Shabtai Rosenne, who died in Jerusalem on 21 September 2010 aged 93, was one of the last of the generation of distinguished international lawyers who studied before or during the early years of World War II. I can only think of two remaining survivors in the English-speaking world—Benjamin Ferencz and Leslie Green. This is a club which even Sir Eli Lauterpacht is far too young to join. While Benjamin Ferencz and Leslie Green were both involved in war crimes trials after the war, Ferencz at Nuremberg and Green in India, Rosenne became instrumental in the legal construction of Israel.
Shabtai Rosenne was born as SWD Rowson in 1917 in London where he first studied law, graduating in 1938 from the University of London. He was subsequently awarded a PhD by the Hebrew University (Jerusalem). Soon after I was appointed to my current post at the School of Oriental and African Studies, he told me that he had intended to study Arabic there, but that World War II had intervened. He served in the Royal Air Force from 1940-1946, which somehow did not prevent him from publishing on the punishment of war criminals and a series of articles on the law of prize and blockade.
Returning to London after his military service, he taught international law at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. A committed Zionist, he also worked in the political department of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, first in London and then in Jerusalem, before being appointed in 1948 to the Legal Secretariat of the Preparatory Commission for the State of Israel. Following Israel’s declaration of independence he became legal adviser to its Ministry for Foreign Affairs from 1948 until 1967, when he was succeeded by Theodor Meron. As legal adviser, Rosenne participated in the 1949 Armistice Conferences with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, subsequently writing a monograph on the regime created by the 1949 Armistice Agreements, Israel’s Armistice Agreements with the Arab States (Blumstein: Tel Aviv: 1951), and also had to deal with the aftermath of Israel’s abduction of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina and his subsequent trial.
Rosenne had been appointed to the rank of Ambassador in 1960 and, after he relinquished his post as legal adviser, he represented Israel in the United Nations in both New York and Geneva. In 1972, while in post in Geneva, he was the recipient of a letter-bomb which was successfully defused. He was appointed an Ambassador-at-large in 1974, and finally retired from the foreign service in 1982.
While legal adviser and Ambassador, Rosenne was a member of Israel’s delegations to numerous diplomatic conferences, most notably all three UN conferences on the law of the sea and Vienna conference on the law of treaties. He also represented Israel before the International Court of Justice in the Reparations advisory opinion (1951), and in the proceedings in the Aerial incident of 27 July 1955 (Israel v Bulgaria) case (1959).
This should be about enough for any one lifetime, but in parallel to his governmental service, Rosenne also pursued another career as a distinguished, and prolific, academic commentator. He delivered a course at the Hague Academy of International Law in 1954, and returned to deliver the General Course in Public International Law in 2001, subsequently published as The perplexities of modern international law (Nijhoff: Leiden: 2004).
Rosenne is probably best known for his magisterial command of the procedure and jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice—the four editions of The law and practice of the International Court, the associated monographs on intervention and on provisional measures, and the reams of penetrating articles. This contribution is of inestimable value and yet, as Professor Derek Bowett recounted, when Rosenne arrived in Cambridge to be the Arthur Goodhart Professor in Legal Science in the academic year 1985-86, their conversation went something like this:
He came here as the Goodhart Professor, but I didn’t know him very well. He was required to give a few lectures—not many, just a few. So I asked him to give a few lectures and he said “What about?” So I said, “Come on, about the Court”. And he said, “What do I know about the Court”. And I said “You’ve written a book on the Court”.
It is an understatement to say that this was an understatement. In the event, Rosenne spent his year in Cambridge researching and delivering lectures on the law of treaties, the fruits of which were published as Developments in the law of treaties 1945-1986 (Cambridge UP: Cambridge: 1989). Perhaps Rosenne’s virtual domination in the study of the International Court has overshadowed his mastery of the law of treaties. Developments had been preceded by the publication of his Hersch Lauterpacht Memorial Lectures, Breach of treaty (Grotius; Cambridge: 1985) and, as always, there are perceptive articles scattered through journals and festschriften dealing with specific issues in the law of treaties, including the seminal The meaning of “authentic text” in modern treaty law (1983).
I must have met Rosenne around the time he was the Goodhart professor but, to be honest, I cannot remember our first meeting. Perhaps that is because he, in the guise of his writings, had been a major presence in my work for quite some time. I was then engaged in my PhD, hard at work trying to work out how the judges of the International Court reached and justified their decisions (that’s the short version). I can, however, remember our subsequent meetings, whether in the Hague, in Glasgow, or in Jerusalem. Shabtai was always engaged with international law, and conversations when we met tended to take the form of him quizzing me on recent developments at the Court, in detail, with interest, but with warmth.
Rosenne was working to the end. On 14 June 2010, the Israeli government appointed him as a member of the Turkel Commission of Inquiry. This was set up to determine whether the interception on 31 May 2010 by the Israeli navy of the Mavi Marmara flotilla which was attempting to breach the blockade imposed on Gaza was lawful. His appointment was not uncontroversial, and was ridiculed by some in the Israeli media because of his age. This was misplaced, as another area of special concern to Rosenne was the law of the sea. In fact, perhaps appointment to the Turkel Commission was a fitting end to his career, as it marked a return to his early concerns, the issue on which he had first published, the law of naval warfare.
The death of Shabtai Rosenne underscores that it has been a bad year or so for international law. Apart from Shabtai, in the course of roughly the past fifteen months, we have lost Derek Bowett, Ian Brownlie, and Tom Franck. Who will fill their shoes?