Judge, Professor, Diplomat: Theodor Meron as a Leading Figure in International Criminal Justice

Judge, Professor, Diplomat: Theodor Meron as a Leading Figure in International Criminal Justice

[Jean Galbraith is a Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.]

Today is the last day in a leadership role for a central figure in international criminal justice. Theodor Meron is finishing up his tenure as President of the successor Mechanism to the ICTY and the ICTR, after 18 years of full-time service at ICTY, ICTR, and now the Mechanism.   Judge Meron remains as a judge on the Mechanism.

I clerked for Judge Meron over a decade ago. He was larger than life to work for – passionate about the cause of international criminal justice, boundless in his energy, brilliant at all times and never more so than when facing a challenge. As he leaves the Presidency of the Mechanism, I write this post in celebration of his abiding commitment to international law, humanism, and criminal justice.

International law has been the common thread across Judge Meron’s professional life. Before he was a judge, he was a professor of international law at NYU for almost twenty-five years, and before that he spent about twenty years as a legal advisor and diplomat at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Judge, professor, diplomat – these were separate roles that Judge Meron held over the years, and yet the best traits of each were with him throughout. As a young legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, he concluded that civilian settlements in the occupied West Bank would violate international law. As Israel’s ambassador to Canada, he published scholarship on international law. During his time at NYU, he called for the creation of the international criminal tribunals and advised the United States during the drafting of the Rome Statute.

At the tribunals, his past practice as a diplomat served him well. In his role as President of the ICTY, he fought tenaciously for U.N. support for the tribunal. At the same time, he did his best, within the constraints of the judicial process, to keep the pace of international criminal justice from slowing beyond the inevitable. No one who has worked for Judge Meron can doubt his preference for efficiency. As his law clerk from 2006 to 2007, I marveled at his relentless energy in promoting international criminal justice. Even during the years where he was not the ICTY President, he sought to communicate this cause to the greater world. “I strongly feel that, for all our recent achievements, continued – positive – change is possible,” he explained in a lecture. “[W]e have come a long way too, due to dedication and hard work, and the road before us lies clearly ahead.

There was also something of Professor Meron at the tribunals as well. It was not just that he kept up scholarly and teaching interests on the side: giving the Hague general course on public international law, running an annual workshop with NYU and the ICRC for diplomats, teaching at Oxford, writing about Shakespeare’s humanism, and pursuing other outlets for his restless intellect. His academic background also carried directly into his work within the tribunal. He liked people to agree with him, but trusted them more when they argued with him. For many years, he hired one-year law clerks like myself in part so that he be a teacher and a mentor. When I worked for him, he asked me to co-publish a book chapter and did everything he could to encourage my academic interests. He showed by example how one can keep up wide-ranging intellectual interests even amidst a consuming career – avidly reading the New Yorker, exploring new places with his even more tireless wife Monique, and always with an eye out for anything related to Shakespeare or medieval castles. I owe much of my career in international law to him – not just for my experience at the Hague, but for years of advice and help afterward.

More than anything else, Judge Meron was fiercely committed to judicial independence and the rule of law. As his law clerk, I saw how much he cared about integrity, about thinking through the applicable law and facts, about getting it right. Years later, I came across the following passage about judicial independence in a wonderful speech by Justice Robert Jackson, delivered to the American Society of International Law in 1945, and thought immediately of Judge Meron: 

I always have found a great measure of professional pride and inspiration in the story I have heard and often repeated about Lord Alverstone. … It so happened that Lord Alverstone, named to the [Alaska Boundary] commission by Great Britain, joined in an award in favor of the United States. The storm of criticism among his countrymen was fierce. The answer attributed to Alverstone … was simply, “If when any kind of arbitration is set up they don’t want a decision based on the law and the evidence, they must not put a British judge on the commission.” That is the spirit in which disputes between states or between individuals must be decided, and the spirit in which decisions must be accepted, if the world is ever truly to be ruled by law instead of by the wills of men in power. 

Over his years on the bench, Judge Meron has come in for plenty of criticism of bias, sometimes from defendants and sometimes from those who viewed him as too soft on defendants. These criticisms mistook substance and independence. There is of course ample room to debate what the proper legal standard should be for command responsibility or the circumstances under which early release should be granted. But on the question of judicial independence, Judge Meron – like Lord Alverstone long ago – had no doubt about the centrality of this value to the entire enterprise of international courts. Three days after John Bolton’s dismaying manifesto on the ICC this past September, Judge Meron issued a statement in support of the ICC. “At a time when the Court and the Rome system itself continue to face challenges, and when respect for the principle of judicial independence continues to be essential, I wish to pause and salute the Judges and leadership of the ICC and all the many others at the Court and in nations around the world who – through their persistence, resilience, and commitment to the principles of our common humanity embodied in the Rome Statute – are helping to bring us ever closer to our fundamental aim: ending impunity for serious violations of international law.”

The ICTY, the ICTR, and their Mechanism have had their limits and challenges, as the endless legacy discussions make clear. They have also had extraordinary successes. Of the 161 persons indicted by the ICTY, no fugitives remain; and there are only three fugitives of the 93 persons indicted by the ICTR. All the rest have been convicted, acquitted, referred, remain the subject of ongoing proceedings at the Mechanism, or had their cases resolved in other ways.

This has been the work of many people for many years. It has taken vision, independence, tenacity, and judgment. And so much more. I salute my old boss and lifelong mentor, Ted Meron, for his 18 years of extraordinary commitment.

Note: This post has been edited to correct an error and now reflects Judge Meron’s ongoing service as a judge on the Mechanism.

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International Criminal Law
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