Cryer’s Ninos

Cryer’s Ninos

[Letta Tayler is an associate director and the counterterrorism lead in the Crisis and Conflict Division of Human Rights Watch. @LettaTayler.]

“Getting states to buy into international criminal law is like asking the Mafia to buy into RICO.” We were only five minutes into class and Rob Cryer, fueled by a 500-ml plastic bottle of Diet Coke, was in full swing. “States get the international law they want,” Cryer said, taking another swig. “Not the international law they deserve.”

It was July 2019 and a baker’s dozen of us, ranging from lawyers and journalists to activists, academics, and law enforcers, were taking Cryer’s International Criminal Law seminar at the University of Oxford. ICL was a cornerstone of our mid-career master’s program in international human rights law and the syllabus seemed daunting: command responsibility, Joint Criminal Enterprise III, and all those cases from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia whose names I couldn’t pronounce or spell.

To our delight Cryer did what teachers do best, unveiling ICL’s mysteries just enough for us to discover them ourselves. Combining pithy legal analysis with tales of quirky prosecutors and late-night travaux préparatoires, he brought us to both the front rows and back rooms at Nuremburg, Tokyo, The Hague and beyond. In the process, he coaxed us into sharing his awe over the improbable growth of a body of law establishing individual criminal responsibility for international crimes.

Cryer died last weekend. Our cohort is struggling to come to terms with his untimely death.

With his black shirts and jeans, rust-colored beard, radiant smile, and blue eyes that occasionally looked almost crossed, Cryer cut an affably unconventional figure. He often arrived late for class and was fond of self-deprecating humor and exuberant tangents. He was as happy debating ICL’s feats and failures over pints at the Turf Tavern as he was over caffeine in class.  

Among his many admonishments: international human rights law and ICL are “false friends.” The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court “was not negotiated on grounds of theoretical purity.” Taken to its extreme, criminal justice “is the logic of the police state.” His most valuable exam tip: if you can’t remember the relevant case, “Go for Tadić. It’s almost certainly there.”

Asked what our main takeaway should be, Cryer cautioned that ICL “is fashioned by human beings” and replete with human failings. “Even Nino was a bloke with immense abilities but who by his own admission had weaknesses,” he confided, his voice hushed with respect.

Cryer always referred to his mentor Antonio Cassese, the late, great architect of ICL, as “Nino.” Not a class went by that we did not hear about Nino’s feats, often in connection with Tadić. At least once, the diminutive Cryer compared his height to Cassese’s. I don’t recall who had the vertical advantage, but Cassese was such a towering presence in our discussions that one student named our ICL WhatsApp group “Cryer’s Ninos.” We considered printing the name on T-shirts.

Cryer’s Ninos was where many of us learned that cancer had taken our vibrant tutor, as it had taken Cassese before him. Just 18 months ago, Cryer had seemed primed for decades more teaching and an eventual 5th edition of An Introduction to International Criminal Law and Procedure, the massively dense  text that he painstakingly co-wrote.

If there is an afterlife, I hope it offers a legal library that looks like the Bodleian and a pub out back like the Turf. I envision Cryer there, tossing back pints while parsing crimes of aggression and general principles of liability with Nino. They’re both seated, so we don’t know who is taller.

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