Established in 1950, the Jordan Bar Association has been for decades the leading civil society organisation in the Kingdom. The bar association’s main mission is licensing, regulating and serving the country’s growing legal professionals, who number over 10,000 lawyers. The association is also a key player and is sought for advice in terms of all legal and judicial reform.
But in a country ranked as partly free in 2017 by the US-based Freedom House, the association is seen by many as providing an escape platform for political activists. Elections for the association’s council, as they are for other professional unions, are often seen as a barometer of the sentiment of Jordanian professional attitude and direction. Candidates for head of membership in the association often rotate between Islamist and pan-Arabist candidates based on national sentiment and turnout of voters.
Because of this internal electoral competition and the ideological nature of elections, the Jordan Bar Association has been regularly very verbal in its attitudes towards external political concerns. Not only is the bar association regularly anti-Israel and anti-US, but the syndicate that houses Jordan’s lawyers has been reluctant in the involvement or interaction in most international issues and forums, even though they have interacted with some regional forums within the Arab League.
This background is important to understand the latest events that have shaken up the bar association over the issue of participation in the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR), scheduled to take place at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next November.
The UPR process is a mechanism that takes place every five years, in which participating countries agree to voluntarily present their human rights records and allow UN member states to review them and engage with the participating countries on how best to improve their records. In 2013, Jordan participated in the UPR mechanism and received over 170 recommendations, of which it accepted 126 and "noted" the remaining recommendations.
The UPR mechanism has become a major tool for reform and has been adopted by the Kingdom's civil society as a useful tool to push the government to improve its record on human rights.
For its part, the government, which created in 2014 at the Prime Ministry a permanent human rights coordinator’s office headed by Basel Tarawneh, has also been engaged in this process. In preparation for the upcoming event in Geneva, the government suggested that it heads to Geneva in a national delegation, made up of the government and the civil society. Reports of both are to be coordinated and presented as a single national report.
Different civil coalitions were formed to tackle this task of producing reports on the human rights situation in Jordan and activists became involved and, with the help of experts, learned about the process and prepared to present more specific requests for human rights improvements to ensure that the government does not hide behind accepting general recommendations.
Naturally, the leading jurist association in this regard, like the bar association, was contacted by the government to present its report in regards to the human rights situation in Jordan and its recommendations for improvements. The association initially agreed and sent head of its human rights committee, Walid Adwan, to attend coordination meetings. But it did not take long for the leadership of the association to be questioned as to whether they are able to properly engage in this process.
The Jordan Bar Association has been embroiled for some time in a political and legal battle against Jordanian NGOs which provide legal counsel and free legal support to needy communities, with help from international donors. The current leadership of the bar association had vowed in its election campaign to fight against such NGOs which, it claims, bring political influence by international countries using legal aid as a front.
The division within the bar association was finally resolved in the form of ending its participation in the process. In a bizarre decision published this week, the association cancelled its participation in the UPR process, saying that human rights issues should be discussed only by Jordanians, and only in Jordan.
The division within the bar association is sad. When an association representing lawyers and is supposed to seek justice to all is so political that it cannot see the benefit of engaging in an international forum, such as the UPR, one must question whether it has deviated from its goals and purposes.
In the end, Jordanian lawyers are the ones who have to decide who represents them but, for the time being, it is a step backwards to have the leading representative of Jordanian lawyers take such an anti-human rights stand, merely for internal electoral reasons and a narrow political outlook.