Landmarks in Strasbourg, headquarters in Middlesex

Matthew Reisz on the law centre marking a decade of human rights battles in a new university home

January 17, 2013

Source: Reuters

Star turn: EHRAC appears often at the European Court of Human Rights

A legal centre that has played a vital role in bringing the governments of the former Soviet bloc to book has moved from London Metropolitan University to Middlesex University.

When the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) was launched in 2003, said director Philip Leach, “there was an initial focus on Russia and its abuses in Chechnya, so we worked on cases of disappearances, torture, extra-judicial executions”.

In 2005 the centre secured the first judgment against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights over violations by security forces in Chechnya.

Like many of the former Soviet states, Russia is part of the Council of Europe and therefore bound by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The EHRAC has now secured 87 judgments at the European Court in Strasbourg on issues ranging from environmental damage to freedom of association. Another of its landmark cases, this one against Georgia, led to important changes in domestic law when it was determined that victims of Soviet-era repression had been unable to access compensation.

Professor Leach said that in many cases the centre works with non-governmental organisations on the ground to help build evidence of mistreatment “right from the beginning, when a family comes through the door”.

“We review draft pleadings, respond to government submissions, take part in the hearings themselves and ensure the judgments are implemented, which can often be difficult if a government is told to do more than just pay compensation,” he said.

Although Professor Leach holds a chair in human rights at Middlesex in addition to his directorship of the EHRAC, its other lawyers and support staff are full-time employees of the centre. All its funding comes from external sources such as the MacArthur Foundation, Oak Foundation, Open Society Foundations and the Sigrid Rausing Trust.

So what is the education role that gives the centre a natural home in a university?

“Our rationale is to support NGOs on the ground through a sort of distance-learning process for human rights workers in target countries,” Professor Leach said. “It’s a very applied form of education based on long-term mentoring.”

For UK students, the centre can offer internship programmes in funding organisations such as Oak Foundation as well as “clinical programmes” that give those studying for an MA in human rights the chance to work on ongoing cases.

While paying tribute to the support he received at London Met, Professor Leach admitted that it was his decision to move the centre to Middlesex for its 10th anniversary, where he hopes to build further collaborations with the university’s “more established team of human rights and international law specialists”. Additional funding will enable the centre to double its team of lawyers by taking on two more.

There is unlikely to be any shortage of work.

“The situation for human rights NGOs in Russia has deteriorated badly in the past year,” Professor Leach said. “We are hoping to challenge a law which requires them to identify themselves as ‘foreign agents’.

“We have already taken cases on in Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Russia and Georgia, and have just managed to secure the reinstatement of a judge in Ukraine who had been dismissed for an alleged ‘breach of oath’. So we will try and formalise our relations with that country and perhaps start to work in other former Soviet countries, too.”

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