James Crawford obituary

Energetic public international lawyer who advised many countries and reshaped the rules on wrongdoings between them

In 1996, the UN international law commission asked James Crawford to codify the rules on the wrongdoings of states. Half a century after its initiation, the project was mired in controversy, with failure in the air. Five years later, in 2001, he delivered a final text, the ILC Articles on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, along with a commentary in his crisp and concise prose. These articles and commentary are among the most significant texts in modern international law, cited daily by courts and tribunals, practitioners and scholars.

A few years earlier, James had achieved a similar outcome with the ILC’s interminable efforts to create an international criminal court, paving the way for the adoption of the Rome statute in 1998. His combination of forensic and diplomatic skills brought completion to seemingly fruitless tasks.

James, who has died aged 72 after a long illness, was the outstanding public international lawyer of our age. He brought to bear a distinctly Australian style that was direct, subtle and fearlessly independent. As expert, counsel, arbitrator and judge he served in a vast number of international cases that developed various areas of the law, from arcane territorial and maritime boundary disputes to the creation of modern environmental law, from racial discrimination to genocide, from war to human dignity.

James Crawford, foreground left, talking to Nasser Al-Kidwa, head of the Palestinian delegation, before public hearings about the construction of a wall in occupied Palestinian territory at the international court of justice in The Hague, Netherlands, 2004.
James Crawford, foreground left, talking to Nasser Al-Kidwa, head of the Palestinian delegation, before public hearings about the construction of a wall in occupied Palestinian territory at the international court of justice in The Hague, Netherlands, 2004. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

Born in Adelaide, South Australia, James was the first of seven children of Josephine (nee Bond), a nurse, and James Crawford, a businessman. A republican instinct was honed in schoolboy days at Brighton high school in Adelaide: “I once had to sit in the sun for five hours waving my little flag and saw the Queen pass by for literally one minute. I wasn’t terribly impressed.”

After a dual degree at Adelaide University in law, with history, English and international relations, he went to Oxford University to study for a doctorate (1977) with Ian Brownlie. His thesis, published as The Creation of States in International Law (1979), defined a new field, influencing many developments in which he was professionally involved, including the conditions for Quebec’s secession from Canada, Scottish independence, and Chagos and the decolonisation of Mauritius.

In 1974 he started lecturing at the University of Adelaide, was called to the Australian bar in 1979, and four years later was appointed professor. In 1986 he moved to the University of Sydney. As a member of the Australian Law Reform Commission he led the pathbreaking effort to recognise Indigenous Australian customary laws. His co-authored book Australian Courts of Law (1982) was followed by the collection he edited, The Rights of Peoples (1985), committed to the idea that peoples have rights under international law, “most obviously the right to self-determination”.

In 1992 he returned to Britain as Whewell professor of international law at Cambridge University. By then I had known him for a few years, appreciating a mind that was razor-sharp, witty, open, direct, engaged. He served as director of the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law and, for three years, chair of the law faculty.

As a teacher he was understated and irreverent, and dedicated to the 70 doctoral students he supervised; as a writer, he revised old books, produced new ones, co-edited the Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law, and edited editions of Brownlie’s Principles of International Law (2012 and 2019).

From 1992 to 2001 he served as a member of the ILC, and during this time became a member of the English bar, co-founding Matrix Chambers. By then he had an extensive practice in international law: the first of his 29 cases at the international court of justice was for Nauru against Australia, and he frequently appeared before other bodies, including the international tribunal for the law of the sea, the permanent court of arbitration and the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes.

Over the years James advised dozens of countries, from every part of the world, on significant issues; he had a particular fondness for acting for small island states, such as the Solomon Islands, for whom he appeared before the ICJ on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, or the Faroe Islands, taking on the entire European Union, or advising on peace treaties, including Jordan and Israel (1994). He was a renowned arbitrator, with a significant contribution in disputes between foreign investors and states, and delivering seminal awards, including one that upheld Uruguay’s anti-smoking legislation in a case brought by Philip Morris.

James was always keen to engage on issues of the day, encouraging others to join him. He helped to make international law part of the mainstream of legal life in Britain, putting his name and authority to a March 2003 letter to the prime minister, Tony Blair, on the illegality of war in Iraq without an explicit UN security council resolution, and confronting the serial illegalities of the attacks of 9/11 and the responses that followed.

From the time of his election to the ICJ in 2014, he contributed significantly to its modernisation. He changed the lives of many, myself included, with his disdain for hierarchy, humour and generosity, and the sheer power of a compelling intellect that made the system of international law more accessible, lively and real.

Family was paramount for James. He is survived by his fourth wife, Freya Baetens, whom he married in 2014, and their son and daughter; by four daughters and a son from previous marriages; and by six brothers and sisters.

James Richard Crawford, international law scholar, advocate, arbitrator and judge, born 14 November 1948; died 31 May 2021


Philippe Sands

The GuardianTramp

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