The promise of human rights in South Africa may depend significantly on the course chosen by a professional and relatively independent South African judiciary. But what about the promise of human rights in other developing states which lack a judiciary with similar potential? Cause lawyers, increasingly visible in many of these new states, are presumed carriers of liberal legalism and democracy and celebrated for their courageous defence of human rights even in the absence of an independent court system. This comment argues that celebration of cause lawyers may reflect presumptions about their causes that are questionable even in the Global North, but decidedly premature in the Global South. In actuality cause lawyers represent both liberal causes and causes that are decidedly illiberal. Yet their work may still contribute to the defence of human rights. The value of cause lawyers lies not in their embrace of liberal legalism, as it is understood in the Global North, but rather in the variety of causes that they strive to make viable. Where space for a broad range of causes has been opened, the cause of human rights may also remain viable. But this is not a secure expectation, for cause lawyers, and the fate of their causes, derive meaning, support, and opportunities to move forward from social conditions not under their control. A necessary conclusion is that the contributions of cause lawyers to the progress of human rights and the rule of law must be evaluated with care.
29 Law in Context 28 (2012).