We have initiated a new project in which we will publish a series of brief interviews with prominent European lawyers, academics and executives of judges’ associations.
Our third interview is with Irma van den Berg who is the president of Lawyers for Lawyers, since 1 July 2019. Ms Van den Berg is a lawyer at Six Advocaten and has served as a board member of Lawyers for Lawyers for the last 11 years.
Dear Irma, first I must say that we admire Lawyers for Lawyers’ work. We have been grateful for your advocacy and support for the lawyers persecuted for performing their profession, particularly your advocacy relating to Turkey.
Q1: Could you tell us about Lawyers for Lawyers which you have been a board member of Lawyers for Lawyers for 10 years, and the president for a year?
Ms Van den Berg: Lawyers for Lawyers is an independent and non-political Dutch foundation, operating in many countries all over the world. Our aim is to ensure that all lawyers can work freely and independently, without fear of harassment or prosecution, so that they can defend their clients in accordance with the right to a fair trial, uphold the rule of law and protect human rights.
We defend lawyers at risk by raising awareness of their cases through writing letters or through social media campaigns, observe trials against lawyers, visit countries for fact finding missions and send in submissions to UN-bodies. We organize trainings for lawyers so they can train in effectively using international mechanisms and the international community to protect themselves and their clients. And we promote the UN Basic Principles on the role of lawyers to raise awareness and inform lawyers, other stakeholders and the public about the important role of lawyers in the protection of the rule of law and human rights.
At the moment we are in the middle of our #Freethelawyers campaign. Many lawyers all over the world face prosecution and arbitrary arrest, simply for doing their job. We advocate for lawyers who are serving long prison sentences, through interventions, social media campaigns and individual petitions or submissions.
#FreeTheLawyers Campaign by Lawyers for Lawyer
Do you want to know how you can support the lawyers and engage in our actions? Please click here!
Ms Van den Berg: We aim to bring awareness to their cases and lobby for their release, and also show our solidarity. We want them to know that colleagues from other countries support them and that they are not alone in their fight. One of the lawyers highlighted in this campaign is Selçuk Kozağaçlı from Turkey. He is also the recipient of the Lawyers for Lawyers 2019 – award.
Q2: You are also a practising lawyer. What is the secret of being successful, as you are, in both volunteer and professional activities
The most important thing to me is to do something that you are genuinely interested in, or even have a passion for, and to find out what it is that you are really good at. Use your abilities. And of course, both as a lawyer and as a volunteer, education and preparation is key: if you know what you are talking about, you can be convincing and better achieve your objectives.
When it comes to L4L, our success greatly comes from the excellent team in the L4L-offices and from our group of 60 volunteers. They are the core and the backbone of L4L – as are, by the way, our international colleagues such as yourself, and so many other lawyers from Turkey. So this is very important as well: find the right people to work with !
Q3: As the executive of a very well-known and influential NGO, you are dealing with wide-range of issues. The worrisome decline in terms of the independence of the judiciary in Europe is one of those (i.e: Poland, Hungary). How can we prevent this issue from spreading to other countries?
I think NGO’s can have a role in documenting the situation in those countries in detail and make sure that the relevant EU-bodies know exactly what is happening on the ground. As lawyers are greatly affected by a judiciary that is not independent, L4L can do this from a lawyers’ perspective. Furthermore, NGO’s can lobby for action of the EU, if necessary, and support judges and – in case of L4L – lawyers in the countries that are dealing with this issue. As for preventing this issue from spreading to other countries, it seems to me that education and information is key: it is essential that the importance of independence of the judiciary is emphasized as much as possible, in as many fora as possible. Not only in the legal community, but in the public debate as well.
This issue is relevant in all European countries. Right now in the Netherlands, there is a public debate about the tasks of judges, as a result of two judgment of the High Court and the highest administrative court at the Council of State, based on EU-law: did the judges overstep their competence and ‘sit on the chair’ of the administration and / or the legislator? My hope is that this discussion will lead to the possibility to underline in the public debate the importance of an independent judiciary that can correct unlawful decisions by the executive, instead of weakening the judiciary.
Q4 : The independence of the judiciary and lawyers exists to ensure the right to a fair trial for individuals. How can we better explain this to fellow citizens and secure their support?
The system of a functioning democracy, including the rule of law, human rights, the right to a fair trial and the role of the judiciary, the prosecution and lawyers in this system, should be taught as early as possible to children going to school. There should be (and there are) publications and books about the topic for non-lawyers. And these issues should be kept alive in the minds of our fellow citizens, through the media and in discussions. Several newspapers in the Netherlands do address these issues regularly, and there are venues where these issues are discussed on a regular basis. But the challenge is to reach people who do not read these newspapers or visit these venues and do not feel this is important or even reject the notion. I do not have a clear solution for that, unfortunately. L4L is always thinking about how we can reach a bigger audience. Somehow these issues need to be connected to the experiences of people in a way that they want to engage.
Q5: As the COVID19 pandemic poses an imminent and severe risk to the lives of individuals and society in general, many countries have declared a state of emergency and introduced emergency measures. Could you share your observations as to the state of emergency measures? For instance, were those introduced in the Netherlands proportionate? In your opinion, is there a risk that these emergency regulations may become the new “normal”?
I think it is very hard to say whether or not the emergency measures were proportionate or not. Certainly in the beginning of the pandemic governments and health officials did not know what exactly they were dealing with, but it was clear that COVID19 could potentially harm many people. Looking at countries that did not respond accurately, I am happy with the measures the Dutch government took, albeit not perfect, both from the public health perspective as from the economic perspective. However, it is obvious that large groups of people are disproportionally affected by the crisis: of course the people who have lost their lives or suffer permanent consequences of the disease, and their loved ones, but naturally also all the people that are losing their businesses or their jobs, or had little money to spend to begin with. And we don’t know the full extent of the crisis yet.
In the Netherlands the government is proposing a temporary law to establish a legal basis for COVID19-measures (up until now we had emergency decrees). There is a lot of discussion about the legality and the proportionality of the measures, given the infringement on fundamental rights, the division of authority and the possiblity of control by the parliament. Since it is unclear how long the COVID19-crisis will continue, there is a risk that this law will be extended and will exist for quite a long time. It seems crucial to me that in every stage the proportionality of the law itself and the measures in it are subject to review, and withdrawal if and as soon as possible, and that there will be an effective control mechanism.
For L4L the COVID19-crisis did not mean less work. Lawyers all over the world are affected by the crisis; on our website we publish a series of interviews about this. And especially imprisoned lawyers, such as the many lawyers in overcrowded prisons in Turkey, or in Egypt, or in Iran, are very much at risk. We have been working, together with our international partners, to raise awareness for their plight and demand governments to take action and release lawyers who are convicted for doing their job.
I would like to specifically mention the situation of Ebru Timtik and Aytaç Unsal, who have been convicted to long prison sentenced, are in prison awaiting a decision of the Supreme Court and are on hunger strike since February 2020. All they are asking for is a fair trial. We have been advocating for them and we urge the Turkish government to release them immediately.
As an organization L4L is facing a substantial drop in donations this year, as many charity organizations do. Fundraising and charity events such as the ‘Dam tot Dam’-run cannot take place right now. We are working hard to compensate that, but we do need the help of our donors. Our donors are lawyers, law firms and organizations associated with lawyers, such as educational institutions or publishers of legal publications. We are hoping that they will step up to help our organization through this period.
Q6: Our last two questions are about Turkey. We have enjoyed the incredible solidarity offered by Lawyers for Lawyers which has shown great interest in the problems of arrested Turkish lawyers. As a lawyer who has great insight into the human rights situation in Turkey, especially relating to lawyers, and the legal profession as a whole, what would you like to say to our European colleagues as to how they could help their Turkish colleagues?
There is a lot European lawyers can do. European lawyers can monitor trials in Turkey, they can write letters to the authorities or join in social media campaigns. In many European countries there are organizations working to support lawyers in Turkey: human rights institutes of bar associations or NGO’s, such as L4L. European lawyers can join them and participate in the activities they organize. These activities aim at raising awareness of the situation of the lawyers in Turkey and advocate for the improvement of their situation, but also to show solidarity and support. The feedback that we always get is that a simple gesture, such as sending a postcard to a lawyer in prison, has a lot of positive impact.
Q7: In December, 2019, the European Council adopted a human rights sanction regime. Can it produce accountability, to some extent, for those responsible for gross human rights violations, and help to improve the situation in Turkey?
I think it is a good step that not only countries but also individuals can be held accountable for human rights violations, as long as an effective judicial protection system for these individuals is in place as well. The sanction regime might have a chilling effect on potential human rights abusers. L4L has not yet studied the sanction regime in depth, so it is too early for me to tell whether or not this can improve the situation in Turkey, but it is certainly worth looking into.
Q8: Last question: Could you suggest one or two books or movies for colleagues and law school students?
There are several great documentaries about lawyers and the rule of law. One I saw recently is ‘A haunting history’, made by Femke and Ilse van Velzen, about South Sudanese lawyer Anuol Deng who had to flee his country as a child, studied law in the UK and returned to South Sudan in 2012, aspiring to help establish the rule of law in his brand new country. The documentary is about the struggle he faces after he returns, and is highly recommended.
One of my favorite books is ‘The plot against America’ by Philip Roth. What would have happened if Charles Lindbergh, a non-political celebrity and an isolationist, had become president of the United States in 1940 instead of Franklin Roosevelt? With our knowledge of American politics today, this book is eerily prophetic.
And finally, for Dutch readers: ‘De Zweetvoetenman’ by Annet Huizing, a book about the law and the rule of law, that is funny and insightful, both for children and for adults.
This interview was published on 22 July 2020.