Law professor nominated to U.N. post

When the U.S. mistakenly shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988 – killing the 290 passengers and crew members on board – GW law professor Sean Murphy stepped in to negotiate the settlement between the two governments.

The event reinvigorated his passion for international law, which he said began to develop while he was a student at Columbia University School of Law.

“It solidified for me that this is an important field that can at times be unsuccessful, but when it is successful it is in ways that can really help people,” Murphy said.

Twenty-two years later, Murphy’s experiences in the field have led to his nomination to the United Nations International Law Commission by the U.S. State Department.

The 34 members of the International Law Commission are elected by the U.N.’s General Assembly and serve to promote the development and codification of international law.

Murphy, the Patricia Roberts Harris Research Professor of Law, said he is honored by the nomination and is excited about the opportunity that serving on the commission would present.

“As an American, I’d hope I’d bring a U.S. perspective to my work,” Murphy said. “But my work would also involve listening to other governments in addition to the U.S. and being open to the views of all countries.”

Murphy has served in the U.S. Department of State Office of the Legal Adviser and as the legal counselor of the U.S. Embassy in The Hague, experiences which he said add to his teaching practices in the classroom.

“I have hands-on practice in the field both in Washington and The Hague and I can bring that into scholarly discussion in the classroom,” he said.

His practical experience coupled with his scholarly work would prove to be assets if elected to the ILC, he said.

“I have both a practical and a scholarly background, having been an academic writing about, teaching and thinking about law for the past 12 years,” Murphy, who joined the GW Law School faculty in 1998, said. “Both would support my election to the commission.”

All 192 members of the U.N. are entitled to nominate someone for the ILC. From the nominations – which are due in July of next year – 34 members will be elected by the General Assembly in the fall of 2011.

If elected, Murphy would serve a five-year term beginning January 2012.

Murphy said serving on the commission would present opportunities in which the power of legal discourse is demonstrated even in the case of difficult circumstances and topics, like the Iran Air flight case.

“It was possible for lawyers from both countries to spend a year and a half in direct negotiations and reach a settlement agreement,” he said. “That gave me a strong feeling that even in the worst of situations, legal discourse can help in the search for a solution.”

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