The chairman of the Bar Council has hit back at criticism of his attendance at a Chinese legal conference that did not address human rights in the country, saying he was “not an apologist for the Chinese regime”.
Richard Atkins QC argued that it was “only by engaging with Chinese lawyers that we can try to change the aspects of the Chinese regime with which we disagree”.
The two-day Global Lawyers Forum in Guangzhou was hosted last week by the All China Lawyers Association, “with the guidance and support” of China’s Ministry of Justice.
Its website said: “Upholding the spirit of the rule of law in building a community with a shared future for mankind, GLF is committed to providing a platform for lawyers across the world to exchange and cooperate, further consolidating the consensus of the international legal profession, steering lawyers’ participation in the reform of the global governance system, forming a well-developed global network of legal partnership, and jointly promoting a civilized world ruled by law.”
The event’s theme was “scientific and technological progress and legal services”, and featured speeches from China’s minister of justice as well as the president of the International Bar Association.
Some 600 delegates attended from around the world, with the focus of the programme on commercial issues, such as the legal services opportunities arising from China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.
In an article in The Times following the event, prominent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC described Mr Atkins as “very naive” for attending the forum: “One glance at the programme shows no space to discuss human rights or persecuted lawyers,”
Alex Bailin QC called on Bar leaders to provide “clear recognition and condemnation of the very real threat to democracy faced by Hong Kong and the extremely disturbing reports of widespread human rights violations from the Uighur camps”.
He told the paper: “It may be uncomfortable for the hosts, but a global forum of lawyers promoting the rule of law and international legal practice cannot in all conscience ignore these elephants in the room.”
Writing in BarTalk, Mr Atkins said he was one of the few delegates who spoke about the rule of law in the opening keynote session at the forum and in another address he made.
“I also refused to sign a declaration that the conference organisers sought to put out at the end of the conference because of the issues it had avoided dealing with.
“I was complimented by a large number of delegates, including Chinese lawyers, for being one of the few people present who did speak out about the rule of law.”
The speeches he made only talked about rule of law and human rights issues generically, not referencing Chinese issues specifically; however, a statement issued by the Bar Council in advance of the forum did.
Mr Atkins said: “I am not an apologist for the Chinese regime and I approved [the statement] before I travelled to China, as I did not think it appropriate to attend the conference and only say something on my return.
“It was my decision to make the trip and I did so with my eyes open. It was my judgement call that I should attend the conference and that I should engage with the Chinese legal community.
“I have met with many Chinese lawyers whilst here, and I have spoken with people with first-hand knowledge of the restrictions placed on lawyers who have stood up for human rights and suffered the consequences for it.”