In Memoriam: Professor Sir Nigel Rodley

by | Feb 7, 2017

There are international lawyers who make outstanding contributions to their fields. And there are international lawyers who actually create the fields we study and insert life into them.

Professor Sir Nigel Rodley was both.

Nigel’s scholarly interests long focused on the place of human rights in international law and the development of human rights law within international law.

His early work on international law was at the intersection of the law on the use of force and human rights. His 1973 American Journal of International Law article, co-authored with Tom Franck, ‘After Bangladesh: The Law of Humanitarian Intervention by Military Force remains the authoritative piece on the legality of unilateral humanitarian intervention under international law. His 1979 piece ‘Enhancing Global Human Rights’ in Foreign Affairs, co-authored with Louis Henkin, Richard Falk and Jorge Dominguez, asked how global human rights could be enhanced against the background of UN human rights treaties coming into force.

Nigel’s contribution to human rights in international law continued throughout his career. By the end of the 1980s, Nigel focused on the role of the International Court of Justice in advancing human rights in international law. His 1992 edited book To Loose the Bands of Wickedness: International Intervention In Defence of Human Rights – the astute and witty title as always a hallmark of Nigel’s writing – was one of the first to spot the then unexpected sea change in the involvement of the Security Council in humanitarian interventions. In 2007, revisiting humanitarian intervention in the aftermath of Kosovo in an article we co-authored, Nigel perceptively outlined the methodological challenges of international law in legalizing humanitarian intervention.

It goes without saying that general international law and how human rights figure in it would have benefited from more contributions from Nigel. His calling, however, was elsewhere.

The year that he published ‘After Bangladesh’ was the year that Nigel started to work at Amnesty International’s Legal Affairs and International Organizations section as their legal advisor. He left, seventeen years later, and moved to the Law School at the University of Essex and its Human Rights Centre. Nigel’s years at Amnesty International and Essex were also the years when international human rights law as a branch of international law effectively came into being in body and flesh.

Nigel was one of its makers.

Nigel was a maker of international human rights law in the most literal sense. He helped draft the 1984 Convention against Torture. He then became a leading interpreter of the international human rights law he helped create, first in his role as the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture between 1993 and 2001 and as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee between 2001 and 2016.

Nigel was also a maker of international human rights law as an academic field of inquiry. In his academic work that developed from and was nourished by his role as an international human rights law interpreter, Nigel focused on the evolving substantive content of international human rights law and how international human rights law sits in the universe of public international law. His monograph Treatment of Prisoners in International Law, published for the first time in 1987, was groundbreaking work on the substantive content of prohibition of torture and other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment. It placed both prisoners and international human rights law on the international law agenda. By establishing the treatment of prisoners as a domain of academic international legal inquiry, Nigel further opened the way for vulnerable groups to be the subject of study in international law.

Through his work on the prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, prisoners’ rights, and humanitarian intervention, Nigel inspired thousands in his lifetime as an academic, teacher, mentor and public intellectual. His interventions as Special Rapporteur on Torture and as a member of the Human Rights Committee improved the lives of countless victims of human rights violations, and, at times, were central to bringing them to safety and putting an end to their torture or inhuman treatment. As his PhD student in the late 1990s, I remember him tirelessly fighting for the release of detainees from incommunicado detention in difficult places where they were under serious risk of torture. I also remember him succeeding.

In his interactions with colleagues and students, Nigel had the uncompromising mission of demanding the best of what anyone could be. He enjoyed good arguments and, with those, good disagreements. He enjoyed good humour. He detested garrulous talk. He was at once interested in making a difference on the ground and in the normative coherence and healthy political support for international human rights law. All these qualities, so rarely found in one single person, made Nigel a role model for human rights lawyers, advocates and researchers everywhere. At the 2016 ESIL Research Forum in Istanbul Nigel was in excellent form, approachable, full of wit and insight in his interactions with early career researchers. It is how we will remember him.

Global human rights advocates from all walks and professions, his countless students, his many friends mourn the death of Professor Sir Nigel Rodley. The pain of his loss is inexplicable for those he loved and who loved him. It is untimely at this critical juncture in the fight for the continued recognition of the prohibition of torture and other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment.

As international lawyers we mourn for Nigel, too. We have lost one of our greatest. International human rights law has lost one of its founding fathers.

Written by: Başak Çali Secretary General, European Society of International Law and originally published on EJIL: Talk! 

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