It was one year ago today that the world lost an important legal scholar and so many of us a dear friend. Avril McDonald—teacher, author, editor and researcher in the field of international humanitarian law--died in her apartment in the Dutch city of Groningen, aged 44.
Lauren Comiteau, Amsterdam
The day was memorable: Radovan Karadzic was in the dock as the news of Avril’s premature death spread among her circle with more destructive force than the Eyjafjallajokul Volcano that was spewing over Iceland at the same time (delaying her funeral for a week while the skies above Europe remained fittingly dark and uninhabitable).
Although a longtime resident and devotee of The Hague, Avril spent part of each week in the northern city of Groningen, where she was a Rosalind Franklin Fellow in International Law and Contemporary Conflict at the university there. But whether in The Hague or Groningen, her Irish homeland or her once-adopted city of New York (where she worked as a journalist and editor before pursuing international law), Avril’s mission remained the same: a fierce promoter and staunch defender of international humanitarian law, the victims of war crimes and all things just.
Avril started her professional legal life in international humanitarian law in the Netherlands at the ICTY, where she combined her legal training and journalistic experience in the fledgling court’s press and information office. That’s where journalists like myself first met and befriended her in 1996. Who would have thought then that she’d go on to assist me at the birth of my second daughter eight years later, using her unique blend of kindness, humour and brutal determination to see us through?
First war crimes trial
The meting out of international justice was a still relatively new practice then (the ICC had yet to be established). Bosnian Serb Dusko Tadic was in the dock (the only suspect, in fact, in the court’s custody) in what was the first international war crimes trial since the end of World War II. Avril wrote indispensible summaries of the daily court proceedings, making the unfamiliar rules and legalese sensible to the rest of us. "No court in The Hague has ever had anybody like her since," reflects AP reporter Michael Corder. "And every court should have somebody doing that very job," he added
Avril left the ICTY in 1997 for the nearby Asser Institute, where she was soon heading its International Humanitarian and Criminal Law Section. As her friends and colleagues Sasha Radin and Tim McCormack remind us so eloquently in the dedication of 2010’s Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law (which Avril started and oversaw for a decade while at Asser), Avril didn’t limit herself to the law library or the intellectual roundtable: she taught international law to Dutch Ministry of Defense staffers as well as young students at the Hague Hoogeschool.
And it’s perhaps as a teacher that her legacy is most alive today. "Enthusiasm and humor"–those are the traits Inge te Pas says come to mind when she thinks about her former teacher. "Every student—literally—wanted to write their thesis on international humanitarian law after taking Avril’s course." Inge succeeded, although she said Avril (as McDonald insisted on being called by her students) didn’t make it easy. "She was very critical and strict and straight-forward, telling me she wasn’t impressed with my first attempts," says te Pas. "I found it quite difficult, but in the end, I did really well. She forced me to do my best." Today, te Pas has secured a job in the same international law faculty where her mentor once worked.
Avril’s career ended in Groningen where she was researching how the rules of war apply to non-state actors on a changing battlefield where states and traditional armies aren’t any longer the main players in a legal system designed for them. It is testament to her progressive approach to her discipline and her determination to keep it relevant. Her untimely death also cut short what was certain to be a seminal work on private military contractors (a la Blackwater) and international law.
Yet Avril’s mark is decidedly here: She’s had one baby named after her (Ulysse David Aibrean, born 12 January 2011), both a legal yearbook and a student’s thesis (te Pas’) dedicated to her, one boot christened in her honor (http://www.fluevog.com/code/?p=10&pp=1&colourID=2948&view=detail) and a memorial fund set up by her co-Rosalind Franklin Fellows at the University of Groningen (the Avril McDonald Memorial Fund). And it’s only been a year.
It was Avril’s highly developed sense of injustice--her anger at the treatment of refugees under international law, say, or at us friends who stayed in relationships way past their prime--that fuelled her passion to make this world a better place. Whether she focused her laser-sharp accountability on murderous politicians or lackadaisical students, slacker waitresses or complacent friends, no one—herself especially--got off easy. And we’re all the better for it.