Jennifer Smith

International Bridges to Justice

Where are you working?

I am working for International Bridges to Justice, a not-for-profit NGO working primarily in Asia. Its mission is to support the development of the criminal justice system of China, Vietnam and Cambodia. We work in partnership, not only with governments but also with academic institutions, lawyers associations and legal aid centres. I am based in Anhui in the south of China.

Would you call yourself a human rights lawyer?

I actually refer to myself as an international criminal defence lawyer because all around the world lawyers have the same concerns and this is a way of making a connection.

Do you see yourself as working in a human rights organisation?

Obviously, I am. But I can see that human rights are a concept that can often be misunderstood. People can develop an idea of what you do before you speak. I prefer to describe actually what we do. We want to work in partnership. International Bridges for Justice calls itself a human rights organisation but the words can have the effect of making people think that you are imposing human rights standards. We want to bring people together and to develop a common understanding of what fair trial, due process and justice mean.

In your training, do you use international human rights norms?

Yes. There are standards of the United Nations and the United States – such as a right to counsel early in the criminal process, the right to trial, the right to be free of pre-trial detention, the right not to be tortured. These are all universal standards which the UN and US standards encompass. Most countries have laws on these – China too. I do try in practice not to emphasise the international aspects of these laws but rather to stress their domestic origin in China. I remember giving a speech in my first week in China to 500 lawyers. I said that I was not here to talk about our norms or UN standards but to emphasise China’s own laws. China has the right laws against torture and so on but the problem is that they are not implemented. The audience appreciated that way of putting it.

What work do you do?

I work very closely with Chinese lawyers in the region where I currently am in South China but I travel around the country a lot. We have three objectives:

  1. first, to raise the quality and scope of legal aid for the poor in China who, as anywhere else in the world, make up the majority of those in the criminal justice system
  2. second, to work for the implementation of existing laws in practice
  3. third, to raise awareness among community of the rights of the accused and the importance of legal aid.

What is your background?

I am an American lawyer. I went to Boston College Law School. I was a public defender in Cambridge, Mass for three and a half years and then in New York for a further two.

Why did you choose to work in China?

I worked in a homeless shelter during my degree. I got interested in the people and why they were there. Many were charged with crimes. I got to hear them as individuals rather than defendants. Many felt that their lawyers did not represent them and that the criminal justice system was a machine in which they had been caught up. That made me want to be a lawyer and then to work as a public defender.

I took time out of law school to work in Cambodia – I originally went for the summer but then extended my time. I was very affected by the struggle that people had for their rights. I met a lot of very committed individuals, including Karen Tse. We became very close and we talked a lot about her views as she was founding International Bridges to Justice. She saw a need for work in Asia which at that time was attracting very little attention. I decided after working as a public defender for some years that it was time to go over to China. It has proved a great time to be involved. There is real interest in the issue of improving quality.

Do you see yourself as making a difference?

Yes. A lot of the time, people see making a difference on a large scale. I see it much more incrementally and individually. I hear lawyers saying, ‘Wow. For the first time in my life, I have a different view of my role.’ Once individual lawyers change then they will work for permanent change in the system.

Do you see yourself as part of an international human rights movement?

Yes – though everyone plays a different role. We are not working against government. We have decided that the best way is to work with government. We bring people together and we try to make everyone feel good about their position and to argue that what they want is better justice.

International Bridges to Justice was formed in 2000 to address the legal needs of Asia’s citizens. IBJ works to guarantee all citizens:

  • the right to competent legal representation
  • the right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment
  • the right to a fair trial