Closing Ceremony speech at Luxembourg Congress upon being inducted as President of UIA

Dear Colleagues,

What an enormous honor to stand before you here at the center of this extraordinary hemicycle at the center of this beautiful city at the center of Europe.

After these past days of the truly outstanding work by our Congress participants and headquarters staff, after the graciousness of our Luxembourgeois hosts, after new and rekindled friendships, I am extremely proud of and humbled by the trust you place in me now.

I am also very excited to begin my term as President after the inspiring example set by my good friend and mentor Issouf Baadio.  As I said at the General Assembly, working with you, Issouf, has been one of the great privileges of my professional life.  Who would have thought a lawyer from California and one from Burkina Faso would become the closest personal colleagues – that is UIA in a nutshell.

And how gratifying to begin my term at one of the most vibrant points in UIA’s 92 years, with our association active, engaged, full of promise and ready to confront the expectations of new generations of lawyers.

But my friends, we have other, more ominous realities to confront.

It would betray the frankness this occasion and venue demand if I did not address the stark challenges we face as lawyers at this moment in history, challenges that have been a theme of this Congress. 

Today, the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, the world is struggling. The profession we practice, the legal environment we inhabit, the values we cherish, are under siege. The historic arc towards global cooperation and increased acceptance of the rule of law is shifting beneath our feet. In fact, we face the gravest risks to the legal order many of us have witnessed in our lifetimes. And responding to those risks firmly and without compromise must define our responsibilities as lawyers and as UIA members

Headlines this past year, even this past week, remind us that democratic values and the rule of law are under assault. Disillusionment has tipped many nations towards populism and nationalism, threatening legal norms our predecessors built out of the ashes of two world wars.  Governments willfully ignore these lessons of the past and instead adopt a cynical appeal to narrow, nationalistic instincts.  They scorn the idea that nations should care about and learn from one another, insisting only their own countries matter.

Many governments make clear they have no use for the rule of law.  Worse yet, they distort the phrase by redefining it, insisting that strict adherence to the edicts they issue in the name of their agendas is what the rule of law requires.  They ignore fundamental principles of electoral fairness and disenfranchise those they disagree with.  They dismiss the core principle of separation of powers and try to undermine the judiciary, the branch least able to protect itself and most essential to the rule of law.

Beyond that, we see a world in self-destructive conflict.  Impeachment proceedings and debased political discourse in my country the United States; Britain’s tortuous struggles over its departure from the EU; violent protests throughout the world in Paris, Hong Kong, Santiago, Barcelona, and Beirut. We see deep frustration and protests in Africa; increasingly anti-democratic tendencies in Russia and Brazil, in Poland and Hungary; territorial disputes and religious tensions in India; and scandal and political shocks around the world – in Canada, in Israel.  One of our colleagues told our General Assembly on Wednesday of the dire situation in parts of Latin America. 

As we observe this historic dislocation, we have to ask ourselves an essential question – one that nags at me and that I intend to make the center of my presidency – because I believe we in the UIA must strive to answer it together. 

What is the role of the lawyer in a world that is turning away from democratic values, global cooperation and the rule of law and is slipping towards nationalism, populism, and authoritarianism?

The question is not theoretical, instead it affects each of us personally. 

Quand j’étais à l’université, j’étais fasciné par l’ouvrage d’un auteur français, Julien Benda, intitulé La trahison des clercs ou « Treason of the Intellectuals » en anglais. Le livre insistait sur cette question : où se trouvaient les avocats au moment où le monde sombrait dans le fascisme pendant les années 30 ? Je n’ai jamais pu oublier cet ouvrage – la grave interrogation adressée par l’auteur à la génération précédente exigeait une réponse, mais il n’y en avait bien sûr aucune. 

Et aujourd’hui, j’imagine un futur auteur, qui n’est peut-être encore qu’un enfant, peut-être même un de nos enfants, écrivant en 2050 et posant la même question accusatoire : où étiez-vous, vous les avocats, en 2020 ? Qu’avez-vous fait pour protéger nos valeurs démocratiques, l’État de droit, et l’indépendance de la profession et du pouvoir judiciaire ?

La question s’impose à chacun de nous parce que nous sommes aussi tous des produits de la mondialisation dans son sens le plus large. Il est impossible de démêler notre interdépendance. Je viens de San Francisco en Californie, à plus de 9000 kilomètres d’ici. Mais mes grands-parents sont arrivés aux États-Unis en provenance de Moldavie et de Pologne il y a 100 ans et n’ont jamais appris l’anglais.  San Francisco s’est établie comme mission espagnole et est devenue mexicaine au début du dix-neuvième siècle.  Au même moment, les marchands russes parcouraient la côte nord de la Californie, il y a d’ailleurs un vieux fort russe a proximité de mon domicile.  Dix ans plus tard, la ruée vers l’or attirait des chercheurs du monde entier.  Des travailleurs chinois et japonais se sont alors diriges vers la Californie pour gagner leur vie ou y ont été amenés contre leur gré.  Les Français, en quête de nouvelles opportunités après la révolution de 1848, sont arrivés en nombre. Les Italiens ont créé une grande partie de ce qui est aujourd’hui la ville de San Francisco, et l’une de nos entreprises fondatrices a été établie par un fils d’immigrants de Gênes. Le pionnier de notre industrie vinicole actuelle est un Hongrois qui a fondé une cave dans la vallée de Sonoma. Et les Africains, descendants d’esclaves affranchis du sud et, plus tard, de nouveaux immigrants venus du continent, ont afflué vers San Francisco pour intégrer la vie politique et artistique de cette ville. Ma ville, mon pays, se sont vus façonner par des populations d’immigrants de tous les continents. En résumé, nos histoires, la mienne et les vôtres, sont toutes entrelacées et nos préoccupations sont, par définition, mondiales.

Personal as these questions are to us, however, we have to recognize that lawyers face inherent limitations in meeting the challenges we face.

Our principal goal is to zealously represent the interests of our clients.  That goal can sometimes seem in conflict with protection of the rule of law.  What if our client’s interests would benefit from a personal attack on the judge in a matter or on the justice system more broadly? 

And lawyers are not politicians.   We are supposed to rise above politics.  Entering the fray as partisans can seem inappropriate and even unethical. 

We are also not homogenous and do not speak with one voice, nor should we.  We come from Kinshasa and London, Tokyo and Sao Paolo.  We are men, women, older, younger, liberal, conservative, straight and gay, wealthy and of more modest means.

Nor is our strength physical.  It is more subtle.  We have no armies, no police force, no enforcement power.  We rely only on the power of advocacy and reason.

Al mismo tiempo, tenemos también puntos fuertes indiscutibles. Tenemos años de formación y experiencia. Tenemos el acceso a nuestros tribunales e instituciones de poder. Entendemos cómo funcionan nuestros gobiernos.  Y tenemos códigos deontológicos que nos obligan a hacer lo que es correcto y honorable.

Gracias a nuestras fortalezas, creo que, en la UIA, tenemos misiones importantes que, espero, inspirarán nuestras actividades.

  1. Dar sentido y sustancia al Estado de derecho, contribuyendo a definir su forma pero también su fondo, lo que incluye proteger el sistema electoral para determinar la voluntad de la mayoría, y garantizar la protección de los derechos de la minoría. 
  2. Comprometernos con el globalismo. Me refiero con esto a adoptar la actitud abierta necesaria para aprender unos de otros y considerar los intereses de otros países. Esta manera de pensar nos ofrece más posibilidades de mejorar el derecho y la humanidad que la construcción de barreras o la adhesión ciega a la convicción de que el único sistema correcto es el nuestro.
  3. Proteger la independencia de nuestros jueces. 
  4. Y ponernos a prueba a nosotros mismos, y a nuestros clientes para asegurarnos de que sean compatibles con el Estado de derecho.

With this in mind, I plan to undertake a number of initiatives at the UIA this year.

First, I along with Jackie Scott and the extraordinary IROL team will be working to ensure that Rule of Law has real significance. Our organization has spent years working on a definition that comports with international standards including that of the United Nations, and we will not hesitate to hold governments accountable when they distort the concept.

Second, we will focus on the essential right to vote, including a joint project with the ABA and a special session at our next Congress in Guadalajara.

Third, we will work to enhance the participation of judges in the UIA and study ways that lawyers can help protect judicial independence and integrity.

Fourth, we will continue to exchange information, to learn from one another, through our commissions, national committees and valued bar association members, and through innovative new programs like UIAdvance for our law firm members and our new mentoring project to match early career lawyers with more experienced lawyers.

Fifth, we will focus on increasing diversity not just in our membership but in our leadership, not just national and geographic but gender, and minority groups – lawyers from less privileged backgrounds, LGBT lawyers and those with disabilities. Different perspectives from those kept out of the mainstream of our profession are essential to protecting our values. 

All of this in the context of trying to answer the question: what is the role of the lawyer in the face of a world in turmoil?  I intend to push that question wherever I travel on behalf of UIA and hope to have more concrete answers when we meet again next year in magnificent Guadalajara.  I will be maintaining a blog through my travels and I hope you will join me there. 

In the meantime, I want to thank all of you for your support and encouragement. In particular, let me thank my best friend in life, my partner Ray, who has helped me through more struggles and taken care of the homestead during more extended business and UIA travel than I care to remember;

to my son Jeremy who always keeps me honest with humor and friendship;

to my law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson which has supported me throughout my dedication of time and resources to UIA;

and to all of you, my UIA colleagues and friends, the many I have dined, toured, laughed, and argued with, in places all over the world from estancias in Argentina to the shores of the Bosphorus, and especially those at the headquarters in Paris who strive to make everything our far-flung organization does around the world appear seamless.

My fellow lawyers, the issues we face are immediate.    We are facing a call to action. We cannot justify our special privileges if we do not fully embrace our responsibilities.

At the same time we are prepared.  I am absolutely convinced and truly optimistic that we at the UIA can make an enormous difference in helping get the arc of history back on the right track.  Let’s have a ready answer for the inevitable question in a few decades – what did you lawyers do to protect democratic values and the rule of law at this difficult time?  Let’s seize the enormous opportunity UIA affords us to work together with firmness of purpose and with the benefit of the collegiality and friendship we enjoy.  I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and I know you are too. 

Thank you very much. 

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