The UN at 70: A legal perspective

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, the Bar Council, in conjunction with the diplomatic community and the UN Association Westminster Branch, hosted a lecture in the Inner Temple Great Hall. Daniel Sternberg reports

Barristers, diplomats and representatives of the United Nations celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the UN at a lecture in Inner Temple Hall given by Professor Vaughan Lowe QC on 17 August. 

The event also marked the launch of a new network of Young Barristers, Young Diplomats in London and UN Association Young Professionals.

Vaughan Lowe is well qualified to assess the legal successes and failures of the United Nations. An expert in public international law, he has appeared in the International Court of Justice, the ECJ, the ECHR (where he has also sat as an ad hoc judge), the Iran-US Claims Tribunal and numerous national courts. He has sat as an arbitrator and on the tribunals addressing the boundaries between Trinidad and Barbados, and between Croatia and Slovenia. He is also is Emeritus Chichele Professor of Public International Law and an Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College in the University of Oxford.

His lecture began with a review of the contribution of the British legal profession to five hundred years of international law. Every branch of law crosses frontiers. His central theses were that the UN’s role in fostering the rule of law in states is overlooked and that the international rule of law depends on its grip at national level and vice-versa.

Whilst the UN’s contribution to strengthening the rule of law is quiet and sometimes indirect, its contribution is essential. The UN is not, in his view, intended to be a global public service, citing Lord Halifax’s description of it as an exercise in global negotiation and institutionalised diplomacy. He reacted to many criticisms of the legitimacy of the UN as overlooking its work at lower level. It has a role in setting uniform international standards as a regulator outside of and between states for subjects ranging from medicines to ships, air, labour and refugees. A topical example is the UN’s contribution to combating piracy in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Somalia, which required harmonising legal norms and the adoption of higher standards to bring those accused of piratical activity to account.

Whilst acknowledging the shortcomings of the United Nations, Professor Lowe warned against expecting too much of the organisation. It is unrealistic to expect it to solve problems national governments cannot. Questions following the lecture ranged from the duty to protect to the impact of the UK withdrawing from the ECHR. On this point, he said he would be bitterly disappointed if UK did withdraw; the ECHR was designed to set minimum standards and coherent arguments are needed if it is to be to ripped up or shaved away.

The lecture provided the backdrop for the launch of a new network for the Young Bar, Young Diplomats and those working in and with the UN in London. The Bar is represented by the Young Barristers’ Committee. With the increasing globalisation of legal services the Committee is keen to encourage young barristers to develop an international practice early in their careers and equally to play an active role in developing the rule of law internationally. This new network provides us with a brilliant opportunity to get inspiration and to develop knowledge and contacts.

Young Diplomats in London is a voluntary and non-profit network run by and for the London-based Diplomatic community. It aims at facilitating friendship and increased understanding between nations by combining social, professional and cultural activities in and around London.

The United Nations Association is a global grass roots civil society organization made up of more than one hundred country-specific associations. Providing a vital link between the UN and the citizens of each country, it aims to inform and to challenge, seeking to ensure that the UN is relevant to the lives of the peoples it exists to serve since it first met in London seventy years ago. The UNA UK Westminster Branch has been at the forefront of UNA UK campaigns since its foundation in the 1940s, and though more recent, its Young Professionals branch is following firmly in its footsteps. Built on the ideas and innovations of professionals in their 20s and 30s with an interest in contributing to International Peace, Security and Development, it is united by a determination to achieve the UN’s three pillars of freedom for all – freedom from want, freedom from fear and the freedom to live in dignity.

As diplomats, barristers and young professionals working in and with the UN, our interests overlap both in terms of international legal topics and issues of global significance in which we have a common concern. We have therefore come together to forge closer ties and relationships between our three areas of work, helping us collectively to shape a future based on justice for all.

The event celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the UN was an excellent opportunity to launch the network which intends to run at least three events a year with each group hosting the others in rotation. They will offer networking opportunities, roundtables, and constructive discussions on current topics in law, diplomacy and pertaining to the United Nations, with talks and seminars from leaders in these fields. We will also try to find some time to socialise.

Our next event will be held in early February 2016 at Middle Temple, and will focus on “After 2015”, as nations renew their focus on sustainable development goals at a time of increased austerity in Europe.

We hope many readers of Counsel magazine will join us. In order to receive an invitation to this and future events, we invite you to contact Aishah Malik at the Bar Council: AMalik@BarCouncil.org.uk.

Contributor Daniel Sternberg

Author details: 
Daniel Sternberg

Daniel was the 2015 Chairman of the Young Barristers’ Committee of the Bar Council. He is a specialist extradition and public law practitioner at 9-12 Bell Yard in London.