Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Remembering Nigel Rodley

This post is being published both here and at my business and human rights blog,

I am still processing the news of this loss, but it appears Professor Sir Nigel Rodley, KBE, has passed away. There will be many more tributes to Nigel in the days to come, but I hope he will be remembered not just as an eminent scholar but as a good teacher.

I did my LLM dissertation under Nigel's supervision. We developed the topic in December after he gave a lecture on torture and the US legal approach at Guantanamo Bay, and for most of the thesis, it was an unremarkable working relationship with someone I deeply admired and enjoyed talking to, even if I remained intimidated by him long after it was warranted.

(*Lest my American friends think I got the terminology wrong, I'm using UK terminology here.)

There are two stories from that time, however, that stand out. I'm only prepared to share one publicly now (the other, which is more embarrassing for me I tell to my own students & mentees when they freak out about their work):

I disagree with Nigel on the importance of severity in the definition of torture. By September 2009 – when I was to hand in the dissertation – I had known this for a few months but had not yet spoken to him about it. This disagreement was weighing on me, in part because I wanted a good mark and – like many students do – I feared that disagreeing with someone of his stature could be taken as either insolence or inaccuracy and affect my result.

About a week before the paper was due, I ended up seated across from Nigel at an end-of-year dinner my class put on. I felt this was a good opportunity to sound him out, so I gathered my courage and said:

“Nigel, I have a bit of an issue I want to discuss. I kind of disagree with Manfred Nowak on part of the definition of torture.”

I said I gathered my courage. I didn’t say I had a lot of courage at that moment.

He leaned forward. “Really, my dear. I tend to agree with Manfred. What do you disagree with him about?”

“Well, I disagree with him on the issue of severity.”

He looked at me for a second and said, “Oh, well, yes, I do agree with Manfred on that.”

I blushed. “I know. I just didn't think it was polite to tell you to your face that I disagree with you.”

He leaned back and shook his head just slightly. “No, my dear. You are now at a point in your career where you should feel free to disagree with anyone in this field, so long as you do so with logic and have good references to back you up. So, tell me your thoughts.”

I laid out my case, to which he said, “Well, yes, you have a lot of support in that. As long you provide adequate references, you should feel free to embrace that position.”

We talked a little longer about that issue specifically, my dissertation generally, and about my career trajectory. I don't remember all of what was said, but that part of the conversation – the idea that I had a right to disagree with someone of Nigel’s stature so long as I laid out my case with logic and adequate references – has stuck with me.

Obviously, not every human rights academic embraces Nigel's humility and I have, on rare occasions, found myself disappointed upon meeting a name I have cited and admired only to realize they aren’t the quite as gracious as I’d come to expect after working with the likes of Nigel and Kevin Boyle and Francoise Hampson and Sheldon Leader.

Nigel’s words continue to inform how I conduct myself. One of the (weirder) compliments I often get is that people are glad I am present for meetings and workshops because I tend to ask good questions and provide good feedback. That is the result, I think, of knowing that I belong in the room. I don’t ask questions or give comments for the sake of getting my name known in part because Nigel (and separately and in different ways, Kevin, Francoise, Sheldon, Clara, Sabine, Lorna, Andrew, Geoff, etc…) imparted in me a belief that my opinion mattered regardless of my title or lack thereof. At the same time, that opinion comes with a responsibility to be careful and ensure it is well-informed and given only when relevant and when it adds something to the conversation.

It is a lesson I hope I impart on my own students. 

I have so many other memories with Nigel from my PhD and after -- I visited him to discuss my ideas, and in the final year, he would step on as my committee chair, bringing one more informed and opinionated voice into the very robust discussions my supervisors and I routinely "enjoyed." 

But, it is that LLM dissertation story that I always come back to with Nigel. And it's one that I think he appreciated as well. 

About 18 months ago, he asked me to co-edit a book on human rights institutions and enforcement (that process is ongoing). One of the byproducts was that I could easily persuade Nigel to come to Aarhus last September for a conference we hosted on the 50th anniversary of the ICCPR and ICESCR. I chaired his panel (which also featured the wonderful Janelle Diller). When I introduced him, I shared this story. I sort of sprang it on him actually, knowing that if I told him in advance what I was to say he would insist on a slightly less generous introduction. And sure enough, Nigel, being Nigel, ended up a bit flustered at the start of his talk. He regained composure, but it struck me how often I had seen him blush at compliments I assume were rather routine for him. Confidence balanced with humility. That's a pretty rare quality. 

Separately at that conference, I reminded him of the other, more embarrassing story as well. It was clear from his reaction that he also preferred the one I've shared here. I think that humility and generosity is how he hoped to be remembered, and it is what so many of us are thinking about today.

My friend (and mentor) ClaraSandoval, Director of the Essex Human Rights Centre, called Nigel a “brilliant and unpretentious colleague, an inspiring and generous human being and a wonderful mentor and friend.”

There will be many tributes coming out for Nigel in the next few days, but I think Clara’s will remain the most apt.

RIP Nigel, and thank you.

I borrowed this picture of an Essex Human Rights Center end-of-year party from my former flatmate and friend, Rukamanee Maharjan. Nigel's in the first row, seated far left. I am in the second or third row (depending on how you count), about 5 people from the right. I believe this was the year that Nigel and I tried - unsuccessfully - to work out how Todd Landman's magic tricks work.

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