By Kevin Murray, Executive Director – Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE)
Alfred Brownell’s wife and children probably never expected to be living in Boston this winter. Nonetheless, in early January Mr. Brownell began work at Northeastern University School of Law (NUSL) as a Visiting Scholar affiliated with the Law School’s, Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE).
A well-known human rights and environmental lawyer in his native Liberia, Brownell has always done work that raised eyebrows. He came of age in a country wracked by not one, but two bloody civil wars. He took a law degree in hopes of being able to do something to address the injustices he saw in his country.
His experience as a law student at the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, University of Liberia, kindled what was to become a lifelong interest in Liberia’s environment. In 1997, while still a student, that interest led him to form Green Advocates, the first Liberian nongovernmental organization dedicated to environmental law.
“We started Green Advocates in my house. It was an idea, in my brain, written on paper and kept in a folder. We had no money, no donors and no programs…just our own skills and a desire to help people. We called it Green Advocates because we saw what was happening to the environment in Liberia and how those changes were affecting the poorest people in the country…the people without a voice.”
When Alfred moved to New Orleans in early 2001 to seek an LL.M degree from Tulane University, his plan was to eventually return and work for the Liberian Government Environmental Protection Agency. Brownell was already the co-author of Liberia’s framework environmental laws.
Brownell returned to Liberia in 2004, it was not so clear that working with the government was the best way to addresses the injustice that he saw everywhere. “Looking at the human rights violations all across Liberia, I decided that I needed to find a way to directly help the people who were suffering from those violations the most. At that time, work in government was just not going to be the way to do that. I decided to make it my priority to develop Green Advocates into the organization that Liberia needed.”
Alfred and his colleagues slowly started to build a reputation as a public interest law organization that would take on situations that other lawyers preferred to avoid. Between 2004 and 2006, Green Advocates was involved in a number of major events that brought local, national and international attention to the work of the organization. These included:
- Blocking a land grab by the subsidiary of European multinational, SOCFIN, parent company of the Liberian Agriculture company
- Petitioning Liberia’s Supreme Court to stop the sale of iron ore stockpiles to a Chinese company;
- Addressing child labor and other scandalous labor conditions on rubber plantations operated by Bridgestone/Firestone; and
- Demanding (and achieving) the cancellation of illegal timber concessions negotiated by the government of Charles Taylor.
The Bridgestone case brought international attention to Green Advocates. With support from a US based Law firm, Green Advocates filed suit against the company for child labor and forced labor and other abuses. While a District Court judge decided that claims of the more than twenty (20) child laborers were not meritorious, it held that corporation was liable for human rights violations and foreign plaintiffs could bring these claims under the Alien Torts Statute. “Even though we lost that battle, we won the war,” says Mr. Brownell.
After the Bridgestone/Firestone case, Brownell and his colleagues continued to work on important cases in Liberia, but also became deeply involved in international human rights advocacy.
“Yes, it was very interesting to be invited to Geneva, London and Washington to participate in international meetings, but I have always been happiest when I could spend time with people in the village, hearing about their problems and discussing what we could do to help. This was not a strategy: It has always been what we have wanted to do.” This might be because Alfred grew up in one such village, not far from the border with Sierra Leone. He first experienced the gleaming buildings of Monrovia when he was selected to attend university in the capital.
Around 2009, the Green Advocates office began to receive inquiries from villagers who were being displaced as the result of big land deals between the Liberian government and outside investors interested in establishing large-scale agricultural and mining operations in Liberia. The government was brushing aside the customary arrangements through which these communities had gained access to land for generations, in favor of lucrative leases to these multinational corporations. Many of the most important land acquisitions were designed to allow foreign companies set up palm oil plantations.
“What could we do? We knew that the amounts of money changing hands in these deals would make it dangerous to oppose them, but we also knew that these concessions were illegal and immoral. With people showing up at our offices in Monrovia every day to ask for help, we had no choice but to get involved.”
In addition to using judicial and non-judicial mechanisms to slow or stop these deals, Green Advocates joined an international discussion about how palm oil might be cultivated in a manner sustainable in social, economic and environmental terms. While this work has gained Green Advocates accolades around the world, it made them important and dangerous enemies at home.
As both the Liberian government and international companies were forced to defend their actions in international fora, Green Advocates received increasing pressure to direct its efforts elsewhere. The threats came both in subtle and very direct ways, from unknown anonymous sources, and from the highest levels of the Liberian government. How those threats, and the intervention of a global network of human rights organizations brought Alfred to NUSL will be the subject of our next post.