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The Nairobi Code: Drafting history

The Nairobi Code (Model Rules of Ethics for Legal Advisors in Refugee Cases) grew out of dialogue between a coalition of refugee legal aid NGOs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, focused on reform of UNHCR’s refugee status determination procedures. The NGOs wanted to increase the acceptance of legal aid in UNHCR RSD operations, but UNHCR had concerns about how to distinguish responsible legal aid programs from those that might abuse refugees or damage the integrity of the RSD system. At the same time, the growing movement of refugee legal aid organizations in the global south wanted to professionalize their work through higher ethical standards.

In 2006, UNHCR’s Department of International Protection Services and legal aid organizations formed an NGO-UNHCR Working Group on Legal Aid which reached a general agreement that legal aid NGOs should develop an ethical code as a means of self-regulation. These efforts came to focus on the upcoming Southern Refugee Legal Aid Conference in Nairobi in January 2007, which was organized by the Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA), funded by the US Institute for Peace and with organizational assistance from Asylum Access.

Asylum Access’ Policy Director Michael Kagan prepared an initial draft and explanatory working paper for a code of ethics for use in legal aid in UNHCR’s RSD procedures. This draft included several alternative provisions on key issues in legal ethics, and UNHCR offered advice and input. At the Nairobi Conference a number of amendments were made by a drafting committee led by Father Michael Gallagher of Jesuit Refugee Service.The NGOs meeting in Nairobi concluded that the code would be useful in government RSD and other legal aid contexts as well as UNHCR RSD, so the final Code was amended to be potentially applicable in any refugee legal aid context.

Kagan’s original draft and working paper are posted here.

On 1 February 2007, the plenary session of 15 NGOs in Nairobi approved the final text of the code. It may be amended in the future by the Southern Refugee Legal Aid Network (SRLAN), which was also launched at the Nairobi Conference.

The Nairobi Code is a supplement to codes of legal ethics that are binding in different jurisdictions around the world. It is a voluntary code offered as a standard of best practice. Since 2007 it has attracted considerable attention and has been widely adopted by legal aid organizations, especially in the global south.

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