Ben Emmerson, QC

Doctor of Laws

Friday 24 July 2015 at 10.30am - Orator: Professor Malcolm Evans

Mr Vice-Chancellor

When wondering how to commence this oration, it seemed appropriate to take advice from those who remember our honorary graduand as an undergraduate student here in the Faculty of Law at the University of Bristol, as it then was. Whilst all those consulted certainly remember him, anecdotes of his time here were – I am sure he will be relieved to hear –few; and those that were remembered were generally considered unsuitable to recall on so distinguished an occasion as this. One former tutor did, however, remark that, whilst it was very clear that Ben was destined to have a very successful career, it was far from clear what that career might, or even ought, to be in. As it turns out, Ben Emmerson QC, did not veer from the law; and the law has every reason to be grateful for this. The University, in turn, has every reason to be proud of what the law, the legal profession and litigants have found in Ben: an advocate for equality and non-discrimination and a true champion of the rights of the vulnerable, the marginal and the stigmatised within our society and the international community.

Having graduated from Bristol in 1985 Ben was called to the Bar in 1986 and established himself at Doughty Street Chambers. In 2000 he moved to become a founder member of Matrix Chambers, which for the last fifteen years has been at the forefront of human rights litigation. Shortly after this move, Ben was appointed as Queens Counsel. It would be impossible to list, let alone comment on, the many seminal cases which Ben has been involved in. Prominent examples include the case of the ‘Bolton 7’ which ultimately led to the equalisation of the age of homosexual and heterosexual consent. He also was successful before the European Court of Human Rights in the Smith and Grady case, in which the UK was held in breach of the European Convention for dismissing members of the armed forces for homosexual conduct. This resulted in the adoption of a sexual-orientation-free military code of conduct. These are just two of very many examples of cases on which Ben has worked; cases which have changed the legal and social landscape of our country as a result of their challenging the assumptions that for too long underpinned the prejudices they supported.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, the years following the destruction of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 produced many challenges to personal liberty as states sought to extend their powers by way of response to the terrorist threat. No one pretends that these are easy questions and, through a long series of cases throughout the 2000s, Ben was among those who championed the rule of law by testing the legitimacy of legislative and executive action when this seemed to go beyond what was strictly necessary – and, of course, when it strayed into the clearly illegitimate. Whilst this was not always calculated to court popularity with those in authority, the pursuit of the application of law with principle and integrity is always calculated to engender respect. The respect with which Ben Emmerson’s work in this field is held can hardly be more clearly demonstrated than by the decision of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011 to appoint him as their Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, a position he still holds. The UN resolution establishing that mandate requires him ‘to make concrete recommendations on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism’ and to report ‘regularly’ to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and to the UN General Assembly in New York on his work.

His most recent report, released only last month, considers the situation concerning ISIL – the Islamic State in the Levant – and calls the for referral of this situation by the Security Council to the International Criminal Court, and also – bravely – (and as an international lawyer myself, I can appreciate how brave this is) presses the case for permanent members of the security council to refrain from using their vetoes to block action, reminding those states that doing so might engage their responsibility under international law insofar as the actions of ISIL amount to genocide, and given that all states are under an obligation to do all they can to prevent genocide. This is not ‘brave’ in the ‘Yes Minister’ sense of being unwise – but brave in true sense of reminding the most powerful states on the planet that, no matter how high they may be, they remain under the law – a central tenet of our legal tradition and something which I am sure we must have remembered to mention in the lectures and classes Ben attended at Bristol. Well, I do hope we did.

Ben’s commitment to international criminal justice is reflected in yet another distinction. The International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda were established in the 1990s as a means of holding to account those responsible for a variety of international crimes committed during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and during the Rwandan genocide. In 2011, these bodies were rolled up into the rather inelegantly named ‘Residual Mechanism’ serviced by 25 judges elected by the UN. Yes – you’ve guessed it: Ben Emmerson is a judge of the Residual Mechanism – and in doing so is building on his experience as a deputy high court judge in England and Wales.

I could go on and on. Indeed, I have to go on - there is much more to say. He is a Bencher of the Middle Temple and has professorial positions at a number of universities: and why not? (and why not here?) His academic and professional publications are prodigious in both number and quality – and he has also served as editor of the European Human Rights Law Review. His academic work would alone qualify him highly for a Chair in any of the world’s leading universities. But as I must draw to a close –I must mention possibly his most challenging role yet – as Legal Counsel to the Goddard Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales, the most wide ranging and far reaching public inquiry ever established in this jurisdiction. It is good to know that so important an Inquiry is in very safe hands indeed.

In conclusion, I can only apologise for so brief a summary of so rich a contribution to the legal profession and to the rule of law, and for doubtless failing to touch on so much besides that ought to have been mentioned.

This University is extremely proud to count him as one of our own and  I hope I have been able to sustain the submission that it is entirely appropriate, Mr Vice-Chancellor, to present to you Ben Emmerson, QC as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

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