New York, April 15, 2014—While the CIA was plotting to free six Americans trapped in revolutionary Iran in 1979 by pretending to shoot a sci-fi film in Tehran, an operation later memorialized in the Academy Award–winning film Argo, Lori Fisler Damrosch, the newly named president of the American Society of International Law (ASIL), was working on other confidential and complex angles of the hostage crisis.
Professor Lori Fisler Damrosch
As special assistant to the legal adviser at the U.S. State Department during the time, Damrosch, who now serves as the Hamilton Fish Professor of International Law and Diplomacy at Columbia Law School and the Henry L. Moses Professor of Law and International Organization, worked on plans for the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal, which was the first legal mechanism of its kind. In so doing, she saw firsthand how law can bridge even the most seemingly intractable divides between nations.
In her new role as president of the American Society of International Law—which carries a two-year term—Damrosch will direct an organization whose very mission, as she will readily quote from memory, “is to foster the study of international law and to promote the establishment and maintenance of international relations on the basis of law and justice.”
Founded in 1906, ASIL fosters and publishes research on international law, most prominently in the American Journal of International Law. The organization also works to educate lawyers, members of the judiciary, and everyday citizens from around the world through its public events and legal education programming. Damrosch, whose term as president follows a yearlong term as president-elect and a decade of serving as co–editor in chief of the journal, said the organization’s objectives are more vital than ever.
“If you look at the very first words that were ever published in the American Journal of International Law, it was a short piece by Elihu Root called ‘The Need of Popular Understanding of International Law,’” she noted. “Now, 108 years later, there’s still the need for popular understanding of international law. If anything, the need is even greater, because international law affects so many more areas of human endeavor in 2014 than it did in 1906 when the society was founded. But people in general are even less aware of how important international law is in their daily lives.”
Damrosch’s long history with ASIL began when she arrived at the State Department in 1977 as an attorney working on European and Canadian affairs in the Office of the Legal Adviser, shortly after she graduated from law school. On her first day at work, Damrosch received a memo from the deputy legal adviser that read, simply: “Why are you not a member of the American Society of International Law?” Attached was an application, which she completed post-haste.
Since that day, ASIL has been an enduring part of Damrosch’s life and career. John Reese Stevenson ’49, who was one of her early mentors at Sullivan & Cromwell, where she practiced after leaving the State Department in 1981, had served as ASIL president from 1966 to 1968. And Stevenson helped guide Damrosch to Columbia Law School, encouraging her to accept a professorship in international law in 1984 by noting how happy it would make him to see her at his alma mater. Another of Damrosch’s mentors, Oscar Schachter ’39, served as president of ASIL from 1968 to 1970. Louis Henkin, a longtime professor at Columbia Law School who is widely credited with founding the study of human rights law, and who once wrote that “almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time,” was ASIL president from 1994 to 1996. In total, nearly a dozen Columbia Law School graduates and faculty members have held the presidency since the society’s founding, and many more have served as senior officers or editors of its prestigious journal.
As she becomes president of ASIL, Damrosch spoke with great gratitude and appreciation about her decade as co-editor of the American Journal of International Law, which she said enabled her to “to leave an imprint on the scholarship of international law.”
That imprint, of course, extends far beyond Damrosch’s editorial duties at the journal. A prolific author and a professor at Columbia Law School for nearly three decades, she has written award-winning publications, edited several well-received books on the topic of international law, and submitted amicus briefs in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the application of international rulings in the U.S. legal system.
As ASIL president, Damrosch said she will focus attention on two priority areas: improving the teaching of international law concepts to undergraduate students who are interested in the legal side of international relations and related disciplines; and strengthening the organization’s relationships in the Middle East, where she believes the society can and should support countries in transition.
Columbia Law School and Columbia University will collaborate on both endeavors. Damrosch is already brainstorming with political science professors and faculty at the Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights to come up with more effective methods of teaching international law at the undergraduate level. And she is in the early stages of planning a major conference at Columbia’s Global Center in Amman, Jordan. That event would bring together legal practitioners, law professors, and governmental officials to network with ASIL members.
Damrosch spoke proudly of both Columbia Law School and the American Society of International Law as she explained why they have shared so many accomplished scholars over the decades.
“Columbia has always been the premier place for teaching and research of international law,” she said. “And because of its traditional strength in international law, it’s natural that those of us here on the faculty are also involved in the premier organization for the promotion of international law.”
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