Professor Francesco Francioni (1942 – 2024)

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Professor Francesco Francioni, who was Professor of International Law and Human Rights at the EUI from 2003 to 2012, and Professor of International Law at the University of Siena from 1980 to 2003, passed away in Siena on 2 February 2024. He is survived by his wife, Susan Fisher, and his children Cino and Bianca.

A long-standing member of the Editorial Board of the European Journal of International Law, Francesco was a pioneering and far-sighted scholar and legal advisor in the field of cultural and environmental heritage. He was in a very real sense a founding figure in this field, having played important roles as a legal advisor to the Italian government in the conferences and meetings organized under the Antarctic treaty system and leading to the successful negotiation (among others) of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1991). He also served as a member of the Italian national commission to UNESCO, and as President of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (which nominates sites for World Heritage Status). For all those who knew him, he will be remembered also as a generous and kind person who was ineffably sincere and diplomatic at the same time, and who had a sensitive appreciation of the cultural and natural environment – especially in his native Italy, but also wherever he happened to be.

Francioni was born in Florence and grew up in Empoli, Tuscany. His father was a textiles and clothes salesman (rappresentante commerciale) who worked for an important Tuscan firm and travelled by car all around Italy for his work, frequently with his son Francesco, who deeply enjoyed these trips with his father. Francesco graduated in Law from the Università di Firenze in 1966. He studied international law with the influential post-war international law scholar (and former resistance fighter) Giuseppe Barile, but did not seem destined for a scholarly career. He was rather interested in pursuing a diplomatic career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or, alternatively, in becoming a practising lawyer with an international legal firm. A Fulbright Scholarship to study for an LLM at Harvard in 1967-1968 changed his fate. At Harvard, in addition to reuniting with his girlfriend Susan (a Californian linguist whom he had met in Florence in 1963 and eventually married in 1972), he would meet Benedetto Conforti, who was completing research for his book La funzione dell’accordo nel sistema delle Nazioni Unite in the depths of the Langdell Library. Conforti was at that time Professor of International Law in Siena, but he would go on to be a profoundly influential figure in the Italian international law scene, holding chairs in Padova, Napoli and at the coveted Roma La Sapienza, as well as being elected as a member of the former European Commission of Human Rights, and then judge at the European Court of Human Rights.

Conforti invited Francesco to apply for a post as assistant of international law (a now-abolished tenured position roughly comparable to a Research Fellow) that had been opened by the University of Siena. Francesco successfully competed for the post, and from then on, Francesco adopted Conforti as his “Maestro” in that distinctive Italian sense which combines veneration, pupillage, and integration into a scholarly network of influence (una Scuola, which in a way is also a family, una famiglia). Working with Conforti led Francesco to Siena and Padova, as well as an academic year teaching law at the National University of Somalia – where one of their students was Abdulqawi Yusuf, a current judge and former President of the International Court of Justice. From 1980 to 2003, Francesco held the chair of International Law at Siena, where he would also become Vice-Rector of the University. Those who studied international law in Siena during this time recall Francesco’s concerted efforts to “internationalize” the ancient city-state university’s relationships; he was an influential figure both in the Law Faculty and the wider university, shepherding dozens of exchange agreements with foreign universities to signature, and bringing the most notable international lawyers of the time to lecture in Siena. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Francesco was a regular visiting faculty member in Alexandria (Egypt), Munich, New Orleans (Louisiana), Austin (Texas), Paris and Oxford.

His pioneering scholarship in the domain of international cultural heritage and environmental law was a product of his 20 years’ experience in Italian national delegations to international conferences and meetings, including the Antarctic Treaty diplomatic conferences. He understood international law, without doubt, as a law produced by sovereign states; but he was equally committed to international law’s role as protector and codifier of common interests and public goods; his concern for cultural heritage stemmed from a belief that human communities’ cultural experiences and products were an essential dimension of the patrimony of humanity as a whole – even if international law functioned principally through the conduct of states, it could generate consequences and effects that helped crystallize and protect the general interests of humanity as a whole. As President of the World Heritage Committee between 1997 and 1998, he supported World Heritage Status for a number of important sites, including many iconic Italian places, such as the Royal Palace in Caserta, Pompei, and Urbino.

In a reflection on the death of his own Maestro, Conforti, Francesco noted that one of the characteristics that defined Conforti as a human being was the “generosity and optimism which he [Conforti] dedicated to his students.” Students of Francesco experienced such generosity and optimism too. He would regularly mention proudly a new book or success of one his PhD supervisees, and was a reliable source of support and encouragement for those students who encountered personal or professional challenges in completing their studies. He wore his kindness, as he wore his knowledge, quite lightly – Francesco never, ever, made you feel that he was doing you a favor by helping you out; graciousness was practised not preached. Despite having been awarded the most significant marks of accomplishment in the world of international law – General Editor of the Italian Yearbook of International Law for a long time, President of the Italian Society of International Law, Member of the Institute of International Law and Lecturer at the summer courses of the Hague Academy of International Law – Francesco remained curious and open-minded about newer intellectual currents in his field. Memorably, one of his last seminars at the EUI concerned “Science Fiction and International Law”, which was co-taught with Professor Orna Ben-Naftali. 

After his retirement from the EUI in 2012, he was appointed by the Italian government as judge ad hoc at the ITLOS and one of five members of the arbitral tribunal tasked with adjudicating a high profile dispute between Italy and India concerning the maritime incident that led to the death of two Indian fisherman, allegedly at the hands of two Italian marines (the Enrica Lexie case). He is widely acknowledged as the mastermind behind the decision of the tribunal which found that Italy had jurisdiction to prosecute the accused marines (hence the Italian press designation of Francioni as ‘the man who saved the marines’). At this time, he continued to supervise remaining PhD students at the EUI, and teach at LUISS University in Rome as a visiting Professor. During the vendemmia, Francesco could be found picking and crushing grapes at a small vineyard he maintained near Siena in his beloved Chianti region, and bottling the resultant wine – that is, doing what he in fact told colleagues to do: be a peasant (un contadino). His passing is a great loss to our communities of scholarship, and to all those who experienced his mentorship, friendship and intellectual generosity.

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