Former State Department Official Ashley Deeks to Bring International Legal Expertise to Virginia Law Faculty

April 25, 2012

Ashley Deeks, a former attorney for the U.S. State Department's Office of the Legal Adviser and a one-time legal adviser for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, will join the University of Virginia School of Law faculty in the fall.

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Ashley Deeks

Deeks, currently an academic fellow at Columbia Law School, will bring expertise in international law, national security, human rights and the law of war, gained from her State Department work in offices that advised on political-military affairs, law enforcement and intelligence, and buildings and acquisitions.

"For the last decade Ashley Deeks has played as significant a role as almost any government lawyer in thinking about the legal dimensions of the novel national security problems that the United States has faced," said University of Virginia law professor Paul Stephan, an expert in international law. "She brings a unique body of expertise as well as a great conceptual talent to this challenging set of issues. We are lucky to have landed one of the leading young public international lawyers, not just in this country but in the world."

Deeks' government career contributed to many of the ideas she later developed in her scholarship and in presentations around the world about international law and related topics.

"One of my overarching interests is looking at the different ways in which states respond when international law is not completely clear or adequate," she said.

Deeks graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1998, where she was comment editor for the law review. After law school she clerked for Judge Edward Becker of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before joining the State Department in 1999.

In her role as an attorney-adviser for the Office of the Legal Adviser's buildings and acquisitions division, Deeks helped buy land for the department's embassies and consulates abroad. She soon moved to the division focused on law enforcement and intelligence, where she helped oversee U.S. extradition relationships with Mexico and India, among others. She also had the chance to work on a multilateral treaty negotiation in Vienna, the U.N. Convention Against Corruption.

"I enjoyed the process of negotiating with hundreds of other countries, trying to achieve a common goal of requiring countries to criminalize in their domestic laws a number of activities relating to corruption and bribery," Deeks said.

In 2004 she moved to the section focused on laws of war, which would involve "difficult and interesting international law questions about what was acceptable in this new kind of armed conflict with a non-state actor like al Qaeda."

In that role she repeatedly traveled with the legal adviser to Europe to discuss with allies the legal theories at play in the Guantanamo detentions, the use of military commissions and other controversial policy decisions.

"Part of what's interesting to me is a real disagreement about the extent to which international law currently does or does not address these issues," she said. "There are still a lot of open questions in the laws of war, including questions about the processes by which a state must review people's detentions in a non-international armed conflict like this and what rules regulate a state's decision to transfer detainees back to their home countries where you're concerned about potential mistreatment."

Deeks said countries have responded in a variety of ways to an underdeveloped body of international law.

"Sometimes they turn to their own domestic laws, sometimes they look to analogous bodies of international law such as human rights law and sometimes they try to take advantage of ambiguities," she said.

Deeks said she may write a paper on the consequences that occur when countries — such as the United States, Israel and some European nations — turn to their domestic laws and courts for answers.

"Is that a good thing? How will that impact the likelihood that states collectively develop new international rules to cover these issues?" she asked. "I'm interested in how these domestic developments in U.S. courts, in European courts and in Israeli courts may influence what future international rules may look like on these topics."

From May to December 2005 Deeks served as the legal adviser to the ambassador to Iraq at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, where she focused on the Iraqi constitutional negotiations the transitional parliament was undertaking.

"We closely followed the drafts and evolution of the constitutional texts and at times tried to offer some bridging solutions where the Iraqi negotiations had gotten stalled," she said. "It was a great way to understand in much greater detail the composition and motivations of various political parties and groups in Iraq and to understand why certain groups sought to include particular provisions in the constitution."

Following a one-year term in 2007 as an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Deeks returned to the Office of the Legal Adviser's political-military affairs department to supervise eight or nine attorneys. She soon realized she enjoyed training new staff.

"One of the things I liked best was getting a brand-new attorney into the office who knew nothing about the laws of armed conflict or issues related to use of weapons or detention. It was really rewarding to beable to sit down with them and walk through the basic texts that we use and documents from which we draw guidance and watch them over the course of a couple of months get to a very high level of sophistication on the questions," she said. "It struck me that teaching was a way to magnify that significantly — that ability to watch people grow in their understanding of a topic that I care a lot about."

Over the years, Deeks said, she also appreciated speaking at conferences, where she could talk to academics in the field and explore some of the ideas she is now starting to turn into journal articles.

Last month the Virginia Journal of International Law published her paper, "'Unwilling or Unable': Toward a Normative Framework for Extra-Territorial Self-Defense," on the test in international law that is often cited as governing when one state may use force in another state's territory against non-state actors.

"The raid on Bin Laden in Pakistan happened right as I was finishing the article," Deeks said. "I argue that even though the test is often cited by states, its substantive content is relatively unclear, and so I go back and look at 200 years of state practice to try to derive some normative factors that I think states should use when making that assessment."

Deeks said she was excited to join the Virginia faculty.

"The school has an incredibly strong reputation for collegiality as well as a real passion for scholarship, and both of those are very appealing to me," she said. An avid mountain-biker and camping enthusiast, "I'm also thrilled about the prospect of living in Charlottesville."

Deeks, who will join the faculty as an associate professor of law, may teach a seminar in the fall on the use of force in international law, and will teach international law in the spring semester. She hopes to eventually expand her teaching subjects to include national security law topics.


Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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