Professor Sir Nigel Rodley obituary

  • Date

    Wed 22 Mar 17

Professor Sir Nigel Rodley

Colleagues and friends from our Human Rights Centre pay tribute to one of the founding fathers of human rights, Professor Sir Nigel Rodley who died earlier this year.

Nigel Rodley was a public international lawyer who dedicated his working life to human rights. He fused two worlds: inside and outside the University. He was as much at home turning over a problem about human rights in legal theory as he was in reaching a decision on a difficult case as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee. The practical commitments and the theoretical work often interacted. In both worlds, Nigel respected and displayed rigour. At the same time, he relished combining that rigour with instinct: with intuitions about what was and was not fair and just. This made him someone who took robust positions, sometimes attracting and enjoying spirited disagreement. At the same time, he had respect for the rigour and values on the other side of an argument so that, occasionally, he become persuaded by it. He was firm, but not rigid.

Nigel was an advocate, an academic and an internationalist by nature. After studying in England his first academic post was as Assistant Professor of Law at Dalhousie University in Canada in 1965. From there, he moved to New York where he worked as Associate Economic Affairs Officer at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs at the United Nations. Whilst there, he established strong links with New York University where he was both a visiting lecturer of Political Science and a research fellow up until 1972 when he moved back to the UK.

Nigel founded and was the head of the legal office of Amnesty International (International Secretariat) between 1972 and 1990. In this position, he played a key role in the development of a range of international instruments on the treatment of prisoners, including the adoption of the key international treaty on the prohibition of torture, the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

During his time at Amnesty, Nigel also worked as a part time lecturer at the London School of Economics (1973-1990). His seminal book, The Treatment of Prisoners under International Law, was first published in 1987 and affirmed his practical and his academic credentials. After 17 years at Amnesty, he decided to opt for a full-time academic appointment at the University of Essex in 1990. At Essex, Nigel wrote the second and third editions of the Treatment of Prisoners; the last being jointly written with Matt Pollard in 2009. This book is a testament to his technical mastery.

Essex is known for combining the theory and practice of human rights, something that Nigel fully shared. Indeed, having just joined Essex, he was appointed as the second UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1993. In this role, he was able to expose abuses committed by some of the world’s worst regimes. Finishing as Special Rapporteur in 2001, he immediately began 15 years as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, while sitting on the board of organisations he admired, such as Freedom from Torture, Penal Reform International, REDRESS, and Universal Rights Group. He was also the President of the International Commission of Jurists.

Notwithstanding the demanding nature of Nigel’s UN work, he quickly became and remained a central and fully engaged member of the School of Law and Human Rights Centre, right up until his untimely death. Early in his time at Essex, he served as Dean (1992-1995) and together with Kevin Boyle, Françoise Hampson, Geoff Gilbert in the School and Michael Freeman in the Department of Government, Onora O’Neill in Philosophy, and Brian Turner in Sociology he transformed the then Centre for International Human Rights Law into the multidisciplinary Human Rights Centre it is today. He was always a rigorous legal positivist, but one who enjoyed engaging with other disciplines to broaden his conceptions of international law and human rights.

Nigel played a significant role in shaping the way Essex delivers the LLM International Human Rights Law. He believed that our LLM students should be first and foremost public international lawyers with expertise in international human rights law. In his view, it was essential to ensure that we prepared rigorous lawyers capable of addressing human rights violations successfully. His attention to legal detail is one of his legacies, one which was present in each and every class he taught, as well as in his supervision of dissertations and PhD theses. He always encouraged students not to focus on emotional reactions to human rights violations, but to put the best legal arguments forward for why there was a violation that required a remedy. He was always proud to meet his students everywhere he went and to see them displaying rigorous knowledge and analysis of international human rights law. Indeed, during a careers event for our LLM students in November 2016, he shared that while sitting at the UN Human Rights Committee, he was particularly delighted by a session in which alumni argued for both the complainant and the respondent state.

Nigel’s teaching focused on public international law, international human rights law and the UN human rights machinery and regional systems, although he also taught courses on subjects as diverse as international economic transactions, contracts and jurisprudence. His knowledge and experience equipped him to teach almost any module on our human rights related postgraduate degrees and as a result his views were essential in the design and delivery of modules across our LLMs and MAs, but particularly the core module, the General Seminar, now known as International Human Rights Law, Institutions and Practice.

Nigel enjoyed teaching and students loved hearing and learning from him. He would often start a class using his outstanding memory to tell students how we arrived where we are in particular subjects, be it the prohibition of torture, extrajudicial killings or enforced disappearances. His imprint on international standards and norms can be found right up to the very recent adoption of the revised UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners (now called the Nelson Mandela Rules). When discussing human rights instruments, he had a remarkable ability to recall the exact details of a particular draft, the views of state representatives, individual experts, UN officials and civil society, and the points of contention during the negotiations. In class or in meetings in his office, he would relate the history (of which he was a key part) of the adopted text of a treaty or relevant law. In his field of expertise, no book or article could compete with Nigel’s unrivalled knowledge.

He was at his best when students and colleagues prompted him with questions. The depth of his answers and his experience were simply unique. Initially, students could feel nervous about debating difficult subjects with Nigel given his standing as one of international law’s real ‘heavyweights’. However, he quickly put them at ease. This was because he enjoyed engaging in deep discussions with students and was always eager to hear from their experiences. He was not a man for monologues. He wanted to engage with others.

Perhaps one of Nigel’s greatest legacies at Essex is his contribution to the successful transition from the founders of the Centre to a new generation of colleagues with their distinctive visions of human rights and of the role of the Centre. Some people would have stood in the way of this evolution. Nigel did not. Rather he was an enabler, providing sage and collegial advice and support. Indeed, in his years as the Centre’s Chair, the interests of the Centre have dramatically widened, including work on economic, social and cultural rights, transitional justice, drug policy, detention, human rights and big data, and business and human rights. The Centre’s worldwide reputation has grown apace.

Many of his colleagues at Essex and far beyond have been strongly influenced in their own work by Nigel’s ability to conduct detailed legal analysis while not leaving behind the overall ethical commitments that informed that analysis. Nowhere, however, was this ethical conviction more in view than in his work on torture. Nigel Rodley’s powerful legacy will keep reminding us that torture - in its poverty of real gains and in the long-term damage it does to civilization – does not work and cannot be justified.

Nigel was an amazing friend and colleague. He always cared about others regardless of who they were. He would look after each of us, our families and our children. He would celebrate our achievements as if they were his own and would be by our side in the difficult moments that life brings with it. He was an affectionate man with a big heart.

Nigel was very serious about his work, but avoided taking himself too seriously. Even when discussions on any matter of law became passionate (and they did), at the end there was always a laugh and a joke – some accompanied by a gloriously infectious, shoulder-heaving chuckle, and some with the grim, withering humour of the North of England.

He leaves behind his wife, Lyn, to whom he was absolutely devoted, along with friends and colleagues all over the world, and his Essex family.

Professor Geoff Gilbert, Professor Françoise Hampson, Professor Paul Hunt, Professor Sheldon Leader, Professor Noam Lubell, Professor Lorna McGregor, Professor Sabine Michalowski, Dr Clara Sandoval, Dr Ahmed Shaheed and Professor Maurice Sunkin.