The Struggle for Global Justice: Interview with Geoffrey Robertson QC

Geoffrey Robertson QC is a distinguished human rights barrister, academic, author, and broadcaster who holds dual Australian and British citizenship. Mr. Robertson has won landmark rulings in the highest courts in Britain, Europe, and the Commonwealth. Among his numerous other accomplishments is his highly-rated television program, “Geoffrey Robertson’s Hypotheticals.” He is the founder and head of Doughty Street Chambers, the U.K.’s largest human rights practice, a Master of the Middle Temple, and a visiting professor in human rights law at Queen Mary College in London. In 2018, he was awarded an Order of Australia medal for “his distinguished service to the law and the legal profession as an international human rights lawyer and advocate for global civil liberties.”

Harvard Political Review: Your career has taken you around the globe with cases involving Salman Rushdie, Julian Assange, Mike Tyson, and the Armenian government, among others. What inspired you, a boy born and raised in the suburbs of Sydney, to have a career in international law and human rights?

Geoffrey Robertson: Nobody thought much about human rights where I grew up — I can’t recall the concept having any traction in Australia in the 1950s. I did have a teenage desire to do something about injustice, induced by reading the works of Charles Dickens and by observing the contemptuous treatment by Australia of its aboriginal people and its ban on any non-white immigrants. When studying law, I was influenced by the scholarship of my professor, Julius Stone, whose teaching raised the prospect of fighting injustice through international treaties and courts. I became involved in student politics and was spotted by the CIA as a potential prime minister — it made many mistakes in those days. It secretly funded a “scholarship” — a three-month trip to the U.S. for Asian student leaders — to try to convince us that America was the best place in the world. I got to meet Gerald Ford and Timothy Leary and was billeted with the young Pee-Wee Hermann. I made a bee-line for Harvard where I was interviewed by Dean Cavers for postgraduate studies. But this prospect was trumped by an offer of a Rhodes scholarship, which took me to Oxford and the English Bar. I became a regular advocate in the Privy Council, acting pro bono for men about to be hanged in various countries in the British Commonwealth, and trying to develop international standards to get them off death row. This was my trajectory to a career in international law, in practice rather than at a university, although I did publish a book, “Crimes Against Humanity – The Struggle for Global Justice,” in 1999. A fellow named John Bolton reviewed it in The Washington Times and called me a threat to America. I had urged the U.S. to sign up [for] the International Criminal Court, so I guess the CIA may have thought it did not get its money’s worth from my scholarship.

HPR: Over your career, you have worked as a prosecutor and a defense attorney in more than 200 cases. How do you choose who you prosecute and who you defend?

GR: The answer to this question involves a notion of professionalism that does not apply to American lawyers. I don’t choose cases — they choose me. British barristers operate on the “cab-rank” principle — like a taxi, we have a duty to take on anyone who flags us down, unless, of course, they can’t pay! This rule serves to ensure that even the most demonized of defendants can find a good barrister to stand up for them in court. It’s also meant to protect us from being confused with the views of our clients  — although, of course, it doesn’t. I’ve had death threats for defending Julian Assange and for acting for Salman Rushdie when there was an attempt to prosecute him for writing “The Satanic Verses.” The Bar of England is a referral profession — we are sent instructions by solicitors who are presumed to know which of us can best speak for their clients. I am entitled to turn down cases in areas in which I am unfamiliar, but I would accept the side that came to me first in media or constitutional law. In criminal law, I am usually briefed to defend, but I have been involved in prosecutions of international criminals like Augusto Pinochet and Hastings Banda.

HPR: You have been counsel in landmark cases in constitutional, criminal, media and international law. Is there a case you have been involved in that means the most to you, and if so, why?

GR: There are a few cases that stand out. At the Old Bailey [court] after the Iraq War, cross examination exposed the hypocrisy of the Thatcher government, which had secretly sent arms to Saddam Hussein. Thatcher’s trade minister confessed: “We were economical with the actualité” — a clever way of saying that the government had lied. Then there was an appeal case in Britain’s highest court, Wall Street Journal v. Jameel, which established a public interest defense for investigating journalists in English common law. The U.K. has no First Amendment, and London had become the libel capital of the world — “a town named Sue,” American writers called it. But I guess my favorite memory is the Privy Council decision in Pratt v. Attorney General of Jamaica, in which the Court held that a prolonged stay on death row amounts to torture and requires the death sentence to be commuted. It took six months to prepare for the hearing, but I am told that over 1,000 death sentences have been commuted as a result. It has not been followed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is almost as inward looking as the current U.S. president, although Justice Stephen Breyer mentions it occasionally. If [the Pratt ruling] was adopted as a precedent, it would empty a lot of American death rows!

HPR: In your book, “An Inconvenient Genocide,” you establish the case outlining the Armenian Genocide where the Ottoman Empire systematically murdered up to 1.2 million Armenians during World War I. You suggest that proving that this was an act of genocide is “inconvenient” for the world. Why is that?

GR: Because, in this case, Turkey is “neuralgic” — the word that the British Foreign Office used to describe it in some secret memoranda I obtained under our Freedom of Information Act. The Foreign Office privately admitted that it was genocide, but they could not say so because Turkey would take diplomatic and economic reprisals. Turkey is a NATO member of great strategic importance, and for that reason, the U.S. government cannot admit the truth either. President Obama always said that he would call it a genocide, but he quailed when he became president and called it “Medz Yeghern” — an Armenian phrase which means a great catastrophe. Donald Trump, for all his bravado, dare not speak the truth either by calling it “genocide.” Turkey is too strategically important, and its neuralgia must not be stoked by honest description of its history.

HPR: In your book “Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice,” you mention that you were born on the day of the Nuremberg Judgement — Sept. 30, 1946 — and you describe your life as “a precise temporal measure of the extent to which the international community has delivered on the momentous promise of that day.” What made the Nuremberg Judgement so significant? And to what extent have we delivered on the promise it evoked?

GR: Well, it was the creation of international criminal law. Before Nuremberg, international law applied only to states and not to individual political or military leaders. The point of my passing reference to my birthday was to say that 73 years is the length of time that it has taken to get to a stage where we have still not yet fully delivered on the Nuremberg promise — that those who commit crimes against humanity will be punished. We have come a certain distance — the ad hoc tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have morphed into the International Criminal Court, and there is the precedent of the U.N.’s Special Court for Sierra Leone, which put Charles Taylor in prison for life. I was the latter’s first president. But there is no justice for the Rohingya or for Jamal Khashoggi, murdered obviously on orders of the Crown Prince. Although America was never a member of the ICC, the Obama and Bush administrations were never as hostile to international justice as the Trump administration, with its childish threats to have ICC judges arrested if they dare to investigate war crime allegations against American soldiers in Afghanistan. So we have a long way to go before the Nuremberg legacy — which ironically, America helped to create — can be delivered.

HPR: You have worked in the fields of international law and human rights for nearly 50 years. Has the landscape of the field changed much in that time? Are countries more receptive to the jurisdiction of legal bodies like the ICC than they once were?

GR: The landscape has certainly changed and for the better. Back in the early 70s, I recall writing begging letters to Pinochet and Idi Amin, asking them politely to stop torturing people. By the turn of the century, I was appearing for Human Rights Watch in the case in Britain that ordered Pinochet to stand trial for breaches of the U.N.’s Convention against Torture. What has been achieved over that period and until 2012 is a legal structure and a jurisprudence for dealing with international criminality, but it raised too many expectations about its universal application. I remember those early demonstrations in Damascus with protestors raising banners saying “al-Assad to the Hague.” After a few thousand protestors were shot, I called it a crime against humanity, which would justify a Security Council reference to the ICC. But it took four more years and 400,000 deaths before the U.K. proposed it, and then … it was vetoed by Russia and China. Now, we have an American government which displays contempt for the whole exercise. Why should smaller countries respect the ICC when great powers do not? I guess it still offers a form of justice for pariah states and brutal warlords, and I hope it gets hold of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, whose indictment for the genocide in Darfur was supported even by America. But I am afraid that any perpetrator with friends among the “Big Five” on the Security Council will have effective immunity. 

HPR: In November of last year, Gambia filed a suit on behalf of the Rohingya Muslims against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice for the crime of genocide. The ICC has also authorized an investigation. What does this current case say about these institutions and our ability, today, to bring human rights abusers to justice?

GR: It says something, but not much more than I have already said: Myanmar lacks powerful friends, and although one human rights hypocrite, Aung San Suu Kyi, was internationally shamed, she was playing to her local audience. The ICC prosecutor should issue an arrest warrant for five of her generals, but I doubt they will appear in The Hague anytime soon. It will be the same story, I am afraid, with the perpetrators of the mass murder of Tamils in Sri Lanka in 2009 — some of [whom] have just got back into power. In recent years, I’ve been advocating for the use of Magnitsky laws — operating under national rather than international law as a means to at least sanction human rights violators. There is the Magnitsky Act passed by the U.S. Congress, which was copied and improved in some respects by Canada and Britain, and is being considered by Australia. The Act is a way of naming and shaming violators, preventing them from banking in or visiting Western democracies. I think the sanctions could and should be stronger, preventing wrongdoers from educating their children or sending their parents for medical treatment in the West. It provides at least some form of sanction based on national laws which work, rather than the “catch as catch can” quality of international criminal justice.

HPR: With the rise of multinationals after World War II has come the encroachment of big business into issues of human rights — both directly and indirectly. For example, in Myanmar, Facebook was used as a platform by some to incite hate speech and call for the genocide of the Rohingya minority. What responsibilities do you think multinational corporations have in regard to human rights, and how might we enforce this?

GR: This goes back to one failure at Nuremberg to develop criminal liability for corporations that assisted the Nazi atrocities. We no longer remember that Hugo Boss made the concentration camp uniforms! Now, we have the recent problem that multinational companies like Facebook unwittingly spread disinformation on the internet. This is becoming a real problem for democracy, as the Mueller report showed with Russian interference in the 2016 election, and now we have dangerously false information about COVID-19. The problem is how to combat fake news without laws that can be used against political opposition — something that is happening in Malaysia and even France. There is an NGO called Avaaz, which is trialling the idea of using fact-checkers: when a post is found to be false, the internet provider is obliged to notify all who have downloaded it.

HPR: How do you view America’s record on human rights? And what drives the ebb and flow of the nation’s advocacy of human rights?

GR: In my autobiography, published in 2017, I wrote: “I have never faltered in my general acceptance of America’s leadership of the free world — a result, I suspect, of my knowledge about the alternatives.” It’s a line I would not write today — how can you follow a leader who cares nothing about the free world, but only about himself? The nation that has contributed so much to our thinking about human rights has nothing to offer — to climate change, the ICC, the Iran nuclear deal, the World Trade Organization, even most recently to the World Health Organization. It’s tragic, really, and the baton has now passed to Europe’s lawyers and philosophers, as we try to shore up rule-based treaties and institutions which the U.S. helped to initiate but now wants no part of. I am currently acting for a family whose young son was killed by an American wife of a CIA operative at an English airbase. She fled the country, and the U.K. asked for her extradition, but U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tore up the request and condemned it as “abusive.” The real abuse is an arrogant attitude of exceptionalism, which  promotes the idea that the U.S. is above the rule of international law. It was epitomized by former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, who wanted to bomb The Hague if the ICC ever got its hands on an American war criminal. Now, that attitude is back with a vengeance, and the pity of it is how it diminishes the contribution of American scholarship and enthusiasm to human rights.

Image Credit: Elizabeth Allnutt


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