Philippe Sands on the Making of Modern Human Rights

Guncha Sharma is a candidate for the Global Justice Academy’s LLM in Human Rights, and a GJA Student Ambassador for 2018-19. From India, she is also one of three recipientsof the GJA’s LLM Human Rights scholarship awards for this year, and has a keen interest in gender issues, the rights of children and other vulnerable groups, and public health. In this post, Guncha reflects on the recent Ruth Adler Memorial Lecture, which was delivered by Philippe Sands QC, with a response from Scotland’s Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC.

On October 24 2018, Philippe Sands delivered the Ruth Adler Memorial Lecture with a talk based on his bestselling book East-West Street and the Making of Modern Human Rights. Phillippe Sands is one of the most successful British lawyers working in the field of International Law. He has argued many high-profile cases before International courts and tribunals, and currently directs the Project on International Courts and Tribunals from his position as Professor of Laws at UCL.

It was a privilege to hear Professor Sands talk about his book, which is about the intellectual history of genocide and the crime against humanity, as well as a personal memoir that explores the mysteries surrounding his grandfather and the origins of his family. He talked about how questions surrounding his own family history compelled him to investigate further, and how this led to unearthing secrets surrounding his grandfather’s connection with the Nazi regime.

Professor Sands illuminated how ideas may be product of a person’s circumstances by talking about the lives of two Jewish legal experts, Hersch Lauterpacht and Lemkin, who all played  important roles in making genocide and crimes against humanity international crimes. He illustrated his lecture powerfully with old, faded, but invaluable family pictures.

In common with almost all lectures on contemporary international relations and global politics that take place these days, Professor Sands ended his lecture with the message that we are now living in dangerous times. Events like Brexit in Europe, and the election of Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, are reflections of a new direction in the world order.

But, when questioned by James Wolffe on whether he was pessimistic or optimistic, Professor Sands confirmed himself an optimistic who believes that the present generation needs to reflect on the past to be able to take informed decisions about the future. He reminded the audience that much was achieved in 1945 which cannot be taken for granted in today’s times. As lawyers, we need to use the lens of law to deal with problems of humanity.

The lecture was truly thought provoking. It left us to ponder over a lot of questions. How can we learn from the past, from the historic year that was 1945?

Frankly, I did not know anything about Phillippe Sands or his book before this lecture, but as he talked, this no longer mattered. It was a truly captivating lecture. I wish more such lectures are held in future so, that we can get to meet people who are making substantial contributions in the areas of human rights and international law.

Did you miss Philippe Sands delivering the 2018 Ruth Adler Memorial Lecture? Follow this link to watch the recording now on the School of Law’s YouTube channel.