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Professor James Crawford

Derek William Bowett was born on 20 April 1927 and was brought up near Manchester. He became a chorister at Manchester Cathedral, where the Choir School taught him to sing but – he said – little else. His career as Head Foundationer was cut short, first by evacuation of the Choir School after war broke out, then, after the School’s return to base, by the bombing of the Cathedral in December 1940. He then went to William Hulme’s School, paying his fees out of his head chorister’s earnings.

Anticipating his 18th birthday, he chose the Navy as the only branch in which – given the imminent defeat of Germany – he was likely to see any action. Japan having been bombed into early submission, he never went to the Far East but spent the next few years in mine clearance work in the North Sea and the Mediterranean. In October 1946 the destroyers Saumarez and Volage were severely damaged by mines while transiting the North Corfu Channel. Derek Bowett was on board one of the ships charged with towing them to Malta for repairs; during the passage the Saumarez had to be sunk. The mining led to the first case before the new International Court of Justice, bringing together two areas of law – use of force and law of the sea – on which he was to become a leading authority. It is worth stressing that Bowett was among the last generation of international lawyers to have experienced the impact of, and seen active service in, a general war. For us now, wars are local difficulties (albeit sometimes large ones) – what is more, they are distant and impersonal difficulties.

After demobilization, he went up to Downing College to read law under the accelerated post-war system. He got a first, but later claimed only to have done so because no one had told him just how much he needed to do to get a safe second – information rarely withheld from students these days. But his first brought him to the attention of Hersch Lauterpacht, the seventh Whewell Professor of International Law. It was Hersch Lauterpacht who suggested that Bowett should stay on for a further year’s graduate study in what was then the LLB, now the LLM. There he won the Whewell Prize, this time, the Prize being worth £150, by deliberate design. While at Downing he represented the University against Oxford at lacrosse.

His first job was a university lectureship in law at Manchester University. There he shared a house with three young women, including a statuesque blonde with a sharp sense of humour. Derek and Betty were married in 1953.

He wrote his PhD while holding the lectureship and helping to bring up a young family – a good example of his capacity for organizing his time. The thesis was published under the title Self-Defence in International Law by Manchester University Press in 1958. It was almost wholly unsupervised. He says he saw his supervisor once, and gaining nothing from their interchange saw no need for further meetings. The book is still cited on the vexed subject of self-defence, anticipatory and other: he saw self-defence as a broad inherent right of States, a right having strong continuity with pre-Charter international law. That view was opposed in 1963 by a young Oxford don, Ian Brownlie, who saw the Charter much more as a new beginning to this old problem. Bowett and Brownlie, having started by sharing opposed theses, would come to work opposite each other as international law professors of the two Universities, as opponents before the International Court, and as co-editors of the British Yearbook of International Law, that far from titular burden of the two titular chairs. But in 1958 that was some time away.

His time at Manchester was interrupted by two years in the UN Codification Division in New York. There he worked as a staff lawyer for the International Law Commission, of which he would 30 years later become a member. The wheels of international codification grind, if not fine then exceeding slow: several of the topics on the Commission’s agenda in 1958 was still there when he was elected a member in 1992. It was a sort of Bleak House of codification!

In 1960 he returned to Cambridge as a University Lecturer, becoming a fellow of Queens’ College. Here he maintained an active interest in sport, playing for the College rugby team on occasion.

In 1964 he was asked by the newly-independent Government of Somalia to advise it on its territorial disputes with Ethiopia and Kenya. This was his first international law brief. On arrival in Mogadishu he was immediately asked to draft a diplomatic note closing the British Embassy: this on the basis that HMG were refusing to give effect to a plebiscite in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya, which had voted by a large majority to reunite with Somalia. Lacking experience in rupturing diplomatic relations, he asked to see the standard work, Satow’s Guide to Diplomatic Practice. But the Somali Foreign Ministry had no books of any kind, and he was told to borrow it from the British Embassy. The book was duly returned, with a note of thanks and another, more formal, note giving the Ambassador four days to leave. It seems to have been a case of persona non grata sed liber gratus.

As at Manchester so at Cambridge, his career was punctuated by a further period of international public service. He spent two years, from 1966 to 1968, in Beirut as Legal Adviser to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). There he experienced, from a distance, the Six Day War and, much more directly, its effects in terms of the great increase in the number of refugees falling under UNRWA’s remit. It coloured his attitude to the Middle East conflict thereafter: his rooms at Queens had on the walls photos of some of those refugees. In later years he successfully represented Egypt against Israel in a significant territorial dispute, the only time Israel has appeared before an international tribunal.

When Sir Arthur Armitage left for Manchester in 1970, Bowett was elected, at the age of 43, to succeed him as President of Queens’ – an office in those days tenable until the retiring age. He proved a popular choice. He, Betty and their still young family enjoyed living in the Lodge and did much entertaining of fellows, students and visitors. A dedicated fisherman, he could sometimes be found in the early morning casting his line into the Cam from the river steps of the Lodge, or even, conveniently, from the kitchen window. In the manner of the Compleat Angler he claims to have caught roach, pike, perch and bream; though Lady Bowett does not recall that he caught anything.

The Presidency came to him perhaps too soon for his own convenience; he was immediately involved in the time-consuming problems of a new building (the Cripps’ Building) and the accompanying college appeal. The words “appeal” and “Cripps Building” are not uniformly linked in Cambridge lore – but the appeal was a success, the building was built, and it incorporates the Bowett Room, appropriately.

In 1981, the eighth Whewell Professor, Robert Jennings, retired and was forthwith elected to the International Court. In his place, Bowett took the Whewell Chair. But he found it increasingly difficult to combine his academic and professional activities with the Presidency of Queens’, and in 1982 he stepped down after 12 years as President. He held the Whewell Chair until taking early retirement from that too, in 1991.

During these years he gained a distinguished reputation as an international lawyer, and managed to combine academic study with considerable practical experience. Apart from Self Defence in International Law (1958), another pioneer piece of research appeared in a large volume on United Nations Forces, published in 1964. Though ostensibly produced by a committee with Bowett as reporter, it was, as Lord McNair made clear in his Introduction, almost entirely Bowett’s work. His text on international organizations was first published in 1962: it was the first general book in English in the field and made this subject a distinct field of international law. He took it through four editions; two further editions have since appeared, edited by Philippe Sands and Pierre Klein. Though the subject is vastly bigger and the coverage correspondingly enlarged, in their editions one can still see the structure and descriptive and analytical focus of the original book. He became, through practice, an expert in the law of the sea and published a number of pieces, including a book on the Legal Regime of Islands in International Law, still a vexed issue.

His teaching was characterised by clear, direct and systematic exposition. He was of course one of a group of significant teachers – including Robert Jennings, Clive Parry, Elihu Lauterpacht, and later Philip Allott, Christopher Greenwood, Vaughan Lowe, John Collier, John and Cherry Hopkins, Geoffrey Marston... His humour and lack of self importance – characterized by one former student as being reflected in a permanently mischievous twinkle of the eye – made him a popular teacher. He was a careful and much appreciated doctoral supervisor – especially so by foreign students to whom he devoted much time. For those he became close to, he inspired a lifelong loyalty.

But in latter years he was above all a forceful, utterly lucid advocate in international law cases, both in arbitrations and before the International Court, where he appeared on numerous occasions. He had the great advocate’s ability to simplify and distil without distorting, reducing the case to carefully chosen essentials. But he also had a strong strategic sense – and a capacity to improvise, as when he fought a series of major expropriation cases, basing himself entirely on documents produced by the expropriated Claimants; his own client, the Islamic Republic of Iran, could produce no documents whatever. He belonged to the generation of international lawyers – not a large group – who saw an often speculative, peripheral subject transformed and greatly enlarged, and made to apply to new problems – a subject to an increasing extent influenced by case law and precedent. By contrast, when Henry Maine, the second Whewell Professor, published his Tripos lectures on international law in 1888, he cited only two cases – both, in his view, wrongly decided! Unwittingly perhaps, Bowett played a leading role among the generation that brought international law to a wider audience.

He served a term as British member of the International Law Commission from 1991 to 1996. There his interventions combined wit, brevity and experience to a degree unknown in that august and often verbose body. A sample Bowett intervention will give the flavour. After two very lengthy speeches in French expounding and praising the problematic notion of international crimes of States, Bowett is reported, in the third person of the Commission’s Yearbook, as follows:

The problem of international crimes fell into three parts… He was apprehensive that the [Commission] might be proposing to go straight to the third of these parts without dealing with the first or second. He had little enthusiasm for dealing with the consequences of a concept that could be neither defined nor applied.

It took less than two minutes but negated all that had gone before.

On stepping down from the Commission he was knighted for service to international law. The citation might have added – for commendable brevity of words in that service.

To his regret he was not nominated to succeed Sir Robert Jennings as British judge on the International Court. But he had a real influence on the Court, not only through his advocacy but also through his teaching. Even today, despite the much greater diffusion of international law teaching around the world, five of the 15 judges of the Court studied here. I note the presence today of two of them, Judges Awn Al Khasawneh and Sir Christopher Greenwood. He was influential in some of his criticisms of the Court’s procedure, participating with Arthur Watts and others in a 1995 study which irritated some members of the Court but which (perhaps for that reason) helped pave the way for significant later reforms.

He saw international law as essentially a practical subject, a profession as much as a discipline, an extension of ordinary legal technique into a domain of human activity that needed it. With his professional involvement, several States were brought in from the cold. He was not at all a theorist – he referred to a long theoretical essay by a colleague as “a sure cure for insomnia”. But on his own terrain he was a master, grasping the legal field as a whole and contributing to the development of many departments of it.

In his last years he suffered from a long and debilitating illness. But we should remember him in his pomp – though “pomp” is hardly the word for such a down-to-earth, practical and unaffected man. I remember him, white hair flowing, in pursuit of a point of law or fact, crisp sentences making his case and at the same time destroying one’s own. Above all, there was his laugh, opening up his face, shedding light on the subject under discussion but also putting it into some perspective. It was a wonderful laugh.

28 November 2009