This obituary was originally posted in the Guardian on 2 February 2017.
Human rights lawyer committed to eradicating torture
Few lawyers have devoted more of their lives to human rights than Sir Nigel Rodley, who has died aged 75. His work ranged over a wide field but focused particularly on defining the rules against torture and devising means to enforce them.
He was Amnesty International’s first legal officer, starting in the early 1970s, when the charity had to be content with writing grovelling letters to torturers, begging them to desist. By the time he left, 17 years later, it had the legal tools to put them in jail. Chief of these was the UN convention against torture, which Nigel helped to draft and which later tripped up the Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet. He led Amnesty’s campaign for the UN to establish a special rapporteur on torture – a role that he filled with great distinction from 1993 to 2001. His work was mainly behind the scenes and did not involve courtroom battles or outspoken advocacy; he was really a human rights diplomat.
As special rapporteur, Nigel made visits to prisons in 18 countries that were suspected of ill-treatment, and was frequently able to negotiate improvements in conditions. He was insistent that rules developed to protect political prisoners against brutality should be applied equally to common criminals: no one should suffer severe pain from state agents bent on extracting a confession, however serious the suspected crime. He insisted that caning and other forms of corporal punishment could amount to torture, and took an important initiative in declaring that rape could also meet the criteria in some circumstances. These and other pioneering developments in human rights law he was able to solidify in decisions he co-authored as a member from 2001 – and chairman, 2013-14 – of the UN’s human rights committee.
Nigel had no illusions about the snail’s pace of achieving compliance with international law standards: he would talk about “the slow, nagging effect of my work” and likened Amnesty’s impact to water dripping on a stone. But by the end of his stint with Amnesty, in 1990, there was a renewed interest in global justice, and the organisation was in good shape to take advantage of it. He had guided it cautiously – overcautiously, some thought, when he refused to accept Nelson Mandela as a prisoner of conscience because he had not renounced violence.
This punctilious approach to the developing law of human rights came to be appreciated by diplomats on all sides at the UN and by the British government, which knighted him in 1998. He joked that the Blair regime was afraid to elevate human rights champions for fear that they would bite the hand that dubbed them; in his case they had made an exception because they thought Sir Nigel would turn out to be a Sir Humphrey.
If so, they were wrong. Nigel had a horror in his bones of abuse of state power, from which his own family had fatally suffered – many of them died in Nazi concentration camps. His father, Hans Rosenfeld, arrived in Britain in 1938 as a refugee from Germany, and changed his name to John Rodley. He married Rachel Kantorowitz and, after settling in Leeds (where Nigel was born), joined the Parachute Regiment. He was killed in the Arnhem landings in 1944. For Nigel, the judgments at Nuremberg became his lodestar and he determined to devote his life to reviving their legacy. That is why, after prep school in Leeds, Clifton college in Bristol, a law degree at Leeds University (1963) and postgraduate degrees at both Columbia and New York Universities, he took the job at Amnesty in 1973, providing legal leadership for its campaign against the death penalty and its efforts to galvanise the UN over the need to stop torture, which was then being practised in more than 80 countries.
Nigel was not only a leading draftsman and diplomat – he was also a scholar and an educator. In 1990 he helped to transform, with Kevin Boyle and Françoise Hampson, the Human Rights Centre at Essex University. This was a groundbreaking venture at a time when the blinkered law faculties at Oxbridge and London did not realise the subject’s importance. It is a sorry comment on legal education in Britain that, as late as the 1990s, to obtain a postgraduate degree in human rights the only way was Essex. His textbook The Treatment of Prisoners Under International Law made its first appearance in 1987 and is now in its third edition, having been translated, to his delight, into Chinese.
Notwithstanding his commitments as an academic and a jurist, Nigel tirelessly lent his patronage to human rights organisations. He served on the council of the NGO Justice from 1997, and was president of the International Commission of Jurists from 2013. He showed a particular interest in Freedom from Torture, an organisation whose policy committee he chaired and through which he met many who had survived torture, some as a direct result of his own work.
Nigel also joined Doughty Street Chambers to help in fighting groundbreaking cases in international courts and tribunals. Although he did not often appear as an advocate, he made himself available as an adviser to barristers preparing cases. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the jurisprudence and would attend conferences fizzing with ideas about how to push forward the boundaries of international law.
Nigel was a man of great erudition, always self-effacing and ever willing to share and apply his knowledge to help others. Numerous victims of torture survived because of his work; numerous people were not tortured because of it.
He is survived by his wife, Lyn (nee Bates), an academic, whom he married in 1967.
Ivor Crewe writes: Nigel helped make the Human Rights Centre at Essex University a global leader in human rights education. One of his most important legacies is the international network of human rights advocates the centre has trained.
As vice-chancellor of the university from 1995 to 2007, I witnessed Nigel establish a curriculum anchored in practice and policy. It combined traditional legal scholarship with the lessons to be learned from the pursuit of human rights in the courts, prisons and fields of conflict. Mere scholasticism was inadequate to the task of promoting human rights, but campaigning and activism were not enough either. They had to be harnessed by establishing, understanding and applying human rights law.
His stature attracted some of the finest students. He was a generous mentor to hundreds of them, who in turn became prominent promoters of human rights in universities, ministries and international agencies. They were inspired by the model of a human rights champion – immensely knowledgable, always measured and courteous, but tenacious and fearless in his determination to make governments of all stripes accountable for their human rights abuses, and to make them stop.
• Nigel Simon Rodley, human rights lawyer, born 1 December 1941; died 25 January 2017
Photograph: Ben Hall