Law for Compensating Victims of International War Crimes Expanding, Reed Says

Lucy Reed

Lucy Reed

November 19, 2009

The law of using international courts, tribunals and commissions to compensate victims of war crimes has expanded radically in the past 30 years and will likely continue to change and grow, an expert in international litigation said at the Law School on Monday.

Lucy Reed, president of the American Society of International Law and an attorney who has been involved in numerous institutions designed to compensate victims, described how the claims have evolved over the years. She focused on the U.N. Compensation Commission, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission, the Real Property Commissions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, and the Holocaust Tribunal.

“For 50 years people thought it was impossible — impossible — to find the dormant Swiss bank accounts that had been lost to the concentration camp victims,” she said, “and that’s now been done thoroughly, including with sanctions against those who deprived the holders of those bank accounts of their assets in the first place, through arbitration and litigation.”

Reed, now a partner and co-head of the global international arbitration group Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, recently served as an arbitrator for the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission. She began her career as a private attorney working on the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, and eventually became the U.S. agent for the tribunal.

“This was really the start in many ways of the modern, transparent, publicly available body of public international law in investment and other claims,” she said.

She marveled at the changes in victim compensation since then, and suggested innovation would continue to define the field.

“There a lot of new opportunities for your generation of law students,” she told the audience. “I can’t even predict what they will be, what commissions there will be, what offenses there will be that need righting.”

Reed said that institutions managing international claims have different goals and expectations than international criminal courts.

“In the claims commissions, our goal is to compensate and directly relieve the suffering of victims of past international law violations, with no expectation that we have a deterrent effect,” she said.

She noted that the International Criminal Court has a parallel claims commission, the Trust Fund for Victims, where victims not only can testify about crimes committed against them, but about how they should be compensated.

“It’s always challenging to mix victim witness testimony on the facts of a criminal event and his or her desire for compensation, but this is a laudatory goal if it’s kept in control,” she said.

Reed, who spent a year of her time in law school studying at Virginia, also suggested that accounting skills are as useful as knowledge of public international law in practicing international litigation. She urged students to take courses in evidence, civil procedure, accounting, corporations and other regulatory subjects.

“If you pursue a career in international law, you can’t expect constant thrills,” she said. “Most of it, like any work, is more prosaic.”

Reed told students to keep their eyes open to new opportunities in international law.

“In your careers there will be new legal institutions and new initiatives happening that you need to be aware of,” she said.

Reed said it wasn’t an “impossible dream” that war criminals who have stashed away billions of dollars in conflict diamonds or gold, or laundered money be brought to justice.

“One day victims may be able to be compensated from those illegal gains in modern international criminal cases.”

Reed’s talk was sponsored by the Human Rights Program, the J.B. Moore Society of International Law, the Student Bar Association, and the Virginia Journal of International Law.

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