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After a lifetime spent defending human rights, Geoffrey Robertson’s faith in international law is fading. But he is fighting on. By Miriam Cosic.

Barrister Geoffrey Robertson

Geoffrey Robertson.
Credit: Elizabeth Allnutt

Geoffrey Robertson is disillusioned. The world-famous barrister has, at 74, lost his belief in the effectiveness of international law. “I have not lost faith in the ICC [International Criminal Court]. I still think it’s necessary,” he tells me by phone from London, his voice more redolent of duty than of conviction. “But its catchment area is quite small...”

Robertson’s flamboyant persona is instantly recognisable: the bouffant hair, the plummy accent he sometimes says was acquired as a means to fit into snobbish London when he went to the bar there, and sometimes says was there before he left Australia. His mind may be a legal steel trap, but he has never been above burnishing his image. He is a showman, what men of a certain age like to call a “raconteur”. He gives lively public talks about his rise and rise in which he recounts well-oiled anecdotes, as he will doubtlessly do on his national tour this month to publicise his new book, Bad People – And How to Be Rid of Them: A Plan B for Human Rights.

He is perhaps most famous here for his Hypotheticals series on ABC TV in the 1980s and ’90s and for becoming gossip-column fodder when he met the Australian novelist Kathy Lette at one of them and won her away from her then husband Kim Williams. The two married when Robertson was 43, raised two children together in Britain and separated in 2017. When they met, he was with Nigella Lawson. Robertson said in his memoir Rather His Own Man: In Court with Tyrants, Tarts and Troublemakers that he had been “fortunate in his lovers”.

Samuel Johnson said that he who tires of London tires of life, and Robertson clearly gets the attraction to that city. Born in Sydney and raised in the north-western suburb of Eastwood, he earned his arts-law degree at Sydney University. He studied at Oxford with a Rhodes Scholarship as a postgraduate, and went to the bar in 1973. He never looked back, although he did keep strong links with Australia.

In our conversation he repeats the oddity that his Received Pronunciation (RP) accent sprang fully formed from Eastwood. But he also likes to repeat a contradictory story from his early days at the Old Bailey, defending a client against an obscenity charge for a T-shirt carrying the legend, “Fuck art. Let’s dance.” He mentions it in his memoir, Rather His Own Man, but the comic routine comes out funnier when he tells it:

“There was a shocked silence in court. The judge’s eyebrows narrowed with irritation. ‘Fuck art, let’s what, Mr Robertson?’

“ ‘Let’s dance, Your Honour.’

“ ‘Oh, you’re an Australian,’ he muttered. ‘What you meant to say is fuck art, let’s d-ah-nce.’ ”

His voice loses its bantering tone and becomes quieter, more serious, when he discusses the law. Robertson has prosecuted some of the most important human rights cases in recent times. He defended the famous Oz trial in London; the Sex Pistols obscenity charge; Václav Havel’s famous human rights document, Charter 77; and, despite receiving death threats from fundamentalist Muslims, the charge of blasphemy brought in the British High Court against Salman Rushdie. He acted for Human Rights Watch in its attempt to nail General Augusto Pinochet for human rights abuses. More recently, he defended Julian Assange against extradition to the United States.

He was the first president of the United Nations special war crimes court in Sierra Leone, which put Charles Taylor and others behind bars, though fellow judges asked him to recuse himself when they realised his first book, the still influential Crimes Against Humanity, expressed disgust with Taylor among others. He co-founded the fabled Doughty Street Chambers, a law firm specialising in human rights that now has a huge number of members, including 36 Queen’s counsels. Amal Clooney – who only last week won a case against a German woman accused of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity for abuses against a Yazidi woman while she was a member of ISIS – is one of them.

The 21st century has blunted the optimism of human rights activists. It saw the ghastly denouement of the only implementation of the 2005 Responsibility to Protect, which the UN developed after it failed to stop mass atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Employed against Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, it was the last international action that had the unanimous vote of the UN Security Council. This century saw the terrible let-down of participants in the 2013 Arab Spring, who thought the West would support them, and constant vetoes by Russia and China in the Security Council whenever the UN tried to act against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Robertson’s latest book – his 19th – is an attempt to find an alternative to these failures of international human rights law. Bad People and How to Be Rid of Them faces a conundrum that human rights advocates have wrestled with since the concept took root after the horrors of World War II: how do we square the universal ethics of international law with the fact that the world is made up of nation-states? A nation’s own laws are its highest enforceable authority and authoritarian states are quick to claim national sovereignty and cultural difference to defend themselves against the 1951 Human Rights Convention, to which more than two-thirds of them are signatories.

“The Security Council is poleaxed,” Robertson says. “You’d have thought that they could unite on a motion about stopping wars during the pandemic. But they didn’t because China and America couldn’t agree on whether to mention the WHO [World Health Organization] in the motion. So that’s the level of pettiness and lack of vision – and we must have a united nations for climate change, the next important matter.

“We have a Security Council where the superpowers exercise their vetoes and there’s no prospect of justice for those perpetrators of human rights abuses which have friendships with the great powers.

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

Maktoum – a multibillionaire, vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates – studied at Cambridge, attended Aldershot, and owns several properties in London where he spends considerable time. In 2019, The Guardian pointed out, he received a trophy from the Queen when one of his horses won a race at Royal Ascot, only a month after beginning proceedings in the High Court against one of his then wives, Princess Haya, who had fled Dubai. “So whether he will be sanctioned...” Robertson says, trailing off. “Though in due course he should be.”

Robertson’s proposal is for what he calls a plan B for human rights – a development of the Magnitsky Act, passed by the Obama administration after a Russian accountant was tortured and died in a Russian prison cell in 2009 for his role in exposing a giant tax fraud scheme allegedly involving high-level government officials.

“It rose out of this lightbulb moment, which was like the death of George Floyd but without the cameras,” says Robertson. “It was at the hands of security guards behind closed prison walls.”

Under the Magnitsky Act, sanctions can be imposed on individuals for abuses of human rights by individual countries. It targets them where it hurts them most personally, undermining their prestige and empire-building by shutting them out from the amenities of rich Western countries: banks, stock exchanges, schools, hospitals and more.

Republican presidential contender John McCain, among others, was behind the push, so it had cross-party support. Sanctions were placed by the US on everyone who was implicated in what Robertson calls a “sad, pathetic” affair. “The man was an ordinary working citizen,” he says. “And the original sanctions included judges and doctors, which is important. I describe them as the ‘train-drivers to Auschwitz’: the judges who are imposing severe sentences at the direction of political parties, the doctors who officiate in torture sessions and so on.”

Since 2012, the Magnitsky Act has spread to Canada, Britain and the countries of the European Union. “And maybe later this year to Australia, so it’s made a start,” Robertson says.

He adds that conversations with Russian dissidents shaped his strategy. Boris Nemtsov, a powerful critic of Vladimir Putin who was assassinated in 2015, said that 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 stopped from anchoring their superyachts in Monaco and be encouraged to send them instead to the beautiful harbours of Belarus – which, of course, is landlocked,” Robertson says.

“I go back to H.  G. Wells’s idea in 1939 of a co-ordination between what he called ‘parliamentary peoples’, which I think is the only way forward,” he continues. “Once international law falters, it’s up to those parliamentary peoples to use 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 them, which is important because, as I point out, they’re confined at the moment to the white West.”

It’s crucial, he stresses, to bring democracies such as India, Malaysia and Singapore on board so that the “parliamentary peoples” flexing their muscles are not just former colonial powers. “It’s a work in progress,” he says. “Plan B will allow the open societies that flourish in half the world to unite in a form that I suppose goes back to the Roman ideal of ostracism in relation to human rights.”

He wrote a submission for the federal parliamentary inquiry into a Magnitsky-like act here and holds hopes for it getting up, despite the present government. “The commission had a pretty wide political range, from Eric Abetz to Kimberley Kitching,” he notes mischievously. “It seems to me a very important thing to keep this decision away from the government entirely, having a committee of human rights experts which would hold public hearings and nominate sanctions to the minister. It’s an issue beyond lawyers and enables people’s voices to be heard, about who they think we should be ostracising. Human rights, people don’t understand, is apolitical at its best.”

Despite the local scope of each act, however, Robertson believes that the US should lead the Magnitsky movement. “I say in my book that to a certain extent that’s inevitable because the dollar is the base currency of global business.”

He admits that the US’s record of sanctions on 250 individuals and companies can be premature and more for reasons of foreign policy than human rights violations. “It does have about 1000 officials working on the area, however, and, importantly, with advance nominations from human rights organisations.”

Last month, Robertson brought a case against Australia itself. He acted for a group of Australians stranded overseas by Australia’s border closure and strict flight caps, despite sports celebrities and other VIPs being able to come and go. The UN’s Human Rights Committee, a group of 18 experts in Geneva, ruled that the federal government must bring Australian nationals home – a right included in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Australia has ratified – although its decisions aren’t binding.

“I explained to the committee that Australia is the only country that won’t take its own citizens back. International law has always acknowledged the bond between the individual and the land in which he’s born and brought up,” says Robertson, who holds dual citizenship of Australia and Britain. “And that is something that this government – which appears at the moment to be something of a moral vacuum: problems with women, problems with the vaccine – just doesn’t seem to acknowledge. That fundamental right to come home.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Human wrongs".

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Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.