sir geoffrey nice
Image Credit: Jamesfranklingresham

In conversation with Sir Geoffrey Nice KC

Before he embarked on his argument in proposition of the motion “This House has no confidence in the United Nations” at the Oxford Union, I sat down with Sir Geoffrey Nice KC to learn about his work as a barrister and part-time judge. We discussed his career on the international legal stage, modern challenges to rule of law, and what the future holds for the next generation of lawyers.

Nice was educated in Oxford, reading PPE at Keble College, before becoming a barrister in 1971. Following over twenty years at the Bar, he joined the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. In 2001, he led the prosecution of Slobodan Milošević, the first time a head of state was indicted for war crimes.

More recently, Nice has chaired the China and Uyghur tribunals. The China tribunal investigated forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, while the Uyghur tribunal was called in 2020 to examine if human rights abuses against the Uyghur people in China constituted a genocide.

Nice said at the time that this was necessary as there was “no other way of bringing the leadership of the [Chinese] Communist Party collectively or individually to judgement”. The tribunal concluded that the People’s Republic of China had committed a genocide under Article Two of the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Marking his commitment to human rights, Nice was knighted in 2007 for services to International Criminal Justice. On the triumphant side of Thursday’s debate, he highlighted problems of inaction in the face of human rights crises, stating that the UN “fails in its core policies”, and that these failures “put us all at risk”.

Daisy Outram: You’re at the Oxford Union, a debating society where many students discuss salient global legal issues and discover passion for a certain career. What sparked your interest and made you want to pursue Law?

Geoffrey Nice: Like so many people, it was a bit by mistake or by chance. I read something else when I was here, and then studied for the bar part-time because it seemed like a reasonably natural thing for my skills. I also saw a lot of people here reading Law, so I could see it was a career. It’s an imperfect answer, but by chance I got started at the Bar and found I quite enjoyed it.

DO: If you had to give some advice to any aspiring lawyers on how to enter the field, what would it be?

GN: My life was all chance. These days it’s so difficult for new lawyers as they all have to complete short one or two-week work experiences, either mini-pupillages or placements. I think that’s really good as it makes the student think. The best thing for the student to do if he thinks he wants to do criminal law is to go and do a criminal law placement, but also do something completely different. If you think you want to do one thing, go for another. You might think something like wet shipping law is ultimately boring, but you go off and do a week there and find it exciting. It’s much better early on to do all this stuff, as much of it as you can, in order to make sure that your direction is better set.

…the advice I often give to law students is that you could spend your life in so many different ways.

DO: You chaired the China and Uyghur tribunals, so what made you want to be a part of these independent “people’s tribunals” to examine human rights abuses when the outcome could not be legally binding?

GN: That’s a very interesting question, and I find the answer I have to give is quite useful. I started off being asked to be involved in the tribunal and I was really sceptical; I didn’t think much of it. Rather grudgingly I went and watched the first bit, then became a little bit involved in it and called some witnesses in the Iran tribunal*. It was very well-organised by people with proper regard for the standards there.

At the end of the first conclusion, I realised that delivering a judgement, as the judges in that tribunal did, was so important for the diaspora who were so distressed. It was a more emotional experience for me as well than anything I’d done before. That tribunal’s work was used in 2019 when one of the people named as a criminal was unwise enough to touch down in Sweden*. Universal jurisdiction grabbed him and he’s now serving life in prison. The same tribunal named the current president as a war criminal, so of course he can’t travel. So there were two things: the advantages to the interested people and practical advantages.

I went through one other tribunal that was less satisfactory but from which I learnt a great deal, then decided a great deal can be achieved by these processes if they were done in the right way. For the Uyghur and the China tribunals, I was determined for them to be composed of non-specialists, non-lawyers, non-do gooders, nothing – just people of integrity, a bit like a jury, then apply rigorous standards of process and proof. They have actually both been quite effective. Statutes that have been changed in the United States of America following the China tribunal on changing practices in medicine dealing with transplant practices. The other generally advanced the cause of the Uyghurs. The best thing about it really is that I started from a position of doubt.

DO: In the news at the moment is the ICJ ruling on South Africa’s genocide case against Israel, so what do you think this ruling will mean for the conflict?

GN: There are so many potential outcomes. First of all, it could reduce the number of unlawful killings of Palestinians. The second following from that is Israel’s reaction one way or another is likely to affect the sympathy that seems to be with the Palestinians at the moment, but could switch back if Israel says they must abide by this. The third consequence is that whatever Israel does, countries which have influence over Israel such as America and the UK may increase the pressure they put on Israel to change the way they conduct warfare.

The bigger picture is a much much greater prize though, as the Convention requires countries on recognition of genocide to act immediately to prevent, and in 70 years no countries have done that except the Gambia in respect to Myanmar and South Africa in respect to Israel. Those two countries from the global south have shown the rest of the world what for 70 years they should have done, and if they’d done it the consequences of genocide or odds of genocide occurring might have been reduced. It’s a decision where if it isn’t buried in the news cycle or by countries that have an interest in burying it, its potential significance could be big.

DO: You held the position of Vice-Chair of the Bar Standards Board between 2009 and 2012. What would you say on the threat to independence and regulation, particularly with lawyers threatening to not prosecute certain legislation?

GN: I think it’s a very big problem with a country like ours that in several respects it seems this government is willing to make laws at the edge of what would really be acceptable as compliant with international standards. We have the same problem with the Rwanda deportees in a slightly different way. Do I have sympathy with those lawyers who might say they will refuse? Probably, I would have some.

DO: From 2012 to 2016 you held the Professorship of Law at Gresham College, presenting free lectures and promoting outreach. How important was it to take on this role and encourage this accessible learning?

GN: First of all, it’s a challenging job as you have to give public lectures and, as a non-academic, it’s really hard work. It was interesting to get out into the public arena and share the odd things I come to think about in the course of a reasonably varied career, because I was not ever a full-on fan of the English legal system nor was I a full-on fan of the United Nations legal system. Although you never want to be disparaging towards those things, you want to be able to explain the difficulties, shortcomings, and the ways forward. I think that generally I was very happy to be allowed the chance to try and pass on things that I’d learnt, which came as an interesting surprise to me. I hope that’s what I managed to do.

DO: Looking forwards, how do your experiences in law encourage you as to the future of the career, and what would you want to see in the future generations of lawyers?

I suspect that lawyers like many other people in our society are overpaid, at least some of them are, and therefore find themselves as part of a society that is accessibly divided. That’s one thing that’s in the permanent background, I’m not sure how easy it is for lawyers who make so much money to deliver law in accordance with the real principles. You see examples of this all the time with Russian oligarchs whose money is made in undoubtedly questionable ways paying a fortune for lawyers to represent them.

At the other end, the advice I often give to law students is that you could spend your life in so many different ways. You could be a fancy lawyer in the city, earn millions, have yachts, houses, and cars; or you could do public international law and decide on the law of the sea. You could go off to one of the international tribunals to try genocide, although it will take ten years and the judges will be at each other’s throats; or you could do criminal law and not get paid very well; or you could go off and be a suburban high street lawyer doing wills, traffic offences, and conveyances.

At the end of your life when you look back, you may find that the lawyer on the suburban high street will have a list of more people who were more grateful for appearing at stressful times in their lives. They may in a way do more good than a useless genocide conviction or acquittal, which means nothing to anyone and deters no one. At the end of your life, the number of yachts you had doesn’t much matter, the number of people you’ve helped does.

*The Iran Tribunal was another people’s tribunal examining human rights violations by the Islamic republic of Iran in the 1980s. A key figure in the execution of political prisoners, Hamid Nouri, was detained in ​​November 2019 while in Sweden. He was convicted and is now serving life imprisonment after the tribunal’s judgement was cited as evidence.

Image Credit: Jamesfranklingresham