Promoting the rule of law is a priority at the U.N., as Patricia O’Brien, the United Nations under-secretary-general for legal affairs and legal counsel, explained at the Hauser Global Law School Program Annual Dinner on February 15. She underscored her point by giving the example of a special Cambodian court, a cooperative effort of the U.N. and the national government, which convicted Khmer Rouge leader Comrade Duch of crimes against humanity, murder, and torture. More than 30,000 Cambodians traveled to Phnom Penh to be in or near the courtroom, indicating to O’Brien the importance of the court’s work to the people: “It has become, in my view, the catalyst for the rule of law within the entire country.”

Patricia O'BrienO’Brien, who carries a copy of the United Nations Charter everywhere (and pulled it out for the audience to verify), gave a “smorgasbord” overview of her work since coming to the U.N. in 2008. With her staff of more than 200, O’Brien, the first woman to hold the position, provides legal advice on an array of issues related to the laws of war, international humanitarian law, peacekeeping operations, the law of the sea, treaty law, procurement, and contracts.

“International law lies at the very heart of what the secretary-general is committed to doing for the United Nations,” said O’Brien, who consults daily with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on political, practical, and management issues. O’Brien supports her boss's commitment to strengthening the rule of law, pursuing justice, and bringing accountability for genocide and other crimes against humanity.

“Without the rule of law, the lines between justice and tyranny can dissolve or disappear altogether,” she said, explaining the importance of the International Criminal Court in implementing international law when states fail to carry out their responsibilities. O’Brien touched on the role of the international criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Lebanon in bringing justice in those countries.

The “responsibility to protect” has been “operationalized” at the U.N., O’Brien said. States bear responsibility for protecting their own populations; if they fail to do so, the international community must assist states in that endeavor; and the international community must effect a timely and decisive response in such instances.

The third consideration is the most controversial, she said. “There is always a terrible tension between the need of the international community to get involved in state affairs and the need to respect sovereignty of states.”

O'Brien previously served as legal adviser to the Department of Foreign Affairs of Ireland.

Posted on February 23, 2011