Interview with Philippe Sands

The human rights barrister and author reflects on his path into international law, the university course that changed history and what the UK’s ‘lazy’ and ‘narcissistic’ prime minister could learn from Keir Starmer

October 15, 2020
Philippe Sands
Source: Antonio Olmos

Philippe Sands is a writer, academic and barrister specialising in international law. His 2016 book, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, won the 2016 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction and his latest work is The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive. From this month he is professor for the public understanding of law at UCL, where he has worked since 2002.

Where and when were you born?
London, October 1960. We lived in Cockfosters, right at the end of the Piccadilly Line.

How did that shape you?
I absolutely love London – particularly its mix of diversity, history and greenery. When I was a kid, we moved to Belsize Park, so Hampstead Heath has been a big part of my life – as a teenager, I would go there with friends for cross-country runs, sports days or to the lido. Now when I’m in London, there isn’t a day that passes that I’m not there – in lockdown, it was a lifesaver.

In East West Street, you describe how your mother was smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Vienna as a baby and many of your relatives died in the Holocaust. Did this awareness of historical injustice influence your decision to study law?
I got into law by accident. I had gone to university to do economics, but changed after a few weeks, to law. I don’t know exactly the influences, but that sense of what had happened to my mum and my grandparents must have informed the decision. That said, I did not really enjoy law at university, but I had one teacher, Robbie Jennings, who taught us international law. It was the first time I thought: “This is interesting – this relates to me,” and that opened the door.

After taking a master’s at Cambridge, you became a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School. How did this experience change your approach to law?
At Cambridge we’d been taught that law and politics were separate but at Harvard, all of a sudden, I was learning that law and politics are deeply connected. As a lawyer in international courts, I’ve since come to understand how the law is not something that is mechanically applied; judges bring their own intellectual baggage, culture and politics to interpreting and applying laws.

After Harvard, you returned to Cambridge to spend four years as a research fellow. How did you switch from being a legal scholar to a practising barrister?
In 1984, I received a letter from Eli Lauterpacht asking me to apply for a position as a researcher at a new centre in international law. His mix influenced my approach of linking teaching, research and practice. In 1986, the Chernobyl accident happened, and it changed my life. I gave a talk on Chernobyl and international law in Washington, as international environmental law didn’t really exist then. It morphed into my first book. I then started being asked to give legal opinions to Greenpeace and other organisations on these issues.

When researching East West Street, you discovered the student records of Sir Hersch Lauterpacht – Sir Eli’s father, the legal scholar who created the term ‘crimes against humanity’ – at the University of Lviv, in Ukraine. Why did you think these 100-year-old documents were important?
I had a sense that what Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin [who originated the concept of genocide] studied and who their teachers were could be revealing. I discovered that you could trace the origins of the concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide to a single classroom in Lviv. Their teachers were fundamentally important.

Britain’s home secretary has condemned ‘activist lawyers’ while the prime minister is disparaging about Keir Starmer’s background as a barrister. Do these political attacks suggest the legal profession has fallen in the eyes of the public?
Those being targeted are a tiny part of the broader legal community. As with so much of what the prime minister does, it is a lot of hot air and self-puffery. I have known him personally for 30 years. He is lazy, narcissistic and utterly incompetent – a weak person. The country is facing a very difficult moment – it is not a moment for games. It is pretty clear the PM is not the person to bring us together and help us through this moment.

Sir Keir Starmer is a good friend of yours. Does his legal training better equip him to be prime minister?
It gives him forensic skills – he is someone who proceeds with care and thought, an approach we are not used to with the current PM. While Keir has radical views on a number of issues, he also takes soundings, consults broadly, often with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum, and comes to a view. Some people don’t like that and think it’s too lawyerly. Time will tell what the reaction is to this approach. I happen to like it. 

Your research has led to plays, podcasts, documentary films and bestselling books. Should other academics disseminate their work in these more accessible forms, rather than seeking to publish in academic journals?
In international law, we have tended to limit our discourses to a small community, ourselves, and we have missed a trick in doing that. Personally, I’ve hugely appreciated younger scholars contacting to me to say: “I didn’t realise it was permissible to write in this style, about the self and other issues, and you have opened up other avenues.”

What keeps you awake at night?
The state of the world. Xenophobia, nationalism, the climate situation, migration. The coming US election is the most important of my lifetime – it might be the only thing that stands between us, a broader autocracy, and perhaps even a return to widespread fascism. We may want to look more closely to the 1930s, to see how easily one thing leads to another, then disaster. This time it seems to be Britain leading the way, with the US. To abandon the commitment to international law, a part of the rule of law, is not a wise move.


Moira O’Bryan is moving across town from Monash University to become dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne. Professor O’Bryan, who will start her new role in December, has been head of Monash’s School of Biological Sciences for three-and-a-half years and is also president of Australia and New Zealand’s Society for Reproductive Biology. Duncan Maskell, Melbourne’s vice-chancellor, said Professor Bryan had “a substantial track record in the promotion of science, the development of frontier-forging research platforms and collaborating across disciplines and sectors”.

Paul Townsend is joining the University of Surrey as pro vice-chancellor and executive dean of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. He will start his new role in February 2021. An expert in cell stress and survival mechanisms, Professor Townsend is currently associate dean for business engagement and innovation in the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health. Professor Townsend hailed the Surrey faculty’s “can do” ethos and said that he would “like us to build on this pioneering spirit and forge even more real-world research, innovation and entrepreneurism”.

Dawn Bonnell has been promoted to the position of senior vice-provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania. The Henry Robinson Towne professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science has been UPenn’s vice-provost for research since 2013.

Wu Xiaogang will be the founding director of the Center for Applied Social and Economic Research at NYU Shanghai. He was previously chair professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Martyn Evans has been appointed director of Manchester School of Art, part of Manchester Metropolitan University. Professor Evans, who has been at Manchester Met since 2015, is currently professor of design and head of the art school’s research centre.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

The ‘Thesis Whisperer’ discusses the computer revolution, PhD students finding their voice, and why people who write dissertations about doctoral candidates who don’t finish don’t finish

20 August

Related universities

Reader's comments (1)

Philippe's book East West Street was the most recent I have read that I genuinely had real difficulty putting down - I had to eventually as I really needed sleep, but that was the only reason! A remarkable story around extraordinary links between the likes of Lauterpacht and Lemkin, each an iconic figure in my area of law but with significantly different approaches (personally, I have always been in the Lauterpacht camp).


Featured jobs