As an organisation comprising 80,000 lawyers and 190 national bars, the International Bar Association conducts its vital and enlightened work at an understandably collegiate pace. But annual jamborees which these days attract over 5,000 delegates (see p14) have generally been occasions for modest celebration. History has been on the side of this impeccably liberal body since it was founded in 1947 to promote human rights, judicial independence and the right of lawyers to practise freely and without interference. Every year there has been a little more progress to report and targets to agree for 12 or 24 months hence.
This year felt different. President Martin Šolc set the tone during his opening address in Rome by startlingly evoking the birth of Italian fascism. The benign diffusion of liberal-democratic values worldwide has gone into reverse, he lamented – even in countries where the IBA had considered those values immutable. Current affairs loomed large at many of the plenary sessions, including Brexit (of course) and the likely election of the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro as president of the largest democracy in Latin America.
Also arresting was the sheer anger and incredulity of a US attorney at the circumstances surrounding the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. ‘We’re going backwards. We’re going backwards,’ she told a session on bullying and sexual harassment. There was more in a similar vein – from the International Criminal Court’s pledge not to capitulate to bellicose threats from the Trump administration, to former Ireland president Mary Robinson’s frightening commentary on the catastrophe that awaits if politicians do not quit their irresponsible brinkmanship on climate change.
So what? As Šolc acknowledged, lawyers cannot turn the wheels of history. Yet, as servants of the blindfolded lady holding the sword and scales, he added, they must do all they can. Let us hope the IBA’s public education campaign highlighting the significance of the rule of law is enthusiastically promoted by national bars. Most appropriately, in the circumstances, the campaign comes with a blessing from the Pope.