U-M law professor an adviser to State Department and U.N.


By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Steven Ratner, Bruno Simma Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, is an expert on public international law and the challenges facing governments and international institutions since the Cold War.

Challenges that can include ethnic conflict, border disputes, counter-terrorism strategies, corporate and state duties regarding foreign investment, and accountability for human rights violations.

"The response of the United States and other countries to Al Qaeda has opened up an almost mind-boggling array of new legal issues at the intersection of human rights and the law of war, he says.

"Most domestic lawyers tend to think of these issues purely from the perspective of U.S. law, but if we want to develop global cooperation on these challenges, we need to understand, rely on, and ultimately develop international legal frameworks and institutions."

Ratner was a member of the board of editors of the American Journal of International Law from 1998-2008.

In addition, he has lectured extensively - and is an award-winning writer - about the United Nations, human rights, and the law of war, and is passionate about the intersection of international law, moral philosophy, and other theoretical issues.

He has shared his views on PBS News Hour, The O'Reilly Factor, CNN International, National Public Radio, BBC Radio, Voice of America, among others.

Ratner isn't just an academic - he has seen and experienced things up close and personal from the very start of his career, as an attorney-adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser of the U.S. State Department, and he currently serves on the State Department's Advisory Committee on International Law.

In 2002, he was an adviser to the U.N. policy working group on the "United Nations and Terrorism."

In 1998-99, the U.N. Secretary-General appointed him to a three-person group of experts to consider options for bringing the Khmer Rouge to justice, and he has since advised governments, NGOs, and international organizations on a range of international law issues.

This past June, he was one of three experts appointed to a U.N. panel to advise Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on human rights issues related to the Sri Lankan conflict that ended in 2009.

"I became hooked on international relations during my sophomore year at Princeton, thanks to a fantastic introductory course," he says. "I eventually wrote my senior thesis on international law relating to terrorism.

"I decided to go to law school because I wanted to work in the government on these issues. Academia was far from my mind at that stage, though after five years at the State Department it started to exert its pull on me."

In 2008-09, Ratner served in the legal division of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva - the Swiss city where he earned his master's degree from the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales, and where he established and directs the U-M Law School's externship program.

That program has sent several dozen U-M students to work in leading international organizations and non-governmental organizations since its inception in 2008.

Not surprisingly, he is fluent in French.

"Geneva is an amazing crossroads for all people interested in the UN and human rights," he says.

"I was lucky enough to take my family with me, and the experience - including public French-language school for my two children - was life-changing for all of us. I also skied more than I could ever have hoped - but still not enough!"

The International Committee of the Red Cross has a well-earned reputation for getting to the victims of armed conflict in the worst war zones and in the most remote places, Ratner says.

"Although its confidential methods are sometimes criticized, it often represents the only hope of prisoners of war for improved treatment and contact with their families."

Ratner, who joined U-M in 2004 from the University of Texas School of Law, earned his law degree from Yale, and an A.B. from Princeton. A Fulbright Scholarship from the U.S. Information Agency took him to the T.M.C. Asser Institute in The Hague, Netherlands; and he was also an adjunct professor of law at Yeshiva University in New York, a visiting professor at Columbia Law School, and has taught at the University of Melbourne, the University of Tokyo, and the University of Haifa.

"I love seeing a new group of students - especially those skeptical about the role of international law in global politics - learn that this body of law not only exists, but actually influences important decisions by major players. I also downplay international court decisions because I think the action is really elsewhere, so it's important to show how law plays a role in political arenas," he says.

"As for U-M, I just feel very privileged to teach at a school that has a longstanding leadership role in this area, fantastic students who want to practice it, and enormous faculty and other resources to support my teaching and research. The opportunity to set up the Geneva externship program and see its demonstrable results on students has been especially rewarding."

In his spare time, this native of Tenafly, N.J. enjoys running, skiing, hiking, and playing the banjo.

Published: Thu, Jan 27, 2011