Episode 22 - What does the International Service for Human Rights do?
Interview with Phil Lynch – Part 1
[00:00:00] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Hello and welcome to Just Access. In this podcast series, we talk to some fascinating people, legal experts, academics, and human rights advocates. We explore ideas about the future of human rights and improving access to justice for all. I’m Dr. Miranda Melcher, a Senior Legal Fellow at Just Access, and over the next two episodes, I talk with Phil Lynch.
[00:00:24] He is the Director of the International Service for Human Rights. In this first episode, we focus on Phil’s background and his work at the International Service for Human Rights. In the second episode, we look at the organization’s interactions with the United Nations and Phil’s perspective on justice and access more widely.
[00:00:57] Dr. Miranda Melcher: So to start us off with this, would you mind telling us a bit about you? How did you come to have this position?
[00:01:07] Phil Lynch: So my background is as a lawyer and over the last 20 years as a human rights lawyer. I started my career in commercial law, but rapidly formed the view that I wanted to apply law to promote justice and to promote accountability and to address issues of discrimination and disadvantage.
[00:01:34] And that obviously took me to the community legal sector. I’m from Australia and was based in Australia at the time and so I worked for about five years, very much at a grassroots level with a specialist legal service providing legal advice as well as advocacy support to people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
[00:01:55] After about five years doing that work, I moved and began working with a national human rights legal advocacy organization in Australia focused on the protection and promotion of human rights in Australia, but also in the region in so far as it was affected by Australian foreign policy. And in both of those roles, I engaged closely with the international legal framework, not least because Australia is unique among liberal democracies in not having a comprehensive legislative or constitutional charter of rights. And so therefore, as a lawyer, we were forced to turn to the international framework and often to international mechanisms to seek justice and to seek recourse for violations.
[00:02:44] That’s what brought me into contact really with the international human rights system and taught me about some of the ways in which the international human rights system can be leveraged for change at the national level and is also what brought me into contact with the organization I now work with, the International Service for Human Rights. And I moved from Australia to Geneva to work with the International Service for Human Rights about 11 years ago.
[00:03:08] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Аnd what role did you start off with in the organization?
[00:03:12] Phil Lynch: So I was recruited to my current role, which is as executive director of the organization.
[00:03:18] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Got it. Okay, so that’s obviously something we’re going to ask you rather a lot about now that we have that background. How would you describe the organization? How would you introduce your organization to someone who maybe hasn’t heard of it?
[00:03:33] Phil Lynch: Sure. So ISHR provides solidarity and support to human rights defenders, assisting them to use the international human rights system and international human rights mechanisms as levers for national level change and as platforms to expose injustice and seek accountability. We have a particular focus on supporting human rights defenders who are at risk because of their identities or because of the nature of the work they do.
[00:04:03] So that includes defenders working on issues of equality and discrimination, such as anti racism defenders, women human rights defenders, defenders of LGBTI rights. We provide support to defenders working on issues of land and environment rights and climate justice. Some of the most exposed and at risk defenders in the world.
[00:04:27] We provide support to defenders who are working in highly restrictive or oppressive environments, places like China, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, where the very defense of human rights is criminalized. And we support defenders who are working to promote the rule of law and accountability in situations where democratic or accountability mechanisms are lacking or are eroded.
[00:04:57] Dr. Miranda Melcher: That’s obviously a massive list of priorities and some incredibly important ones. What does that look like day to day? What does a Wednesday look like for you?
[00:05:07] Phil Lynch: The organization, what it looks like, is providing training and capacity building, providing advocacy advice and support, accompanying defenders in their advocacy at the Human Rights Council, supporting them in their advocacy with the UN treaty bodies, supporting them with their advocacy in New York at the General Assembly.
[00:05:30] We also do a lot of work at the regional and national level, at the regional level through some of the regional human rights mechanisms. So we have a group of staff who are in Arusha at the moment to support defenders in their engagement with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. We have a group of staff in New York at the moment, supporting defenders in their engagement with the Third Committee of the General Assembly and we have a group of staff here in Geneva supporting defenders in their engagement with the current session of the UN Human Rights Council.
[00:06:00] At the national level, we partner with local civil society organizations, human rights defender organizations and networks. And our work at the national level is primarily focused around strengthening legal frameworks and strengthening legal recognition and protection of human rights defenders, including through the development and the enactment and the effective implementation of specific national laws on the recognition and protection of human rights defenders.
[00:06:29] Dr. Miranda Melcher: So now that we have a bit of an idea about the work that’s done, the scale of it, I’m wondering if you can walk us through maybe one or two examples in more detail, especially for the people, human rights defender can mean so many different things, as you’ve already demonstrated to us that cover so many different issues.
[00:06:45] Can you walk us through maybe one or two examples of the kinds of people you work with, what that support and advocacy looks like?
[00:06:53] Phil Lynch: Sure. So maybe a recent example is that we’ve been doing a lot of work with women human rights defenders from Afghanistan. It’s primarily now women human rights defenders who have been forced to leave the country are living in exile. And our work to support them has involved two key aspects really.
[00:07:17] One is to understand the situation that women and girls are confronting in Afghanistan as one of gender apartheid and seeking to strengthen legal frameworks and international law to actually recognize and specifically criminalize and enable prosecution of the crime of gender apartheid. That’s about providing solidarity support, legal advice and undertaking advocacy to strengthen legal frameworks. And another aspect of that work has been to promote accountability and to work with women human rights defenders from the country to first of all, secure an urgent debate at the UN Human Rights Council on the situation in the country.
[00:08:02] That urgent debate resulting in the mandating of an international mechanism to monitor and report on specific violations of the rights of women and girls. And we’re now pushing for the establishment of a specific accountability mechanism, something akin to a fact finding mission or a commission of inquiry, which would enable the collection and preservation of evidence to a criminal standard with a view to prosecution of the Taliban in international courts and tribunals.
[00:08:34] Dr. Miranda Melcher: That’s obviously in a lot of ways a very specific situation, right? The combination of factors there, the working with people in exile, the ICC aspect as well as the sort of everyday, hang on, we have to redefine international law. There’s a lot of particular pieces in that example that in some ways maybe have similarities to, for example, people working on LGBT issues in a Latin American country, but obviously have some differences as well.
[00:09:00] So how, to what extent are the support needs, what you’re able to provide, differ across situations? Are there some things that are common in every type of situation you work in? Can you walk us through how you manage such a range?
[00:09:17] Phil Lynch: As far as possible, we try and tailor our support, obviously to the needs of the defenders we’re working with. And I said earlier that key to ISHR’s mission is solidarity with human rights defenders and their causes. And what that means as an organization is developing deep relationships and a deep understanding of the situation, the protection needs, the priorities of the human rights defenders with whom we work.
[00:09:46] And as an organizational policy we don’t work on issues or on country situations other than in genuine partnership with affected individuals or communities or with national level human rights organizations. So our the the objectives that are defined and the support that we can, that we provide to help attain those objectives are very much led and driven by national level human rights defenders.
[00:10:22] Dr. Miranda Melcher: That makes a lot of sense and I think, again, highlighting the idea of solidarity is really clear. How then do you tailor where that support is provided? Is it, do you work when someone comes to you and says, we would like help and therefore you automatically say yes? Or how do you start that partnership?
[00:10:41] Phil Lynch: So ISHR turns 40 next year and over that 40 years we have developed really deep relationships with a diverse range of human rights defenders, human rights organizations, networks and coalitions. And it’s those defenders networks and coalitions through which we primarily work.
[00:11:06] We also run an intensive annual human rights defender advocacy program. And one of the aims of that program is to develop the individual relationships into institutional relationships. So when defenders come and do an advocacy program with ISHR, the idea is not just that it’s a short term transactional relationship, but that individual catalyzes an institutional relationship between ISHR and the organization with which they work.
[00:11:40] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Got it. That makes a lot of sense. Congratulations in advance for the anniversary.
[00:11:44] Phil Lynch: Thank you very much! I should also say that in some instances we respond to needs and that then involves working in new areas so a good example of this is our anti racism program supporting anti racism defenders. It’s not an area that ISHR had worked in traditionally but following the murder of George Floyd, we were approached by the ACLU who were acting on behalf of the family of George Floyd and other murdered Africans and people of African descent to see whether we might support those victims and families and representatives in the U. N. advocacy in their international engagement.
[00:12:26] And in particular in their push for an international commission of inquiry on systemic racism and police violence. So that was a situation that we responded to and have subsequently developed some very deep relationships as a consequence of and have been entrusted by a diverse range of black led organizations to actually host the UN anti racism coalition, which is a coalition coordinating, strategizing and supporting Engagement at the UN around issues of systemic racism and violence in law enforcement.
[00:13:06] Dr. Miranda Melcher: That’s a really helpful example and initiative to be aware of. Wonder if maybe I can switch gears a little bit similarly I think to that last answer where you talk about kind of things coming up and coming to you, not just in terms of already existing relationships. A similar issue that I think is affecting a lot of organizations, obviously not that new of an issue, but has received increased prominence in the last few years, is obviously the impact of climate change.
[00:13:34] How has that changed the way you and your organization work? Has it impacted who you’re working with, what issues you’re working on, who’s coming to you? Can you tell us a bit about that aspect?
[00:13:47] Phil Lynch: Absolutely. So yes, the issue of environmental justice, of climate justice and environmental justice more broadly have become significant priorities for I S H R. Some years ago, we developed an environmental policy, which has both an internally focused element, looking at the ways in which ISHR can reduce its environmental impact and carbon footprint as well as an externally facing element, looking at ways in which we could enhance support for defenders of land and environment rights, and that has resulted in a number of changes in the organization.
[00:14:25] It’s resulted in a change to the ways in which we provide support. A lot more of the support that we provide to defenders is now online. Whereas previously it always involved ISHR staff traveling to country or national level defenders coming to Geneva or New York. Now a lot of that training, advice and advocacy support takes place online.
[00:14:50] And we’ve developed a whole range of online materials and in fact an ISHR academy to guide defenders in their engagement with the UN. The development of that, I should say, was also accelerated by the COVID pandemic which I think, yeah, catalyzed a lot of digital innovation, but also forced a number of the UN human rights bodies to develop modalities for virtual participation that they didn’t previously have, and we’ve really taken advantage of those modalities for virtual participation, both to reduce our environmental impact as well as to to enhance direct access by national level defenders to the UN Human Rights Council, for example.
[00:15:38] We also, as I alluded to, have developed a program focused on supporting environmental human rights defenders specifically and that involves support both in human rights spaces, like the UN Human Rights Council, as well as support in climate governance spaces like the COP. At COP 27, we were closely involved in a network of national and international human rights and environmental NGOs seeking to put the human rights agenda at the heart of the climate justice agenda as well as to use the opportunities associated with Egypt.
[00:16:14] Hosting that COP to highlight the issue of civil society repression in the country and the interlinkages between between climate justice and an open enabling environment for civil society and human rights defenders.
[00:16:28] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Brilliant. Thank you so much for explaining all of those aspects and of course mentioning the academy. I think that’s a great resource for listeners to be aware of.
[00:16:37] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Thank you, Phil, for introducing us to your work and some of what the ISHR does. In our next episode, we’ll discuss some of the ISHR’s institutional legal work and about how to improve access to justice more broadly.