Reflections on five years as the Legal Counsel

Date/Location: 9 July 2013; Conference Room A (CB), UN Headquarters

Key speaker: Ms Patricia O’Brien (Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, the Legal Counsel)

Written by: Sunny Hor

Image compliments of the United NationsShortly before completing the five-year term as Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs – a position described by the Chair as the most difficult job in the United Nations – and moving to Switzerland as the Irish Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Ms Patricia O’Brien gave her personal insights at the event and reflected her tenure in the position. Particularly, she shared with the audience her view of the role of the Legal Counsel, the vision of her office and some current issues important to the development of international law. One key message was clear in her address: public international law lies in the heart of the United Nations and is of vital importance to the whole business.

The significance of international law is best illustrated by the Secretary-General’s request for Ms O’Brien’s presence in important political discussions. Fostering rule of law and ending impunity were some of the elements in the heart of the role of the USG for Legal Affairs. No doubt, the rule of law is vital to every aspect of human development from economic progress to conflict prevention, while ending impunity towards international crimes is a key task in the “age of accountability” phrased by the Secretary-General.

The development of international judicial bodies from the principles laid down in the Nuremburg trials to the specific tribunals set up for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia to the International Criminal Court has obviously been striking, but Ms O’Brien also stressed the role of states, in particular the principle of complementarity, under which cases should only be referred to international bodies where national courts are unable or unwilling to resolve the case. In any case, due process and individual accountability are now the fundamental elements of the international justice.

Moving to specific issues experienced in her tenure as Legal Counsel, she shed light on the UN missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali, namely MONUSCO and MINUSMA, the indictment of the president of Kenya by the ICC, the humanitarian situation in Syria and the human rights due diligence policy of the UN. The complex legal implications of the aforementioned issues ranged from the inclusion of UN forces in the jurisdiction of the ICC, contact between the UN and persons indicted by the ICC, responsibility to protect (R2P), violation of international humanitarian laws and beyond.

Towards the end of the event,  a member of the audience asked Ms O’Brien what her advice to her successor will be. “My team is the jewel of the department. I work with and respect them; Lead and manage the team on top of the legal issues,” answered Ms O’Brien.

Edited By; Wayne Dean Doyle

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