International Judicial Monitor
Published by the American Society of International Law and the International Judicial Academy
September 2008 Issue

Leading Figures in International Law

Nicolas MichelNicolas Michel

To be appointed as Under-Secretary General for Legal Affairs and Legal Counsel for the United Nations, one must be able to provide interpretation, analysis, and advice on questions of international law for 192 nations. This may seem like a daunting professional challenge to some, but not for Nicolas Michel, a leading international figure in international law.  

Long before his appointment at the United Nations, Nicolas Michel’s career as a lawyer began after he had earned a doctorate at the University of Fribourg in 1979 and was admitted to the bar in 1980. From 1980 to 1985, Michel served as the Secretary-General of the Department of Education and Culture of the canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. From 1998 to 2003, Michel was the Director of the International Law Directorate in the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.  In this capacity, he was the head of the Swiss delegation to international conferences, including the Preparatory Commission for the International Criminal Court and the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute. 

In 2003, he served inter alia as the chair of the Drafting Committee of the International Conference on “The Missing” in Geneva, and in 2000 on the Consultation and Preparatory Meeting on a Third Protocol to the Geneva Conventions (Emblems). He also acted as the head of the Swiss delegation for the presentation of national reports before international committees on racial discrimination, rights of the child and minorities. In March 2004 Michel was the Chairman for the Workshop on Article 51 of the United Nations Charter in Light of Future Threats to International Peace and Security in Geneva, a contribution to the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change.

As Under-Secretary General, Nicolas Michel has played a critical role in advancing the international rule of law at the international, national, and organizational level as well as in the campaign to end impunity for perpetrators of crimes against humanity.  In an open debate before the Security Council in 2006, Under-Secretary Michel implored that “Justice should never be sacrificed by granting amnesty in ending conflicts,” adding that justice and peace should be considered as complementary demands and that the international community should “consider ways of dovetailing one with the other.”[1]  Michel has been heavily involved in working to support the establishment and functioning of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other ad hoc criminal tribunals, such as those for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.   

In October of 2007, Michel was appointed to the selection panel for the new Special Tribunal for Lebanon to recommend appointment of judges and the chief prosecutor. The UN Security Council established the Tribunal in May 2007 after a divided Lebanese government failed to agree on a proposal. The Tribunal was set-up to investigate and try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri as well as in 17 other attempted and successful political assassinations in Lebanon. Michel is a firm believer that the Tribunal will contribute to ending impunity in Lebanon for these crimes. 

Within his very own organization, Under-Secretary Michel has shown a dedication toward  setting international human rights standards and promoting the rule of law at all levels in the UN’s internal justice system, and has called for the creation of an international convention on criminal accountability of UN officials stating: “criminal conduct by UN personnel puts into question the core values of the Secretariat and directly affects the world body’s activities and “essential mission.” To absolve jurisdictional problems in the short term, Under-Secretary Michel encouraged member states at the Sixty-Second General Assembly Session to prosecute their nationals accused of committing crimes while on UN missions.

Mr. Michel still serves as the Legal Adviser for the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and is Chairman of the Committee of the Legal Advisors on Public International Law of the Council of Europe (CAHDI). Michel received the annual Award for Distinction in International Law and Affairs from the International Law and Practice Section of the New York State Bar Association in January 2006. “With the many difficult issues facing our world and the United Nations, including genocide, terrorism and corruption, Mr. Michel’s efforts to support resolutions to address these problems and his respect for the rule of law make him immensely deserving of this award,” said Robert J. Leo of Manhattan (Meeks & Sheppard), chair of the International Law and Practice Section.

Originally appointed by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan in May 2004, Michel stepped down from his position at the end of August 2008 and has been  replaced by Patricia O’Brien of Ireland. Speaking at his last press conference before stepping down from his post at the end of August, Michel stated: “I’m convinced, and this is now the policy of the UN, that justice is part of these conditions that are conducive to a sustainable peace. In other words, there is almost a slogan, but there is a hard reality behind that – no peace without justice.”

By Veronica Onorevole, co-editor, International Judicial Monitor, American Society of International Law

[1] UN Security Council Press Release, June 22, 2006, 5474th meeting


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© 2008 – The American Society of International Law and International Judicial Academy.

Editors: James G. Apple, Veronica Onorevole and Andrew Solomon.
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