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Northwestern Law to Honor President of Special Court for Sierra Leone

Shireen Avis Fisher to receive second annual Global Jurist of the Year Award

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June 6, 2014 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

CHICAGO --- Northwestern University School of Law’s Center for International Human Rights (CIHR) will award its second annual Global Jurist of the Year Award to Justice Shireen Avis Fisher, president of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

The awards ceremony and an address by Justice Fisher will take place on Monday, Oct. 20. She will deliver an address to the student body at noon in the Rubloff Building, 375 E. Chicago Ave., on the Law School’s Chicago campus. The event will be open to the media. 

Justice Fisher was sworn in as a Justice of the Special Court for Sierra Leone on May 4, 2009. She played a key role in the Appeals Chamber judgment delivered in 2013 regarding the conviction and 50-year sentence of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity committed by rebels during Sierra Leone’s civil war.

“The Center for International Human Rights is delighted to present the second annual Global Jurist of the Year Award to Justice Fisher,” said David Scheffer, Mayer Brown/Robert A. Helman Professor of Law at Northwestern and director of the Center for International Human Rights. “We are particularly pleased to be selecting an American jurist and a woman of such distinction for the award.

“Justice Fisher worked courageously under conditions, particularly in Sarajevo and Freetown, that entailed the kind of risk sometimes encountered by jurists who examine atrocity crimes in countries still emerging from hate-filled and bloody conflicts.“

The Global Jurist of the Year Award is designed to honor a sitting judge, whether in an international or national court, who has demonstrated in his or her career courage in the face of adversity to uphold and defend fundamental human rights or the principles of international criminal justice. Jurists from all nations and tribunals are eligible for consideration. Last year, Dikgang Moseneke, deputy chief justice of the South African Constitutional Court, was the first recipient of the Global Jurist Award.

Justice Fisher has a long and distinguished judicial career. She began her legal career as a public defender in Vermont, focusing on juvenile justice cases and went on to found her own litigation law firm. In 1986, she was appointed a Superior Court Judge in Vermont, becoming the second woman to join the Vermont judiciary.

Following a distinguished career on the Vermont bench, Justice Fisher served from 2005 to 2008 as an International Judge of the War Crimes Chamber, Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Sarajevo. She adjudicated cases involving sexual slavery and other atrocity crimes, including the first conviction for the commission of genocide at Srebrenica. She also developed the court rules for victim and witness protections in the courtroom. She then served as a commissioner on the Kosovo Independent Judicial and Prosecutorial Commission.  

At the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Justice Fisher joined with Justice Renate Winter to deliver a historic concurring opinion in the Charles Taylor Appeals Chamber judgment and underscored a critical principle in international criminal law. “[Fisher and Winter] flatly rejected (Charles) Taylor’s argument that without a standard of ‘specific direction’ aiding and abetting liability would be overbroad and would criminalize the conduct of states assisting rebel movements in other countries,” wrote David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, for aljazeera.com

“Justice Fisher was quite blunt: ‘Suggesting that the judges of this Court would be open to the argument that we should change the law or fashion our decision in the interests of officials of states that provide support for this or any international criminal court is an affront to international criminal law and the judges who serve it.’ “

Tolbert added that the importance of this judgment could not be overstated.

“The SCSL’s judgment has not only finally provided a measure of justice to Charles Taylor’s many victims in Sierra Leone, it has provided a strong signal to those who want to commit horrific crimes through surrogates and puppets: they may not easily hide behind complicated legal constructs and are more certain to face the bar of justice.”

Directed by Professor Scheffer, former U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues, the CIHR is housed in Northwestern Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic and is dedicated to engaging with and addressing global human rights and international criminal law issues.

CIHR faculty and students work on a broad range of clinical projects supporting international and domestic partners in securing and promoting human rights and international justice. CIHR faculty teach, publish and work directly on an array of international law subjects, providing students a depth of experience in both the theory and practice of human rights and international criminal law.