‘I couldn’t wish for a more interesting job’: Ben Emmerson CBE KC, 2023 Alumni Award winner for Global Citizenship

This year’s Alumni Award winner for Global Citizenship is Ben Emmerson CBE KC (LLB 1985, Hon LLD 2015), one of the world’s preeminent international human rights lawyers. 

Ben Emmerson has worked on some of the world’s most high-profile cases concerning armed conflict, national security, and international criminal law. Between 2011 and 2017 he was UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter Terrorism, and he is currently international counsel for the government of Ukraine and a partner and global head of public international law at King & Spalding. In 2020 he was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to international human rights and humanitarian law.

A Bristol Law School graduate, Ben describes the impact of his time at university: ‘When I came to Bristol in the early 1980s it was a time of industrial unrest under Margaret Thatcher. For me, studying Law seemed to be an effective way of achieving political change and social justice.

‘I studied Labour Law under Professor Keith Stanton and what used to be called Constitution and Administrative Law under Professor David Feldman, both of whom were seminal influences on me. Their work was in many ways inspired by J. A. G. Griffiths’ The Politics of the Judiciary, which examines the underlying political trends of the judiciary that influence and shape the law. My practice has grown directly out of my experience at Bristol and it’s the intersection of law and politics that provides the foundation of my work.’

After graduating, Ben started out his legal career at Doughty Street Chambers, where he was practising labour and criminal defence law, and European human rights law. In 1998 he trained the British judiciary in the application of the 1998 Human Rights Act, and in 2000 he became a founding member of Matrix Chambers.

‘When the Human Rights Act came into force in this country in 2000, incorporating the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), I was one of a relatively small number of practitioners who had experience of litigating at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. All the areas of international law that I have practised since, including the law relating to war crimes and the broader questions that arise in interstate disputes, have their root and inspiration in human rights law.

‘What was so important about the ECHR – and where it represented an improvement on English common law – was the logic and rationality of its methodology for analysing legal problems. Prior to its incorporation into English law, the doctrine of precedent meant that the personal background of judges – at that time, usually private education, Oxbridge, almost exclusively male – was key to understanding the politics of the judiciary. The web of rules, precedents and statues enabled judges to reach decisions without really engaging with the underlying merits.

‘But with the Human Rights Act, courts had to go beyond rules of precedent, and engage in substantive analysis of a decision, within this framework of certain fundamental individual and community rights. Now the thinking that motivated a particular judgement had to be transparent, both in the argument before a judge, and in the reasons given for their decision. This isn’t to say that the judiciary in the years since has not been affected by the politics of the day: inevitably, there have been swings between activism and conservatism. But this sort of international law is critical to the ability of an independent judiciary to represent consistency and hold government to account.’

Renowned for his astute insights, passionate advocacy and wide-ranging litigation experience across British, European and international courts, Ben is also known for taking on complex cases. He represented Marina Litvinenko at the inquiry into the murder of her husband Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident who was poisoned in central London in 2006, and Julian Assange in connection with attempts to extradite him to Sweden. He has played a pivotal role in the case against Russia for the downing of flight MH17 in 2014, in which 298 people were killed; advised victims of human rights violations in Myanmar, Syria and Iraq; and has acted for a number of international governments in connection to armed conflict and war crimes. How does he cope with the pressure?

‘I have had a fascinating professional life and I couldn’t wish for a more interesting job. I can’t, however, claim to have cracked the nut of a healthy work life balance. I have spent my life under pressure – it’s like doing your final exams every week. I study the subject matter of a complicated dispute, absorb all the information and evidence and regurgitate it at will, on my feet, with quick thinking. One thing that does contribute to my stress management is being able to forget, in order that I can make space for the next complicated situation.’

Of his 2023 Alumni Award for Global Citizenship, Ben says: ‘A few years ago I received an honorary PhD from the University of Bristol in recognition of the work I have done on the Human Rights Act in England. I was enormously honoured that my own university had chosen to award it to me.

‘What is tremendous about this Alumni Award is the emphasis on the international side of my work. The extent and degree of violence of persecution in some parts of the world dwarfs the detriments that can be inflicted in the United Kingdom. That is not to defend this country, or minimise the experience of those in the UK against whom discrimination is a feature of daily life. But there is a world out there where genocide still happens. Recognising the international dimension to my work and, if you like, bringing that home to Bristol is really important to me.’

Each year, the University of Bristol recognises alumni who have made remarkable contributions to society through the Alumni Awards. You can see the full list of our 2023 winners on our website

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