In the spring of 2023, attorneys deprived of the right to practice in Belarus and forced to leave the country decided to unite into the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers. The new organization is created as dozens of attorneys who were wrongfully deprived of the right to practice in their country continue to work as human rights lawyers: litigating cases before international bodies, providing legal assistance and legal opinions, providing legal commentary and remaining professionals responsible for the accomplishment of the mission of an attorney.
In an adequate rule of law state, attorneys are engaged in protecting and representing the interests of their clients in the justice system (naturally, this means the general justice system, as a system for achieving justice, and not working with a specific court), while human rights defenders mainly work directly with human rights by identifying violations of such rights and systemically restoring them for the benefit of the public interest. In addition, human rights defenders are engaged in protecting the rights of vulnerable groups who, for economic reasons, cannot receive legal assistance from attorneys, especially in the context of regulation and the actual ban on pro bono legal assistance.
In the Belarusian circumstances, a situation has arisen where both attorneys and human rights defenders (with some functional differences) work to protect the human rights of individuals, but both are persecuted for such activities through criminal prosecution, detention, deregistration of human rights organizations and deprivation of attorney's licenses . Persecution of attorneys involved in sensitive cases for the state (and cases of human rights violations are almost always sensitive for the state) has led to an even greater decrease in the interest of attorneys in providing legal assistance in such cases, and therefore this type of cases is being squeezed out of the legal profession's function spectrum. In turn, human rights defenders are increasingly forced to provide legal assistance to victims of human rights violations, as an increasing number of individuals are left without adequate protection. As a response to this challenge, the concept of a "human rights lawyer" emerged, which includes all attorneys who work to protect the rights of specific people and, by virtue of performing this legitimate function, require appropriate professional guarantees. This status and guarantees should not be dependent on those states that abuse their power to grant or terminate the right to practice as attorneys (through licensing or control of a country's bar association), deprive attorneys of the right to practice, and leave their clients without effective protection.
It should be remembered that the "umbrella" act confirming the natural right of every person to engage in the protection of human rights, to engage in the education of other persons in this area, and, accordingly, the obligations of states to encourage this activity, not to hinder or create artificial barriers to engaging in this activity, is the Declaration on the right and responsibility of individuals, groups and organs of society to promote and protect universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1999. This act, among other things, protects the very existence of human rights activities, its legality and the impossibility of restrictions. And as time has shown, it is now important to talk about the next development - about human rights lawyers.
Due to the fact that the essence of the concept of "human rights lawyer" is disclosed in specialized documents, we decided to create a guide on the history of the term and its content to popularize the idea of the activity of human rights lawyers and their functional purpose.