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Snowden’s Canadian lawyer

Handling a case shrouded in mystery, Robert Tibbo played a major role in getting Edward Snowden out of Hong Kong.

Robert Tibbo barrister-at-law
Robert Tibbo barrister-at-law, Hong Kong Photo: Pierre-Louis Mongeau

“It certainly feels a lot quieter here,” he says right away. Robert Tibbo has been living in Hong Kong for several years now, but he still returns to Nova Scotia —where National reached him — for his summer vacation.  Going home means a lot to him. It gives him a chance to get some R&R away from the densely populated metropolis on the coast of China.

And this year he needed it more than ever. Indeed, a sudden turn of events involving a 29-year-old National Security Agency systems analyst who in May got on a flight to Hong Kong, would force him to postpone his annual vacation. Edward Snowden’s meeting with Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald in in the Kowloon district would ultimately lead to a series of revelations about American intelligence services that would shake up the globe. And Tibbo’s usual crazy routine exploded in a political and legal frenzy that would propel him into one of the biggest media stories in the world. “We were intending to come back (to Nova Scotia) earlier, but realized that wasn’t going to happen,” he recalls matter-of-factly.

Due to the nature of the case, the barrister from Canada cannot reveal the circumstances that led him to act for Edward Snowden in Hong Kong. Nor can he elaborate on his relationship with Snowden or the various contacts he had with his client — or even why he was approached for the mandate. And all for reasons he cannot disclose to the public.

Surreal? “Of course,” says Tibbo. “But what was the most surreal were the media and the speculation voiced in so many news reports. There was so much of it going on. A lot of that included a lot of opinion and media alleging certain matters that were false, incorrect or not put into proper context.”  It’s hard for him to hide his frustration with all the media speculation surrounding Snowden, who remains a hot topic.

“The media are very powerful,” Tibbo says, though he is quick to admit that he is in no position to clarify errors by journalists, or describe his client’s reaction to the reports. As soon as questions are asked about Snowden’s thorny case, he pulls back and cites solicitor-client privilege. “As a lawyer on this case, my concerns were elsewhere,” is all he will say.


The road less travelled

The Snowden case marks an unusual turn even for a career path that had long since stopped following a conventional route.

After earning a chemical engineering degree from McGill University in 1988, Tibbo quickly discovered a passion for Asia. “Montreal was very Eurocentric, whereas I saw Japan and South Korea emerging as rising economic powers. After a few months, I realized Asia’s potential. This region was going to become very important and I wanted to be a part of that development.”

So he headed to Melbourne, where he stayed for a few years, and then moved on to the Chinese city of Tianjin, where he learned Mandarin in the early 1990s. Over the next decade, he travelled around Asia, working in various regions of China, as well as in Thailand and Hong Kong. “I worked mainly in the energy and chemical industries. It was primarily due diligence work and that extended to the agriculture and food processing industries,” he says. “During this period, in Yunnan, I saw people who had been forcibly removed from the cities and sent to the countryside to work in agriculture. I think that it was at this moment that I really became more aware of the plight of refugees.”

In 1999, Tibbo decided to study law at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, where he developed a special interest in administrative and constitutional law. He took courses on these subjects with such highly esteemed professors as Grant Huscroft, who is now at the University of Western Ontario, and Mike Taggart, who died in 2009. Shortly after graduating in 2001, he settled in Hong Kong to take the mandatory Bar courses. He got his law licence in Hong Kong in 2005, and launched his practice as a barrister the same year. His founded his law firm, Eastern Chambers, in 2006.

“Hong Kong is one of the few places in the Asia Pacific where the rule of law exists and it is generally respected — but not always," Tibbo says regarding his choice of markets.  “It is one of the few places where human rights are increasingly being caught in the middle of important debates.”

That is especially true when it comes to refugees, says Tibbo. While Hong Kong was historically a safe haven for millions of Chinese after the Second World War, the city, which is now a special administrative region of China, has become rather hostile to refugees in recent years. Many of his first refugee cases involved clients who were tortured in Sri Lanka or in Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, or West Africa.

“In 20 years, Hong Kong has emerged as one of the wealthiest places in the world,” he says. “There is a very negative view of asylum-seekers here.”

It was by working with such a clientele on a daily basis that Tibbo developed expertise in working on sensitive files. His clients, finding themselves in very difficult situations, were often destitute or required psychological assessments. In some instances, they had been tortured or sexually abused in their home country. It is largely because of his heightened sensitivity to the plight of this clientele that Tibbo has become a director of Vision First, a non-profit organization based in Hong Kong which provides humanitarian and legal aid and advocates on behalf of people seeking asylum there.“

Those individuals are so vulnerable and it is possible that they could be misunderstood,” explains Tibbo.  “It is crucial for lawyers to be committed to this practice, who are willing to get the full story and earn the client’s trust,” he says. “That takes a lot of time and patience.”


Q&A with Robert Tibbo

National: How were you approached to defend Snowden?

Robert Tibbo: I have no authority to discuss this.

N: Why did you take the mandate?

RT: Solicitors can choose any case they want, but barristers cannot refuse the case unless they are not suitable to work in that case. The cab-rank rule applies to barristers. However, barristers can also decline depending on the client’s ability to pay their legal fees. But in this case, I took the case on a pro bono basis.

N: Has the media coverage affected your work?

RT: In terms of whether it would be a high-profile case, this did not come to me as a consideration. It did not matter to me; I treated him no differently than any other client.

N: But wasn’t the pressure palpable?

RT: Obviously, when you have a higher-profile case, there is that awareness. There was a lot of intensity, but that would be normal for any professional. There is adrenaline involved. But what you do is you push that emotion aside and focus on your client and what you do as a professional to provide independent and professional advice.

N: Has this episode changed the way you work on your cases?

RT: If anything, it may have brought me greater awareness on the plight of asylum-seekers in Hong Kong, and that is a good thing. As for the rest, my vision, my strategy, and my treatment of asylum-seeking clients will remain the same as before in terms of quality of my work and experience. The same goes for my career. I tend to keep a fairly low profile. I spend a lot of time in my practice, and at the end of the working day head back home.

N: Would you say that you sympathize with Snowden’s cause?

RT: All I can say is that the amount of power of the executive branch of the U.S. government and for that matter the Canadian government is of significant concern if not subject to the checks and balances by the courts. The U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand work closely together to share intelligence. They are often referred to as the “Five Eyes.” It is a grave concern to see that these governments can have such vast spying operations. They have put into place enhanced executive powers and intelligence-gathering services in a way where there is a lack of accountability and transparency. And it is apparent that there is illegal activity going on, for example the U.S. and Canadian spy agencies having acted beyond their legal mandates. I am a bit surprised that there has not been accountability. There is a lack of transparency and scrutiny. That is of significant concern.

N: Why do you mainly work with refugees?

RT: These are cases that affect all of us. A lot of cases involve international conventions. These are important cases. I am interested in them because they are affecting many people in Hong Kong who may be in a similar situation. Growing up as a Canadian in such a multicultural society, you realize that you need people from all over the world. Some are immigrants and some are refugees. You learn in law school that the most vulnerable people in society are those that you have to stand up for. And I’m really interested in those cases.