Good afternoon. It’s a real honor to join the American Society of International Law for your annual meeting.
Thank you, Catherine, for your warm welcome and kind introduction. I also want to thank your Executive Director Mark Agrast, your Deputy Executive Director Wes Rist, and the entire ASIL team for organizing a really extraordinary program this week. I know these events are a huge undertaking, so congratulations to you all. I also want to thank Catherine for waking everybody up and saying, “Good afternoon!” I do that, too, when we have our expanded meetings, and I don’t stop until people really give me a rousing, “Good afternoon!” just to get all of our blood flowing for all of the difficult work ahead.
This Society and the State Department have a very long history together. More than 100 years ago, Secretary of State Elihu Root was ASIL’s first president. The State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser works closely with ASIL and with many ASIL members on an ongoing basis. I know our Acting Legal Advisor Rich Visek, our Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack, and many of our outstanding colleagues from “L,” as we say—we all have letters here—have been in attendance throughout the week. Catherine herself, as she just noted, previously served as the State Department’s Counselor for International Law. And in the spirit of this year’s annual meeting theme—personalizing international law—I have to share that I recently learned as we were putting these remarks together that my own chief of staff, Mustafa Popal, was an ASIL intern back when he was a student.
Many of you, I am sure, have been closely following the events in Ukraine, and the premeditated, unprovoked, unjustified, and horrifying war of choice that Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed there.
Every day since February 24th—just six weeks ago—has brought new stories, new videos, new images that cut to your core. Bombs and missiles raining down on hospitals, on apartment buildings, on grocery stores, even on lines of civilians waiting for humanitarian assistance—just waiting to get bread. Journalists and priests and local leaders abducted—some killed. The beloved mayor of Motyzhyn—and her husband and son—found executed in a shallow grave, their hands tied behind their backs.
And now, the utter devastation of countless small towns liberated from Russian control. Entire blocks bombed out in Borodyanka, with hundreds of residents missing. Appalling scenes in Bucha, where civilians have been found in mass graves and shot dead in the streets—some with their hands bound. Reports of torture, of rape, of men young and old executed on their knees, of civilians’ lifeless bodies desecrated and left booby-trapped with explosives. Credible reports that Russians—and Russian forces—are forcing tens of thousands of Ukrainians to relocate to Russia, confiscating their passports and cell phones, separating family members from each other in so-called “filtration camps.”
And earlier today, a horrifying missile attack on the train station in Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine, where perhaps thousands of civilians were packed cheek-by-jowl on the platforms waiting to evacuate. Ukrainian officials have said at least 50 people—and now I’m hearing quite a lot more—were killed and nearly a hundred, perhaps more, wounded. At least two of the dead are children. And as I just noted, we must brace ourselves for all of those numbers—and all of the children’s numbers—to rise.
It is hard to fathom how much destruction, how much pain, Putin’s war of choice—and I say war of carnage—has caused in such a short time. Just six weeks ago, just six weeks ago, the southeastern city of Mariupol was a peaceful place. Children were in school. The port was bustling with workers exporting steel and grain. Last year, the city was even named Ukraine’s Great Cultural Capital, with a busy calendar of art exhibits, plays, and concerts.
Today, Mariupol is in ruins. We have seen devastating strikes on civilian infrastructure. A maternity and children’s hospital bombed, heavily pregnant women evacuated over the rubble. Some died. The regional theater bombed while it was filled with sheltering civilians, while the word “дети”—children—was written in enormous white letters on the ground outside. The city has been cut off from power, from water, from food and medicine, from humanitarian aid. And now, Mariupol’s mayor has said that Russian forces are using mobile crematoria to hide the true civilian toll of the devastation they have unleashed on that city. Imagine, crematoria.
Two weeks ago, Secretary Blinken announced that, based on information currently available, the U.S. government assessed that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine. The scenes outside of Kyiv, the ongoing brutality in Mariupol, the missile strike on civilians in Kramatorsk, suggests that these events aren’t isolated incidents or cases of individual soldiers going rogue. They appear to be evidence of a deliberate, troubling campaign. And those responsible for these atrocities—including those who ordered them—must be, must be, and will be held to account.
The United States and our Allies and partners are tracking and documenting atrocities in Ukraine so that we can share information with the institutions working to hold those responsible accountable for their actions. We are also supporting international accountability mechanisms and NGOs documenting human rights abuses. At the request of Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, the United States is providing support for a team of international prosecutors to work directly with the Prosecutor General’s War Crimes Unit collecting, preserving, and analyzing evidence. We helped establish a Commission of Inquiry at the UN Human Rights Council to investigate all abuses of human rights, violations of international law, and related crimes. The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has also launched an investigation, and the OSCE has stood up a fact-finding mission.
Now, I cannot pretend we’ll get accountability overnight. You all in this audience better than most know how challenging this process is—as lawyers, and as human beings. It takes time to collect evidence, to verify eyewitness accounts, to make attributions, to identify perpetrators—to build as watertight a case as possible.
At the same time, we are confronted every day with new horrors, brought straight to our phone screens thanks to the power of social media. And sometimes those horrors prompt an understandable human response—which is to question the utility and effectiveness of our rules-based international order, and indeed of international law, if we are powerless to stop Putin and his armies from brutalizing the people of Ukraine.
But it is international law that has provided the framework and the language for addressing this conflict. The UN Charter’s prohibition on the threat or use of force underpinned the UN General Assembly vote in early March, where 141 nations condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine—and just four stood with Russia.
The incredibly robust, coordinated effort to impose sanctions and export controls in response to Russia’s egregious violation of international law is made possible by the hard work of lawyers in the United States and in Allied and partner nations—including, I’m sure, some of you here today.
International organizations have taken unprecedented steps to respond as well. The Council of Europe voted to eject Russia, determining its egregious violations of the organization’s principles were too serious for Russia to remain a member. Yesterday, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council—because a country that is responsible for systematic violations of human rights should not be part of an institution whose very purpose is to protect those rights.
I fully expect that until President Putin agrees to a cease-fire, withdraws every Russian troop from Ukraine’s sovereign territory, and moves his forces away from Ukraine’s borders, Russia will remain a pariah in the international community—and the United States, our Allies and partners, and nations around the world will continue to hold Russia accountable for its actions.
Now, I know not everyone in the world is experiencing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in the same way. I’ve traveled to other parts of the world besides Europe, and I know that many people—many nations—are facing challenges much closer to home. Families have been thrown into poverty by two years of this grinding pandemic. Even before Putin further invaded Ukraine, the world had more people living as refugees than at any time since World War II. Putin’s war is now causing chaos in the oil and gas markets, driving up energy prices for those who can least afford it. It is disrupting international shipping of critical commodities, like wheat, which Russia and Ukraine have long supplied to much of the world, that millions of people depend on to survive. Now, Putin’s war is threatening to create a global food security crisis, on top of many countries which are already food insecure.
But regardless of each country’s, each family’s, each person’s, immediate concerns—even when those concerns are very, very serious—this crisis will nevertheless impact every single person in the world. Because a threat to the rules-based international order, to international law, anywhere risks undermining it everywhere.
No country has the right to dictate another country’s political choices, or to change another country’s boundaries by force, or to choose another country’s alliances for them. Those are rights inherent to each sovereign state. In a democracy like Ukraine, they are rights that belong to the Ukrainian people. And when autocrats like Putin believe they can act with impunity and violate those rules and principles—that makes all of us, all of us, less secure.
Even as so many of us are working on an ongoing basis to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people—and to hold Vladimir Putin and his enablers accountable for his war of choice—we are continuing our diplomatic and legal engagements with every region of the world.
We are working with our Allies and partners to uphold the international legal framework governing the oceans and seas—which is under enormous pressure in the South China Sea, where the People’s Republic of China has unlawfully claimed sovereignty or some form of exclusive jurisdiction over some 70 percent of an economically and strategically critical waterway.
And we are continuing our efforts to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Recently, Secretary Blinken formally determined that members of the Burmese military—Myanmar—committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya in that country. We also recently provided an additional $1 million in funding for the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, to assist efforts to hold those responsible for the genocide and other atrocities against Rohingya to account.
All told, the Department of State is leading at least 59 negotiations to uphold and strengthen elements of the rules-based international order—from promoting global health, to protecting the environment, to combating cybercrime, to upholding human rights.
I want to end on a bit of a personal note. Unlike many people who work in foreign policy and national security, I’m not a lawyer. My daughter is—but I’m not. I am not an academic expert. I wasn’t trained in foreign policy and national security. I was trained as a social worker, as a community organizer, and as a clinician, and I worked on Capitol Hill before coming to the State Department for the first time during President Clinton’s first term. Let’s just say it’s not a typical background for a Deputy Secretary of State. But it’s a background that has served me well—and enabled me to serve the interests of the United States. At least, I hope so.
I like to say that in many ways, I’m still a social worker—it’s just that my case load has changed. Because whether I’m negotiating with foreign counterparts or working through an interagency policy process within our own government, I still draw on the same core skills. To put myself in another person’s shoes, and to try to understand their perspective, their motivations, their history, their goals. To bring people together to achieve an objective, to try to find common ground. To remain calm when others aren’t—but not to stifle my own emotions. To bring my whole self to the table.
That is something that I learned in an even deeper way from my dear friend and former boss, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who as you all know died just a few weeks ago. Unlike me, Secretary Albright held a Ph.D. She wrote her dissertation on the Prague Spring. She got a Ph.D. in Russian Studies at Columbia. She spoke several languages and was a superb diplomat.
But her real magic was how she brought herself—her whole self—to everything she did, and especially to her lifelong advocacy for democracy and human rights.
The outlines of Secretary Albright’s biography are well-known, but they bear repeating. Born in what was then Czechoslovakia, her family fled the Nazis to shelter in London. They returned to Prague after the war, only to flee again to keep her father from being imprisoned—or worse—when the Communists seized power. She arrived in America as a refugee, on a ship that docked at Ellis Island, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
Madeleine made no bones about the fact that she was such an ardent advocate for democracy and for America’s leadership in the world because of her—and her family’s—experiences. Those of us fortunate enough to be born in the United States—even though our parents may have been refugees, or our grandparents, or our great-grandparents—and in other well-established democracies can all too easily take the privilege for granted. But those who have seen the alternative with their own eyes—the repression, the state control, the hatred, the death and destruction—they have a different perspective. They know how precious—and how precarious—democracy, human rights, and the rule of law really are. And they know they have to bring their whole selves to the fight for freedom.
That is why as Secretary, Madeleine Albright, she marshaled the world to protect Kosovar Albanians from slaughter. It is why she fought passionately to expand NATO to Central Europe and grow the arsenal of democracies. Painfully, it is why she always said her greatest regret was not doing more to stop the genocide in Rwanda.
And it is why she continued to work on behalf of democracy after she left the State Department—in her books and her public appearances; as the long-serving Chair of the National Democratic Institute; as the frequent convener of the Aspen Ministers Forum, a group of foreign ministers she cheekily liked to call “Madeleine and her exes.” She believed in democracy and in human rights with her whole being, and she fought for them to the very end of her life.
So, that’s my advice to you. Take a page from Madeleine’s book. Bring your whole selves to your work. Bring your humanity to your work. One of my colleagues today in a staff meeting thanked me for doing that. For bringing my whole self, for integrating all the pieces of me, all the parts of my life. I couldn’t have thought of a higher compliment from anyone.
I know it might make some of you nervous. Lawyers are trained to be careful,
to be deliberate, to marshal facts and evidence, to hew to every rule in the Bluebook—and for good reason. Cases can be won and lost on technicalities. And when you are working on painful issues—on war crimes in Ukraine, or genocide in Burma (Myanmar), or sexual violence under ISIS, or media freedom in Hong Kong—I know it can be tempting, it can feel safer, to push down your emotions and try to be dispassionate.
Don’t. Don’t become numb. Don’t become clinical. Don’t lose touch with yourself, with your emotions, with your human impulses. Because at its core, the work of international law—just like all of the work of diplomacy—is about people, about human beings. About righting wrongs. About pursuing justice. About punishing wrongdoing. About building a better, freer, safer, and more just world for people everywhere. And none of that will happen without each and every one of you bringing your humanity to what you do.
We saw that again on display today, when President Biden welcomed the soon to be new Associate Justice, Judge Jackson, to a ceremony on the South Lawn. Judge Jackson brought her whole self. She thanked everybody by name—not something everybody does. She kept taking out her Kleenex to wipe her eyes, the emotion was so present. She talked about all who had come before her, who brought her to this extraordinary day, to this moment in history, to the arc of justice—which may be slow, but was coming, and had come for another chapter today.
Please, please bring all that you are to everything that you do.
Thank you again for having me—and thank you for everything you do to uphold and strengthen international law, international organizations, and the rules-based international order.
I look forward to taking your questions. Thank you.