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Lawyers Without Borders Canada (“LWBC”) is a non-governmental international development organization whose mission is to support the defense of human rights for the most vulnerable groups and individuals, through the reinforcement of access to justice and legal representation.
LWBC is modeled on Avocats Sans Frontières, the international NGO that specializes in defending human rights and supporting justice. ASF intervenes in countries where human rights are not respected, where political violence and armed conflict reign, and where legal rules are flouted.
LWBC is supported by different organizations and corporate members including the Bar of the Province of Quebec, the Montreal Bar, the Quebec City Bar and the Quebec Minister of Justice. Its projects are financed among others by CIDA and the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs.
LWBC’s work is entirely voluntary and jurists who participate in its missions abroad do not receive any kind of remuneration. However, carrying out international cooperation projects entails significant costs. LWBC is always in need of funds to continue and develop its mission and you may contribute to further their work here.
Progressive Lawyer contributor Marjorie Langlois recently interviewed Pascal Paradis, the Executive Director of LWBC. The interview was conducted in French and this is a translation. The French version can be found here.
Progressive Lawyer: What was the impetus for the creation of Lawyers Without Borders Canada?
Pascal Paradis: LWBC is the initiative of three founding members, Dominique-Anne Roy, Pierre Brun, and myself. The idea came from Dominique-Anne, who was inspired after meeting the president of Lawyers Without Borders France.
LWBC is an organization for the defense of human rights, managing international cooperation programs. We support overseas partner organizations or lawyers in their countries. Our mission is to contribute to the defense and promotion of human rights, uphold the rule of law, fight against impunity, reinforce the security and independence of human rights lawyers, support the holding of fair trials, and contribute to the continuing education of stakeholders within the justice system, as well as members of civil society.
PL: What services are offered by LWBC?
PP: LWBC basically supports lawyers, mostly from civil society organizations, but some of them might also be from parastatal organizations. In all cases, the dominant criterion for selecting a partner is the organization or lawyer’s vulnerability.
Our areas of intervention are strategic litigation of human rights, civil and political rights, the right to a fair trial, economic, social and cultural rights, legal aid and legal assistance, international justice and training.
LWBC tries to help victims of social inequalities or serious crimes, by integrating the values promoted by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which are at the core of our actions. We have a very holistic view of human rights.
In the course of our projects, we focus on specific needs that are established from the beginning. Sometimes the needs are identified by our partners, other times they are needs established by our own research before a project starts.
We act in support of the local lawyer; the idea that we send Canadian lawyers on planes wearing their court robes and acting in front of another country’s tribunal is untrue. No one is in a better position than a local lawyer to argue a case in front of his or her country’s tribunals. Of course, we sometimes work with less experienced lawyers but in most of our cases, our partner is a highly specialized local lawyer, to whom we offer resources, as very often their clients don’t have enough money to pay for legal assistance.
In all cases, the needs that we are focusing on are related to the skills of our volunteers and our experts. For example, we provide support at the methodological level, including the organization of files, preparation of witnesses, and preparation of arguments (mainly related to international law, comparative law and constitutional law, when the country’s constitutional system is similar to ours). We also offer training, we provide supplies or we share knowledge regarding the mechanisms of international justice.
We also have, as Quebecois and Canadians, strong ethics knowledge and the example of impartiality of our justice system to share with our partners. We have noticed that Canadian and Quebecois lawyers have good skills to offer, given their bilingualism and bijuralism. In addition, the education that we receive through law schools here and the practical training offered by the Bar School and the Bar internship helps our lawyers, even the least experienced, in developing very practical skills.
Our workers in the field are not exclusively Canadian; we also offer training to young local lawyers to help them become human rights protection lawyers in their own countries.
To get a better idea of our fieldwork, you can watch this video (in French):
PL: How do you choose your international partners?
PP: Sometimes it is the partners who approach us and sometimes we directly contact a lawyer or an organization to offer our support. We are looking for partners whose values and procedures are a good fit with ours. There must also be identified needs which allow us to have an impact. It is very important to us that our partner’s mission is close to ours, and that the support they need from us matches with our skills.
We are a small organization with a limited budget. We always conduct background research and due diligence before entering into projects. There also has to be, on our side, a reasonable possibility of finding appropriate funding for any specific project.
PL: Can you explain your background and what led you to create LWBC?
PP: I was working as a partner in a private law firm, in the field of international business law, when the idea came out. Dominique-Anne and Pierre were also working for private law firms, in the field of labour law.
During the summer 2002, we held several organizational meetings. At the beginning, the project included ten or twelve people, with only $10-15$ in our pockets. When we started, we were mentored by Lawyers Without Borders France, and worked on some of their projects to learn the process.
One of the first major cases on which we were involved was Amina Lawal’s case, a Nigerian sentenced to death by stoning for having a child out of marriage. The case was highly publicized and her sentence was denounced throughout the world, so we were not sure that we could help, as we were a very small organization. Yet, we contacted the lawyer working on the file to offer our help and we learned that she was alone, with no support, not even organizational support, despite the notoriety of the case. So we supported her.
During the first years, we all played a major role in the organization, and today, Dominique-Anne and Pierre still volunteer while I am the Executive Director.
PL: There are other “Lawyers Without Borders” organizations throughout the world. Is there is any kind of network between the various organizations?
PP: While there are several Lawyers Without Borders organizations around the world, mainly across French-speaking European countries, there is no official partnership between them.
The first association was founded in Belgium in 1992. Currently, LWBC works closely with the Belgian organization, we have cooperation agreements with them, but it’s on a voluntary basis only and there is no formal relationship between the various LWB offices.
PL: LWBC plays a contributory role around the world. Would you prefer to play a lead role in advocating for human rights?
PP: Not at all. The specialists in the files are always the local lawyers, and we do have a supporting role, but our work is very concrete. I say this with all due humility, but LWBC has contributed very significantly in several major cases in which we were involved.
For instance, we are currently involved in two lawsuits against former heads of state: Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti and José Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala, in which LWBC is the main international legal counsel. Our staff has worked on the preparation of documents filed in court.
PL: Are there any internship or volunteering opportunities offered by LWBC?
PP: Yes, of course. We post calls for applications on our website. (You can find these here: http://www.asfcanada.ca/en/become-involved/employment-and-internships).
There are also many people who contact us spontaneously to offer their time. Unfortunately, we are not always able to manage all these offers, even though we have great needs. However, when we do have needs that fit the applications we consider these candidacies.
Most of our assignments are volunteer positions, with the exception of a few paid contracts.
PL: What are you looking for in an intern or volunteer?
PP: Commitment. It is very important to feel that the candidate’s heart is in the right place, as getting involved with LWBC is an act of generosity. It also brings you a lot, it’s very exciting and it’s a fantastic experience, but we are looking for candidates who are very committed to helping others and solving problems.
PL: What advice would you give to a law student or legal professional who would be interested in this type of practice?
PP: I always give the same answer to this question. Among international lawyers, the most effective and the most sought after, whose contributions are most significant often are lawyers who started their careers in their own countries, who have experienced daily practice, and understand the workings and flaws of their own systems. Higher education is also a good way to add value to someone’s record so advanced degrees are certainly advantageous.
This does not mean that starting your career in international law directly is a bad idea, but just that practicing locally in your country of origin works as well.
Our work also requires that the candidate understands that each mission is an adaptation, we must first understand the law of the country where we are going. Language skills, openness to other cultures, legal skills, interpersonal skills and training are important. But commitment remains the most important criterion.
For more information on Lawyers Without Borders Canada please visit their website at http://www.asfcanada.ca/en.
A sincere thank you to Pascal for taking the time to speak to Progressive Lawyer about his wonderful organization.