Earlier this month, Shehzad Charania visited Judge Theodor Meron in The Hague. They spoke of Meron’s life as a legal advisor, diplomat, and as one of the most influential jurists in the history of international criminal justice. The following is Shehzad’s interview with Meron. His previous interviews with key figures in the world of international criminal law can be found here.
In early July, I paid a visit to President Judge Theodor Meron at his office in The Hague. I had gotten to know him well over the last three years, and wanted to take the opportunity to record his fascinating career. Judge Meron is currently the President of the UN Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (UNMICT), Judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and a visiting professor at Oxford University. He has, amongst other roles, been the Legal Adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israeli Ambassador to Canada, Permanent Representative to the Israeli Mission at the United Nations in Geneva, Counselor on International Law at the US State Department, a Professor at NYU and the Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies, Visiting Professor at Harvard and Berkeley, and editor in chief of the American Journal of International Law. He is also a leading scholar of Shakespeare and war.
I began by asking Meron about his childhood growing up in a labour camp in Poland. “Surviving in ghettos, hiding in lofts, losing most of my family and spending several years in a forced labour camp is not something I would wish for any child”, he told me. He emerged from the war with a yearning for school and “normality”. Education soon became an obsession. The impact of the war led him into international law, in particular the fields which held the promise of reducing the risk of the atrocities, violence and chaos he had experienced during his childhood.
Meron’s first senior role came when he was appointed Legal Adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, replacing Professor Shabtai Rosenne. In 2006, an article by Gershom Gorenberg in the New York Times revealed an opinion Meron had written in 1967, in the aftermath of Six-Day War after the Israelis had captured the West Bank and Golan Heights. In a memo marked “Top Secret”, Meron concluded that “civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention”. A year later, Meron wrote a further opinion, noting that demolitions of houses and deportations of Arabs suspected of subversive activities would violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, and may constitute collective punishment.
“My concern in both opinions”, argues Meron, “was not only ensuring respect for humanitarian law but also for human rights”. He was particularly worried about the need “not to change the demographic and cultural character of the occupied territories”. But what about the reaction he had received to those opinions at the time? There were no negative repercussions, he said. “I think those who read them understood that taking the positions was for me a question of legal principle, not of politics”. He is clearly proud of what he had written, and that he had had “the guts” to say what be believed.
Meron worked at the Israeli Foreign Ministry until the mid-1970s. In 1977, he returned to New York, where a decade earlier he had served at the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, mostly on the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly. He later wrote a book based on his experience of the UN Secretariat. Following postings to Ottawa as Ambassador, and Geneva as Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Meron entered academia at NYU Law School, where he would remain for two decades. During that time, he became a US citizen. It was his adopted country which would ask him to join the US Delegation to travel to Rome in 1998 to negotiate the ICC statute.
It was an “extraordinary experience”, says Meron. A “heady, exciting time, with long days and even longer nights”. But it was also a challenging period for the US delegation. While the members of the delegation were sympathetic to the idea of international criminal justice, and the establishment of the ICC in principle, there was some trepidation and even fear of the court in Washington. One of the US Senators most opposed to the idea of the ICC was Jesse Helms. Members of his office were in Rome closely observing the negotiations and, in particular, what the US delegation said and did. But while the career diplomats had to be cautious, Meron as an academic member of the delegation was not under the same constraints that applied to those from the State Department or the Department of Justice. It meant that he was heavily involved in drafting what became Article 7 of the Rome Statute on Crimes against Humanity, as well as other key provisions. He, like others on the delegation, believed in the ICC project, and genuinely felt that they were “changing the world for the better”. Continue reading