The big picture


In this exclusive interview with Asia Business Law Journal, our sister publication, Miguel de Serpa Soares, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel, talks to John Church about his legal team and the crucial work being done in Asia and further afield to promote free trade and economic development

As far as legal jobs go, they don’t come any bigger or more significant. Miguel de Serpa Soares, under-secretary-general for legal affairs and United Nations legal counsel, is the man António Guterres turns to before sending in the peacekeepers, constructing a complex multilateral treaty or negotiating any international issue that requires legal gravitas.

Born in Angola and raised and educated in Portugal, the UN’s top lawyer prior to this prestigious appointment was director general of the Department of Legal Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Portugal, from 2008 to 2013.

An affable man with a concise and direct point of view, a recent law lecture he delivered in Beijing to keynote the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s (AIIB) inaugural Legal Week, held in October 2017, drew the admiration of invited GCs of some of the biggest international financial institutions (IFIs) in the region and further afield, as well as academics and keen law students who had come to hear his views on “The Necessity of Co-operation between International Organizations”.

“It’s enormous but it’s very interesting,” he says of his work with a wry smile, in an exclusive interview with Asia Business Law Journal. “I do believe I have one of the best legal jobs in the world.”

More than four years into the job and he observes his time at the UN has shored up some personal beliefs. “More and more these four years have reinforced the conviction that we need to live in an international order that is based on norms and rules, and not on sheer power,” he says. “The Office of Legal Affairs was established in 1946, and when you think of it, it’s curious why in 1946 member states felt the need to have a legal office immediately on the origin of the UN. I think that answers the wish of having an organization based on norms and rules.

“For instance, it is important also to note how relevant the work of international courts and tribunals, in particular the International Court of Justice, is for the promotion of this international order based on norms and rules. Sometimes, it may be unnoticed how many conflicts have been avoided by the work of international tribunals, for instance by means of the peaceful settlement of disputes. So, it’s not only about a wider appreciation of international law, but also about peace, which is a prerequisite for sustainable development and economic growth.”

We live in uncertain times, with tectonic shifts in geopolitical norms, but Serpa Soares is unperturbed by the legal challenges these changes may throw up for the UN.

“If you look back, since 1946, we have had other challenges before,” he says. “We went through the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin wall, there were so many things that happened in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and in the past 70 years. But still this idea that we need to create an international order based on rules and norms has not changed. The main challenge is that Member States keep believing that international law is fundamental for the type of international order they are aiming for.

“Generally, this idea is accepted and not seriously challenged by anyone, because you will notice that no state will say ‘I’m doing something illegal’ or ‘I don’t care about international law’, even if they don’t, but they always try to come up with a legal justification of their actions, and that’s already a very good sign. You have global challenges for all of us in the international order, and not specifically legal. I don’t know how in the next 20 years we are going to deal with issues like climate change and issues of non-proliferation [of nuclear weapons], these are a matter of big concern.

“But how this translates to the legal sphere, I don’t see any immediate challenge other than states starting to disrespect international law. We do see with some concern in the past three or four years, some systematic disrespect for international humanitarian law, in the way hostilities are conducted, the way civilians have suffered, I can give you many examples. That is a bit worrying.”

The AIIB’s inaugural Legal Week for GCs of multilateral financial institutions in Asia and further afield was a must see for Serpa Soares, a firm believer in informal platforms of co-operation. “I myself chair three different informal networks of legal advisers,” he says. “There’s a network of legal advisers with all the specialized agencies that meets once a year, also an annual meeting of the legal advisers of the UN Offices, Funds and Programmes, and also an annual meeting of the Field Legal Advisers in the peacekeeping and special political missions.

“We usually have two days of meetings with a set agenda but very informal discussion, focusing on the specific problems that we think are common to the different institutions. It’s basically an exchange of knowledge and experience and it’s very useful for all because inevitably you will come upon a problem that someone else has had, and you can suggest solutions and see how it’s been dealt with, it’s very useful.

“I’m a big supporter of these informal forums. People can speak freely, there’s no outcome no formal document to adopt, it’s really a peer conversation and I find it very helpful.”

A related question is how such conferences can ultimately benefit countries, both developed and developing, in Asia, and how the UN can help move this forward in terms of working closely with these international organizations and their legal representatives.

“What these things are mostly is an exchange of knowledge,” says Serpa Soares. “In this region you have some countries with less knowledge of international law and less practice in multilateral diplomacy, and this translates into legal work, so these meetings can bring people to a more advanced stage of learning how to deal with certain problems.

“In my office, for instance, we have a programme which serves a similar aim, called the Programme of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination and Wider Appreciation of International Law. We organize annual regional courses, one for Asia-Pacific, one for Africa and one for Latin America and the Caribbean, on current topics of international law.

“I do this in co-operation with professors, judges and academics who do this for free, it’s our way to contribute to this process, which is knowledge. We can bring our experience, because after all we are the largest international bureaucracy and we’ve been in business for 70 years, a respectable life for any international institution. And this we’re willing to share and co-operate with other international organizations, to share solutions and suggestions. It’s how we contribute.”

The fact that Serpa Soares, based in New York, was in Beijing is worthy of attention, attending the function of the AIIB, a new and very substantial infrastructure development bank. In a week where the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China was in full swing and President Xi Jinping was laying out his roadmap for the future with his own ideologies being enshrined in the party’s constitution, the UN top legal representative’s visit would not have gone unnoticed.

As the US appears to be pivoting inward under a new administration, China’s ambitions have rolled outward with the enormous Belt and Road initiative, leaving no mistake as to where the nation intends to focus its considerable resources.

The Belt and Road may well be the largest initiative of its kind in this century, so how important is it for the UN to take a lead in developing workable legal solutions in areas like commercial conciliation and enforcing settlement agreements in jurisdictions along the Belt and Road?

“A well-developed modern and harmonized commercial law regime throughout the Belt and Road countries addresses most of the risks and concerns that several stakeholders have been identifying, namely: improving market competitiveness, with flow-on effects for consumers; predictability in the outcomes of disputes; transactional effectiveness, efficiency and accuracy; and resolution of cross-border disputes,” says Serpa Soares. “In that context, it also reduces cross-border transactions and litigation risks; regulatory distortions in international trade and commerce; and the risks associated with enforcing awards, including prohibitive costs associated with the vindication of rights.

“And here we are summoned to recognize the importance of the New York Convention. The convention, by ensuring the enforceability of foreign arbitral awards, has played the key role in shifting attitudes towards alternative dispute resolution in commercial transactions. Approved by a United Nations Diplomatic Conference, it has been adopted by 157 state parties, including, amongst the usual players like China, the US and UK, countries like Bangladesh, Congo, Kyrgyzstan, Uganda and Uzbekistan. This has contributed to globalize a culture favourable to commercial arbitration.

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Miguel de Serpa Soares introduces the structure of his legal team and how it works very simply, with six divisions and the division of labour by subject.

“We have the Office of the Legal Counsel which is in my immediate vicinity, and this covers the more political issues: peace and security; issues related to the interpretation of the [UN] Charter; peacekeeping operations – usually the stuff that makes headlines, that will land on my office desk,” he says. “Then I have a large internal division, the General Legal Division, which deals mostly with management and administrative issues, which is very important in the organization, and is very involved in the management reform process, etc.

“I have a Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, which is a specialized division dealing with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS], but also with all the different processes that exist in the General Assembly for sea and ocean matters.

“I have a highly specialized division in Vienna covering international trade law, and this is the secretariat of UNCITRAL [the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law], a small team but highly specialized in international trade law matters.

“Then I have a Treaty Section, because the secretary-general [António Guterres] is usually the depositary of the multilateral treaties that are concluded under the auspice of the UN, and this is more than 560, a huge amount of legal documents to manage. These are live documents, mostly multilateral treaties but also involving registration of bilateral treaties.

“Finally I have a Codification Division, a strange name but they do exactly that, assisting the international bodies that try to codify international law, i.e. the International Law Commission, where a big part of international treaties has been drafted and negotiated, and also it serves as the secretariat to the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly, which is the committee of international law.”

These divisions account for about 200 people, and he says they represent a good mix of competences. “But I’m very proud of the geographical diversity because I think it’s very important, and I’m happy that my staff reflects the diversity of the UN, so 60 nationalities into 200 is very good, and gender balance is also important, and we have a very balanced department in terms of gender.”