An Interview with Diane Marie Amann by ATLAS

Diane Marie Amann is the Emily & Ernest Woodruff Chair in International Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Dean Rusk International Law Center at the University of Georgia School of Law. A dual Irish-US citizen, she has served since 2012 as International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s Special Adviser on Children in & affected by Armed Conflict, and helped research and draft the ICC OTP Policy on Children. Having founded the IntLawGrrls blog in 2007, Amann served for the next five years as its Editor-in-Chief, and has contributed posts to many other US and international law blogs. 

Her academic publications–in English, French, and Italian–examine issues related to transnational and international criminal justice, human and child rights, constitutional law, and collective/national/human security governance. Keenly interested in women as creators and shapers of international law, she is writing a book on the roles that a multinational cohort of women played–as lawyers and legal aides, journalists and artists, interpreters and translators–during the post-World War II trials at Nuremberg. To that end, in the first half of 2018 Amann was a Research Visitor/Visiting Fellow at Oxford University Faculty of Law’s Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at Mansfield College, at the Max Planck Institute Luxembourg for International, European & Regulatory Procedural Law, and at the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research. Her professional affiliations include service as a Counsellor and past Vice President of the American Society of International Law, as well as membership in the European Society of International Law.

Follow her @DianeMarieAmann.


What drew you to working in international law? And what were your first steps?

Two things have always been true about me. First, I am fierce when confronted with what appear to be abuses of power. This extends well beyond my sympathy with victims (with whom I do sympathize, of course), and encompasses a broader core motivation, which is triggered by and focuses on structures of power that work to marginalize and mistreat specific individuals and communities. (This, in large part, was why I was a criminal defence attorney early in my career.) The question I asked myself was, “If I want to work to combat injustice, what profession would best allow me to do so?” My first choice was in journalism. I was a newspaper reporter, covering people engaged in civil rights work and environmental rights advocacy. I liked the work but felt like too much of a bystander. When I thought about shifting my career, I realised that the people whom I found most interesting all had law degrees. Law, I felt, would put me on the frontlines of fighting injustice. I would have a different and potentially stronger set of tools at my disposal. It was that realisation that propelled me into law school. 

Second, I like solving problems. If there’s something I don’t know or something that confuses or intrigues me, I like to follow the rabbit down the hole and see where it takes me. I didn’t study international law in law school. There was only one course and I considered taking it. I already had some German and French by that point, and had studied abroad in Austria, so I was drawn towards the international sphere. However my course advisor scoffed that international law wasn’t ‘real’ law, and I wouldn’t use it in practice. He seemed very authoritative. So I accepted his advice and didn’t take the course. But he was incredibly wrong, because I found myself needing to know international law immediately after law school. I clerked for three years, two years at the US District Court and one at the US Supreme Court. Some of our cases challenged the juvenile death penalty, as well as use of the death penalty on developmentally challenged defendants. The briefs cited international law, including treaties to which the United States was a party. I had to learn very quickly, and largely autonomously. Early on, therefore, I saw the utility of international law as a tool to confront abuses of power.

I became an assistant federal public defender in San Francisco, a US border city. Between 30% and 40% of my cases had a transnational element: my client was not from the United States, or the conduct alleged involved crossing of borders, or the federal government was investigating part of case overseas or producing evidence that it had gathered abroad. To litigate those cases properly, I had to increase my understanding of international law on the fly.

When I made the pivot from practice to academia, it was transnational questions–for example, “Does the US Constitution’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure follow a defendant when the search is done outside the US?”–that most interested me. I started teaching in the same year as the first decision in ICTY’s Tadić came down. Soon after that, Pinochet came to the fore. Those two cases became a springboard for my thinking, for my teaching and scholarship. It seemed to me that international law was developing, finding its way in a new era–and in so doing, providing grist for academic thought and writing.

What have been the high points of your career thus far?

If there’s such a thing as a continuing high point: I love teaching. It is my longest career, after having been a journalist, political campaign worker, and practising lawyer. Initially, I was surprised by how much joy and purpose I get out of working with people at the beginning of their careers, helping them realize their potential and aspirations. The US law school system is a great incubator, as it’s a three-year curriculum, with a relatively small group of students entering each year. I meet people as they begin their time at law school, often with only a vague notion of what they might want to do and what it means to be a lawyer. I watch them leave three years later, having witnessed this incredible learning curve, and proud to have contributed to it.

Another high point: being able to work with some amazing people, who have been both an inspiration and a support to me. Mireille Delmas-Marty is one such person. In my view Mireille, who writes primarily in French, ranks among the most important theorists of her generation in international/internationalised law. I’ve worked with her over a number of years, and had long discussions about our research and how international law is developing to meet new circumstances. She has been incredibly influential, and has helped me to think creatively. Clerking for US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was also a highlight, as one might imagine.

Having the privilege, over the last few years, of serving as the Special Adviser on children’s issues for the ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has been an absolute high point. The issue of children and international criminal law is remarkably understudied. There are many articles about child soldiers, but that’s a tiny slice of the overall issue. Other areas of focus include children’s welfare in refugee camps, which generally falls outside the remit of the ICC Prosecutor. A significant focus of my work has been trying to find a way to ensure that crimes against and affecting children are addressed properly internally, and properly messaged externally. I met Prosecutor Bensouda when she was still Deputy Prosecutor, and have immense respect for her. I feel lucky to work with her and advance her agenda.

In the late 2000s, I was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Utrecht, as a result of my work on Guantánamo. That work arose out of on extradition case I had worked on, pre-9/11, involving a man, accused of membership in Irish Republican Army, who had been interned as a child. Having spent a lot of time working on his case, I had long been thinking about issues of counter-terrorism policy. Soon after the Guantánamo detention camp opened, I published an article in French challenging the US policies, drawing my critique from US constitutional law and international human rights law. I published a revised version of that article, titled Guantánamo, in English. I was writing at a time when many in the US were still uncomfortable with challenging the government’s policies. To be given an honorary doctorate for that work, to go to the cathedral in Utrecht for a university Founder’s Day ceremony with hundreds of academics in medieval robes, and to have someone read in Latin a proclamation about the significance of this work, was almost an out-of-body experience. From a personal perspective, that was clearly a high point.

What are some of the challenges that you faced coming up in your career?

Learning international law on the fly was a challenge. In the end, it may have made me a better lawyer than I might otherwise have been, as I never had conventional ideas drilled into me. The advantage of this was that it made me more open and flexible in my approach. However that way of learning created its own challenges, as I had to absorb a lot of information and process it autonomously, particularly at the early stages of my career. It would have been useful, in many ways, to have enjoyed the cacophony of opinions and the discussion that formal legal training provides.

Another challenge is that our field still often operates on the basis of whom one knows. This is one of the most troubling things about working in PIL. I did not go to an Ivy League university, with all the networks that this provides; nor was I ever a student of prominent academics already known in the field of international law, who would have been in a position to ease opportunities through personal recommendations. This didn’t have a negative impact on my own career, but I am disheartened when I see it affect the careers of others. People who are brilliant, but not from what are considered to be ‘top’ universities, are pre-judged as not being good enough, while others–who perhaps aren’t as good, or at least no better–are given opportunities because of where they went to school and whom they studied under. I’m troubled by the way this persists in our field.

Really, this is a way of speaking about diversity. Law as a profession is not particularly diverse. Many (or perhaps, only some) in the profession have become more aware and more vocal on the need for diversity when it comes to gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. That has not yet translated into a level of progress that is both right and required. At the same time, there have been far fewer conversations, and less awareness, of the lack of diversity within our profession when it comes to class. There seem to be few international lawyers who come from a working-class background, who are in their family’s first college-going generation. In the United States, class is a more porous concept than it is in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, I think. Still, the fact is that, wherever you are in the world, growing up in situations where one’s family members are lawyers, or friends of the family are in the profession, helps to give one a sense of near-unquestioned belonging. Confidence to go after what you want matters a lot in life, and a lot in international legal careers where (especially at the outset) so much is uncertain. Gaining that confidence, that sense of deserving to be in law school, to work internationally, is an often-unappreciated struggle for persons from working-class backgrounds.

As the founding editor, can you speak about what motivated you to set up IntLawGrrls?

As I mentioned earlier, I can be quite fierce about inequalities. One of the things I’ve always found wonderful about international criminal law, in its post-1990s iteration, is the extent to which women are involved as creators, shapers, participants, and decision-makers. 

In the 2000s, I was astounded by the extent to which women were excluded from the post-9/11 conversation. Issues of detention at Guantánamo had started percolating to the US Supreme Court, and congressional hearings had also started. There were some law blogs, but very few women were writing for them–not even for the ones with women on the masthead. The existing blogs didn’t seem to be welcoming spaces for female voices. This was mirrored in what we saw in the wider public international law world. 

Then there was one congressional hearing about Guantánamo, a photo of which appeared in The New York Times. The photo showed several witnesses at a table. All had worked in the US Executive Branch at some point. All were men. All were white, except for Harold Koh, and none knew anything about human rights, except for Harold Koh. It looked to me like half the table had been cut off. There was no one there representing women, no one representing civil society on human rights issues. 

I decided that the only way to start resolving this was to create a new space, and started playing around with the computer, Googling “How to create a blog.” Thirty minutes later it turned out I had a live blog called IntLawGrrls. I hadn’t actually intended to create it, but I’d pushed a button, and there it was. The idea from the beginning was that it would be a blog by women only, to avoid the problem of men seeming to muscle women out, and to impose an obligation on women to contribute. Women in our field couldn’t say there wasn’t a space for them, because IntLawGrrlswas now that space. Among the earliest contributors were Beth Van Schaack and Jaya Ramji-Nogales, who, along with Kathleen A. Doty, also became editors. We were all discovering our voices on that particular medium.

The most gratifying part of that experiment was discovering that we had created a virtual community which also crossed over to real life. At American Society of International Law meetings, for example, women who wrote for or read IntLawGrrls wanted to meet each other. Women would post on the site and then get invited to speak at conferences. Women who learned of one another through the blog reached out to each other in person. It was started with little notion of what it could be, and though I am no longer involved with the blog, it is one of the things of which I am most proud. I’m particularly gratified by the sisterhood it created. I may be the person who pushed the button that put IntLawGrrls online, but quickly almost a dozen women began to contribute, and to date there have been many hundreds. I hope too that IntLawGrrls helped to create a space for ATLAS, as a new and complementary initiative binding women in our field. 

Do you have any advice for people, particularly women, hoping to work in international law in the future?

Follow your heart. When something seemed important, when it felt time to try something new, to explore something I wanted to know about, I jumped in. I went into solo legal practice without savings, and trusted that I would find a way to support myself. Not everyone is so comfortable with that level of risk. Still, it’s important to listen to what your heart is telling you about what you want to do, where you want to be, and prepare to take some risk to pursue that aspiration.

Move towards the positive. Be strategic but also make sure there is something fulfilling in what you’re doing. Try to go towards a professional opportunity that is a good thing in and of itself. I see students being directed towards positions that they aren’t terribly interested in on the basis that it is only a stepping-stone to something else. That’s a terrible way to live, and there’s a real risk as you can end up working in those sorts of positions for years longer than you had intended. Always move towards something that is positive for you.

Never stop learning. I’m currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of Leiden. The book I am writing on women at Nuremberg will have its first incarnation as a Ph.D. dissertation. It’s challenging to balance this with the rest of my workload but it means that I make time for it–and have guaranteed manuscript reading from my advisors, William A. Schabas and Larissa van den Herik. Too often when people finish their last degree they feel that they are done with learning. That’s not the best approach. Make learning–a new language, a new skill, new aspects of the law–part of your life.

Build a network of friends and mentors. For women and others in under-represented groups, this is especially important, as they won’t always see themselves reflected in their professional environments. It’s important to find a group where you feel a sense of belonging, and where you feel supported as you navigate your professional and personal life. Whether they are peers or mentors, make a conscious effort to include people whose lives includes facets that you admire. The corollary of this is that you, too, must be a support to others.

Build skills. By nature I am a shy person, with a soft voice. I wanted to be a trial lawyer, and I realised I needed to learn to project my presence and my voice into that space. I signed up for public-speaking lessons and also decided to try one acting class. The one seemed like an exercise in speaking with a mouth full of marbles, which I didn’t enjoy, but I stuck with the acting classes for a couple of years. This helped me to understand how to be free but also controlled when on stage. It was also a creative outlet that I hadn’t known I needed as a junior lawyer. I was the only person in the class who didn’t want to be an actor, and my classmates could have cared less about law–all of which gave me valuable perspective.

If there’s something that makes you happy, find time to do it. Whether it’s exercising, playing the piano, or painting, the answer is never to say, “I don’t have time for that.” You need to pay attention to those parts of yourself–they are ways to grow your inner self, to make friendships in and outside of the law, and to sustain yourself independent of the vagaries of life in PIL.

Diane was interviewed for ATLAS by Sareta Ashraph.


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