In Memoriam: Vera Gowlland-Debbas

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22 September 1943 – 29 September 2015

Vera Gowlland-Debbas was a dedicated and active member of EJIL’s Scientific Advisory Board from 2007 to 2012. Her loss has been deeply felt. In this Editorial, Marcelo Kohen, Professor of International Law at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and her long-time colleague, pays homage to Vera’s lasting contribution to the field of international law.

On 29 September 2015, Vera Gowlland ultimately lost her battle with a cruel disease that she had fought with courage and dignity. This is a great loss not only for the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, where she completed her licence and her doctorate, served in the publications department and taught from 1994 until her retirement in 2009, when she became an honorary professor. It is also a great loss for international law and for the values she defended.

Despite her illness, Vera continued to work in a variety of ways in our discipline, giving counsel on issues related to the International Criminal Court and continuing her contribution to academia. Her last physical presence at an academic event was as the Chair of a panel at a symposium on ‘International Law and Time’, held in Geneva on 12-13 June 2015, at which, without knowing it, she was to say farewell to her colleagues and students. While her voice was wavering, her spirited enthusiasm remained clear to see, and her joy at sharing this academic event at the institution where she had so often taught and organized academic activities herself was apparent.

Vera’s intellectual contribution is a distinguished legacy. She always had a tremendous appetite for problem-solving. Her doctoral thesis, written during the Cold War period and entitled: ‘Collective Responses to Illegal Acts in International Law’, focused on the reaction of the international community to the alleged creation of the racist state of Southern Rhodesia at a time when the active use of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter had not been seriously considered. This appetite was also reflected in her monumental work on the national implementation of sanctions adopted by the Security Council, which provides important guidance and remains the most comprehensive and significant work in this field. Her course at the Hague Academy of International Law on the Security Council and questions of international responsibility complements her long record of publications and confirms her reputation as an uncontested specialist of the United Nations.

Because of her compassion and her Middle Eastern origins, it was natural that Vera specialized in the field of refugee law. In fact, Vera introduced this subject into the teaching offered by the Graduate Institute and trained those who in turn have become specialists in this field.

All those who had the privilege of sharing in her work and teaching could appreciate her vision of international law, her modesty, her sincere and unfailing friendship, her sensitivity and her finesse. She always had a youthful spirit, and it was often difficult to guess her real age!

Vera Gowlland was the personification of what characterizes the Institute that shaped her and that she taught at: her perfect bilingualism, the interdisciplinarity of her approach and the journey of her life in a multicultural universe. Her two principal mentors, Georges Abi-Saab and Michel Virally, strongly influenced her vision of the role of international law.

Vera Gowlland was a deeply committed and engaged person. She was one the founding members of the European Society of International law. The domains that interested her most included the rights of refugees, self-determination and the law of the United Nations. Pursuing the development of these areas is the best tribute we can give her in these dark moments. Her soft voice, her compassion, and her intellectual contribution will forever remain in our memory.

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Jordan says

March 30, 2017

I remember her speaking out against human rights abuses and conversing in the halls at ASIL meetings. Sorry to hear of our loss.