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.

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Never again, again: The Yazidi Genocide

On 15 August 2014, ISIS fighters ordered the Yazidis of Kocho to assemble in the village school. The women and younger children were forced upstairs while, on the ground floor, ISIS fighters divided the men and older boys in groups before leading them away. This moment, three years ago today, marked the first step in the destruction of the last intact Yazidi community in Sinjar, northern Iraq.

Other villages had been emptied days earlier following the 3 August 2014 ISIS attack on the Sinjar region. Many Yazidis fled into the Kurdish region of Iraq. Those closest to Mount Sinjar fled to its arid upper slopes, where they were besieged by ISIS. Without access to water and under a pounding sun, hundreds, mainly young children, died of dehydration. By 14 August, the YPG – the Syrian-Kurdish forces, operating under the cover of American and Iraqi airstrikes – opened a humanitarian corridor to rescue the survivors.

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Thousands of Yazidis, including those from Kocho, were captured on the ground. In the days that followed, reports emerged of ISIS fighters killing Yazidi men, adolescent boys, and older women en masse; and of their forcing younger Yazidi women and girls into holding sites to be registered and sold. Later, news would circulate of young Yazidi boys being taken to ISIS “cub camps”, where they were indoctrinated and trained. It was quickly apparent that the Yazidi community was the target of the attack. ISIS publicly declared its intention to eradicate the Yazidis – a millienia-old religious group which ISIS reviles as pagans – from its “caliphate”.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and then the Commission of Inquiry on Syria released reports determining that ISIS was committing genocide, as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes, in its multi-pronged attack on Yazidi women, children, and men. Both reports emphasised that ISIS’ genocide of the Yazidis relied on all five prohibited acts detailed in the 1948 Genocide Convention.

In doing so, the reports illuminated the continuum of genocidal violence, and underlined the central role that gender plays. As has historically been the case, the killings were disproportionately (but not solely) of men and older boys – the holders of perceived and actual power in public and private life. Many Yazidi women who were past childbearing age were also killed. Younger women and girls were forced into sexual slavery, and were often also beaten, starved, and forced to labour in fighters’ houses. This span of violence – often (and sometimes luridly) reduced in reports to sexual enslavement alone – was an assault on the victims themselves, as well as on the men (as the would-be protectors of the women). It was also intended to rend social fabric of the Yazidi community, through the perceived “dishonouring” of the women and girls, and as a consequence of pregnancies resulting from rape by ISIS fighters. Crimes committed against Yazidi children cleaved to gendered roles as conceived by ISIS fighters. Girls, at the age of nine, were enslaved, while boys were trained to fight.

Three years on, more than 2800 Yazidi women and children are still held captive by ISIS, suffering daily almost-unthinkable brutalities. Outside of the efforts of Yazidi community itself, there has been no strategy or attempt to rescue those still held. Families, most living in displaced peoples’ camps, are selling all they have (and borrowing all they can) to buy their relatives back from the very fighters who are abusing them, or to pay smugglers to retrieve them.

As territory in Sinjar has been reclaimed from ISIS, over 35 mass graves have been found, including five in Kocho. Political wrangling between the Kurdish regional government and Iraqi central government, and rising tensions among various armed groups in Sinjar, have prevented the preservation and collection of forensic evidence, the identification of remains, and the passage of Yazidi families who wish to return.

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