Beth Van Schaack

Beth Van Schaack is the Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor in Human Rights at Stanford Law School where she teaches in the areas of international human rights, international criminal law, and atrocities prevention. During the Obama administration, she served as the Deputy to the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the Office of Global Criminal Justice of the U.S. Department of State. In that capacity, she helped to advise the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights on the formulation of U.S. policy regarding the prevention of and accountability for mass atrocities, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. She continues to serve as a Special Government Expert on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Law. At Stanford, she has also been a Visiting Scholar with the Center for International Security & Cooperation of the Freeman Spogli Institute.

Prior to her State Department appointment, Van Schaack was Professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law. In this capacity, she served as the Academic Adviser to the United States interagency delegation to the International Criminal Court Review Conference in Kampala, Uganda in 2010. Van Schaack joined the Santa Clara faculty from private practice at Morrison & Foerster LLP. She was also the Acting Executive Director and Staff Attorney with The Center for Justice & Accountability, a non-profit law firm in San Francisco dedicated to the representation of victims of torture and other grave human rights abuses in U.S., international, and foreign tribunals. She continues to advise a number of human rights organizations, including: the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the National Institute of Military Justice, the International Justice Resource Center, the Commission on International Justice & Accountability, and Accountability Council. 



What drew you to working in international law? And what were your first steps?

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York. Throughout my upbringing, I had a strong sense of there being a wider world out there, and one with which I desperately wanted to engage. I was curious about how people lived in other places, what they believed, and how we all fit together in a global community.

After I graduated from college, I received a Rotary Club Ambassadorial Scholarship, which covered the costs of my travelling to and living in Nairobi, Kenya, for a year to work on a public health project. The project focussed on women's health, including reproductive health as well as day-to-day health issues with particular impacts on women. For example, less well-off women tended to suffer eye problems because they were cooking indoors over open flames. Women were also at higher risk of contracting malaria as where households had limited mosquito netting: the women often used the netting to protect their children rather than use it themselves.

During that year in Kenya, I became acutely aware of how the legal system effectively conspired against women to place obstacles in the way of their advancement. It was difficult for women in Kenya to own or inherit property, to control their own resources and money, and to protect their health and their children. Women had no legal recourse if they were raped by their husbands. As there was weak rule of law, there was little de facto protection even in instances in which women had been raped by strangers. My interests began to shift away public health and towards human rights more broadly, and then on to how rights to health and to property could be enforced through litigation and legal advocacy. I found myself drawn to the idea of supra-national law, to the possibility that international law could prove to be more protective and more available to women than national or municipal laws.  

I decided to go to law school and was admitted to Yale. While there I participated in the human rights clinic Directed by Harold Koh, the clinic was working on several Alien Tort Statute cases in which clinic students, including myself, participated. Payam Akhavan, who was then a prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), came to Yale to speak about his work. As he spoke, I remember saying to myself, "that's what I want to do." On graduating, I decided not to pursue a clerkship or go immediately to one of the corporate law firms. Instead, I applied for, and received, a fellowship from what is now the Open Society Foundation (OSF). These funds allowed me to work at the ICTY in The Hague with the Office of the Prosecution, starting my career in international law.

What have been the high points of your career thus far?

I am fortunate to have had a diverse career, which has afforded me many highlights. I loved my time at the ICTY and would have stayed on but for the fact that after the first year I got engaged to my partner who was moving back to California to take up an exciting new position. At the same time, a new non-profit focussed on strategic litigation was being launched in San Francisco. I used the second year of my OSF fellowship to take up a staff attorney position with the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA). It was a very different experience to go from the huge bureaucracy of the ICTY to a tiny human rights start-up. Being at CJA as it launched was exciting as we were a small team, breaking new ground in litigating human rights cases in the States.

After a year, my OSF funding ended and CJA didn't have the money to keep me on. At that point, I did a stint in private practice in Morrison & Foerster, which turned out to be a fantastic experience. The senior lawyers there took the time to invest in my professional development and help me hone my legal drafting and analytical skills as I shepherded cases to trial. I stayed involved in the human rights/ public interest field in part because I brought a pro bonocase to the firm from CJA (Romagoza v. Garcia). I worked on that case through to trial, to the appeal, to a re-hearing of the case, which ended in a great result for our clients: a USD 54 million judgment. 

Then, in November 2001, the US Army arrested John Walker Lindh, a U.S. citizen, during the United States' invasion of Afghanistan. Frank Lindh, John's father and a San Francisco-based lawyer, had been on the opposing side of a case involving a senior lawyer in my firm. When he was told that his son had been detained by the United States as an unlawful combatant, he reached out. Morrison & Foerster quickly put together a defence team, which included me because I had experience in international law. In that guise, I worked on the issue of combatant immunity as well as other international legal issues that arose in the case. 

Although I enjoyed my time at the firm, I had always  had academic aspirations. Both of my parents were academics and I liked the flexibility of academia, in that it would allow me to teach but also to consult on cases and participate on broader policy conversations about the issues on which I worked. It is also a terrific career to have while having a young family. I heard that Santa Clara Law was hiring in human rights so I reached out to the Dean. My information was incorrect —they actually needed someone to teach Business Organizations. As I had been at a firm, this was plausible so I put together an application that would have me teaching Biz Org plus several specialized international law courses. After undergoing a round of interviews and a “job talk,” I was offered a tenure track position. I stayed at Santa Clara for about a decade, becoming full professor and teaching a range of international law courses. 

Academia afforded me the opportunity to research issues of international criminal law. One of the issues that interested me was the proposal to add the crime of aggression to the subject matter jurisdiction of the ICC.  The drafting process was, at the time, ongoing. I started writing and speaking on aggression, which brought me to the attention of the State Department. Harold Koh, my former law school professor and then a legal adviser at the State Department, attended one of my presentations at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law. Afterwards, he came up to me and said, "we need to put you on the US Delegation to Kampala." His view was that I knew more about the crime of aggression and the various stances of those involved in the negotiations than many of the people inside the State Department, and consequently I could assist in advising the American delegation on how to position themselves. The United States wanted to be supportive of the ICC as an institution but was concerned about how the amendments were being drafted. This was, in part, due to President Obama's support for the idea of humanitarian intervention, and of preserving a space for the international community to intervene even without UN Security Council approval in order to prevent the commission of Rome Statute crimes. The American delegation wanted to build those concerns into the definition of the crime, and it was on that basis that I was brought in. I served on that delegation for about one and a half years, and worked on the pre-negotiations in Mexico City and The Hague. We convened in Kampala in 2010 with an interagency delegation, which included the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues. 

 A year later, I was invited to the Chautauqua conference, which brings together prosecutors from the major international justice institutions. There, Stephen Rapp, then the Ambassador-at-large for Global Criminal Justice, approached me and said that his current Deputy was stepping down and he would need to replace her. I immediately started to think about who I knew that I could recommend, before I realised that he hoped to hire me. I said yes immediately without thinking through the fact I lived in California, with a job and a family there. Luckily, my family were very supportive, as I speak about later. I ended up commuting near-weekly between northern California and Washington DC. 

When I started as the Deputy to Ambassador Rapp, I had no idea how the US government worked. It seemed monolithic and it wasn't clear how decisions were made. Learning how to work inside such an institution, to manage the internal negotiations, was invaluable. I would advise those who do human rights work or other work where you have to negotiate with states to do a stint working in government in order to understand how the interagency process works and the constraints that exist in decision-making. 


What are some of the challenges that you faced coming up in your career?

The most durable challenge has been balancing my professional life with my family life—and coming to accept that there will be some periods when that balance can't be achieved—for both my husband and myself. When I told my husband that I had been offered the position of Deputy to the Ambassador, his response was "of course you have to do this; we will make it work." That wasn't a straightforward process as we had two young children. So we reviewed the options, including moving the whole family out to Washington DC. In the end, we decided that it was best to keep the children in their schools, and I would commute weekly (as much as I could), while my husband would effectively hold down the fort while I was away. It was a sacrifice for everyone, and it wouldn't have been possible without a partner who was fully supportive of my career and believed it to be of equal importance to his own. I speak more about the challenges to balance career and family here.   

Another challenge was to learn how to find common ground with colleagues with whom I didn't always agree, and to work towards (what I defined as) progress over a longer timeframe. When working in government, I was often the most forward-leaning person in the room. Colleagues from the CIA or Department of Defence tended to take more conservative positions, either because they wanted to ensure we weren't getting too far ahead of what we could foresee, or because they had contradictory equities. For example, there were differing opinions on how close the United States could get to the ICC, knowing that there was a preliminary investigation open into the situation in Afghanistan. I learnt the value of building a constituency that was internal to the government and to work from that common ground. And, to not be discouraged if you don't convince everyone the first time trying. I developed the skill of learning to live to fight another day.


Do you have any advice for people, particularly women, hoping to work in international law in the future?

Get outside of your comfort zoneliterally. If you have an opportunity to work on human rights violations in the place where they are occurring (or in the region, depending on security constraints), go. I'm a proponent on getting out of your home country, if funding allows, but it could be that you travel to areas within your own country where human rights activists and lawyers are needed. Most important is to get out of your comfort zone—to go to places where you understand profoundly the value of human rights work, how law can be a tool to help, and also the importance of centring victims and survivors in your work. You gain a tremendous amount of professional and personal experience, and you grow as a person. It's much easier to put yourself in those more difficult situations when you are young and unattached, and before you really understand the pleasures of a nice hotel.

Be creative about getting funding. The campaign for paid internships is making progress but it is still necessary for those who can't count on funding from their families or universities to look for other sources to finance their work. Draft a proposal for human rights work in a place where there is a need and present it to local foundations. Think of ways that that they can benefit from your doing this work—by giving talks to their members on your return, or publicly crediting them in articles you write based on your work. 

If you go to private practice, seek out way to continue to be involved. See what the possibilities are in your firm. Some firms are more open to their associates taking on pro bonowork than others, but most will allow or even encourage it. You may also be able to get involved in arbitration or even asylum cases. These are ways to keep yourself in the field, helping someone who desperately need legal representation and their rights protected.

Write. Get your ideas out there and become known as a reliable and knowledgeable interlocutor. It has never been easier than it is now to write and be read, given the number of international law/ human rights blogs that currently exist. For women coming up, I would recommend keeping an eye on Intl Law Grrls and consider writing for them. If you're working on a paper or a case, and have done some research on a specific legal issue, write it up. If you are already working on something, it doesn't take much time to produce 1000 words on it. And the more you write, the more confident and faster you become. You also get more comfortable with putting things out in imperfect form. It doesn't need to be the Magna Carta every time.

Go to events. Meet people, ask questions, give presentations. You will meet people whom you want to know better—and with whom you will want to work. Many jobs and other opportunities may come as a result of what's on your CV, but you can draw attention by being smart, articulate, and committed—and by writing and speaking on the issues you are passionate about. That's how I ended up on the US delegation to Kampala, and that's what led to Ambassador Rapp seeking me out. The fact that I was a known quantity made those (and other) opportunities a possibility for me.

Be ready for serendipity. Be ready to jump. For all the work and writing you may do, you're never going to know when an opportunity presents itself. Don't worry about planning everything out: read, learn, write, speak—and then be open for the opportunities that you don't see coming. A big part of that is believing in yourself and that what you have to offer is valuable. It helps you recognize the offers when they come your way, and it makes accepting them easier.

Choose the right life partner. Choose someone who is going to support you and is going to recognize when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes up that is going to require you and your partner to re-order your family to allow you to grasp that opportunity. Find a partner who recognizes that your career is as important as his or hers, and that it's worth investing in—and someone who not only believes that on a political level but who is also prepared for the personal sacrifices that may have to be made to support your career. For women, choosing a supportive partner is one of the most significant determinants of career success.

Beware of burning out.We work on difficult subject matters and often have clients who have been through horrific experiences. We are drawn to this area of law because we have natural empathy and we want to make the world a better place so that others don't have to go through what many of our clients have suffered. But we also often don't engage in self-care. It's important to find an outlet, whether it's meditation, therapy, or having a supportive community around you. Everyone working in this field will get to a point they need a break. It's essential to know when you're not in a healthy place, not being as effective as you could be, and that you need to step back to recoup your energies. This is a continual challenge in the human rights and international justice fields.

Sareta Ashraph