The Killer Whale of The Hague

The Killer Whale of The Hague

Photo credit: Harold Stern

The world has lost James Crawford, a luminary of international law in the truest sense of the word.  Indeed, Judge Crawford was one of the few people alive who could rightly be called a luminary of international law, or a luminary of any field at all. He was, to use Professor Iain Scobbie’s phrase, one of the Killer Whales of The Hague. Any student of international law who has passed through university in the past 30 years (at least) has heard of or read about a case in which Judge (or, as he was once known, Professor) Crawford was involved as a practitioner or as a scholar. For that reason alone, international lawyers in the thousands are indebted to this great man.

I first came across Judge Crawford’s work when I was an intern at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 2009. I had come across the world of international justice and the courts and tribunals in The Hague by accident and soon became obsessed with learning about that world. Needless to say, it did not take me long to hear about Judge Crawford and to figure out that he was one of the trailblazers of international justice.

A few years later, when I was planning my PhD studies, I came across Judge Crawford’s work again. I had the chance to correspond with him a bit over the years and to listen to him speak at the 2014 ILA meeting in London. It is one of my great regrets that I did not seek out more opportunities to see or to hear Judge Crawford speak, but I have read and marked up my copy of The Creation of States in International Law. The last time I saw Judge Crawford was when I attended some of the oral proceedings in the Iran-USA case at the International Court of Justice.

I was not one of the lucky individuals taught by James Crawford in class, but I was a student from afar, listening on cold Edinburgh nights to Judge Crawford’s contribution to the UN Audiovisual Library of International Law, among many others. I can claim that I got to shake his hand, not once, but twice, once at the London meeting and at another meeting in Cambridge, which was one of the most surreal and joyful moments of my life, because I got to meet the legend in person. In correspondence, Judge Crawford was always encouraging and seemed genuinely very happy to learn when good things had happened for me, especially when a PhD slot opened up in Galway.

After I heard that James Crawford had passed earlier today, the phrase “once in a generation” came into my head. It is undisputed that the world receives a legal giant such as Judge Crawford maybe once in a generation, if we are lucky. But how many times does a student of international law get to meet a titan of international justice? For most people, they are lucky if it occurs once in a lifetime. In my lifetime, it was twice.


By Seamus Heaney


History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave…
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

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