of solutions” (May, 2015). The extract contains Part Four, entitled “Organizing Resistance”. The original paper may be accessed from our website: (Click on DISSENT which is our journal. It contains the paper in a special online edition.)

I also will refer you to our blog, which provides information about attacks on lawyers around the world and the latest campaigns and other developments in specific cases. For some months it has focused on the “709” crackdown in China. My colleague and our research expert, Stuart Russell, is responsible for the blog, He provides daily posts, and also has a significant, more general personal presence on Facebook. (In Appendix A, I indicate the sources of the news that Stuart uses for the IAPL blog and the website.)

Regarding the specific situation in China, about which we have come to this conference to learn, knowing little about the social, political and economic context in which the crackdown is occurring, let me make two points. Two things I hope we will learn from the Chinese lawyers in our discussions:

  1. What is their view on what we can do that would be most helpful for them;

  2. What is their view about actions we ought not to do because of the risk of injury to them (and others) and/or their cause.

Some background to the IAPL involvement:

For about seven years Stuart Russell and I have been studying how lawyers interact with the state in the context of globalization. (See e.g. our “Globalisation, Lawyers and the State” in the Alternative Law Journal 33:3, 169-72, Sept., 2008). We noted that “resistance lawyering is a response to the actions of political states which…have dropped the pretences of liberalism and increasingly adopted authoritarian practices”, and discussed militant actions taken by lawyers in France, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Of course the situation in China has its own specificity, though there is some similarity. While the Chinese government, and President XI Jinping in particular, have been talking about the importance of that basic liberal concept, the rule of law, it has not implemented it broadly, but only in a selective manner. The human rights lawyers are resisting many authoritarian policies and practices of the state, and trying to bring significant legal reforms such as the independence of the judiciary, which is presently controlled by the Communist Party of China.

While the IAPL has for some time considered attacks on lawyers a serious problem, we thought that we should leave work in this area--our resources being limited--to other groups already in the field and doing important work, such as Lawyers 4 Lawyers and Lawyers Rights Watch Canada. However, about a year and a half ago we could see that the situation was getting worse around the globe, and that there was a space in which we could make a contribution. The IAPL established a Monitoring Committee on Attacks Against Lawyers, and created a blog for the purpose of providing daily information of an immediate kind on such attacks, as well as focusing on specific countries where the situation was deteriorating for human rights lawyers. As academics we would have the time and resources to make an ongoing and consistent critical contribution. In addition to writing analyses, we would provide easily accessible documentation of the difficulties lawyers were facing in specific countries, we could monitor the developments generally around the globe, and we could also act as a facilitator of international actions, working toward the development of more united and/or coordinated activity to provide more effective resistance to attacks on lawyers. Our first report, on lawyer killings in the Philippines, was published as “Attacks on Lawyers: a threat to democracy” (Alternative Law Journal, 40:1, 71-2 May 2015).

From our monitoring we have compiled a list of 90 countries where there are credible reports of attacks on lawyers. (See Appendix B). No doubt the true figure is far greater, but we have had difficulty in getting information from many countries.

Attacks on lawyers

We include actions, either physical or nonphysical, that are intended to be, or could reasonably be anticipated would be, an interference with a lawyer’s performance of their professional duty. There is a substantial discussion of the concept, and examples of attacks from several dozen countries, in the original paper, “Defending the Defenders” referred to above.

Three Practical Initiatives:

In the circulated extract from the paper “Defending the Defenders” we have made a number of suggestions for both short term and long term initiatives. Today I will offer three, two of which are mentioned in that paper.

  1. A large, open to all International Conference should be convened on the issue of attacks on lawyers, with focus on China as a prismatic case through which we can analyse the phenomenon of such repression. The IAPL has already raised this idea with a number of groups in different regions of the world and received positive, in principle support for a Conference. One group that has offered such support is the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) of the Philippines. They have suggested that participants in this Taiwan conference, and others interested, could “brainstorm” the idea at COLAP VI- Conference of Asia Pacific Lawyers- to be held in Kathmandu, Nepal, 17-19 June 2016. This is an important conference for lawyers of the region to get together and exchange ideas, network etc. It would be especially valuable for the Chinese lawyers to attend if at all possible, particularly to learn more about the use of international law and institutions as the Filipinos are expert at doing so.

  2. Approach to the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT). Briefly, a People’s Tribunal is an informal, extra-legal consciousness raising event. An issue is brought to the PPT by a concerned group who must demonstrate a capacity to finance and organize the tribunal in a suitable venue. A panel of experts in diverse fields is chosen, e.g. lawyers, economists, sociologists, journalists or media experts, scientists and medical doctors; a mixture of some local some international personnel is usual. The panel is convened to assess the case, usually for 2 or 3 days of hearings and the rendering of a verdict at a media conference. The defendant(s) have been governments, international agencies; mega corporations such as the “brands” e.g. H& M, Nike, Gap, Puma, Adidas. Recently, in the case of the work and life conditions of Asian garment workers, the PPT critically examined the system of global network production of garments.

Hearings are held at which affected individuals, experts in the field and others are invited to testify. Evidence can be taken orally in person, or remote by tape, video, Skype. Evidence is also presented in written form. Often a substantial amount of contextual research work is sent out to the panel in advance of the tribunal. There will be a group of “prosecutors” who manage the proceedings and question witnesses as well as guiding the panel through introductory and closing presentations on the issues considered. The panel may ask questions of the witnesses. The “defendants” are notified of the tribunal and given the opportunity to be heard. Some do so, most do not. The proceedings are advertised and open to the public. After the verdict is reached it is presented at an open media conference, and widely distributed.

The PPT is a 40 year old well respected institution, head quartered in Rome. For those interested I can send you a list of the issues covered by the PPT over the years, as well as a history of such “tribunals of conscience”. The IAPL works closely with the PPT. I have chaired two of their sessions and served on the panels of three others, and am confident that it would be a potential weapon of significance in the struggle for the independence and rights of lawyers. The PPT has expressed interest in such a project if there is a group willing to pursue the matter. The PPT is helpful in developing such events in cooperation with the interested group(s).

It is sometimes said that the PPT cannot have any real impact as it is only a consciousness raising mechanism. But that raised consciousness can become a material force when consistently used by committed workers or others against a government or corporations. Let me provide an example of the impact of the PPT. It is from the Asian Floor Wage Alliance case for establishing the concept of a “living wage” as a fundamental human right, foundational for the reality of most other human rights. The PPT held five sessions across Asia over four years, investigating the work and life conditions of garment workers in the global supply chain used by the “brands” to obtain garments at low cost resulting in huge profits. As a result of this challenge to the “brands” and the suppliers, relevant governments and international agencies, including the International Labour Organization, have recognized the concept of a living wage. It is now accepted as being rightly on the bargaining table.

In my view, the Chinese government is feeling the “heat” of international criticism and scorn for their unjustifiable actions against the lawyers. The PPT could assist in keeping the pressure on.

  1. China and the Day of the Endangered Lawyer. Each year on January 22 the lawyers under attack in a designated country are recognized by focussing on that country. The event receives considerable publicity. This year Honduras has been chosen. There, 86 lawyers have been killed since 2008. I would suggest that the organisers of the event in Europe should be approached with an application nominating China to be the focus in 2017. We at the IAPL can supply details for contacting the organizers and information regarding the material that needs to be supplied with an application. The approach, if there is one, should be made as soon as possible.


Sources used by Stuart Russell in reporting the IAPL Monitoring of Attacks on Lawyers

The following are estimates:

Lawyers4Lawyers c. 20%

Lawyers Rights Watch Canada c. 20%

International Bar Association c.20%

Google Alerts c.15%

International Commission of Jurists c.10%

Facebook (various) c.10%

Other (increasing) remainder

Source languages covered: English, French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish--by Stuart Russell and his Brazilian partner.

Stuart is now focusing on China and is posting a great deal of information from our colleagues in the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, for which we are grateful. We are most appreciative of their marvellous commitment and hard work.


IAPL Monitoring Committee on Attacks on Lawyers


1. Afghanistan
2. Angola
3. Argentina
4. Australia
5. Azerbaijan
6. Bahrain
7. Bangladesh
8. Barbados
9. Belize
10. Botswana
11. Brazil
12. Belarus
13. Bulgaria
14. Burundi
15. Cameroun
16. Canada
17. China
18. Colombia
19. Comoros
20. Croatia
21. D. R. of Congo
22. Egypt
23. Ecuador
24. Equat. Guinea
25. France
26. Germany
27. Greece
28. Guatemala
29. Guinea Bissau
30. Haiti

31. Honduras
32. Hungary
33. India
34. Indonesia
35. Iran
36. Iraq
37. Israel
38. Italy
39. Kazakhstan
40. Kenya
41. Kuwait
42. Kyrgyzstan
43. Laos
44. Lebanon
45. Lesotho
46. Liberia
47. Libya
48. Malaysia
49. Maldives
50. Mexico
51. Morocco
52. Myanmar
53. Nauru
54. Nepal
55. New Zealand
56. Nigeria
57. Oman
58. Pakistan
59. Panama
60. Papua New Guinea

62. Peru
63. Philippines
64. P. Rico (USA colony)
65. Romania
66. Russia
67. Saudi Arabia
68. Senegal
69. Singapore
70. Somalia
71. South Africa
72. Spain
73. Sri Lanka
74. Sudan
75. Swaziland
76. Syria
77. Tajikistan
78. Thailand
79. Timor Leste
80. Tunisia
81. Turkey
82. Uganda
83. Un. Arab Emirates
84. United Kingdom
85. USA
86. Ukraine
87. Venezuela
88. Vietnam
89. Zambia
90. Zimbabwe


Report of the World Observatory for Defence Rights and Attacks Against Lawyers, published in 2014. Attacks reported in the Observatory Report for 47 countries where they had information of attacks; other countries in which attacks occurred were added to this list by the IAPL.

Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada

Website of the European Bar Human Rights Institute

Press releases of the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute

International Association of People’s Lawyers Monitoring Committee research project.

Google Alert: Lawyers Attacked

Human Rights Watch

Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers

Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Karapatan, National Union of People’s Lawyers, Philippine National Police

Other media accounts and material written by human rights defenders or about them

Personal knowledge, research including interviews

Two articles in Alternative Law Journal (Australia) by Gill H. Boehringer and Stuart Russell; Gill Boehinger, Stuart Russell, Kristian Boehringer, Julio Moreira.

Gill Boehringer; Stuart Russell; Kristian Boehringer and Julio Moreira, “Defending the Defenders: Attacks on Lawyers-A problem in Search of Solutions”, Special Issue of DISSENT (see the website of the International Association of People’s Lawyers).

For daily reports on attacks on lawyers around the globe, see the blog of the IAPL Monitoring Committee: