I wanted, so badly, to just title this post “A Day at the Palais”, because it just rhymes so pleasantly well (palais, or palace, is pronounced “paah-lay” for those who aren’t versed in French, like myself). I resisted, as the “Des Nations” part is a little important. Otherwise it could have been a day at any old palace. And believe me, there are a lot of lame palaces out there. This is not one of them. In fact, it is the building which houses the second largest UN office in the world. So it was certainly a palais worthy of a day (whew, managed to work the rhyme in there after all).
Leaving Greece after a two week stint was bittersweet. On one hand, I was excited to return to Switzerland after a four year absence, to stay in a new city, and to hang out with Dad. On the other hand, how would I get my daily gyro? Do they make gyros in Switzerland? Can I even afford a gyro in Switzerland?
These are the important questions one must ask while traveling abroad.
Yes, Switzerland is a notoriously expensive place to be in. Luckily Dad has a nice apartment overlooking Lake Geneva that includes a couch with my name on it. His place is located a mere 15 minute bus ride from the aforementioned Palais Des Nations, where him and his colleagues have an office for the summer and hold meetings.
The day after I arrived, I join Dad on his morning commute to the Palais. I would be sitting in on the International Law Commission’s (ILC) morning session, my first time seeing him do his thing in this role after being elected to the position nearly five years ago.
The Palais des Nations is an imposing structure. Towering facades of marble, beautiful gardens, statues, and epic walkways are some of my initial impressions. As we approach and I’m taking it all in, I hear a horrific screeching noise. Reading my puzzled look, Dad explains that the shrieks are from the peacocks that roam around the gardens.
Peacocks…of course. Why am I not surprised?
The ILC meets on the bottom level in one of the many conference rooms throughout the building. Before entering, Dad and I grab a cup of coffee.
The coffee bar and sitting area nearby are teeming with people. Older looking government officials, young upstarts on an internship or fellowship looking consumed by their work, military officers wearing fancy uniforms adorned with badges, and a cornucopia of others. He tells me that the Palais is usually this busy, due to the thousands of conferences and intergovernmental meetings that are hosted these every year. He briefs me on the subject of the morning’s discussion, about which he would be speaking.
Upon entering the conference room, I say hello to Dr. Petric, Dire Tladi, and Mathias Forteau, whom I met in Sarajevo. Dire asks me how my travels in Greece were, and Dr. Petric jokingly says I should give a speech on heart disease to “all the old men in the room”. I didn’t really get it, but laughed nonetheless.
Precisely at 10 AM, the current chairman of the ILC, Pedro Comissario, called to order:
“The 3,307th meeting of the International Law Commission”
Hearing him say the exact number of the meeting tickled me. I felt like I was a part of something very old and important. I thought about how many brilliant people have sat in on these meetings over the decades, and that their collaboration helped shape the world we know today. The beginning of the meeting felt like walking into a library for the first time. You know there is an impossibly large amount of knowledge within the walls, and that you’ll never be able to consume all of it, but knowing it is there is nice. Knowing that I’d be able to soak it in for a couple hours was also exciting.
Established in 1947, the ILC was put into place to “initiate studies and make recommendations for the purpose of … encouraging the progressive development of international law and its codification”. Essentially it operates as the legal think-tank of the UN, bringing together the brilliant legal minds of the world to provide guidance to the UN, its member nations, and the international law community.
The commission is comprised of 34 members, each from a different country. To earn a position in the ILC, the individual must be nominated by their country’s government, and then campaign against other individuals nominated by the governments within their country’s region. In 2012, Dad earned his spot after being nominated as the American Representative, campaigning for a seat at the table, and winning.
I listened intently for the entirety of the meeting. I understood some things, and a great many things went over my head. A multitude of tongues fill my ear through the translating device. It was clear to me that some things were being lost in translation – even the translators themselves seem to struggle with articulating certain things. That, coupled with the legal jargon, made following along a bit difficult.
When the Costa Rican representative spoke up in Spanish, I confidently put down my translating device. “I got this” I told myself, before scrambling to pick up my device just moments later when I realized the words were much too complicated for me.
After a coffee break the group reconvenes and begins their main discussion of the day, which was regarding the topic Dad briefed me on that morning. The discussion would center around a report made by one of the members (“the rapporteur”) on a particular topic that the ILC has taken up as a long term project. I can’t elaborate further, but know that it is important and has worldwide implications (as do most of the ILC’s projects).
As the floor opened and representatives delivered their remarks, I felt I had greater sense of what was being debated. Eventually it was Dad’s turn to comment. He spent about 30 minutes dissecting various nuances of the report, making several sharp critiques of certain aspects pertinent to the developments since the rapporteur’s last report. It was important he made these points because, as a long term project, the ILC has been working on this for years and it will be years still before it is a potential treaty. Getting things right before moving to the next stage is critical for delivering quality work to the UN, lest the member nations reject it, rendering all their work for naught.
Dad is clear, concise, and resolute as he throws down the logic. I float between being so impressed by him, and having flashbacks to my childhood. I can picture a young Jack, after sneaking in some computer games when I should have be doing homework, getting some stern but calm words on why it was wrong to do that. Dad always had a way of making me understand reason. I suppose that’s why he went into law!
After the session was brought to a close, I headed upstairs for lunch followed by a walking tour of the Palais. We begin in the old wing of the building with the Council Chamber, where such important events as the Conference of Disarmament took place. In 1953, North and South Korea negotiated an armistice in this very room, effectively “ending” the Korean War (a peace agreement has yet to be reached, so technically the war never truly ended).
Our guide details the history of the building, that it was erected to house the League of Nations following World War I. Since 1946, after the League of Nations was dissolved, it has served as the second largest United Nations Office (behind only New York).
He takes us through a maze of elegant hallways with tall ceilings and great works of art adorning the walls.
I made note of a couple cool facts that our guide dropped on us as we traversed the massive building:
- A competition was held in the 1920’s to design the building. Hundreds of accomplished architects made entries. Ultimately, the five most impressive architects were all declared winners and collaborated together to design the structure.
- Beneath the foundation of the Palais Des Nations is a time capsule containing artifacts of the League of Nations. (This blew my mind. The building is so huge and so important, it will never be demolished, there’s no way anyone will ever recover the capsule. Unless aliens come and destroy everything. Did they know something we don’t??)
- In 2015 over 12,000 intergovernmental meetings were held in the Palais.
- The Palais and surrounding buildings constitute the second-largest building complex in Europe after Versailles in Paris, France.
Our guide pointed out different building materials that were from all over the world. Marble from Italy, tile from France, etc. He also shows us two incredible conference rooms that are used for human rights conventions, among other things. The first was being used for a conference but we could take pictures in the second:
Overall the tour was informative and interesting. However, I knew this was just the face-value tour and there was so much more stuff to see. Oh well…
After some wandering I returned to the ILC’s conference room where Dad and some select colleagues from the ILC were working in a subcommittee focused on another long term project – Crimes Against Humanity.
As I detailed in an earlier post, this project has widespread implications. I may be biased because my Pops has taken the lead on it, but I truly believe we need to approach Crimes Against Humanity as we do Genocide and War Crimes. Listening in on the last part of the committee meeting was very cool, knowing that the work they are doing could someday lead to a treaty adopted around the world. This would mobilize local judicial frameworks to respond to Crimes Against Humanity and, ideally, protect innocent people from horrific crimes on humans that we continue to see around the world.
A normal day at work for Dad turned out to be quite the treat for me!
Later on that evening we walk to the US Mission to attend a reception honoring, you guessed it, my Dad. He is now beginning to campaign for re-election to the ILC, so the US Mission was holding a banquet to kick off his campaigning. He had a long night of smiling and glad-handing ahead of him. I was content to enjoy the finger food, wine, and mingling.
Early in the evening I meet Pamela Hamamoto, a former classmate of President Obama and current Ambassador to the UN and other international organizations in Geneva.
I chat up Dire Tladi and David, a Greek who serves on the Secretariat of the ILC. Dire says I’m “too young” to be drinking white wine. I tell him I’m classy beyond my years. David asks where’s my next destination and I tell him I’m going to Romania and Bulgaria. He tells me he has an ex-girlfriend in Bulgaria, then looks away and takes a long sip of his wine.
I meet Bernd Niehaus, the representative from Costa Rica, with whom I heard speak earlier that day. I talk with him in Spanish a bit and tell him about my attempt to listen to his comments during the session without my translating device. He laughs and tells me my Spanish is fine. I thank him but add that I definitely need to practice.
I talk at length with Huw Llewellyn, the secretary of the commission who ensures everything runs smoothly. He asks me why I didn’t go into law like my Dad. I tell him there was time when going to law school was a prudent move for a young person and gave them lots of upside, and at least in America I feel like that time has passed due to a slim job market for law professionals. Beyond that, I tell him my skill set and passions are probably better suited for the business world. He is from Cardiff, Wales, and confirms that the market is tough for lawyers in the UK as well.
Later in the evening we hear rousing speeches from Ambassador Hamamoto and Chairman Comissario (who would later tell me he made it up on the spot. I guess decades of diplomacy gives you the gift of improvisation). Each gave ringing endorsements for Dad’s re-election to the ILC.
Then Dad takes the stage and does what I’ve seen him do for years – work a room by delivering a message with candidness, conviction, and a bit of humor. I swell with pride while watching him talk. His speech is brief, before long we are back to wine, tasty appetizers, and interesting conversation. The evening seemed to work out well. I imagine a number of diplomats in attendance were already planning on supporting him anyway, but he only helped himself with a great speech and talking with all of them.
I sincerely hope my Dad wins his re-election. For many reasons: He loves the work, he’s good at it, and specifically because I want to see the Crimes Against Humanity project come to fruition with him at the forefront.
Yesterday I finished a book, A Lucky Child by Thomas Buergenthal, which details his life in Auschwitz as a young jewish child. His story of survival and resilience is both moving and heartbreaking.
I met Buergenthal as a boy and even played ping-pong with him. He worked with my Dad and had dinner at our home many times. He has lived such a full life, devoting himself to human rights and the rule of law, while raising a family and spreading his story through writing. I want every young boy and girl to have the chance that Buergenthal did – the chance to grow up. To learn, love, and live.
I know that, if my Dad can continue his work on Crimes Against Humanity, his and his colleagues’ work may someday help many, many children have a better chance of growing up.
So on the off-chance you’re reading this and have a vote, I hope you’ll vote for my Dad, Sean D. Murphy!
“But what else could we do but hope? That, after all, is human nature.”