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A Journey Through International Law: Retrospect and Reflections with Renan Villacis

Renan Villacis, Director Secretariat of the Assembly States Parties at the International Criminal Court. Photography by Armin Taslaman.

Renan Villacis, Director Secretariat of the Assembly States Parties at the International Criminal Court, reflects on  35 years of a dynamic and impactful career in public international law. In this exclusive interview with Diplomat Magazine, from his early days as a diplomat in Ecuador to his instrumental role in the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Villacis offers a deeply personal account of his professional journey, sharing important moments, and offering invaluable perspectives on the evolution and challenges of international law.

How did you get involved in public international law?

After concluding studying law for six years, in 1989 I was able to take part in a competitive process to enter Ecuador’s Diplomatic Academy as a third Secretary of the Foreign Service. That allowed me a chance to embark on a diplomatic career. I worked in different posts at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Quito. Some of those entailed a large component of international law, including the Treaty Section and the Legal Office, as well as our Sovereignty Office.

Where has your career path taken you?

After a few years in Quito, I obtained a Fulbright and OSA scholarship to study at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Then I joined the UN Office of Legal Affairs in New York as a P-2 associate legal officer. Shortly after the ICC started to be set up I was recruited by the first Director of the Secretariat of the Assembly of States Parties in The Hague, Mr. Medard Rwelamira, to help him with that undertaking. I came to The Hague in 2004 for one year, but ended up staying for almost two decades.

What have been highlights or key moments of your career?

The joyous moments which stand out are the conclusion of the Rome Diplomatic Conference in July 1998, when the Rome Statute was adopted. The feeling of elation of the entire conference room after years of negotiations has no equal in my memory. Í was the youngest member of the UN Codification Division team in Rome, working with the Drafting Committee chaired by Cherif Bassiouni, one of the most eminent international criminal law lawyers of his era. The multi-year endeavour had been an intensive learning process as the most distinguished jurists from all States had taken part in the negotiations which had the challenge of establishing a new institution that would be part of the international system ushered in by the end of the Cold War. Hopes were so high with what could be achieved, it seemed like the sky was the limit, as the contagious enthusiasm of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan spread throughout the UN Secretariat and the UN in general. One might even say it was a thrilling process.

The other highlight was the successful outcome of the 2010 Kampala Review Conference of the Rome Statute. The review conference had been agreed to as part of the 1998 Rome Statute outcome in order to conclude what had been unfinished in Rome. Overcoming enormous challenges and contrary to the expectations of many, the outcome of the Review Conference was historic: an agreement by consensus of the international community to amendments to the Rome Statute which included a legal definition of the crime of aggression as well as the conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction by the Court over the crime of aggression; the amendments allowed the Court to proceed in the absence of a decision by the United Nations Security Council after a period of six months.

There is also the painful and jarring memory of September 11, as I lived near UNHQ and watched the Twin Towers burn and fall. Working on the negotiations regarding new counter-terrorism conventions had been part of my duties as a legal officer before then; the horrendous attack added urgency and renewed political commitment to that endeavour. The memories of that day are seared into my mind forever.

Renan Villacis. Photography by Armin Taslaman.

What have been your most challenging time/moments?

At the personal level, organizing the two week 2010 Review Conference in Kampala, as there were numerous legal, technical and administrative challenges. We had indispensable support from the UN in Nairobi, but it was still a massive undertaking with a very small team from the Secretariat of the Assembly of States Parties based in The Hague.

Organizing Assembly sessions during the Covid pandemic in 2020 and 2021, including resumed sessions in New York for the election of six judges and of the Prosecutor was also quite difficult, given the need to try to balance operational needs, openness and health risks.

As part of the ICC, the 2017 Assembly of States Parties session where the activation of the jurisdiction of the ICC over the crime of aggression was negotiated and agreed to by consensus.

The Assembly of States Parties is mandated to consider a review of the crime of aggression amendments in 2025, a matter which once more will pose some very complex challenges given the possible legal and political implications that may give rise to.

The period of when a US administration took measures against the Court and its officials and staff also comes to mind as being extremely challenging.

AEP President, Ambassador Christian Wenaweser and Renan Villacis, during the Review Conference of the Rome Statute, held in Kampala, Uganda, from 31 May to 11 June 2010. Photografy by Ester Luteranova.

How do you see the state of international law today?

My professional career began at the time when the Cold War ended and therefore a great deal of enthusiasm and conviction that an entirely new world order had dawned was prevalent. International law played a key role in that process. I worked as part of the UN Legal Office team with the International Law Commission in Geneva for a few years, assisting in the development and codification of international law. There were important achievements and progress on new counter-terrorism conventions.

The International Court of Justice was the forum which States resorted to with increased frequency. Along with the establishment of the ICC there was thus an enormous elan to the hope of a more peaceful world where the resources could be redirected to development and improving the lives of all. Yet, fissures appeared or re-appeared, non-State actors and technological innovations posed new risks, conflicts erupted anew, the global institutions set up to maintain peace and security and to find peaceful means to settle disputes were placed under stress or simply unable to reach agreements. A point of inflexion in that ascending process which international law was in has been reached. It is perhaps one of the most challenging times for the rule of law in general and international law in particular. A sincere and concerted effort by the international community to revitalize the role of international law is essential.

What would you say to the new generation interested in working in international relations/law?

I would say that they are fortunate to be entering a career which can be quite fulfilling, that the complications of today will give way to solutions that allow the international community to continue its journey of progress. Despite the gloomy outlook one has when reading the news, they should not be discouraged. They can contribute to finding those solutions. That is valid  for anyone, even those who may come from a geographically small State, there are ways to contribute to making the world better, as a diplomat, international civil servant, academic, member of non-governmental organization, lawyer, journalist, etc.

Any advice for students interested in a career in public international law?

Besides your studies, learn languages that may be helpful in the field you seek to enter, do internships and acquire experience at the national or international level, be disciplined, tech savy, patient and remember that being able to work well as a member of a team is essential. If possible, get some experience living/working abroad, outside your comfort zone/bubble. You should enjoy the work, which is most rewarding from the perspective of being part of an undertaking of many.

Are you optimistic then about what lies ahead for international law?

Absolutely, there are successes and sometimes some regressions, but the progress attained in every decade we live through is undeniable. I can for example still vividly recall my first year of international law studies when we were impressed about the discussion on reform of the UN Security Council; over 40 years later, those discussions continue. But if one considers all the other advances in treaty-making, in creating new institutions, in improving the legal regimes which allow our globalized world to function and to improve peoples lives, we can indeed be optimistic. We owe it to future generations.

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