Lawyering on the Margins has come to an end and Doug and I are now seated in the airport, waiting to begin the long journey home. I think I can speak for both of us when I say we are boarding this plane with a feeling of contentment - this week was an incredible gift. It was mind-expanding, as we learned from human rights heroes from all over the globe. It also gave us a renewed focus, pushing us to think deeply about Pivot’s sex work, policing and drug policy campaigns and how we can maximize their positive impact on the world. We worked hard, putting in long days discussing complex legal and social issues, but were also so well taken care of (and truthfully, a little bit spoiled!) by all of the staff of Open Society Foundations who made this global convening possible.
There was one central theme at this meeting, and it is one that has always been a key focus of Pivot’s work – the role that lawyers can play in empowering marginalized and vulnerable communities to stand up for their rights. The lawyers at this meeting spoke passionately about their relationship with their community partners (or “clients” to use the more conventional legal terminology). We heard from lawyers in Indonesia who train drug users to work as paralegals and deliver legal and human rights information to other drug users in the community and in the prison system. We heard from former sex workers who provide emergency legal support to South African sex workers who call or text the 24-hour hotline from the back of a police car or from the police station. Other lawyers described the powerful impact of providing comprehensive legal services to sex workers, drug users and LGBT communities, which sends a strong message that these communities are well equipped to respond to rights violations. We also heard about various models of strategic litigation, whereby human rights lawyers identify cases that could create meaningful social change by winning a particular legal battle on behalf of an affected person.
As I thought about these various tactics and ways of working with affected communities, I was consistently reminded of the incredible experience I have had representing SWUAV in a constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws. The rights that SWUAV is fighting for are among the most important social justice issues of our time. What is of equal importance, in my view, is the way in which SWUAV has gone about this fight. Committed to the safety of their members, SWUAV was formed so that this high profile, controversial and complex litigation could be initiated without putting any individual sex workers at risk. Their ability to build a strong relationship with counsel, support each other, make complex and important decisions as a collective, and endure what has and will continue to be a lengthy and arduous legal battle has been amazing to witness. SWUAV has developed an innovative and principled litigation model that is, as I realized at this meeting, of interest to human rights lawyers all over the world that want to ensure their litigation is completely grounded in the experiences and interest of affected persons, while not placing any of those individuals at risk. And perhaps best of all, the Supreme Court of Canada win from earlier this year paves the way for other communities to litigate collectively. It has been so exciting to chat with Canadian lawyers and lawyers from all over the world who intend to rely on the SCC decision so that their clients can also litigate as a collective.
So I head home with a renewed focus, and a lot of energy for the coming year, which is going to be huge for Pivot’s sex work campaign and for the broader sex workers’ rights movement in Canada. I know the world is watching and waiting for Canada to take the important step of decriminalizing adult sex work, and I am very glad to be part of this powerful national and global movement.
P.S. I can’t resist sharing this video – in case you think Lawyering on the Margins was all work and no play. This video was shot at a dinner we attended at Mama Africa restaurant. It was a dinner I will never forget… and I think you will understand why when you check this out.