Professor Sir Nigel Rodley
Human-rights lawyer who campaigned against torture and the death penalty
ONE OF the most influential and highly respected international human-rights lawyers, Professor Sir Nigel Rodley, has died in Colchester after a short illness, aged 75, In several United Nations roles, most recently as chair of its Human Rights Committee, he helped shape modern international human-rights law. As a teacher and scholar, he was pivotal in establishing The Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex as a leading centre of humanrights scholarship and education.
Nigel was born in Leeds into a Jewish family which, like many others, had escaped persecution. His father, Hans Rosenfeld, came to England from Germany in 1938 when he was 18. Soon after his arrival Hans married Rachel Kantorowitz. Hans’s younger sister, Ruth, came to England on the Kinderstransport, when she was 11. Other members of the family died in the concentration camps. Ruth later moved to Israel where many of Nigel’s relatives now live.
When war broke out, Hans joined the 21st Independent Parachute Company, an élite corps that included a number of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria, and was tragically killed in 1944 while on active service in the Battle of Arnhem. Nigel never knew his father.
Rachel, now a widow and in poor health, considered it best to send Nigel to boarding school. Nigel went to Clifton College, Bristol, on a scholarship before going on to study law at Leeds University, and then Columbia and New York universities.
Nigel was profoundly influenced by the Nuremberg trials and no doubt also by the experiences of his own family. Early in his career, he chose to concentrate on international law and the protection of human rights, an area of law then in its infancy. He quickly developed two mutually supporting approaches to the law. One was based on scholarship and focused on developing understanding of how law can protect people from state power. The other was more pragmatic and involved designing systems of legal protection and their practical use. The fusion of scholarship, education and practice continuously defined Nigel’s approach.
Nigel was appointed Amnesty International’s first legal officer in 1973, a post he held for 17 years. During this time, he used his knowledge of the law, and his considerable ability to carry people with him, to support many of Amnesty’s campaigns. Typically, Nigel focused on the most fundamental human-rights issues of the day. Perhaps the most significant of these were the campaigns against the death penalty and the widespread use of torture by states, matters that continued to be central to Nigel’s work.
He was influential in establishing the current international law prohibiting torture, and played a key role persuading the UN General Assembly to adopt the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from being subject to Torture. In 1984 this was given legal force by the United Nations’ Convention against Torture, to which more than 160 states are signatories. In 1987, he published the first edition of The Treatment of Prisoners under International Law, the definitive text on the subject.
In 1990, Nigel joined the School of Law at the University of Essex. He was quickly promoted to Professor and served as Dean from 1992 – 1995. At Essex, his scholarly interests flourished. Working with other distinguished humanrights lawyers, he helped to establish the Human Rights Centre at Essex as a world leading centre for this study. Generations of students benefited from their contact with Nigel and have gone on to work across the globe in non-governmental organisations, international bodies, and in governments.
From 1993 until 2001 he served as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, a particularly tough post that he performed with great distinction, drawing on his considerable intellectual qualities, his absolute personal integrity, and his seemingly inexhaustible energy.
Nigel Rodley was knighted in 1998 for services to human rights and international law, an honour he was intensely proud to receive. From 2001 to 2014 he was a member of the UN’s Human Rights Committee, serving as its chair from 2013 to 2014. In 2012, he was elected President of the International Commission of Jurists.
Nigel was dedicated to working in the most difficult fields of law where he was daily confronted by the challenge of persuading those with power to alter their practices — purely on ethical grounds. His work saved, and improved, the lives of unknown numbers of victims of state oppression. By any measure, this demanded many skills. It also required steadfast optimism. He often referred to working to further human rights as being akin to the impact of water dripping on stone.
While Nigel was not religious, he was closely attached to his Jewish identity and was very close to his family in Israel, where he had contacts with several universities and institutions; he served as co-editor of the Israel Law Review.
He married Lyn Bates,the Byzantine art specialist in 1967 whom he had met at Leeds University. They were totally devoted to each other. They greatly enjoyed entertaining their many friends. All who knew Nigel will miss his conversation and his intellectual brilliance. We will also miss his infectious, shoulder-heaving chuckle.
He is survived by his wife Dr Lyn Rodley.
PROFESSOR MAURICE SUNKIN
Professor Sir Nigel Simon Rodley: Born December 1, 1941/ Died January 25, 2017