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A Most Remarkable Occasion

Feb 1999

I wish that each member of the Association could have been in the Meeting Hall Thursday evening, December 10, for they would have witnessed what the nearly 350 people present were privileged to enjoy: the delivery by former Senator George J. Mitchell of the Alexis C. Coudert Memorial Lecture, followed by a reception attended by Association members and bar leaders from numerous foreign countries. We took the occasion to confer honorary membership in the Association on Senator Mitchell in recognition of his years of public service, most recently as leader of the Northern Ireland peace talks that culminated in the April 10 "Good Friday Agreement," which hopefully will bring an end to decades of sectarian strife and suffering. Senator Mitchellís restrained eloquence in speaking of his hopes for Northern Ireland and the seemingly insuperable obstacles he had to overcome were exceptionally moving. I felt, as one member wrote me the next day, that the evening was the most remarkable occasion in the Meeting Hall in recent memory.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The following morning I attended the morning session of a three-day conference sponsored by the Association celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Senator Mitchell's address was the Keynote. The conference was organized by our Committee on International Human Rights, ably and energetically chaired by David E. Nachman, and was co-sponsored by 13 metropolitan New York City-area law schools and the Union Internationale des Avocats ("UIA"). I then went to the United Nations to hear a collective member briefing of UIA members convened in New York City. During my brief visit to the UN, where the Association has been granted observer status, I heard Mary Robinson, formerly President of the Irish Republic, currently UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and, like Senator Mitchell, an honorary member of the Association, call for more and closer "linkages" between bar organizations in different countries.

The richly rewarding experiences of that less than 24-hour period reinforced my previous inclination to devote this column to the international activities of the Association. But where to start and what to say? In the compass of a column of this length, it would be impossible to describe, even summarily, the recent and planned reports, programs and projects of the 16 separate committees that focus on different aspects of international affairs and are coordinated by the Council on International Affairs chaired by James H. Carter. I will limit my observations to the subject of international human rights, the focus of Senator Mitchellís lecture and the conference it opened.

The Associationís Concern with International Human Rights

The Associationís concern with international human rights can be traced at least as far back as the immediate post-World War II period. Our Committee on International Law issued reports on a draft international covenant of human rights in 1949 and the genocide convention in 1950. By 1972, interest within the Association in international human rights was sufficiently deep and widespread to warrant the creation of a committee focusing exclusively on this aspect of international affairs. Over the past two decades, the Association has sponsored human rights missions to many nations, including Argentina, Peru, Guatemala and Uganda, to observe the operation of their justice systems and whether the rule of law was being honored. These visits have been followed by thoughtful and informative reports. An Association delegation visited Northern Ireland in 1987 and again last month; we await with anticipation the report on the recent visit. In 1996 a mission headed by Senior United States District Judge Leonard Sand visited Hong Kong to inquire into the future of the justice system and the prospects for the rule of law after governmental authority passed to the Peopleís Republic of China the following year. The report of that mission has been widely acclaimed, and we are exploring sending a follow-up mission to Hong Kong next year to see how the concerns discussed in the 1996 report have been addressed.

Our Committees on International Law and International Human Rights issued a report in 1996 urging the establishment of an international tribunal to prosecute individuals charged with genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and "aggression." That report was cited often at the Rome Diplomatic Conference this past spring and summer, which ended with adoption by the delegates of a statute creating a permanent International Criminal Court. Turning to rights of a different nature, the Committee on International Human Rights drafted, and the Association this past July issued, a report calling on the United States to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. Finally, that Committee has drafted for the Associationís President letters protesting to foreign governments mistreatment of lawyers, judges and government officials in Belorussia, Argentina, Turkey and Malaysia.

I will have to leave for another day a discussion of the Associationís many other international activities, such as our relationships with bar associations in other countries, our attempts to preserve and enlarge the right of American lawyers to practice law abroad and our plans for a conference on the different systems employed for delivering legal services to the poor in different countries. Suffice it for now to say that this Association is proud of its high standing in the worldwide legal community. For a "municipal" bar association, we have a truly international vision and impact.

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