Where are you from, and why there?
I was born in Telluride, Colorado, and spent most of my childhood there and in Denver. Though they met in Telluride, my parents were both transplanted Bostonians who had headed West seeking new opportunities that Colorado uniquely offered. My father was initially attracted to the skiing and outdoors there, but in due course got involved in local politics and government as his generation engaged in the political process, which was animated by the state’s quickly-expanding, dynamic population. Colorado mountain towns were rife with interesting and pivotal civic issues, such as historic preservation and responsible growth. My dad, who passed recently, would dedicate the rest of his life to public service in the form of elected and appointed positions. My mother also has been involved in many different professional pursuits, from running a flower store, hosting a radio show, and now serving as executive director of a historic preservation society that owns old mining-town mansions, where they host public and private events.
Which issue(s) do you work on/care about, and why?
My legal career has been involved almost exclusively in international criminal justice, or criminal accountability for those who are involved in genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes (collectively referred to as “atrocity crimes”). At a personal level, this field of law has always fascinated me, given that it sits so squarely at the intersection of international law and geopolitical affairs. While law and politics are of course intertwined domestically, their interplay and tension are even starker at the international level.
More specifically, I firmly believe this field of law presents the greatest opportunity to help establish a truly global rule of law, build durable peace and stability in conflict zones, and protect the greatest number of the most vulnerable among us, whether their vulnerability be based on religion, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or mere proximity to resources. For centuries, those who wrought mass death and destruction were subject (at most) to political repercussions, which invariably meant millions of people could be killed and their communities destroyed and the culprits, granted a comfortable exile. International criminal law is the avenue whereby leaders and others involved in atrocities can be held accountable; in the process, a global legal order can be built to prevent future atrocities and ensure that no one is above the law.
This all may ring hollow with ongoing mass atrocities in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, and Venezuela, to name a few, with almost no criminal accountability thus far. Yet this field of law is still in its infancy, crawling its way through a convoluted web of realpolitik. So, while successes may continue to seem limited, incremental advances will prove cumulative, moving the world closer to lasting change.
How did you get involved?
Given my family background and a keen interest in overseas travel, I entered law school predisposed to public service in some sort of international setting. When I took my first international law class with the venerable Professor Ved Nanda, I knew that the field of international human rights would be my general direction. A guest lecture by a former international prosecutor, David Akerson, was the light-bulb moment when I realized that international criminal law was my specific calling. Now a professional colleague, David was further instrumental in showing me the “nuts and bolts” of how to build such a career. From there, a range of support from people like Don Ferencz, Sam Shoamanesh, and others, was critical to constructing that career, securing opportunities to prove myself, and building on professional successes. In short, a combination of my own perseverance (bordering on being annoying) coupled with steadfast support from friends and colleagues was how I got involved in international criminal justice.
What’s the biggest challenge for the issue(s) today?
The biggest challenge may be identifying the biggest challenge among the many that currently plague international criminal justice! They include the United States’ waning leadership (by word and deed) on human rights and the rule of law and the growing political acceptability of shielding mass atrocities, in places like Syria, Palestine, Yemen, and North Korea, from judicial scrutiny by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
An underappreciated issue is the lack of support given to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by its proponents, be they states or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). There are a great many true-blue supporters of the ICC, but too much time and energy is spent by supporters (let alone detractors) debating the ICC while those promoting or protecting impunity escape scrutiny. This is not to say that spirited discussion of the ICC – its effectiveness, efficiency, budget and the overall relationship between “peace” and “justice” – is not worthwhile. Rather, too much bandwidth is spent on these issues, and too little on realizing the Court’s mandate. Instead, we advocates need to spend more resources and energy helping the ICC undertake its casework, gather the best evidence possible, and effectuate arrest warrants, and getting creative in building financial and diplomatic pressure to help ICC investigations, prosecutions, and adjudications. In short, it is time to lock arms with the ICC, accept its shortcomings as not priority issues at present, and focus firmly on doing what is necessary to take its cases from allegations to final resolution.
Who are your most frequent allies? Any surprises?
A range of developed and developing states, steadfast foundations, spirited and capable advocates in the field, and elected and non-elected US officials, all recognize the long-term benefits of international criminal justice to core interests such as peace, economic growth, and security. And it cuts across party lines. Conservatives’ motivations may not coincide with those of liberal progressives, but many different sectors and types of support are needed to secure accountability for atrocity crimes.
What drives you?
An innate feeling that this is what I am meant to do; that this line of work speaks to who I am and what I want to spend my life doing. This sentiment is not expressed in some sort of mystical manner, but rather that it just feels natural and right for me to be working as hard as possible in this particular field. Systemic change generally requires generations of work pushing the proverbial ball forward. So, what drives me is a genuine hope and desire to push that ball as far forward as possible — and hopefully beyond what was thought possible.
What do you want your career/advocacy to stand for?
Martin Luther King, Jr., said that “True peace is not the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” Apart from notions of “justice” and “fairness,” which most who work in human rights likely want their careers to stand for, I would additionally hope that my career would serve as an example that doing what one wants to do with their professional life is worth taking risks for, making sacrifices for, pushing to make happen. Recently, I have been overcome with a feeling that I am so incredibly lucky, so much so that it is hard to even encapsulate in words just how lucky I am. How fortunate I am to have so many moments and chance-meetings in my life that directly influenced where I am today and where I am going, and what kind of person and professional I am as well. Much of this was actual luck, and a lot of it (I believe) was making my own luck. So, I would like my career to demonstrate what’s possible with a bit of luck, a healthy dose of tenacity, and a steady faith in the future.