Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) is a prominent South African human rights organisation committed to social justice activism and strategic public interest litigation.
Founded in 1979 in response to the increasingly repressive apartheid regime, LHR lawyers provided legal support to political prisoners, communities faced with forced removals and actively campaigned against the death penalty.
Through the transition years, LHR helped expose government-sponsored hit squads and made valuable contributions to the truth and reconciliation process, actively participating in the drafting of the new Constitution.
Today, LHR uses the South African Constitution as a transformative instrument for change and to deepen the democratisation of South African society. The organisation provides a full range of free legal services to individuals, social movements and marginalised communities through targeted advocacy and strategic litigation.
Public interest litigation plays an important role in the development of South Africa’s constitutional democracy and an important tool of a comprehensive advocacy strategy that includes capacity building, policy advocacy and development, public awareness and research.
LHR is active in all levels of courts in South Africa, including the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal, the Land Claims Court, the high court and magistrates courts throughout the country. The organisations is fortunate to have forged professional relationships with many of the country’s top counsel, who often provide their services in court on contingency or free of charge. Many of the cases handled by LHR have set important precedents.
LHR is able to take advantage of its unique position in civil society and works in collaboration with social movements and local and international human rights networks. In this way, the organisation is able to tap into a wide range of knowledge and experience in diverse areas of the law.
Courts have repeatedly commented on the positive contribution that public interest litigants have played in the development of human rights jurisprudence in South Africa. LHR strives to play an active role in the development of this area of the law and provide a legal voice for communities and individuals who seek to protect their rights.
Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme
The Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme is a specialist programme that advocates, strengthens and enforces the rights of asylum-seekers, refugees and migrant workers in South Africa. It assists marginalised migrants with access to basic civil, political and socio-economic rights in line with domestic legislation and international human rights law.
Established in 1996, this programme provides legal assistance to approximately 10 000 refugees, asylum-seekers and migrant workers every year from its offices in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Musina. LHR’s litigation has focussed on unlawful arrest; detention and deportation practices; refugee status determination and socio-economic rights of refugees and migrants.
One of the Programme’s busiest activities is the detention-monitoring programme which monitors immigration detention of people awaiting deportation at the Lindela Repatriation Centre, police stations, international airports, prisons and the detention facility for non-nationals in Musina.
In 2011, LHR started a special initiative to prevent and reduce statelessness and to promote access to nationality. Our objective is to provide direct legal services to stateless persons; to make submissions to government on laws and policies to address the issue; to raise awareness of stateless persons and their rights; and to advocate for signature and ratification of the 1954 and 1961 United Nations conventions on statelessness.
Strategic Litigation Unit
The Strategic Litigation Unit has a dual mandate to provide administrative and technical support to other projects within LHR during litigation activities and to advise on and pursue cases that have precedent-setting value and expand the interpretation and application of human rights law and the Constitution.
The Unit focuses much of its attention in ensuring just administrative action for indigent persons and communities. A considerable amount of time is also spent on unfair discrimination, refugee law, international justice and, increasingly, land reform matters.
Land Reform and Housing Programme
The Land Reform and Housing Programme deals with a wide range of issues including land restitution, women and land tenure rights, post-settlement disputes, farm workers and housing.
In the urban context the programme focuses on large-scale evictions and the housing needs. In rural areas it focuses on historical land claims in terms of the Restitution of Land Rights Act of communities who were dispossessed of their land during the apartheid years.
Rural land claims pose a number of peculiar and difficult challenges. Although the right to claim dispossessed land is enshrined in the Constitution, claimants bear particularly heavy and technical burdens of proof. Rural land claims referred to the Unit need high-level legal assistance by experienced land lawyers.
LHR also assists rural indigent farm workers and dwellers/occupiers, particularly in the Western and Northern Cape provinces in order to improve the labour and socio-economic conditions on farms and to prevent the unlawful eviction of farm workers.
The Unit also provides assistance in matters involving large-scale urban evictions and the concomitant housing rights of the urban homeless. Despite the clear and unambiguous injunction of the Constitution that no-one may be evicted without a court order, evictions without a court order remain a problem and many vulnerable persons have no access to legal services to assist them.
Environmental Rights Programme
The impact of environmental degradation on poor communities has become a serious human rights concern in South Africa. This programme seeks to protect the environmental rights of marginalised groups by engaging affected communities in both rural and urban areas. In addition, LHR has worked tenaciously to ensure the proper implementation and enforcement of environmental legislation. LHR works closely with existing environmental organisations and draws on their extensive experience and expertise while providing professional litigation and advocacy services.
The Programme has three focus areas:
- First, the disproportionate negative environmental burden created by extractive industries on poor communities particularly relating to access to potable drinking water;
- The relationship between environmental rights and socio-economic rights, ensuring fair and equitable access and control over natural resources as well as just and equal ownership and utilisation of land;
- The relationship between environmental rights and procedural rights, such as the right to freedom and association, access to information, just administration and access to courts and seeks to relate these rights to adequate implementation and enforcement of environmental legislation.
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