Salma Karmi-Ayyoub

Human rights barrister

CV in brief Education: BPTC, University of Law (formerly College of Law)/GDL, University of Law/Human Sciences, University of Sussex Career: Head of Strategic Litigation, Al Haq/Chair, Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights/Tenant, Tooks Chambers/Pupil, 2 Hare Court Languages spoken: English, Arabic Interviewed by Lauren Chaplin on 12th July, 2017

CV in brief

Education: BPTC, University of Law (formerly College of Law)/GDL, University of Law/Human Sciences, University of Sussex

Career: Head of Strategic Litigation, Al Haq/Chair, Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights/Tenant, Tooks Chambers/Pupil, 2 Hare Court

Languages spoken: English, Arabic

Interviewed by Lauren Chaplin on 12th July, 2017

What are you working on at the moment? 

Right now, I’m focusing almost exclusively on looking at strategic litigation and other kinds of legal advocacy connected to the Palestinian human rights issue, which I do mainly through my consultancy with a Palestinian human rights NGO called Al Haq. I also do some things independently with other campaigning groups and NGOs. I look at how to promote a Palestinian human rights agenda, using the law as a tool by which to do that. 

Strategic litigation is widely used in America, especially by organisations such as the ACLU, but there’s less of a focus on it in the UK. How did you learn about deploying strategic litigation?

In the UK, there are hardly any legal organisations that do advocacy on a particular issue and then do strategic litigation as well. There are a handful – Liberty does some strategic litigation - but you’d be hard pressed to find them. In my case, it was a complete accident. 

I guess somewhere in the back of my mind, before I started law school, I thought I would love to do strategic litigation work, but I didn’t have it clear what that meant. I just thought it would be great to do something on the Palestinian cause that’s close to my heart, or other issues related to social justice. There was no obvious way to do that, but then a job opportunity came up at Al Haq, one of the few organisations in Palestine with an accountability project, which is essentially strategic litigation. The idea was to look into ways to bring litigation, mainly in foreign jurisdictions, against actors involved in violating Palestinian human rights. 

I applied and I got it, and then really just learnt on the job. I was making things up as I went along. I was thrown into the deep end, but I was lucky to work with some good lawyers. The two main cases I worked on, in Holland and Switzerland, had strong legal teams. I’m still convinced there’s no blueprint of how to do strategic litigation, though -  it's very context-specific. Since 2000, there’s been an explosion, in relative terms, of using universal jurisdiction and other kinds of laws to carry out strategic litigation, but whilst there has been some academic writing on it, it remains a specialist topic.  

You trained as a lawyer in the UK, but then worked in Palestine. What was it like adapting to a new jurisdiction?

The legal landscape in Palestine is complex and fascinating. What I had to get my head around was not so much Palestinian law, but Israeli law as it is applied in the West Bank. Gaza and the West Bank are under military occupation, and subject to Israeli military orders. There’s a massive body of orders which have been built up. Then there are several other layers to the law. 

If we go back to before the British Mandate for Palestine, we have Ottoman law, which is where a lot of Palestinian land law is derived from. Then the British Mandate came in and instituted certain mandatory laws, some of which formed the basis for laws that came after. Then Jordan ruled over the West Bank and implemented Jordanian law. Then you have another layer, which are the Israeli military orders. Finally, since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority has had the power to issue laws in limited spheres, and there’s now a Palestinian court system to deal with civil matters. 

This is what we're working with – there are so many layers, it’s like a trifle. We're dealing with international law, but in deciding how certain international laws apply, we have to examine the domestic laws in force in the territory. 

How do you switch off after a day dealing with egregious human rights cases?

In a bizarre way, I think dealing with those issues through the prism of being a lawyer is a coping mechanism. When I was working in Palestine, it was often upsetting. You’d go and speak to victims who had just seen people killed, or had their homes demolished, and you would be reading these testimonies full of the most horrendous details. Often when I’m engrossed in that, it is fairly horrible, but what I find quite helpful is to be looking at everything with the forensic eye of a lawyer. It gives you quite a lot of distance, and you don’t get emotionally attached, because you can’t - you have to have your professional hat on. 

What did you study at university? 

I studied something completely unrelated to law. It was a BSc called Human Sciences, at the University of Sussex. I chose it purely out of interest. I found it absolutely fascinating, and I still do. If there was a way for me to have worked in that field, I may well have never studied law. I did it out of interest, and then like so many people I came out of university and realised I needed to get a job.  

I was very ambivalent about whether to do the barrister route or the solicitor route. What swayed me towards being a barrister was that I could apply for a scholarship from the Inns of Court. I got an award from Inner Temple which covered my law school fees. Becoming a barrister is also a shorter route than training as a solicitor, and I enjoy public speaking. 

However, none of the human rights sets were remotely interested in me for pupillage. I went to countless interviews and didn’t get anywhere. Bizarrely, the only two chambers which offered me pupillage were really straight criminal law sets. They only did crime, and I had ideally wanted to do pupillage somewhere which did a cross-section of different areas of law. I did pupillage at 2 Hare Court, and I’m glad I went there, because the training they provided was brilliant. It was supremely hard but I got exposed to some really interesting work. For six months, I was going into the Old Bailey every day. All our cases were murder cases, terrorism cases, cases involving espionage or national security. These were the kinds of cases I might not have been exposed to at Tooks Chambers, which is where I went after my pupillage. 

What was the culture of Tooks Chambers like?  

It was really political and I liked it a lot. It’s a shame it no longer exists [Tooks Chambers closed in 2013]. It had the culture of campaigning lawyering, so lawyers were in touch with certain disadvantaged communities and were doing lots of work for them. Tooks started representing the miners during the Miners’ Strike, when they were being crushed by the Conservatives. So that’s its legacy. 

You’ve worked in chambers and also for an NGO. Which do you prefer?

I think I prefer, overall, self-employment. That’s my personality. They’re very different and they both have their pros and cons. Because I was heading my own project at Al Haq, it’s almost like I was a self-employed lawyer. I was allowed to manage my own time, and I was out in the field a lot. I’ve always shied away from a job where you have to clock in and clock out and sit at a desk. 

Although, as a barrister, whilst you’re technically self-employed, at the junior end you’re the slave of your clerks. They’ll call you and say you have to go to court - you don’t really have a choice in it. It’s hard to say one is better than the other. It really depends on the nature of the work and your seniority. 

You’ve also chaired Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights (LPHR). What did that involve?  

I chaired the organisation for about two and a half years. Michael Mansfield QC [who ran Tooks Chambers] is one of the trustees, as is Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, who used to head Bindmans, and Daniel Machover, a solicitor who was really instrumental in doing universal jurisdiction cases against visiting Israeli officials. He’s a civil liberties solicitor, who works for Hickman & Rose. He started LPHR. It began as a loose collective of practising solicitors and barristers who were willing to do work on Palestine, in an undirected, haphazard way.  

Then they employed a solicitor called Tareq Shrourou, who now directs the organisation. LPHR does what I would call standard human rights work: writing reports and raising awareness. They have lectures sometimes, at Garden Court Chambers, they write blogs, and they do a bit of parliamentary lobbying, trying to get the Palestinian human rights agenda into Parliament. It’s all from a legal angle, but it’s not litigation. 

In 2014, you were published in the London Review of Books, writing about Palestinian legal issues, and you’ve since written more about your work. Is writing a natural accompaniment to your legal practice? 

I’ve never seen myself as a writer. I struggle with it. I much prefer oral advocacy. With those articles, it was complete chance. I was given an opportunity and I ran with it. I was presenting a paper at a conference and I met an LRB editor there, who found my talk interesting and invited me to pitch something to him. The subsequent article helped me get a foothold into writing more pieces. I’ve realised it’s actually a really good process, because it gets you to clarify your thoughts and gets your voice out there, so you can raise awareness. 

Do you have any reading or viewing recommendations for those who want to learn more about Israel/Palestine? 

There’s a really good film called 5 Broken Cameras, which I’d recommend. In terms of news outlets, I’d suggest reading Al Jazeera’s Middle East Coverage, and also Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor and an online magazine called +972. Al Shabaka is really good for people who want a little bit more of a policy focus, who want to read analysis from Palestinian intellectuals and professionals. It analyses issues which aren’t in the mainstream press that much, but which are still really important. 

What characteristics do you feel were needed for your job at Al Haq, which saw you balancing complex legal work with living in a conflict zone?  

A certain amount of resilience is definitely useful, although I do think most people bear up pretty well. It’s not as stressful as people might think. You’re not expected to put your life in danger. It’s really important to have good people skills. You need to be adaptable to the culture you’re in. You need to be able to talk to professional colleagues but also victims. A good grasp of politics is also really important. If you’re going to work abroad in a human rights environment, it’s really important to read up about the place you’re in and understand what it’s all about, and be sensitive to that. 

In terms of general careers advice, I would recommend developing a skill set in something, such as law, academia, or engineering, that you can lend to what you’re interested in. In my experience, it’s more rewarding to have a profession behind you, which you can bring to the area of work you want to pursue. But at the end of the day there are lots of routes into human rights work and each person's path will be different.