CM – Attorney Geoffrey Robertson


Geoffrey Robertson is disaffected. The world-famous lawyer lost his faith in the effectiveness of international law at the age of 74. “I have not lost confidence in the International Criminal Court (ICC). I still think it’s necessary, ”he told me over the phone from London. His voice is more reminiscent of duty than conviction. « But its catchment area is pretty small … »

Robertson’s flamboyant personality is instantly recognizable: the puffy hair, the clumsy accent he sometimes says was acquired to blend in with snobbish London when he was there went to the bar and sometimes says he was there before leaving Australia. His mind may be a legal steel trap, but it has never surpassed its image. He’s a showman, what men of a certain age like to refer to as « racing drivers ». He gives lively public talks on his rise and rise, telling well-oiled anecdotes as he will no doubt do on his national tour this month to promote his new book, Bad People – And How to Be Rid of Them: A Plan B « for Human Rights.

He’s perhaps most famous here for his Hypotheticals series on ABC television in the 1980s and 1990s, and for being gossip feed when he met Australian writer Kathy Lette on a met by them and took them away from her then-husband Kim Williams. The two married when Robertson was 43, raised two children together in the UK, and separated in 2017. When they met, he was with Nigella Lawson. Robertson said in his memoirs rather his own man: In court with tyrants, pies and troublemakers that he had « luck in his lovers ».

Samuel Johnson said that he who tires of life from London tires and Robertson clearly gets the pull of this town. He was born in Sydney and grew up in the northwest suburb of Eastwood. He graduated from Sydney University with a degree in Art Law. He was a PhD student at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and went to the bar in 1973. He never looked back despite having close ties with Australia.

In our conversation he repeated the weirdness that his accent was for the pronunciation received (RP) is entirely from Eastwood. But he also likes to repeat a contradicting story from his early days at the Old Bailey and defend a customer against an obscenity charge for a T-shirt with the legend “Fuck art. Let’s dance. « He mentions it in his memoir, » Rather His Own Man, « but the comic book routine gets funnier when he recounts it:

 » The court was shocked and silent. The judge’s eyebrows narrowed with irritation . « Fuck Art, let’s what, Mr. Robertson? »

« ‘Oh, you’re an Australian, » he muttered. « What you wanted to say is Fuck Art, let’s d-ah-nce. »

His voice loses its jocular tone and becomes quieter and more serious when he talks about the law. Robertson has prosecuted some of the most important human rights cases recently, including defending the famous Oz Trial in London; the Sex Pistols’ profanity accusation; Václav Havel’s famous human rights document, Charter 77, and despite death threats from fundamentalist Muslims, the British High Court indicted Salman Rushdie, who acted for Human Rights Watch, on charges of blasphemy against General Augusto Pinochet for human rights abuses nail down injuries. More recently, he has defended Julian Assange against extradition to the United States.

He was the first President of the United Nations Special Court for War Crimes in Sierra Leone, which put Charles Taylor and others behind bars, despite other judges asking him to apologizing when they realized that his first book, The Still Influential Crimes Against Humanity, expressed disgust with Taylor among others. He co-founded the legendary Doughty Street Chambers, a human rights law firm that now has a large number of members, including 36 attorneys for the Queen. Amal Clooney, who just last week won a case against a German woman accused of supporting and facilitating crimes against humanity for abusing a Yazidi woman when she was a member of IS, is one of them. p> The 21st century has slowed the optimism of human rights activists. It was the terrible dissolution of the only 2005 Responsibility to Protect implementation developed by the United Nations after failing to stop the mass atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. It was the last international action used against Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 and was unanimously approved by the UN Security Council. This century there was a terrible disappointment among those in the 2013 Arab Spring who thought the West would support them, and constant vetoes by Russia and China in the Security Council if the United Nations tried to crack down on Bashar al-Assad in Syria. </ Robertson's most recent book – his 19th – is an attempt to find an alternative to these mistakes in international human rights. Bad people and how to get rid of them have been faced with a mystery human rights defenders have grappled with since the concept took root after the horrors of WWII: how can we reconcile the universal ethics of international law with the fact that the World is created? of nation states? A nation's own laws are its supreme enforceable authority, and authoritarian states are quick to claim national sovereignty and cultural differences to defend themselves against the 1951 Convention on Human Rights, to which more than two-thirds of them signed.

« The Security Council is poleaxed, « says Robertson. « You would have thought that they could join forces on a motion to stop wars during the pandemic. However, this was not the case as China and America could not agree on whether to mention WHO (World Health Organization) in the motion So that’s the level of pettiness and lack of vision – and we need to have a unity of nations on climate change, the next major issue.

« We have a Security Council where the superpowers exercise their vetoes, and it there is no prospect of justice for those perpetrators of human rights abuses who have friendships with the great powers.

« So there is this guy, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who was found by an English judge to have kidnapped one of his daughters and holding her in impossible conditions, « continues Robertson. « And he’s an obvious candidate for Magnitsky listings, but his horses run in Newmarket and he’s a friend of the Queen. »

Maktoum – a multimillionaire, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates – studied in Cambridge, attended Aldershot and owns several properties in London, where he spends a lot of time. In 2019, according to The Guardian, he received a trophy from the Queen when one of his horses won a race at Royal Ascot just a month after starting a case in the High Court against one of his then-wives, Princess Haya, who had fled Dubai. « So, will he be sanctioned … » says Robertson and falls silent. “Though it should be in due time.”

Robertson’s proposal is for a Plan B for Human Rights – a development of the Magnitsky law passed by the Obama administration after a Russian accountant was tortured in a Russian prison cell in 2009 and died for his role in uncovering a massive tax fraud system allegedly involving high-ranking government officials.

« It was born from that moment of the lightbulb, which was like the death of George Floyd, but without the cameras « says Robertson. « It was in the hands of security guards behind closed prison walls. »

Under the Magnitsky Act, individuals can be sanctioned for human rights violations by individual countries. It targets them where it personally harms them the most and undermines their reputation and empire building by excluding them from the conveniences of rich western countries: banks, stock exchanges, schools, hospitals and more.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain was behind the push, among other things, so he had bipartisan support. The US imposed sanctions on anyone involved in what Robertson described as « sad, pathetic ». « The man was an ordinary working citizen, » he says. “The original sanctions included judges and doctors, which is important. I describe them as the « train drivers to Auschwitz »: the judges who impose heavy sentences on the orders of the political parties, the doctors who officiate in torture sessions and so on. “

Since 2012 the Magnitsky Act has extended to Canada, Great Britain and the countries of the European Union. « And maybe Australia later this year, so it was a start, » says Robertson.

He adds that talks with Russian dissidents shaped his strategy. Boris Nemtsov, a powerful critic of Vladimir Putin, who was assassinated in 2015, said if Britain wanted the Russian state to stop poisoning its people with the deadly nerve agent Novichok, it had to stop Putin’s oligarch friends from sending their children to Eton. Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who ended his hunger strike in a Russian prison this week, made the same point. « He said they should be prevented from mooring their super yachts in Monaco and encouraged to send them to the beautiful ports of Belarus instead – which are, of course, inland, » says Robertson.

« I’m going back to HG Wells’ 1939 idea of ​​coordinating what he called « parliamentary peoples, » which I think is the only way forward, « he continues. « As soon as international law falters, it is up to these parliamentary peoples to apply their national laws, which can be enforced, as the Magnitsky movement shows. There are now 31 democratic countries with Magnitsky laws, and Japan is considering what is important is because, as I emphasize, they are currently limited to the white west. « 

He stresses that it is crucial to bring democracies like India, Malaysia and Singapore on board so that the » parliamentary peoples « who flex their muscles, are not just former colonial powers. « It’s a work in progress, » he says. « Plan B will allow the open societies that thrive in half the world to unite in what is believed to be the Roman ideal of human rights exclusion. »

He wrote a draft for the federal parliamentary inquiry into a Magnitsky-like bill here, hoping it will stand up despite the current administration. « The commission had a pretty broad political spectrum, from Eric Abetz to Kimberley Kitching, » he says mischievously. “It seems to me a very important thing to keep this decision completely away from the government as a committee of human rights experts is holding public hearings and sanctions the minister. It’s a topic that goes beyond lawyers and makes it possible to hear people’s voices about who they think we should expel. People don’t understand people, they are apolitical at their best. « 

However, despite the local scope of any action, Robertson believes the US should lead the Magnitsky movement. » I say in my book that to some extent this is inevitable as the dollar is the base currency of the global business. « 

He admits that US records of sanctions against 250 people and companies may be premature for foreign policy reasons, not human rights abuses. » However, there are approximately 1,000 officials working in the region , and most importantly with pre-nominations from human rights organizations. « 

Last month, Robertson opened a case against Australia itself, acting on behalf of a group of Australians who were stranded by the Australian border closure and strict flight restrictions overseas, despite sports stars and other VIPs could come and go. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, a group of 18 experts n in Geneva, decided that the federal government must bring Australian nationals home – a right contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that Australia has ratified – although its decisions are not binding.

« I explained the committee that Australia is the only country that does not take back its own citizens. International law has always recognized the link between individuals and the country they were born and raised in, ”says Robertson, who has dual citizenship from Australia and the United Kingdom. « And that’s something this government – which at the moment appears to be a moral vacuum: problems with women, problems with the vaccine – just doesn’t seem to recognize. This basic right to come home. »

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
May 1, 2021 as « human injustice ».

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Related title :
Magnitsky Laws: It is time for Australia to step up, says Geoffrey Robertson
Barrister Geoffrey Robertson


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