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The Need for “Lawyers Without Borders”

by Terra Lawson-Remer
July 18, 2013

Amazon Indians in front of the Ministry of Mines and Energy in Brasilia, Brazil, protesting the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, June 2013 (Courtesy Reuters/Lunae Parracho). Amazon Indians in front of the Ministry of Mines and Energy in Brasilia, Brazil, protesting the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, June 2013 (Courtesy Reuters/Lunae Parracho).


Private capital flows through foreign direct investment and portfolio investment now exceed $1 trillion annually. This has deep income, wealth distribution, and human rights effects for people around the world—creating opportunity for many, but leaving some behind. International economic rules govern these capital flows by regulating banks and multinational investors, determining property rights, and establishing legal claims and mechanisms for redress. Yet vulnerable communities, such as subsistence landholders, informal workers and entrepreneurs, marginalized religious and ethnic groups, and slum dwellers, have virtually no voice in determining the rules of the global economy and lack effective representation to protect their interests within the developing international legal framework. Accountable governance is critical to protecting human rights, advancing shared opportunity, and promoting inclusive and sustainable development, but is fundamentally lacking at the global level.

In the United States, organizations like the Legal Aid Society provide pro-bono services to poor clients faced with day-to-day legal challenges. But no such organization or network exists globally to represent poor communities regarding international matters. Although a number of international advocacy groups currently mobilize public action and pressure policymakers regarding some issues, these organizations are not directly accountable to the constituencies they serve because they do not directly represent vulnerable groups or individuals through client-based relationships. Moreover, all these efforts fall far short of addressing the real needs of affected communities in terms of capacity, reach, and scope.

This challenge can be addressed by establishing a global network of legal offices to provide pro-bono client-based representation for vulnerable local communities affected by international economic policy. These advocates for local communities would help level the playing the field, improve social accountability, and ensure that the rules of the global economy work better for everyone. Similar to a standard consulting firm or corporate law firm, this network of pro-bono legal clinics would provide advice, lobbying, and counsel at all stages of the legal and policymaking process: including aiding legislative drafting by congresses and parliaments, rule-making by regulatory bodies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, treaty negotiation and drafting, arbitration within dispute-resolution forums like the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, policy-setting by international standard organizations like the Financial Stability Board, and litigation through domestic courts.

International economic laws are complex and influence the lives of vulnerable groups in several different ways. Expert advocates would represent affected communities on the full range of issues and circumstances in which international laws and norms have significant local effects. This social accountability network should tackle the following challenges:

  • representing communal landholders who are being forcibly displaced by foreign investment “land grabs” and development projects such as hydroelectric dams and oil and mining projects
  • representing local communities whose access to subsistence livelihoods or resources are threatened by global climate change agreements
  • influencing new global banking and finance regulations to protect the interests of small-scale microcredit borrowers and entrepreneurs in the global south
  • protecting local fishing communities whose livelihoods are being eviscerated by the global fishing industry
  • advocating on behalf of communities living near sites of fuel extraction and natural resource exploitation whose livelihoods are threatened by environmental pollution
  • promoting intellectual property rights in trade and investment treaties that advance access to essential medicines and medical technologies

A new network of advocates for vulnerable communities would address a critical challenge of global economic governance by advancing social accountability—a loosely based Lawyers Without Borders would ensure the rules of the global economy work for everyone, not just the rich and powerful.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Staci Alziebler-Perkins

    I don’t know anything about them, except the NPO Lawyers without Borders exists:

  • Posted by Garth Meintjes

    The solution that you propose already exists, albeit not yet at the scale and scope that you envision. The International Senior Lawyers Project is a free resource for communities and developing country governments who need high-level legal expertise. ISLP works internationally on an attorney-client basis to empower those who lack the legal knowledge or representation to manage their resources effectively and to develop their economies. ISLP’s staff in New York, London and Paris are working hard to reach more clients and to recruit more volunteers. Please visit for more information.

  • Posted by Robin Ford

    Thanks for this timely article.

    I agree, but would go further. There are many organizations that provide pro bono assistance such as “Lawyers Without Borders”. Advocates for International Development, the international wing of the ABA, the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Assn, Human Rights Watch, and more. I am sure they talk to each from time, but an overall coordinating and strategy setting body would help them all to be more productive.

    In addition, I would like to see the creation of a group of superb commercial lawyers willing to work for less to assist lesser developed country governments with matters such as debt financing and public private initiatives. Far too often such governments are disadvantaged or worse when their legal team is not as skilled as the one acting for the other side of a deal.

  • Posted by Harpreet Kaur Dhillon (Ms)

    I think it is a definitely an idea worth encouraging and we have particular individuals at the moment who volunteer but it’s too little and too removed. My work is in investment treaty law and arbitration and I am looking for a way to get more involved in a coalition but based in Singapore, the opportunities look slim to really mobilize.

    Thank you for the interesting article!

  • Posted by IDLO

    As the only inter-governmental body with an exclusive mandate to promote the rule of law, we at the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) are increasingly focusing on legal empowerment solutions for vulnerable people and disadvantaged groups.

    In Ecuador, we are assisting isolated Andean communities as they seek access to fair trade markets. In Kenya, we have helped establish joint Beach Management Units, in which traditional fishermen cooperate with the authorities to ensure sustainable fishing practices and decent livelihoods. In Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, we are advising on legislation to reconcile the interests of investors, the environment and forest-dwelling communities.

    As rights-minded lawyers, the challenges we address go beyond economic pressures to encompass broader forms of discrimination. In Afghanistan, for example, we help prosecute hundreds of cases of violence against women. And in the Middle East and North Africa, we work to make people with HIV less vulnerable to police abuse.

    One lesson we have learned is that when it comes to accessing justice, sweeping global responses only go so far. Legal empowerment works best when it is locally tailored and locally owned.

    To find out more about our work, follow us @IDLONews.

  • Posted by Alison Rabe

    This group already exists! Check out, a legal empowerment network. Namati and its many partners represent communities in land deals throughout the world.

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