Sweden's Hans Corell is an international treasure and, in many ways, the institutional memory of decades of service to his home country – Sweden, to the United Nations and to the international legal system. He served as Under-Secretary General for Legal Affairs and Legal Counsel of the United Nations under two Secretaries General – Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan – from 1994-2004. But beyond his qualifications as a legal scholar, Hans Corell is a classically trained humanist, a legal philosopher, a writer, a poet, and a musician.
Most charmingly and tellingly, however, Hans Corell is a raconteur of remarkable insight, not just a teller of life stories but a chronicler of international legal actions with a minstrel's ability to dramatize and enthrall. His memory is a virtual intellectual history of international legal and political events over five decades that span the turn of a century. In September 1961, he was a student steward in the Cathedral at Uppsala for the funeral of the martyred United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. Forty years later, coming full circle, in the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York he played the Scottish bag pipes at the UN Staff Day ceremonies in remembrance of United Nations staff members who had lost their lives in service to that organization.
For Corell the law is a living thing evolving over time. He speaks of it with an unmistakable passion that permeates his conversation while simultaneously marrying that same intense dedication for the law to the events of his own life. He recalls his first visit to the United Nations headquarters in New York City not as a fledgling lawyer but as a young merchant seaman earning his way through university, never dreaming that he would one day return to New York as a member of the Swedish delegation to the General Assembly and then as head of the UN Legal Office. And why did this son of a Swedish Lutheran pastor go to sea? His maternal grandfather, a sea captain sailing as first mate on a Swedish freighter, lost his life when his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine in the waning days of World War I.
Hans Corell received his law degree from Uppsala University in 1962 beginning his legal career as a law clerk and then becoming a judge in the courts of first and second instance. In 1972, he joined the Swedish Ministry of Justice serving in a variety of administrative and legislative roles touching on multiple aspects of Swedish life ranging from property law and church-state relations to data protection and constitutional law. In 1979, Corell was named Director of the Justice Ministry's Division for Administrative and Constitutional Law, eventually becoming Chief Legal Officer. He was appointed Judge of Appeal in 1980.
Before joining the United Nations, Corell was Ambassador and Under-Secretary for Legal and Consular Affairs in the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1984-1994. During that time he was a member of Sweden's delegation to the United Nations General Assembly (1985-1993) and undertook several assignments under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Europe (OECD) and the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, now OSCE). He was one of three international rapporteurs appointed by the CSCE who began the investigation of war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1992 during Yugoslavia's fractious ethnic conflicts. It was their report, forwarded by the CSCE to the United Nations that first proposed the establishment of an international court to deal with war crimes committed in the course of the multiple conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.
Among the many legal responsibilities Ambassador Corell assumed upon being appointed Under-Secretary for Legal Affairs and the Legal Counsel of the United Nations in 1994, was nurturing the development of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) after its creation by the Security Council as well as the establishment of an International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide that accompanied that country's internal conflict. Corell also shepherded the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which entered into force just as he came to the United Nations.
Building on the establishment of the ad hoc courts for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Ambassador Corell also aided in the establishment of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) for trial of the senior Khmer Rouge leaders. In 1998, Ambassador Corell served as the Secretary General's representative at the United Nations Conference that adopted the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In retirement, Hans Corell has not slowed down one bit. He remains a zealous defender of the rule of law and a dedicated advocate for its expansion. He is involved in the work of the International Bar Association, the International Legal Assistance Consortium, and the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University. He is a member of the Steering Committee for the "Crimes Against Humanity Initiative" launched by the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute at Washington University. Corell served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Human Law at the University of Lund from 2006-2012. And, he remains a strong advocate for the work and the potential of the United Nations.
Diplomatic Connections was privileged to interview Ambassador Corell at his office in Stockholm, Sweden.
Diplomatic Connections: On your website you use a quotation from Dag Hammarskjold's book, his spiritual reflections through a lifetime, called Markings in English. Here is your translation of Hammarskjold's thought: "Openness to life grants a swift insight, like a flash of lightning, into the life situation of others. A must – to force the problem from its emotional statement into a clearly conceived intellectual form and then to act accordingly." Is that a metaphor for the law for you, for your career?
Hans Corell: In a sense, yes. When I read in the papers about a crime being committed I get just as upset as everybody else, but then as a judge there is a case before you in the court. That is when the judge has to move beyond an emotional state and formulate the problem into clearly conceived intellectual form. It is necessary to be very precise and not allow feelings to run away with the judgment. The law must be applied justly and in accordance with the evidence before the court. Then as a jurist your decision is handed down.
I also recognized this later upon becoming the Legal Counsel of the United Nations. I re-read Hammarskjold's very famous address given at Oxford on the 30th of May 1961, just three months before he died. There he examines the role of the international civil servant, specifically exploring neutrality and how leaders should behave in an international organization. Hammarskjold comes to the conclusion that sooner or later the Secretary General must take action. If that decision made upsets one or several among parties, their negative reaction is not a sign of lack of neutrality. On the contrary, it is clear evidence of neutrality because a judgment must be made. Now, if the decision made and the action taken goes against one of the parties, so be it. The key point is that determination handed down must be just. And then Hammarskjold makes a comparison. Isn't this exactly how a judge has to act in the daily exercise of authority?
That observation became very important to me.
Diplomatic Connections: You attended the faculty of law and received your law degree. What were your early law assignments?
Hans Corell: In Sweden in those days there was the tradition that after law school newly minted lawyers applied for a clerkship at the court to be trained in the working of the law. Almost all lawyers in Sweden in those days spent roughly two-and-a-half years in a local court working with senior judges as well as presiding in court themselves.
I was 24-years old when I was on the bench for the first time. The impression the senior judges on the court presented as they went about their daily work became extremely important. That taught me a lesson: the role that a judge has to play in a society under the rule of law. This gave me a backbone that has followed me all of my life. At the United Nations, I was not at all impressed when ambassadors came up and told me: I have instructions from my capital, and we expect such and such an action. I would respond, Ambassador, I am listening to you certainly but you must realize that I have to make up my own mind based on the law.
Diplomatic Connections: How did you make the transition to international law? What led to that change of direction?
Hans Corell: Young judges also serve as judge registrar dealing with titles to land. That work made me understand the great significance of having a proper land registry. I look around the world now, and I understand that if a country does not have a proper land registry, it is impossible to develop an appropriate economy. Land holders must be able to have title to the land in order to mortgage the land and borrow money to build a factory or a house. Between 1962 and 1972 this element of land registry was continuously a part of my work as a judge.
Later I served on the Water Court of Appeal. This required me to learn the law that governed building in waters - hydroelectric plants, port facilities, water treatment plants, etc. On the bench of the Water Court of Appeal were not just a group of lawyers but also an engineer. It was unusual to have a scientific voice present in the deliberations of the court. That experience taught me the importance of including environmental elements in the assessment when you decided whether or not to grant permission to build a water-related facility.
This was a tremendous asset when I came to the United Nations and was responsible for the Law of the Sea. One of my first tasks was to draft the law governing the Seabed Authority that was sitting in an office in Kingston, Jamaica. When I looked at the draft code of how you should apply the law of the sea in connection with deep seabed mining, I asked: where are the environmental regulations? There were virtually none, and what did exist was very rudimentary.
Diplomatic Connections: It begins to sound as if your legal career in Sweden was assembling the building blocks of your future international career.
Hans Corell: I was lucky in one thing after another. I became head of the constitutional law department at the Ministry of Justice in 1979. That division was responsible for administrative and constitutional law. The primary task was to vet every proposal from government with constitutional spectacles on before it went to parliament. We had to ascertain whether a draft law was in conformity with the Swedish Constitution.
After three years in that position, the Minister asked me to become the Chief Legal Officer of the Ministry of Justice. But, subsequent to that, I had a telephone call from the Minister of Foreign Affairs officially requesting me to join his team as head of the legal department in the Foreign Office. I accepted, and I have never regretted that decision one minute.
Diplomatic Connections: What did you learn during that time with the Foreign Ministry?
Hans Corell: I got to know the members of the Swedish Foreign Service as well as colleagues in other countries, which was extremely valuable. I had to negotiate with other nations as head of the Swedish delegation. I was the agent for the Swedish government before the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. I had to defend my country when people complained that we had violated human rights according to the European Convention. That was also an extraordinary education.
All these experiences meant that I got a different view of the Swedish constitutional system and its legal foundations as well as of the place of the Swedish legal system in the world. I gained both a broad-based and a comparative perspective on the legal system in which I had been trained. I saw our obligations under international law first-hand and came to understand how these commitments translated into our national law.
Diplomatic Connections: How did you begin your career at the United Nations?
Hans Corell: Boutros-Ghali called me in January 1994 and said, "Mr. Corell, I want you to join my team." That's an offer you don't refuse. It is probably one of the most interesting legal platforms in the world at the crossroads between law and politics.
When I came to New York and started looking into the workings of the UN Legal Office, I said to myself, rule of law is really where we have to do more work than has been done in the past and it has to be instilled in a society from the grassroots. People who are appointed or elected to official roles must understand that they have a level of accountability that goes much, much farther than their own political interests. They have to defend the concept of the rule of law in order to create a society where people can live in dignity with their human rights preserved.
Diplomatic Connections: In the course of your career you have seen a series of Secretaries General. We are in the midst of a process that will select a new Secretary General to succeed Ban Ki-moon later this year. What do you think are the most important qualities that an effective Secretary General needs to have?
Hans Corell: The Secretary General must to be an independent person who doesn't shy away in a difficult situation when a decision, based on the obligations flowing from the United Nations Charter or perhaps from a resolution adopted by the General Assembly or the Security Council has to be made.
The members should be looking for a person who comprehends that sometimes he or she has to act with determination. In an article where I analyzed Dag Hammarskjold's thoughts about the Secretary General's role I concluded that, "The Secretary General of the United Nations who from time to time does not have an argument with a major power simply isn't doing the job." Not that the Secretary General should be looking for a disagreement with member states, but there will inevitably be situations where there is no other way to move forward.
Diplomatic Connections: You have said quite pointedly that you see the permanent members of the Security Council, the P-5, as derelict in their responsibilities under the Charter and to the organization. Could you explain that?
Hans Corell: What I mean is that the leading states of the United Nations themselves violate their obligations under the Charter. For example, my heart sank when I saw the UK and the US – two Western democracies – attacking Iraq back in March 2003, in flagrant violation of the UN Charter. Russia attacks Georgia in 2008. And the latest developments in Ukraine are flagrant violations of the UN Charter. The inability of the Security Council to deal with the situation in Syria undermines the Charter.
I suggested in a letter to the members of the United Nations on 8 December 2008, the date of the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the Permanent Members should agree on four things.
First, they should observe the law that they are intended to supervise. In other words, they should abide by the UN Charter. Is that asking too much? Second, from now on they should not employ the veto unless their country's most critical interests are under threat. And, if they choose to exercise their veto, they will be expected to explain why. Third, from now on they will not authorize the use of force unless it is clearly required under the terms of the UN Charter – self-defense under Article 51 or after a clear and unambiguous resolution by the Security Council. And, fourth, individual states have a responsibility to protect their citizens. If a state isn't protecting its population against genocide or war crimes and crimes against humanity, or if the state is complicit in violence against its own people then, if necessary, the Security Council should apply force.
Diplomatic Connections: That's a very dramatic change in thinking among United Nations members. What would make that happen?
Hans Corell: The five Permanent Members of the Security Council need to sit down around a table, look at each other and ask the question: What on earth are we doing? Are we not acting in a manner that we are supporting conflicts, creating conflicts rather than preventing conflicts? If they could join hands in this manner it would send a signal that would make the world reverberate, a signal that war lords and dictators would understand. From that point on leaders might begin to think: perhaps they will go after people like me if I violate international law. For example, if a state and its leader started gassing women and children or sending barrel bombs. If that signal were sent by the Security Council, what would happen?
PREVENTION. And, as a judge, that is the goal. The interest of the judge is not to incarcerate as many people as possible. The interest is that the judge's action on the court should send a signal to the community that will make most people abstain from crimes. The desired effect is deterrence, to discourage crimes before they are committed.
Diplomatic Connections: You read the language of the Charter in one way, a way that takes the words seriously and sees in them a compelling commitment. Yet, many other people would say that the language of the Charter is aspirational, not binding. You read those words to be an absolute obligation as opposed to an aspiration.
Hans Corell: I can think of no better recipe for the future than referring to my favorite quote from one of the Presidents in your country, not only that he was a Republican, and not only that he was a military man. Reelected, Dwight D. Eisenhower in his Second Inaugural Address on 21 January 1957, in the midst of the Cold War, tells the people of the United States that, "We look upon this shaken earth, and we declare our firm and fixed purpose -- the building of a peace with justice in a world where moral law prevails. We recognize and accept our own deep involvement in the destiny of men everywhere. We are accordingly pledged to honor, and to strive to fortify, the authority of the United Nations. For in that body rests the best hope of our age for the assertion of that law by which all nations may live in dignity."
Where did that wisdom go?