Where are you from, and why there?
I was born and raised in Norman, Oklahoma. My father had grown up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and after service in World War II earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. He had just taken a tenure-track job as a faculty member in political science at the University of Oklahoma a year before I was born in 1953. My mother, originally from Newport, Rhode Island, contracted polio shortly after I was born, as did I. This was just a year or so before the Salk vaccine arrived. She was permanently paralyzed, while as a baby I luckily pulled out of it, although I suffered some permanent scars in the result. My mother spent a year at Warm Springs, Georgia, to learn how to manage polio. During that first year of my life, I lived with my maternal grandparents in Ridgewood, New Jersey, while my father taught at OU. My mother was in a wheelchair for the rest of her life and so my three sisters and I grew up with a disabled mother. But she was strong, good spirited, and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at OU. My father was a true saint taking care of her and greatly helping with the raising of my sisters and me. Meanwhile, the only hill in view on the flat plains of Norman was one constructed by the U.S. Navy for target practice during World War II, when Norman had two military bases. I used to play war on that lonely hill, which may explain why I enjoy mountain landscapes.
Which issue(s) do you work on/care about, and why?
Ever since college I have had a passion for international law, so I have spent my entire career in different fields of international law—private and public. I find in international law a profound expression of hope in the future of humanity and I want to do what I can to fulfill that hope. When we speak of a “rules-based international order,” we embrace a vision of civilization that is essential for the survival of humans and of the planet. There are a multitude of pathways through international law, and I enjoy introducing others to those journeys, which I have found so challenging and yet so rewarding for what, in the final analysis, is just plain common sense for someone from windy Oklahoma. There is simply no plausible way to navigate the future without a robust structure of international law to protect rights, create cooperative means to conquer threats to our survival, and prevent atrocities. My three decades, so far, in building international and ad hoc criminal tribunals and bringing perpetrators of atrocity crimes to justice have been the most visible expression of international law in my career and I am proud of what I have been able to influence and accomplish in that realm.
How did you get involved?
During my sophomore year at Harvard College, I read Louis Henkin’s How Nations Behave, and I never looked back. I aimed for law school with the sole ambition of studying international law. So, I applied to Oxford University for my first law degree and received the Knox Fellowship to pay for it. Then I entered the LL.M. degree program in International and Comparative Law at Georgetown University Law Center and in short order joined the New York Bar and a Wall Street law firm. I let it be known to the partners that I wanted any international transaction they could pitch my way, and within a few months I landed my first foreign law assignment: Draft a detailed memorandum on foreign investment law in China for a major New York construction company wanting to crack into the Chinese market (in 1979). That was the beginning of my international law practice and shortly thereafter Coudert Brothers, at that time at the top of the pyramid in the field, invited me to come on board to practice in their Singapore office. That experience of four years, as well as more years doing Latin American debt financing deals out of the firm’s New York headquarters, locked me into a career in international law. But I wanted to practice my early passion, public international law. I applied for and received a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship to Washington and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives, where I immediately worked on arms control legislation and the Iran-Contra Affair during my first year. I never returned to private practice and spent the next two decades in Washington, D.C., in a host of government, think tank, NGO, and law school positions immersed in public international law. When I finally settled down at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago in 2005, I had established the foundation for a lifelong commitment to the discipline.
What’s the biggest challenge for the issue(s) today?
The biggest challenge for international law is whether humankind’s survival on planet Earth will become a lost cause because of nativist, ill-informed, and intimidated mindsets, particularly within the most powerful countries, or whether citizens with enlightened perspectives will grasp the utility of international principles of conduct for the benefit of all. In the field of atrocity crimes, the pursuit of justice must continue for the aims of accountability and honoring the victims, but also as a beacon of deterrence. International criminal justice is admittedly the long game, but there is no viable alternative.
Who are your most frequent allies? Any surprises?
My most frequent allies, unsurprisingly, are my colleagues in the “academy” of international criminal law who believe strongly, as I do, in the pursuit of justice. These include academics, judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, and civil society advocates. I am particularly grateful to those career lawyers (and my former law students) in the federal government and international courts with whom I have connected over the years and who keep the flame alive. But also, there are my family members, relatives, and life-long friends who reassure me, at critical moments, that my own obsessions are worth my time and effort. Their support is the most critical assist. As for surprises, I am most struck when I learn of a former student or staffer who has risen to a high level of responsibility in international justice. I am not surprised about their rise, but of my having some small part in preparing such notable persons. It takes me out of myself and reminds me that real change occurs through the efforts of others.
What drives you?
I have always lived by a creed: Fill the gap, meaning do what would not be done unless I create the job or mission that tries to meet the challenge. A prominent example is creating the diplomatic position of the first U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues during the Clinton Administration, and filling that post. I often have focused on being or doing what no one else takes up. That means I do not shy away from inventing a job or launching a new initiative within my work to do what I believe must be done. That is primarily what drives me.
What do you want your career/advocacy to stand for?
My career and advocacy should stand for one moral imperative: the pursuit of international criminal justice. There is no argument, no rationale, no theory, no religion, and no political mandate that justifies the commission of atrocity crimes and there is no impunity worth justifying for the perpetrators. During my lifetime we have crossed the bridge to a modern era of accountability, albeit one that is only beginning to evolve. Before I take my last breath, I want my life’s work to culminate in the United States ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which I negotiated on behalf of my country. That would be a very fitting end.