The changing face of international law

There is no greater time to unite behind international bodies to bring justice to those wronged, writes Lewis Power QC, reporting from the annual International Bar Association (IBA) conference in Toyko.

Lawyers covened from all corners of the world in Tokyo for the Annual IBA Conference from 19-24 October 2014.

 “More than any other city, Tokyo demonstrates that ‘city’ is a verb and not a noun,” wrote architect Toshiko Mori, and with a population of almost 40 million people, it is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful cities, steeped in culture and history. A powerful and historic welcome at the opening ceremony

featured their Imperial Majesties Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan and the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe – the first IBA Conference attended by the host country’s head of state and prime minister. The Prime Minister spoke eloquently of the universality of the concept of the rule of law and the commitment of the world’s nations to unite to create an improved international order. The IBA President, Michael Reynolds delivered his opening speech partly in Japanese, warmly received by the crowd of attendees drawn from 33 countries and from every continent.

Amongst the key themes this year were Diversity and the Preservation of the Rule of Law. Delegates were updated on the progress of the two Presidential Task Forces – one on Climate Change Justice and the other on Global Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery.

The IBA’s showcase session on Achieving Justice and Human Rights in an era of climate disruption was chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy and featured a host of eminent speakers ranging from Al Gore (45th U.S. Vice President, co-recipient, 2007 Nobel Peace Prize) to Mary Robinson (United Nations Special Envoy on Climate Change, President of Ireland, 1990 to 1997, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1997 to 2002) to President Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected President of the Maldive Islands republic.

The session cited recent alarming examples of climate disruption and its impacts on people in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia, Africa and the Americas. While causes and impacts have drawn specific focus from scientists and global policy makers, legal concerns regarding justice and human rights issues from climate change impacts are exponentially increasing. The IBA Presidential Task Force on Climate Change Justice and Human Rights, comprised of legal and human rights experts, was established in early 2013 to ensure the IBA, as the voice of the global legal profession, plays a key role in bringing forward critical solutions that address justice and human rights issues arising from climate disruption.

The first hot topic session of the week was on Human Rights Violations in North Korea. In March 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights violations in North Korea. Chaired by Hon Michael Kirby, past Justice of the High Court of Australia, the COI’s mandate extended to investigation of political prison camps, discrimination, starvation and famine, lack of free expression and media, public execution and absence of fair trial rights. Its report was recently delivered. One topic of special interest to Japan was the abduction over an extended period of foreign nationals by agents of the North Korean state. This proved to be a lively, candid and hard-hitting debate. North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons added a security dimension to this timely study of international human rights law in action.

The second hot topic session was presented by the War Crimes Committee/Criminal law Committee, entitled The verdict on the ICC and UN ad hoc tribunals as competing tribunals. It was chaired by a fine panel which included Steven Kay QC, Gregory Kehoe (Tampa, USA), Professor Keiko KoMie University (Tsu City, Japan), Tomohiro Mikanagi (Director of the Division of International Law, Tokyo), His Honour Judge Howard Morrison OBE CBE (International Judge of the UK at the ICTY, ICC, London) and Judge Motoo Noguchi (Former International Judge of the ECCC and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Trust Fund for Victims at the ICC, Tokyo).

Marrying up all these debates was the mouth-watering prospect of the International Court for the Environment (ICE) – a formal judicial institution with specific jurisdiction for international environmental law claims. In a landmark 240-page report, the International Bar Association called for the creation of an international court to deal with climate change disputes, much like the United Nation’s International Court of Justice. It is the first time that a legal organisation of this size has studied climate justice and the role of human rights law in addressing climate challenge.

Mary Robinson reminded delegates of what Barack Obama had said in the Climate Summit in New York in September 2014 about how America would lead efforts to reach a global compact on climate change: “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last to be able to do anything about it.”

The conference curtain-closer rather befittingly came with a delegates’ visit to the classic and beautiful Tokyo’s Happ-oen garden, the famous ‘garden of eight views’, which was constructed to be perfect from all angles. It was a truly meaningful way to end the conference in reinforcing the need to preserve the beauty of nature and tackle climate change.

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Lewis Power QC

Lewis, Lamb Building, London, is a defence specialist in international and multi-jurisdictional organised crime. He is an associate member of Deans Court Chambers, Manchester and a member of the Northern Irish Bar.