The path towards the adoption of human rights is a long and crooked one, but they will eventually prevail, a renowned practitioner and academic declared at the JUSTICE Scotland annual lecture last night.

The address, at the Signet Library, Edinburgh, was given by Professor Philippe Sands QC, an international lawyer whose current cases include the accusation by Gambia and other countries of genocide by Myanmar against its Rohingya Muslim minority, an action he described as the first example of an international actio popularis (people’s case).

In his lecture Professor Sands traced the paths of four men who each had some connection with the city now known as Lviv, Ukraine: his own grandfather, who was born there; Hersch Lauterpacht, architect of post-1945 international law, who devised the term “crimes against humanity” to cover mass crimes against individuals; Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who coined the word “genocide” – the special intent to destroy a particular group of people – and initiated the Genocide Convention; and Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer, who as head of the Government in occupied Poland ordered the mass killing of Jews and other Poles, and who was tried at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht was one of the British legal team.

The professor noted that the disappearance of the generation that created the international legal order, in response to what they had experienced of Nazi atrocities, was coinciding with the return of the “strong man” populist leader, and posed the question, where are we heading now? 

“One thing leads to another”, he warned, citing the call for a complete exclusion of Muslims entering the USA.

He described President Trump as committed to destroying the World Trade Organisation, observing that the new trade agreement between the USA and China has no reference to dispute resolution, and claimed that post-Brexit, the United Kingdom will be “under the jackboot of the US”, instead of the European Union.

He criticised the UK for holding out against the rights of the rights of the Chagos islanders and its illegal occupation of their part of Mauritius, the UK having persuaded only four of the 200 member countries of the United Nations to support its position.

Ironically, he observed that it is now to Germany that we look as the bastion of liberal democracy and the rule of law.

A member of the UK coalition Government’s 2010-12 Commission on a British Bill of Rights, he said that had demonstrated the “impossibility” of doing without the European Convention on Human Rights, not least because of its role in the devolution settlements.

The current picture globally was not happy one, but it was “not all gloom” – at which he cited the Gambia against Myanmar case.

Professor Sands concluded by asserting that the protection of human rights was “embedded into the core of international law”, and although it was “a long game”, he was always optimistic that human rights would ultimately prevail.