Luc Walleyn Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Humanitarian Law: Conversation with Luc Walleyn, Human Rights Lawyer; April 16, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

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International Law

You were, until recently, president of the organization called Lawyers without Borders. Explain to us what that organization is and what it does.

Well, indeed, that organization is "Avocats sans Frontieres." It was created ten years ago, and the model was, more or less, "MŽdecines sans Frontieres," Doctors without Borders. It means professional people trying to put their expertise and their knowledge in the service of populations abroad, and human rights in general. So we had some very important programs, mainly in Central Africa -- Rwanda, Burundi, also Congo now -- organizing legal aides in cases of genocide, for instance, in Rwanda. And sometimes, also, assisting building up new justice systems after a collapse or after war like in Kosovo.

What is the social base for this organization? That is, middle-class lawyers who are driven by idealism to act internationally?

Yes, indeed. They are individual lawyers. Some people, also, from important law firms who want to do something which is not only moneymaking, but mainly individual lawyers, indeed, who are involved in criminal law. The main part of our activity is in the field of criminal law.

Before we talk about universal jurisdiction and the cases that you're involved in, let's talk a little about your philosophy of the law and your notions, your ideas, about how law emerges, is changed, and moves in different directions. What can you tell us about how you see the law as a tool for social change?

I think, indeed, that, as such, the law is a very important element in a society. In our society, you don't have the traditional basis of religion, for instance, which can keep things together. Especially in Europe, you have a lot of people with different philosophies, and there is no common morality. So the issue of human rights, the rule of law, and especially human rights as a basis of the whole building is a very important element for the social structure as a whole. In Europe, for instance, you can see that the principle of human rights becomes a basic principle in all aspects of life. You have the influence of the European Court of Human Rights in family law, in economic and criminal law. And the idea of the respect of the rule of law is both an idea and a reality that is very important for developing countries. For years, we were thinking that the motor of development is economic. But as you see, the world is constantly confronted with war and genocide and dictatorship and torture, etc. If you cannot solve these problems, the economic take-off becomes very difficult.

What is the relationship between law and politics domestically, say, in Belgium, versus law and politics internationally? Is the relationship the same in the two different jurisdictions?

On the domestic level, law becomes more and more important to influence politics, because of a lot of politics are no longer free. Traditionally, politics is the will of the people who elect their representatives, and that's all. But you have a lot of other interferences now. You have principles coming from European law, from human rights conventions, international conventions in general, and politicians have to respect them. Also, the population has to respect them. The mentality is growing, also, that this should be expected. That even if the majority of a country wants to be rid off all migrants, for instance, well, it cannot be accepted, because it's contrary to international principles that are accepted by all.

So the law is the nexus between the local community and its politics, and the international community, and there can be a positive feedback in the sense that if a particular country has not yet recognized certain standards for whatever reason, then the law is the way to make that known within the community.

Yes, indeed, even if there is a setback. In some European countries, you have some extremists, right-wing extremists, for instance, who get very near the power, or who get in the governments. But you can see that, finally, their powers are very limited, because we have this international framework of human rights conventions, etc. The framework of the European Union makes the possibilities of such groups very limited. And this is a very positive revolution, I think.

We should have this, also, on the work level. If we could have better development of the structure of the United Nations and of the framework of international conventions, it would be much more difficult for individual nations to go against these principles and to launch wars, etc.

So what you're describing is a very European lesson, applicable to the wider world. In earlier periods, Europe thought, well, you could have fascism in German and Italy, and it wouldn't matter for the rest of Europe or for the rest of the world. But, in fact, we found that it did matter.

Has it been important for your work that you're based in Brussels, which in addition to being the capital of your country, is also the home base for the European community? How has that dynamic -- even if you're not practicing primarily in European courts -- created a synergy, a positive place for you to be doing what you're doing?

Belgium has a special position because it's not really a big nation. We have two communities in conflict where we have to [work with] each other. First of all, we are Belgians, but we feel we are Europeans more and more. Belgians are feeling that we are in the center of Europe, and that Europe becomes something more important than the national states. That means that, also, the population is sensitive to values that are common European values. It's not only a question of law, because you have, also, an aspect of Europe which is very bureaucratic, a lot of rules concerning the way you can produce things, etc.

So regulations [can be] fairly intrusive.

All kinds of regulations, but on the other hand, you also have some general values. Belgian society and the Belgian political world is very sensitive on that issue. That may also explain, in part, the position Belgium sometimes [takes] internationally, and the fact that Belgium became also a laboratory for international law, for instance.

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