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International Law Section launches a lobbying event to complement its annual visit to the U.N.


James Silkenat and Laurel Bellows flank Ban Ki-moon. Also pictured (from left) are Marilyn Kaman, Barton Legum and Helaine Barnett.

ABA Day at the U.N. has been an annual fixture for the past two decades. But this year, Ban Ki-moon broke new ground when he became the first U.N. secretary-general to give a speech at the event.

Ban used the occasion to highlight the U.N.’s growing emphasis on the rule of law as an important tool in efforts to overcome poverty, hunger and disease around the world, and to respond to serious violations of international criminal law. The ABA, he said, is a key player in those efforts. “You may be here at U.N. headquarters for just this one day,” he said, “but I know you are our partners throughout the year on a full spectrum of issues of vital concern to all humankind.”

(The only other time a U.N. secretary-general spoke at an ABA meeting was in March 1998, when Kofi Annan addressed a conference that marked the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention, which were adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948.)

To the delegates who attended the ABA Day event on April 29, Ban’s remarks were a welcome message of recognition and encouragement from the highest-ranking official at the U.N. for the association’s international law initiatives. “It was a significant address,” said Helaine M. Barnett of Palm Beach, Fla., the ABA’s representative to the U.N., who served as head of the delegation. “Ban said that ABA Day at the U.N. is a wonderful tradition, that we are a valuable partner to the U.N., and expressed his appreciation of our support. We were thrilled.”

ABA Day at the U.N. is sponsored by the Section of International Law. In addition to Barnett and section chair Barton Legum, a partner at the Dentons law firm in Paris, the delegation included ABA President Laurel G. Bellows and President-elect James R. Silkenat. Bellows is principal of the Bellows Law Group in Chicago, and Silkenat is a partner at Sullivan & Worcester in New York City. Other members of the delegation were William D. Missouri, a retired Maryland state court judge who chairs the Judicial Division, and Dick A. Semerdjian, a partner at Schwartz Semerdjian Ballard & Cauley in San Diego who chairs the Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section.


U.N. member states “have been giving increased attention to the rule of law,” Ban told the ABA delegates. He noted that last year’s high-level meeting of the General Assembly, which focused on the rule of law, was attended by more than 60 national presidents and government ministers. Representatives of nongovernmental organizations and civil society also participated. “I am glad to note that the ABA contributed to the debate,” Ban said.

At the close of the Sept. 24 meeting, the General Assembly adopted a declaration “to reaffirm our commitment to the rule of law and its fundamental importance for political dialogue and cooperation among all states and for the further development of the three main pillars upon which the United Nations is built: international peace and security, human rights and development.” The declaration further states that the collective efforts of U.N. member states “must be guided by the rule of law, as it is the foundation of friendly and equitable relations between states and the basis on which just and fair societies are built.”

Attending that meeting was a memorable experience, Bellows said in an interview with the ABA Journal after this year’s ABA Day event. “It was a celebration that brought chills to my spine,” she said. “I anticipated it would be an extraordinary event, but it was delightful to see the passion of presidents of countries who came to speak in support of the Declaration of Human Rights given the tensions in the Middle East and Korea. It was a reassurance that peace is possible and global leaders can come together.”

Bellows affirmed the ABA’s own long-standing commitment to the rule of law in the U.S. and around the world in a statement submitted to the General Assembly. “This commitment is expressed as one of the fundamental goals of the ABA,” stated Bellows. “Within this goal, the ABA’s objectives are to: (1) increase public understanding of and respect for the rule of law, the legal process, and the role of the legal profession in the United States and throughout the world; (2) encourage governments to be accountable under law; (3) work for just laws, including human rights, and a fair and transparent legal process; (4) assure meaningful access to justice for all persons; and (5) preserve the independence of the legal profession and the judiciary.”

Ban told the ABA Day delegates that the U.N. is showing “newfound appreciation” for the rule of law “in the context of our efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.” The eight goals, developed in conjunction with the Millennium Summit sponsored by the U.N. in 2000, set forth a blueprint for overcoming poverty, hunger and disease before the end of this decade.

“The world has made remarkable gains since the MDGs were established more than 12 years ago,” Ban said. “But there are still serious gaps—and fewer than 1,000 days until the end of 2015, the agreed deadline. Rule of law assistance can help us finish the job.”

Ban also welcomed the ABA’s “solidarity in the fight against impunity for serious international crimes. The advance of international criminal justice is arguably the most positive development in international relations of the past generation. The International Criminal Court, the international tribunals and special courts, and various transitional justice mechanisms are making major contributions to post-conflict healing. I also have the sense that the work of these bodies is coming to serve as a deterrent to future such crimes.”

In addition to hearing Ban’s remarks and conferring with other U.N. officials, the ABA delegation visited with members of the U.S. mission to the U.N. “Over the years, there has been more active participation by the ABA,” Barnett said, “and we hope to expand the numbers of ABA members that participate, including more leadership from the Board of Governors and House of Delegates. After this year’s ABA Day at the U.N., it will be a more attractive event to attend.”


This year, the International Law Section added another special day to its calendar when it sponsored a lobbying effort to bring human rights issues to the attention of members of Congress.

Human Rights Day on Capitol Hill was organized by the section’s International Human Rights Committee, with assistance from ABA staff members in the association’s Washington, D.C., office. The committee is chaired by Rebecca Farrar, an international law practitioner in Arlington, Va., who said committee members decided to focus their efforts on urging the Senate to consent to U.S. adoption of CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) and building support in Congress for the International Criminal Court. The United States is one of only a handful of nations that has not ratified the 1998 Rome Statute creating the ICC, which is empowered to try individuals for serious violations of human rights law when national courts are unable to do so.

While the approach of the International Law Section’s effort is reminiscent of the ABA Day in Washington lobbying event that is held every spring, it did not match the scope of that well-established effort. But Farrar said that, for a first-time effort, Human Rights Day was a success.

On June 14, nine committee members fanned out on Capitol Hill, meeting with staff members for 13 senators and five members of the House from California, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Virginia. “We spoke to the senators’ staffs about U.S. ratification for CEDAW. The U.S. is one of a handful of countries that hasn’t signed,” said Farrar. “The reception was very positive.”

Looking ahead, “we’re reviewing this year’s International Human Rights Day with the section,” Farrar said, “but our strong recommendation is to lobby again next year.”  

ABA leaders say there is good reason for the association to have a stronger voice on international issues.

“International law was once seen as not so relevant among general practitioners, but that’s decreasingly the case,” says Michael E. Burke, the International Law Section’s immediate-past chair. “Small and midsize firms are doing international work—maybe their clients are sued in a foreign court, or they may be suing a foreign company in a U.S. court. Interest in international issues is expanding, which prompts questions about what role the ABA should take.”

The ABA has a number of strengths in the international arena and a long history as an international organization, says Burke, a partner at Arnall Golden Gregory in Washington, D.C. “We have a great policy portfolio of important decisions on significant issues, including the ratification of treaties, or proposing model laws for the U.S. or overseas,” he says.

“The ABA mandate to defend liberty and pursue justice doesn’t have any boundaries.”

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