Philippe Sands is an international lawyer, professor at University College London, and a practicing barrister. Sands has been involved in many of the recent high profile cases in the World Court and elsewhere, including representing the interests of the British detainees at Guantánamo and the efforts to extradite Augusto Pinochet to Spain. He has written for the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, taught at NYU and Boston College, and appears regularly on CNN and the BBC.
In the explosive Lawless World, Philippe Sands argues that recent American actions are undermining the global legal order established after WW2 and promoting its economic interests at the expense of human rights and the environment. Here Sands explains that his book is intended to challenge, inform and even outrage readers.
What motivated you to write on this subject?A belief that important international rules are under threat and that the case for supporting them needs to be set out clearly and unambiguously.
A string of high profile international events – Pinochet, the International Criminal Court, trade disputes, 9/11, Iraq, Guantanamo – have put international law issues into the public spotlight. I am frequently asked to comment and explain, but only on individual issues, not the big picture. When my editor at Penguin invited me to write about the issues in the round, I saw it as a good opportunity to explain the issues more fully and in a way which could reach a broader audience than the infinitesimally small number who might read my academic work or hear arguments in a courtroom. I have been delighted by the response to the book’s publication. It confirms a strong and growing interest in international rules. Recent developments – including on torture, rendition and climate change – make it clear that compliance with international rules is an issue that resonates around the world.
What kind of experience do you want your reader to have?I want the reader to be challenged, to think critically about the pros and cons of various international rules, how they are made, the implications of having them or nor having them, and what their abandonment might mean.
I don’t necessarily want the reader to agree with me. But I hope that some – a decent number – will feel sufficiently outraged by some of the bad legal arguments put forward by the US and British governments in recent years and to try to do something about it.
Who has inspired you?People who are willing to defend their principles, and who act with integrity, decency and professionalism to protect fundamental values.
Lawyers like Elizabeth Wilmshurst – the UK Foreign Office legal adviser who resigned over the illegality of the Iraq war – who stick to principle and put their heads above the parapet. Judges who assert their independence in the face of intimidation and threats. Soldiers who do all in their power to follow the rules. People who suffer atrocity or personal tragedy and manage to retain a love of life.
Who has influenced your work?Natalia Schiffrin, my wife. Best lawyer I know, constantly advising me not to do things I will later regret.
Ed Burke, economics teacher at my middle-class school in north London. He took our class down a coal-mine when we were 15 and opened our eyes to the way people work and live.
Robbie Jennings and Phillip Allott. My first teacher of international law, and the first of my teachers of international law who made it clear that law, politics and the personal are inseparable.
Who has inspired you as a writer?Writers, composers and lawyers who address complex ideas and emotions with simplicity and subtlety.Writers like my friend Agnès Desarthe (Cinq Photos de Ma Femme). Songwriters like Souad Massi (Raoui) and Leonard Cohen (Ten New Songs). Lawyers like Chris Stone (Should Trees Have Standing?).
During the process of writing, what surprises did you discover? That it is not easy to find a clear voice when your legal training has more or less extinguished that part of it which speaks to energy and passion.That it is not so straightforward to write about complex legal issues in a way which is interesting for non-lawyers.That I am a more conservative person than I might have had imagined.