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Activists, storytellers, and lawyers

Activists, storytellers, and lawyers

FRANSCHOEK, South Africa — I am in this southernmost country of the continent of Africa attending a gathering of human rights and social movement lawyers from different parts of the world.

The gathering is sponsored by the Bertha Foundation, a charitable organization set up by a South African philanthropist whose overall vision is to create a network of activists, storytellers, and lawyers who are “working to bring about social and economic justice” in various countries suffering different forms of inequality and oppression.

The conference is being held in one of the oldest farms in South Africa, called Boschendal, which was founded in 1685. The farm is nestled in a picturesque valley surrounded by dramatic mountain landscapes, and located 60 kilometers from the beautiful city of Cape Town. Boschendal has a vineyard that produces award-winning wines, fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, and cattle and other livestock farms.

The principal aim of the gathering is to give the representatives of invited public-interest organizations an opportunity to meet their counterparts from other countries and learn from one another’s advocacies and methodologies. The Bertha Foundation encourages the lawyer groups to also collaborate with social movement activists, and storytellers who create powerful film documentaries. It sees activists, storytellers, and lawyers as potent agents of social justice in every society.

I was invited to represent the Center for International Law (Centerlaw), together with fellow lawyer Roger Rayel. Centerlaw represents the families of 19 victims in the Ampatuan massacre, the rape victims during the World War II Japanese occupation known as the “Malaya Lolas,” and the family of transgender Jennifer Laude who was murdered by an American soldier. More recently, Centerlaw filed two writ-of-amparo petitions in the Supreme Court in behalf of the families of victims of the current antidrug campaign in Payatas, Quezon City, and San Andres Bukid, Manila.

The achievements of the other organizations represented in the gathering are exceptional. There is the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), an American lawyer group behind the legal victory in the case Filartiga v. Pena-Irala which opened US courts to victims of serious human rights violations from anywhere in the world. It was also responsible for the US Supreme Court decision in Rasul v. Bush which established the right of Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detention.

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Germany-based lawyer organization, is likewise represented. It has been involved in litigation, investigation, or rendition of expert legal advice in human rights violations committed by countries and their leaders, like the United States and the United Kingdom. It was the ECCHR that won a European court decision ordering the removal of Communist Party of the Philippines founding chair Jose Maria Sison from the “terrorist list” of the European Union.

There’s also Earth Rights International (ERI), a lawyer group involved in the landmark case of Doe v. Unocal where a US court ruled that American corporations and their officers can be held responsible under US laws for violation of international human rights laws committed in foreign countries. The defendant company settled the claims before the case could reach the US Supreme Court.

The other lawyer organizations are pursuing the “right to food” as a constitutional right in India, the right to education in South Africa, the liability of the United Nations for spreading cholera in Haiti, the liability of US companies for wrongful acts of their labor recruiters in Mexico, the liability for illegal US drone attacks in Pakistan, and reparations for human rights victims in Colombia, among others.

There’s so much to learn from courageous activists, imaginative storytellers, and radical lawyers from all over the world who are advancing creative legal theories and pursuing innovative ways to free their peoples from their calvary of oppression.

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