The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provide a concise description of international norms relating to the key aspects of the right to independent counsel. The Basic Principles were unanimously adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders in Havana, Cuba on 7 September 1990. Subsequently, the UN General Assembly “welcomed” the Basic Principles in their ‘Human rights in the administration of justice’ resolution, which was adopted without a vote on 18 December 1990 in both the session of the Third Committee and the plenary session of the General Assembly.
One of the main purposes of the Basic Principles is to assist States in their task of promoting the proper role of lawyers and ensuring lawyers’ functioning without any improper interference. It follows from the drafting process of the Basic Principles that the Basic Principles were considered essential to the efforts aimed at strengthening the international and regional cooperation in the fight against crime. More specifically, the Basic Principles are considered a fundamental pre-condition to fulfilling the requirement that all persons have effective access to legal services.
The Basic Principles were generally met with considerable approval during the Regional Preparatory Meetings. After being discussed during the regional meetings and being reviewed by the Committee on Crime Prevention and Control during its eleventh session, a final draft of the Basic Principles was presented to the Eighth Congress, which unanimously adopted the Basic Principles. Consequently, the UN General Assembly adopted the Basic Principles without a vote, while inviting “Governments to respect them and to take them into account within the framework of their national legislation and practice”. The Basic Principles have not been explicitly endorsed to date by the General Assembly.
The preamble to the Basic Principles notes that Basic Principles should be brought to the attention of not only lawyers, but also other persons and bodies, such as judges, prosecutors, members of the executive and the legislature and the public in general.
The Basic Principles are considered to be a “soft-law” instrument (as opposed to “hard law”): they are not legally binding. However, the Basic Principles are held in high regard and are broadly accepted. For instance, the United Nations, several non-governmental organisations and (regional) courts of justice refer to the Basic Principles. Furthermore, some consider that the Basic Principles can be qualified as a material source of law, or even as a reflection of international customary law.
The rights included in the Basic Principles are also largely included in binding international or regional human rights treaties, for instance the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the US Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Information on the Basic Principles, including literature and case law, is fragmented and not easily accessible. Lawyers for Lawyers seeks to alter this and has created this database to remedy the situation. The database contains documents in which references are made to the Basic Principles, such as documents of the UN, special rapporteurs, non-governmental organisations, (regional) courts and so on. Lawyers for Lawyers hopes that the availability of the information contained in the database might help raise the legal status of the Basic Principles and make them more widely known.