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FOCUS December 2004 Volume 38

Law, Lawyers and Human Rights


Authoritarian governments proliferated in Asia-Pacific during the decade of the 1970s. It was truly a disastrous decade for human rights. Arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances, extra-judicial killings, among others, were directly attributed to both official policies and secret operations of authoritarian governments.

During this period of massive violations of human rights, law was reduced to a mere instrument of injustice. But there were some lawyers who stood up, at their peril, to tell governments that the violations have to stop. Knowing that they were up against powerful people and institutions, they pursued what they perceived then as the only peaceful option.

Lawyers organized themselves not merely to handle human rights cases in courts but to bring the issue to the people. They were proactive. They saw the need to document human rights violations and inform the public how these violations take away the security of society as a whole. Some helped empower disadvantaged groups to fight for their rights.

Eventually, in many countries, law has been restored almost to the state of majesty where it belongs. But the danger of sliding back to the experience of the 1970s is chillingly present in the current era of "anti-terrorism" policies of governments.

Some lawyers are therefore ever vigilant in preventing this from happening. Ultimately, however, the society as a whole has to make sure that this does not happen.