Growing up in Burma during the military dictatorship of the 1980s, Ka Hsaw Wa writes, “we used to say that when you hear the word ‘law’, you run in the other direction.” Ka Hsaw Wa was forced into exile after being arrested and tortured during the Burmese student uprising of 1988. In this powerful personal essay, he describes how he turned away from violence after witnessing atrocities, and came to understand the law, rather than military warfare, as a way to bring about change to his home country. This was through the precedent-setting UNOCAL pipeline case, which established that an American corporation could be held liable for gross human rights violations committed on foreign soil. The decade-long case helped him see the possibilities of legal advocacy, but only when it went hand in hand with movement-building: “Not only were the people more powerful with legal tools in their hands, but the law was more powerful too, when the people on the ground – those with the most to gain and lose – were inhabiting it with their own experiences.” Still, he understood the law’s limitations, in changing peoples’ lives: “Law is not the leader,” he concludes. “It is a tool for strengthening the community.”
After graduating from law school, Katie Redford set up Earth Rights International with the revolutionary from Burma, Ka Hsaw Wa. Through intense community mobilization they established a case against Unocal, the US oil giant, for the human rights abuses committed on its behalf by the Burmese military. Vividly bringing alive key moments in the lawsuit, Katie tells the story of the case and introduces us to its most memorable plaintiff, a villager who had been forced to watch her baby burnt alive by military officers. A Supreme Court victory in 1997 established a stunning precedent: US corporations could be held accountable for human rights abuse abroad. But, Katie writes, “we knew we were challenging one of the most powerful extractive industries in the world and we couldn’t be one ourselves” – extracting the stories and experiences of already-marginalized people just to win a point, invaluable though it might be, in American jurisprudence. This brought her to a lesson she has tried to apply ever since, in her work as a movement lawyer: “It’s all about power. We want our clients and their communities to feel more powerful, to be more powerful, because of our legal work and the process we help them access. And we want those who abuse power, because they have too much of it, to understand that they have less power than before they were hauled into court.”
As young Black law professor at St Louis University, in Missouri, Justin Hansford found himself in the thick of the protests following the murder of an unarmed teenager by a Ferguson police officer in August 2012. These protests after the murder of Mike Brown were the beginning of the mass Movement for Black Lives – and of a journey, for Hansford, into understanding what it means to be a “movement lawyer” when you are a member of the community under threat yourself. “Narratives provide the lifeblood of the law, as well as the lifeblood of social movements,” he writes, telling his own story: from being ‘saved’ as a teenager by reading Malcolm X to taking Mike Brown’s parents to testify before the United Nations Committee on Torture in Geneva. When he was arrested among others at a Wal-Mart sit-in in Ferguson, he missed the opportunity to turn the occasion into a political trial, he writes: “There was nothing in my education to prepare me for how to make such decisions; how to straddle the streets and the courthouse; how to turn protest into policy; how to intentionally set out to shape public narrative; how to think both as a lawyer and an activist…” In this brilliant essay, and in his own teaching at Howard University now, he sets out how to do so.
Baher Azmy describes the remarkable fifteen-year long campaign of grassroots police accountability in New York City to overturn the abusive and discriminatory “stop and frisk” policy. The policy allowed for people to searched on the suspicion that they “might” be criminals. Floyd vs New York City is celebrated as a powerful case study of how “the power of law” and “the power of people” can work best together, and Asmy describes how the 2013 case drew its power from the mobilization that happened outside the courtroom – power it brought onto the witness stand, into court evidence, and into the gallery too. The case became the focus for mass mobilization in Black communities: even after a victory for the litigants was overturned on appeal, the new mayor Bill de Blasio cancelled the policy – as he had promised to do on the campaign trail, in response to the movement. Now that the policy is on the table again, with the election of Eric Adams, Asmy’s findings have more relevance than ever: “Meaningful and durable social change comes not from legal rulings, which are inherently vulnerable over time and contingent on political forces in the longer term,” writes Asmy, on of America’s most thoughtful and experienced movement lawyers. “They come from social and political movements that center communities most impacted by an injustice, as the agents of the change they demand.”
Lawyers have played a critical part in the mass popular movement that brought about the “October Revolution” in Lebanon in 2019 and that is now demanding significant political change in the country. Building on her years of experience defending vulnerable detainees – especially LGBT refugees – Ghida Frangieh describes the “Lawyers’ Committee” she set up, and the work it has done at the frontlines, defending and supporting the hundreds of protestors arrested and detained. She describes, unforgettably, her experiences counselling injured detainees in police-cells and searching for others who have been ‘disappeared’. “Law is too important to be left in the hands of lawyers alone,” she writes, describing the campaign she and colleagues ran to ensure that people knew Article 47 of the Lebanese constitution, which sets out detainees’ rights. So successful has this campaign been that it has resulted in a recent strengthening of the law by parliament. “The traditional view is that a lawyer is the one who steals your money or who protects the interests of people in power,” Ghida writes, “but now the perception of people involved in the uprising, at least, has changed, and we are often called ‘the lawyers of the revolution.’”
Pavel Chikov is perhaps Russia’s most well-known human rights lawyer, and in this fascinating interview, he looks back at the lessons he has learned about legal advocacy in a repressive political environment. These range from exposing police abuse – including rape – in his native Kazan, to defending high-profile clients like the feminist punk group Pussy Riot and the Russian “Mark Zuckerberg.” In this last case, Pavel successfully used the courts to buy time for the social media platform Telegram, so that it could improve its encryption and evade Russian censorship laws. Particularly given the lack of political space and an independent judiciary, Pavel understands the power of mobilizing “the court of public opinion”. He describes how his organisation often makes public calls for victims of human rights abuse to come forward – most recently around unnecessary Covid-19 deaths: “This is a form of mass mobilization” now that conventional “political mobilization is less possible in Russia.” Of course there are personal risks, he writes, but this is offset “by taking pleasure in every success you achieve, in your professionalism. Especially if it’s a political case, where there’s an activist found not guilty and an investigation terminated, or released from custody. You think, ‘Sometimes I can win even in such a shitty environment.’”
Before she was tapped in 2010 to defend Julian Assange and Wikileaks, Jennifer Robinson saw her job in the traditional way: as “defending an individual and advising an organization” rather than “serving a movement.” But then the London-based Australian barrister “saw how this person with nothing more than a backpack, together with a very small group of effective volunteers, could shake the world's superpower to its core with his revelations about war crimes, human rights abuse and corruption.” Fighting Assange’s extradition from the UK to Sweden and then the US, Jennifer witnessed the way the “imperial, global power” of the US and its allies were being used to slur her client as “the greatest threat to freedom, when, in fact, his work was designed to facilitate freedom: freedom of speech and the public’s right to know.” Because she “cared deeply about these freedoms” she realized: “I was part of this movement too.” In this gripping essay written from within the heart of the Assange case over a decade, Jennifer describes her experience, relating it to her ongoing work on behalf of the West Papua liberation movement. Her legal work was essential, but defending Assange required more. It required public advocacy: working with activists and protesters, in the media and on the streets, to challenge the narrative and actions of the US government in order to protect his rights – and, she had come to see, basic democratic rights too.
Alejandra Ancheita was following in her father’s footsteps when she became a lawyer defending indigenous peoples’ rights in Mexico. He died while on the job in Chiapas when she was still a child, and in this compelling essay Alejandra twines the personal, the political, and the professional. The contrast between her father’s work and her own, she writes, “suggests a distinction between the lawyer as leader and the lawyer as organiser.” Whereas communities “often expected a leader, a man with all the answers I decided from the start that wasn’t going to be my position. My father was a lawyer-as-leader partly because he was a man. I am a lawyer, and I’m also a woman, and a community organiser who is not interested in using law in a traditional way.” Alejandra draws lessons from deep and vivid readings of her work with communities, against foreign energy and mining corporations: “By the time we won our victory at La Sierrita, the scars were already deep in the community and on the environment, given the extraction that had already taken place. In the future, I resolved, we would need work with communities to stop such damage before it even began."
In 2005, JingJing Zhang won a settlement in a landmark class action suit against a Chinese state chemicals company for polluting a community’s water supply in Fuzhou: in authoritarian China, environmental advocacy was the only way of doing human rights work. More recently, she has dedicated her life to holding her country accountable for environmental and human rights abuse around the world. In this essay, she follows China’s Belt and Road initiative, from Ecuador in Latin America to Guinea in West Africa, working with communities who have suffered in its wake of Chinese mining projects. When frustrated – as she often is, by the almost insurmountable problems of poverty and disempowerment – she remembers the experience of the Fuzhou victory, and its effect on the villagers she represented: ‘They had come to understand what the law meant, and how they could use it to protect their own rights. They had become the owner of their laws – I could even say the owner of their power. They were furious with the company for appealing the verdict, but I sensed something else alongside the anger: I would call it confidence… All around me were citizens, not subjects. It felt like a first for China, and whether we won or lost, I knew I had done my job.”
Fresh from a bruising negative 2019 verdict in a suit to decriminalize homosexuality in Kenya, the LGBTQ+ lawyer Njeri Gateru notes the value of the case, anyway, in raising awareness, attracting new supporters in parliament and the media: “Being yourself publicly also changes people’s perceptions. People are unable to marry their hate or their ignorance with their understanding of your humanity.” Using her personal experience, Njeri makes the point that the “the law” and “the people” are not two distinct columns: her life and her practice, her politics and her profession, are inextricable. She describes the complexity, of this, in her preparation for the decriminalization case: not just preparing the legal arguments, but “preparing yourself as a person who participates in the movement” and “preparing the emotions of the community for whatever the outcome is of such huge litigation.” As she prepares to take the judgment on appeal, Njeri notes that, “of course, neither a win nor a lose in court will necessarily keep a movement together.” Coming together to fight a court case was unifying – but staying together is the hard stuff.
As an idealistic young Indian activist in the 1980s, Joe Athialy moved to the Narmada Valley to join the inspiring movement determined to stop the building of a World Bank-financed dam that would displace hundreds of thousands of people. The movement failed to stop the dam, but was successful in forcing the World Bank to put community accountability mechanisms in place. Armed with this precedent, Joe went on to fight the building of a polluting power station in Gujarat. His vivid essay moves from a Narmada village that was flooded, to the US Supreme Court: here he watched the Gujarati villagers score a victory against the World Bank, overturning its immunity from litigation. Joe offers vital lessons: about the importance of rooting litigation within a larger strategy of political struggle, about connecting local bread-and-butter issues to larger global concerns, and about building the resilience needed for the treacle-like pace of litigation. Observing a victory party back in Gujarat after the Supreme Court victory, he salutes the “perseverance” of the lead petitioner: “But nothing, yet, had materially altered in his own life, and his own ability to earn his living on the Gulf of Kutch. I had been working with him for eight years already, but we had only just won the right to begin fighting the World Bank on its own turf! It would be a long time, still, before Mr Jam felt any kind of tangible relief.” What, Joe asks, does “winning” mean in such a context?
David Hunter has worked for four decades to “bridge the power gap that separates all rural communities from global institutions like the World Bank.” In this rich and wise essay, he relates the experience of bringing people from all over the world to Washington DC so they can relate their experiences of injustice and human rights abuse: to American courts and lawmakers, to World Bank officials, and to the public through the media. When, in 2019, he was part of a case involving Indian fishermen that was successful in overturning the World Bank’s immunity from prosecution in the US, he was “certain”, he writes, that “the connection between the abstract legal principles and the flesh-and-blood people these principles affected was partly responsible” for victory. David introduces us to these “flesh-and-blood people”, villagers from Paraguay and India and Tibet: their encounters with Bank grandees such as James Wolfensohn and their effect in American courts. He also interrogates, with a gimlet eye, the limitations of his work, and its ability to make a real difference the lives of the people whose cases establish legal or policy precedents in Washington.
Writing from her decades of personal experience in the AIDS and gender movements in the United Kingdom and globally, Robin Gorna shares her wisdom about what makes movements work. She compares the organic nature of the AIDS movement she was instrumental in building ,with SheDecides. This was an initiative she was hired to lead, to kickstart a global movement in support of young women’s access to sexual health and reproductive rights. She acutely contrasts an understanding of movements as “identity” – something you belong to and defines you – with that of movements as “strategy”: something built with the express purpose of bringing about change. “Since movements sit almost in opposition to structure, is it even possible to build one?” she asks. “Or desirable?” Robin offers no easy answers, but her experience suggests that all successful movements depend on the interplay of “identity” and “strategy” – an interplay that is often best articulated through the use of the arts and other forms of creative expression. Legal advocacy is just one strategy, Robin writes – and one that SheDecides chose not to use, because of a previous experience: a decade ago, sex workers found themselves alienated from a global movement after they participated in litigation against US policy that, although successful, made no difference in their daily lives.
Mark Heywood was the primary architect of one of the most celebrated successes of movement lawyering globally: the 2001 litigation to compel the South African government to provide antiretroviral medication to pregnant mothers with HIV. In this illuminating essay he describes how fighting this case enabled the Treatment Action Campiagn (TAC) to build a movement. The case was used the “to educate members on the constitution and the law,” and gave the TAC “purpose and internal coherence”; court hearings and legal deadlines “gave us a potent reason for demonstrations and the organising and alliance-building that went into them.” The flip side was “the impact TAC’s mass mobilisation had on the legal process by influencing public opinion outside the court.” Even Nelson Mandela was photographed wearing the TAC’s iconic “HIV-positive” t-shirt, and every Constitutional Court judge would have been well aware of the case’s “importance, its urgency, and the lives at stake.” Still, Mark urges deep reflection on the efficacy of piecemeal strategic litigation. If legal battles continue to be fought in isolation, “they will tie government and civil society in eternal combat and yield little.” The implication of this is that “rights cannot be fully realized and sustained without challenging legal systems that create and perpetuate inequality, and turning them into those that advance social justice.”
In a sparkling and thoughtful essay, the Irish youth activist Eimear Sparks writes about the personal journey she took, through her involvement in the “Repeal the 8th Amendment” campaign in Ireland: not only the way that “people power” could change the law in a system like Ireland’s, but how, in the process, she found herself speaking for the first time about having been sexually violated: “This experience had motivated my involvement in the campaign and this itself was an act of self-revelation. Until this moment, I had not considered that my rage over denial of women’s agency had blended with suppressed anger for the agency that had been taken from me.” She was one of many who “began to see ourselves in the stories of injustice and denial that other women told about abortion.” Now at the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, supporting abortion rights in other countries , she has learned “that progress in reproductive rights is not linear, or irreversible. Laws that enshrine reproductive rights for women can find themselves at the mercy of sharp political shifts to the right.” She cites the international abortion rights campaigner, Marge Berer: “Breakthroughs in legal reform are invariably not the end of the struggle."
From the barricades of the mass protests to protect the rights to abortion for Polish women, Klementyna Suchanow talks of her experiences – both of the campaign, and the severe repression it has provoked: “Before, the judicial system was an abstract concept for most citizens, but today it’s a physical reality you have to confront on the street. The law has become a very tangible thing on your body.” A leader of the movement, Klem compares her activism to that of her father, who went to jail in the 1980s for his involvement in the Solidarity movement: “Will my daughter see me in jail the way I saw my dad?”. And she describes how the fight for an independent judiciary and for legal abortion have become intertwined, with mass meetings, led by lawyers, to imagine a post-authoritarian country. Still, while she understands the centrality of legal activism, she sees its limits too, as a campaigner: “It's good to know about the law, but it's better to know the emotions of the people and what frustrates them, to listen to them. When people go to the streets, they don't talk about legal issues. They talk about emotions, why they are here, and they have a special reason to be there.”
In a brilliant personal essay that mixes reportage with personal reflection and analysis, Julia Lalla-Maharajh OBE brings to life the awkward dance between social change and legal reform. One of the world’s most effective campaigners against female genital cutting, she is clear-eyed about the limitations of legal reform: she notes that in 26 of the 28 African countries where it happens, there are laws forbidding it, and yet it continues unabated. She quotes a regional Somaliland justice minister: “Do you want me to lock up everyone involved in cutting a girl? How am I going to lock up 98% of the population?” More than that: the “perps” in this “crime” are not some distant evil authority, or even the patriarchs of the community, but mothers themselves, fulfilling an age-old social obligation. She advocates, instead, the laborious process of “norm-changing”, and to this end she describes, vividly, replacement rituals she has witnessed in communities in Gambia and Kenya. “When communities believe that the social shame and stigma of being uncut is in fact, a social death for a girl, they will do all they can to ensure that their practice is maintained, even if it means breaking the law. But if the entire community has been educated, informed, and told about the law and its repercussions – if people have gone through a values shift that upholds the rights of a girl and then the law enforces that – then real change can happen.”
Phelister Abdallah, a practising sex worker, leads the Kenya Sex Workers Rights Association (KESWA). As she prepares to take her organisation into a strategic litigation process to decriminalise sex-work in Kenya, she describes the importance of this, as a public advocacy tool: “we want to use the case to give sex-workers a human face” – as mothers providing for their families, rather than demonic sinners. Her passion for decriminalisation is grounded in her own very traumatic experience, one not uncommon in her country: she was gang-raped and left for dead by policemen from whom she sought protection, when she was being threatened. Openly HIV-positive, Phelister writes of how she has come out to her children – and also reconciled with her estranged mother. Phelister wanted to be a lawyer when she was little: “Now when I hear you talking about going to court,” her mother told her, “I can see how by being as sex-worker and an activist you have accomplished your vision. You are so passionate and articulate, and you speak out in a way I was not able to. You are picking up the same stones people are throwing at you."
When Nana Ama Nketia-Quaidoo was sent to manage a development grant for an agricultural community in Ghana, she realised that no progress would happen because the illegal actions of the chief had cowed the community into angry submission: he was grabbing communal land and selling it off for private benefit. In this gentle on-the-ground account of a big struggle in a small community, Nana Ama describes how she found the right legal tool – a statutory human rights commission – and what its effect was in bringing the chief into line. “Even though, at the time of writing, the land restitution has not yet taken place, I am deeply moved by the effect of this intervention on the community itself. It is clear, listening to the peoples’ stories, that in the past they were kept in such darkness they could not cough in peace without fear of their throats being cut, because of the way their chief set spies among them. Now there is a sense not only of empowerment but of community cohesion too, and a belief, among community members, in their own capacity to lead. Everyone is ready to take up roles and responsibilities, mobilize and empower each other to keep fighting and resisting the oppressor’s rule. I see a new Nwoase that has more strength to carry on.”
In 2019, the indigenous warrior Krystal TwoBulls answered the call to defend sacred indigenous land against the laying of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. Using the logistical skills she had learned in the US military, she became one of the leaders of the movement – and was devasted to find herself named in a “Strategic Litigation against Public Participation” suit brought by the company. Krystal describes, vividly, how the charges of racketeering disabled her, psychologically and politically, despite having no grounds. She also speaks of the value of the “Protect the Protest” movement that coalesced around the defendants – and how important it is to know the law, and use it, even if it is built on the “cracked foundation” that dispossessed and slaughtered her people.
For three decades, the British environmental lawyer worked on international climate treaties, representing small island states. But in 2018, spurred by the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the urgent need to reduce global warming, she joined the protest action group Xtinction Rebellion and became one of its leaders. In a passionate and polemical essay, Farhana describes why “law-makers” such as herself must become “law-breakers”: “Litigation takes more time than we have, given the urgency of the climate crisis – especially when companies with deep pockets drag out cases every step of the way”. She believes that no legal results will “deliver the transformational changes we need in the next few years unless and until they are accompanied by people also breaking the law – as part of a mass ‘movement of movements’ based on peaceful civil disobedience.” Farhana also looks back, critically, at her own years in the negotiating rooms: “For decades, we helped define climate change as a technical-managerial problem that would be solved by getting the best scientific and economic minds to write reports that would persuade governments to act in the long-term interests of their citizens. But we left three critical elements out of the equation: mobilizing people, respecting their human rights, and restoring nature.”
Kumi Naidoo is one of the world’s most celebrated, and innovative, social justice campaigners. In a broad-ranging interview, he reflects on four decades of activism, and the way he has worked with the law, from his time as a teenage anti-apartheid activist in the South African liberation movement, to his global stewardship of Greenpeace and Amnesty International. He recalls the way anti-apartheid activists in South Africa used court cases “not simply as an argument to the judges that were listening, but as an argument to the people, both to those who were oppressed, to say, ‘This is really bad, we must stand up and act against it’, and to those who were the oppressors, to say, ‘This system is unjust, unfair and untenable.” Following similar principles, he developed legal activism in two ways at Greenpeace: through civil disobedience and strategic litigation. But while the law is a critical tool for defending activists or for reforming society, the way change happens is through the kind of communication that leads to mass mobilization: “What we have to be really good at is communicating what we stand for to the largest number of people directly impacted.” Kumi explains his thinking, as one of the people who originated the phrase “climate justice”, in bringing a rights-based discourse to what was previously about science and land-use and economics: it communicated that global warming was a “human” issue with real impacts on real lives. He encourages young activists to follow law as a career, but warns “never to mistake access for influence.”
When she was nineteen and a sophomore at Hunter College, the poet Ayisha Siddiqa became on of the leaders of the 2019 youth climate strike that brought half a million people onto the streets of New York City. In this powerful personal essay, Ayisha recounts how she came to understand herself as being on the frontline of the climate justice movement: because of the way her family was forced off the land by industrialisation and pollution in Pakistan; because of her poverty-stricken immigrant childhood in Brooklyn and the Islamophobic racism she encountered, which she understands as the direct result on the fossil-fuel driven “War on Terror”. She lives, literally, on the frontline, in Coney Island. But going to college brought her into contact with the ideas, and people, who drew her into the climate movement, where she has always felt herself to be an outsider, given her class. Now, as she contemplates going to law school, she explains why she and other young women of colour have founded an organization called “Polluters Out”, convened to lead a boycott movement against the fossil fuel industry. She remembers the words of her Pakistani grandmother: “When you tread on the earth, you must walk with humbleness and gentleness, because the earth feels pain, and knows when you’re about to cause havoc and abuse on it.”
Travelling up and down the Peruvian Amazon to a remote indigenous community in a sputtering peke-peke, the EarthRights International lawyers Marissa Vahlsing and Ben Hoffmann describe their unconventional consultations with the people of Nueva Chacra. The community is grappling with a North American oil company’s exploitation of its land and the pollution of its water. Meanwhile, the lawyers have their own problem: clients who would rather negotiate labour contracts with the oil company – or illegally shut down the wells – than litigate. This gripping on-the-water account brings Nueva Chacra to life, and also offer’s a frank description of the dilemmas movement lawyers face: “What do we do when we are asked to support community goals that on their face appear to go beyond the mission of our organization (and thus the priorities of the environmental and human rights movements), or worse, risk potentially contributing to further harms to the environment and human health? Do we serve community goals under the justification that anything that contributes to building community power is ultimately in line with our vision of justice, or are there limits? Where do we draw such limits, and what is the impact of the act of drawing such limits on community power?”