Through the eyes of a diplomat - from New Zealand to The Hague

21 Feb 2013 | Roy Lie A Tjam

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I met Sir David on a bright autumnal morning in the atrium of The Hague International Centre


His Excellency Sir David Baragwanath is a Judge and has been the President of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon since 2011.

The tribunal's mandate is to bring to justice those responsible for the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in 2005.  The accused are still at large.

The Appeals Chamber is currently considering challenges to the Tribunal’s jurisdiction and to an order for trial in absentia. The Tribunal is situated in Leidschendam.


         Sir David
   Photo: Theo van Rossum

Sir David and his wife Lady Susan are from New Zealand’s South Island, and have been living in The Hague for the past thirteen months. They are enjoying the experience immensely. They value the freedom to cycle on safe paths with access to beautiful waterways and beaches. The proximity of The Hague to other great European centres is a privilege and they travel as much as they can around the Netherlands. They have been warmly received by institutions and individuals alike.  The generosity and welcome of the inhabitants have brought Sir David and Lady Susan into The Hague’s private world and into the stimulating atmosphere of this international community.

As a New Zealander, Sir David is proud of the shared links and heritage with the Netherlands. Recounting the visit of the Dutch navigator and explorer Abel Tasman to New Zealand, he tells us it was Tasman who put the Dutch Nieuw Zeeland on the European map. Sir David continues, adding that there are over 250 New Zealand airmen who are buried in Dutch cemeteries.

After the second World War, New Zealand along with Canada and Australia, was a favourite destination for thousands of Dutch settlers - well over 100,000 New Zealanders have Dutch connections. Even today, a growing number of young Dutch people are spending a year in New Zealand with the Working Holiday Scheme, with substantial and ever increasing tourism between the two countries.


Why did Sir David study law?

His mother was a teacher and his father a clergyman and both encouraged him with ideas and the reading of literature pertaining to Law. He really did not consider anything else. Sir David’s two sisters are both scientists; his late brother was a film maker.  His wife  is an educationalist.


Appointment to The Special Tribunal for Lebanon

In 2007 Sir David was nominated by the government of New Zealand and then interviewed for appointment to the Tribunal via a 40 minutes satellite link from the U.N. in New York to Auckland. Those present in New York were: Nicolas Michel, UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, Judge El Maadi, former president of the Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia and Judge Erik Møse, now of the European Court of Human Rights and formerly president of the Tribunal for Rwanda. Sir David was delighted with the result of the election - returning to The Hague was something to look forward to.


A system of laws  

Sir David studied Law in Auckland; he also holds a Bachelor of Civil Law from Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar and was a Fulbright scholar to the University of Virginia working on freedom of information.  He has had visiting appointments at universities in England and Hong Kong and before his present appointment was a HUGO Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies. In addition, he is an Overseas Bencher of the London Inner Temple. In total, he has spent over fifty years in the law profession. Sir David’s study included Roman law – codified in Beirut, which is famous for having one of the world’s first law schools. A golden age for the school was under Justinian, when it ranked above those of Constantinople and Rome and the professors of the Beirut School of Law helped draft the famous Justinian Code which simplified the existing Roman laws into a simple and clear system of laws. Beirut was henceforth known as the ‘Mother of Legislation’. Sir David served as a Judge of the High Court and the Court of Appeal in New Zealand. He also served part-time as Presiding Judge of the Court of Appeal on the Polynesian island of Samoa, which was initially a German then a New Zealand colony. Samoa is now an independent island state.

Sir David’s exposure to distinctive indigenous custom law in New Zealand, Samoa and as a visiting lecturer in Hong Kong have helped the transition to the position he currently holds at the Special Court for Lebanon.

He has delivered guest lectures at universities and law institutions in a number of countries around the world, including The Netherlands, where he is shortly to speak at the Universities of Groningen and The Hague.  On 26 September 2012, Sir David addressed members of the Tripoli Bar Association, Lebanon, via a video conference. The theme was  "Judging in domestic and international tribunals: looking ahead from Lebanon". He spoke about the responsibilities and challenges faced by judges, and the differences between judging on national and international levels. He also highlighted the independence of the judiciary and the judges' important role as servants of the community.  Sir David said that the Tribunal "has the advantage of having the substantive criminal law of Lebanon to rely upon. With the assistance of Lebanese counsel learned in that law, and of our (STL) Lebanese members, we seek to perform the demanding task of conforming with its principles.” Sir David referred to the adage of the French judge Guy Canavet: judges should approach their task “with trembling hands”, aware of Kipling’s “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every-single-one-of-them-is right!”

Sir David emphasises that the accused must receive and know he is receiving fair treatment; that the verdict and any sentence given should convince such persons that justice has been done.    


The Hague, city of peace and justice

Sir David would like to thank the people of The Hague for contributing to the rule of international law by unfailing support of her numerous international courts and institutions.  The status as an ’International City of Peace and Justice’ is not merely a label; it is a reality. The enthusiasm of both the government and residents is infectious and encouraging. The Hague is a marvellous city to live and work in with good transport links and interesting attractions such as theMauritshuiswith its famous Vermeer paintings and the seat of the Dutch government at the Binnenhof.

Casting my mind back to the interview, I was facing a man who lives for Justice – it is a part of him. Despite our imperfections as humans, rendering justice can still be possible.

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