Lawyers' best defence

Paul Harris

LOSING track of Paul Harris is easy these days. One minute he is walking the violent streets of Colombia, the next, he is practising Cantonese in the tranquil Mui Wo neighbourhood on Lantau island.

However, tall, slenderly built and quintessentially English in his manner, Mr Harris is no young globe trotter but a professional lawyer. But it is not his day job the 42-year-old wishes to talk about.

What he wants to discuss is what he does in his spare time as an active member of a London-based human rights organisation, a role that in the past has taken Mr Harris to exotic locations including Africa, South America, Sri Lanka and, now, Hong Kong.

Set up three years ago by a group of barristers, the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) aims to assist lawyers and judges overseas who are being persecuted or prevented from carrying out their professional duties. BHRC also helps maintain the rule of law in countries where it is under attack, by sending missions to report on human rights abuses.

Mr Harris spent 10 years in the British civil service and three in the Foreign Office after graduating from Oxford University in 1974. He passed his bar exams the following year, and was called to the bar in 1988.

He believes it is his experience in the Overseas Development Administration of the Foreign Office that helped him to become BHRC's first chairman in 1992, a post which he held until his move to Hong Kong last year.

Like other members of the committee, he does his human rights work for free.

'We all do it because we believe in it,' he says. 'People sometimes find that very surprising and hard to comprehend. We find [our work] very interesting and deeply rewarding. Sometimes it's frustrating and then you have one success that keeps you going for a very long time.' And it is this strong belief in protecting human rights that brought him from London to live in Hong Kong. His view is that unless people know about their rights, they will lose them.

Mr Harris says: 'I've actually been here before on a human rights matter and an old friend persuaded me to come out on the basis that I could work as a barrister while doing worthwhile things in the human rights field. 'And as I have never lived abroad, although I have travelled very widely, I thought this might be the last chance I have in my life to actually work away from England, so after a lot of heart searching, I decided to take it.

'From my very comfortable place in London, I just thought I ought to live somewhere else, somewhere where human rights either were, or were about to be, an issue, and actually see what it felt like and learn from that experience.' Having lived in the territory for a year, Mr Harris believes there is a lack of knowledge on human rights as you get down to community level.

He says: 'My tentative impression is that people here are less willing to stand up for their rights and to speak out than people in many countries and I don't know why.

'I have been around the world and from my experience, unless people are really prepared to stand up and be active for their rights, they just lose them.

'You can't just have them without doing something. I've been in countries where rights are under threat, where there are groups of people who are courageous and stand up, that makes a big difference.' One recent example is Colombia, which Mr Harris and two other BHRC members visited last year. The report on their mission was published this month.

'What we were concerned about there was whether English lawyers could do something to protect Colombian lawyers and judges, as they get shot dead very regularly, it is a very violent society,' he says.

'We tried to produce a report that actually looks in detail at how their legal system works and why it doesn't provide the protection it should.' To get to the heart of the matter, the group went to a remote little town 'in the middle of nowhere', to see what life was really like there first-hand.

MR Harris recalls: 'The place we were sent to is called Puerto Asis - it is actually the centre of a cocaine trafficking area. And believe it or not there was a local councillor in that town who had set up a human rights committee which tries to put pressure on local officials, the local police, the army, to make sure that people are not killed.

'That is an amazing, brave act. That man has received death threats and we helped him by giving him the number of organisations in London he could phone or fax if he was threatened again . . . then at least there can be a worldwide appeal to make sure he isn't killed.' The report also calls for an evaluation of the anti-narcotics aid which Britain provides to the Colombian police: 'What we are calling for is for this [aid] to be evaluated and see if it can be justified, because we strongly suspect that it simply is a mistake, that the aid is not helping to stop drug traffickers, that it is not changing the working style of the Colombian police, but is simply a gift to a group that is fundamentally rotten and beyond reform.' Even though at one point his group was frisked twice in five minutes by Colombian police and army officers, his experience there was 'not as dramatic' as an earlier mission which took Mr Harris to Malawi, southern Africa, in 1992 .

'We went there on behalf of two [imprisoned] lawyers, members of the English Bar, Orton Chirwa and his wife Vera . . . no one had managed to get in to see them for eight years,' he says. 'And we managed to get to see [former] President [Dr Hastings] Banda himself, and we asked for their release.' When their demand was not met, they were instead taken to see the prisoners. Mr Harris says: 'We saw them, and they were shown into each other's presence in our presence, they hadn't been allowed to see each other for eight years although they had been in the same prison.

'That was extremely moving and several of us broke down . . . it was something I will never forget.' Mr Chirwa later died in prison. His wife has been released.

Back in Hong Kong, where Mr Harris hopes to stay beyond 1997, the lawyer believes the human rights situation is good compared with countries like China, Vietnam and Indonesia, though housing is a major concern.

'Though one hears all the time stories about police beating people up or worse, the housing conditions here are very bad; they in some cases reach the point when I think basic rights have been infringed,' he says.

'Obviously, the great worry here is, will the existing human rights survive, will there still be freedom of press, of association? That is the great uncertainty.'