Koh shares State Department experiences

Harold Koh addressed the difficulties presented by a legal system that straddles the private-public and domestic-international divides.
Harold Koh addressed the difficulties presented by a legal system that straddles the private-public and domestic-international divides. Photo by Joyce Xi.

After spending four years serving as legal adviser to the State Department, former Law School Dean Harold Koh recounted his experiences working under Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 at a Davenport College Master’s Tea Tuesday.

Koh, who was named a Sterling Professor of International Law last week, left his post at the State Department last Tuesday to return to teaching at the Law School after serving as its dean from 2004 to 2009. At the Master’s Tea, Koh explained policy decisions made by the current administration and discussed issues facing the international community, including human rights, climate change and Syria’s ongoing civil war.

“It was a completely fascinating experience running an international law firm of 350 people, the finest in the world,” Koh said.

As Clinton’s primary legal adviser, Koh said he simultaneously acted as the State Department’s general counselor, conscience and its defender — during his tenure, Koh represented the State Department before influential bodies such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.

Koh said that accomplishing goals while working with government officials can be difficult because of the government’s process of collective decision-making as well as its constant efforts to achieve perfection.

Koh said he dealt with the challenge of solving 21st century problems under 20th century laws. Because the law cannot be changed as quickly as problems arise, he had to identify which laws were relevant and translate them to current situations.

“This translation, I believe, is what Montesquieu would call ‘the spirit of the laws,’” Koh said.

Koh cited Clinton’s inclusion of LGBT rights in the broader framework of human rights — a moment that he called “incredibly powerful and pivotal” — as an example of translating laws to present-day application.

He said the American political system has also been slow to adjust to the 21st century, mentioning specific cases in which Congress rejected several international treaties that would have benefited American foreign relations.

The current division of laws into public, private, domestic and international categories is a “construct,” he said, adding that some legal cases can straddle multiple categories, so transnational laws — ones between individuals and countries in which the individual does not reside — should emerge as the predominant legal form in years to come.

Koh also touched on several recent events, including the publication of classified information by the online organization WikiLeaks. While he criticized the actions of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Koh added that in general he favors government transparency and believes that certain materials are overclassified.

“The release of the names of the human right activists could get them killed,” Koh said. “We had to devote huge amounts of U.S. government resources to apologies and damage mitigation.”

Students interviewed said they appreciated that despite Koh’s background in government, he spoke directly and honestly to the audience.

Jimmy Murphy ’13 said that he found Koh not only approachable and funny but also “a tremendously thoughtful speaker.”

“It was inspiring to see how much he focused on making sure that the U.S. was doing the right thing, instead of just defending what they did,” Murphy said.

Jessica Leao ’16 said she appreciated Koh’s global perspective of law, which gave her insight into the workings of the U.S. government and international organizations such as the United Nations.

Koh became a professor at the Law School in 1985 and has lived in New Haven since 1961.

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