Monday, April 15, 2024

200+ Victoria Legal Aid lawyers sign letter against Israel-Gaza ban

Victoria Legal Aid lawyers have decried an internal policy order not to discuss “the conflict between Israel and Palestine” at work, with more than 100 VLA staff co-signing a letter to management.

Some employees at the firm — a Victorian state government organisation with a headcount of more than 1,000, whose work involves legal representation for disadvantaged communities — have responded strongly to the edict, calling for “an end of attempts to silence staff”. The staff pushing back have also claimed the ban on discussions of the conflict would pose “a real risk of interfering with the carrying out of core workplace duties”.

The all-staff email, sent last Thursday and seen by Crikey, said VLA leadership was “committed to providing an inclusive and supportive work environment where staff feel safe to turn up to work”. 

“Staff should therefore avoid discussions of the ongoing conflict in shared spaces,” the email continued. “This includes not using shared networks and channels like Viva Engage (Yammer), Teams, Skype and email for discussions in group and direct conversations. It also includes not using our office spaces to display messages.” 

The email went on to say the leadership team was “of course” not seeking to “prevent you from holding your own views or restricting your freedom of speech”. 

A VLA employee who spoke to Crikey on condition of anonymity, due to fear of professional repercussions, said they didn’t think the direction “aligned with VLA values”. 

“I was pretty astonished to see it — VLA is a great organisation, and generally I see it as living its values in the way it treats its staff and approaches current events, but this is very out of line with that,” the person said. 

“I think that enforcing a generalised policy of silence in relation to a specific issue isn’t a neutral position, and portraying it as such was surprising from an organisation like this.”

A staff letter in reply, addressed to the firm’s executive management group and co-signed by more than 100 people at the time of publication, said the direction should be withdrawn, in part because it might interfere with the core workplace duties of VLA lawyers. 

“Over the past four months, VLA lawyers have represented clients who are affected by the crisis in Gaza across a range of practice areas, and have found it necessary to engage with the real and ongoing harms of Israel’s conduct in providing appropriate legal services,” the letter said. 

Since the directive was issued, at least one staff member had been asked to take down “posters at their desk expressing Palestinian solidarity” because the messages had made a colleague “feel unsafe”, according to the letter. A VLA spokesperson did not respond to a question from Crikey seeking to verify that incident. 

The signatories noted the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had recently ruled it “plausible” that Israel had violated its obligations under a genocide prevention convention in the course of its ongoing bombardment of Gaza.

“Despite [the leadership team’s] attempt to present its directive as addressing “both sides” of the ongoing crisis, the email and directive primarily targets VLA staff who have either discussed the ICJ case, or expressed solidarity with Palestinians at work,” the letter said.

The signatories also accused the Victorian and federal governments of being “complicit in Israel’s violence through diplomatic and economic support”. The letter said staff “strongly object to and oppose all forms of anti-Semitism and stand in solidarity with Jewish … and Palestinian colleagues”.

A second staff member told Crikey they felt “shocked and disappointed” to receive the original email, and that colleagues felt afraid they would lose their jobs if they spoke about the conflict. 

“This is one of the biggest human rights incidents in our lifetime, and as a human rights organisation we should speak about it. We should be courageous in our pursuit of social justice,” the person said. 

The VLA spokesperson told Crikey that while staff, “like all Victorian public sector employees, have the right in their private capacity to engage in public discourse and advocate for causes”, they should “avoid using work resources for the purposes of promoting private views”.

“We understand that the conflict is very distressing for some of our staff, especially those with cultural, personal and familial ties to the region. We acknowledge that there will be different views on the best way to create a respectful, supportive and inclusive workplace at this time,” the spokesperson said.

“Our aim is to ensure the wellbeing of all staff at VLA and to ensure staff are not unknowingly causing harm to each other through discussion of the conflict in common spaces and channels.”

Israel has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, since the current war began, with Israeli strikes flattening much of the Gaza Strip, the Associated Press reported earlier in the week. Israel’s bombardment of the narrow and densely populated Gaza Strip came after Hamas-led militants attacked southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 and kidnapping about 250 people. Israel says freeing those hostages is its main objective in the war, and led a recent raid in which two captives were rescued from the southern town of Rafah, killing at least 74 Palestinians during the operation.  

South Africa, which brought the genocide allegations against Israel at the ICJ, said on Tuesday it had filed an “urgent request” that the court consider whether the attacks on Rafah constituted a breach of provisional orders handed down by the justices last month, the AP reported. 

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, in a joint statement with his counterparts in New Zealand and Canada on Thursday, urged the Israeli government not to launch a ground invasion of Rafah, where thousands of refugees from places further north in Gaza are sheltering. 

“We urge the Israeli government not to go down this path. There is simply nowhere else for civilians to go,” the statement said.

Correction: A previous version of this article wrongly claimed the number of people who co-signed the letter to be “more than 200”. The story has been updated to reflect the number is more than 100.

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