If you would like to contribute to human rights, start from behind your desk. This is Joost Italianer's message to anyone who is considering contributing to this worthwhile cause. From 2004 to 2015, Joost was a board member of Lawyers for Lawyers (L4L), a foundation that supports lawyers around the world who are hindered in their work. This role took him to places such as China and Syria, where he witnessed first-hand how lawyers are threatened and the challenges they face.
"The extent to which the role of the lawyer is protected in a country is an indicator of the rule of law and therefore of human rights. In many countries, lawyers who assist clients with politically or socially sensitive matters are threatened, persecuted, imprisoned or even murdered. This is done by regimes, paramilitary movements, religious groups or large landowners. Lawyers stand up for the rights of citizens. In countries where lawyers are threatened, the rule of law is under pressure.
When I started working as a lawyer in 1983, my 'boss' was Willem van Manen. For many years, he was president of Lawyers for Lawyers, so from the very start of my legal career I saw up close how important it is to stand up for persecuted lawyers. By the late nineties, the foundation was languishing. In 2004, a few lawyers decided to revive Lawyers for Lawyers, and I became secretary of the new board. I was active on the board of Lawyers for Lawyers until 2015.
Every lawyer who, despite opposition and danger, dedicates himself or herself to his or her clients is a hero to me. In 2010, I was in Damascus and met the Syrian lawyer Razan Zeitouneh, who documented human rights violations by the Assad regime and militant groups in Syria. She was someone who, under great pressure, continued to stand up for human rights in a war zone. In 2013, she was abducted, presumably by a militant group, and never heard from again. She is one of my heroes.
The decline in tolerance we see around the world leads to the suppression and curtailment of rights and the threatening of lawyers. In an increasingly polarised society, dissenting views are less tolerated. When people with dissenting opinions are silenced, so too are those who provide them with legal aid. In China, for example, a lawyer involved in politically sensitive cases risks losing his or her licence, facing criminal prosecution or even disappearing.
The work Lawyers for Lawyers does really can make a difference, and all lawyers can contribute, even from behind their desks. I hope that young lawyers in the Netherlands realise how strong the position of lawyers in the Netherlands is and that this inspires them to dedicate a bit of their time to colleagues abroad who are not as fortunate but who continue to do what they believe to be right, at great personal risk. I think certain events in the past few months in the Netherlands illustrate that we shouldn't take the personal safety of lawyers for granted. If I could offer my younger colleagues one piece of advice it would be to just get started, but don't expect to do great and compelling things immediately. Freeing up some time is all it takes to make a difference."