In 2002, Tasmanian-born Professor Tim McCormack took a phone call that changed the trajectory of his life.
At the other end of that line was a judge who was preparing to preside at the war crimes trial of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in the Hague.
The judge wanted an advisor with expertise in international humanitarian and criminal law, and the request set in train four years of travel and work for the legal scholar.
“It was really a fascinating experience, even though it was also quite discouraging that after all those years and years of trial and work Mr Milosovic died [in 2006] and that was the end of it,” he reflected.
Professor McCormack, an expert in international humanitarian law, is now taking the reins at Tasmania’s only law school at a time when he fears the foundations of his legal philosophy are under threat throughout the world.
As he steps into the UTAS law leadership, Professor McCormack is discouraged by threats to the international humanitarian legal regime he helped establish.
He said multilateral institutions like the International Criminal Court (ICC) were under challenge, as international players such as the United States, withdraw from multilateral treaties like the Iran nuclear deal.
“There are real challenges about retreat from adherence and commitment to these values and principals and to the underlying principal of accountability for atrocities,” he said.
“I do think there’s a possibility that the court could be undermined by countries that are party to the statutes.”
He expects the next five years will be critical for the ICC as it considers initiating a formal investigation into whether war crimes have been committed in Afghanistan, including allegations about US military personnel.
The ICC has jurisdiction over Afghan territory even though the United States is not party to the statutes which sustain the court.
“The court’s going to be subjected to intense pressure, especially from the Trump administration, so I think there’s some pretty turbulent times ahead,” he said.
Child soldier armies targeted
In 2010, Professor McCormack was appointed Special Advisor on War Crimes to the prosecutor of the ICC.
He helped secure the ICC’s first war crime conviction, that of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo for assembling an army of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“That was for me personally a very exciting experience, to actually stand up before the judges and to argue some of the technical legal issues in that case,” Professor McCormack said.
Since then he has been involved in investigations and prosecutions covering conflicts in Africa, Georgia, the Middle East and Latin America.
“In my role I’m basically involved in every trial proceeding and every preliminary investigation that involves a situation of armed conflict and the possibility of allegations of war crimes,” he said.
Fond memories of ‘idyllic childhood’
Professor McCormack is credited with inspiring teachers at Burnie Primary School, Parklands High School and Hellyer College with laying the foundation for his future career, and described his upbringing on Tasmania’s north-west coast as filled with family, friends and freedom.
“We used to run down to West Beach for a swim or kick the footy down at the Emu Bay railway yards together, it was an idyllic childhood,” he said.
An unexpected early challenge will be helping the faculty to recover after floodwater generated by torrential rail over Hobart inundated the law school, destroying hundreds of books in its library.
Professor McCormack said he was grateful no-one had been injured and no lives were lost.
“We … remind ourselves that the beating heart of the Law School is more than the building and its contents, but our people,” he told students.
He sees the role of law as a means to achieving a fairer society, and values the presence of the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute within the university’s law faculty.
“Our Law Reform Institute has a responsibility to investigate and to call out systemic injustices and lack of fairness and lack of access to justice in our society,” he said.
“And I think that’s a wonderful role for a law school to have,” he said.
Focus on Aboriginal needs
Professor McCormack is keen to familiarise himself with Tasmania’s broader legal landscape and nominates learning about the needs and experiences of Aboriginal Tasmanians as a priority.
He was dismayed by the lack of action from federal politicians on the Uluru Statement from the Heart calling for a representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be enshrined in the Constitution.
“I wonder to myself, what do we need to do in Tassie to respond to (the Uluru Statement from the Heart)?” he said.
“I need to inform myself about what the Indigenous people of Tassie want from it.”
Although he stressed his expertise was not in criminal law, Professor McCormack said he was concerned by government moves to introduce mandatory sentencing for certain offences.
Tasmania’s Liberal Government has reintroduced legislation to create mandatory sentences for child sex offenders.
Professor McCormack said he knew the lawyers for Van Tuong Nguyen, the Australian man who was executed by Singapore in 2005 for drug trafficking, and that had shaped his attitude toward mandatory sentencing.
“Of course we’re not talking about mandatory sentencing in Tassie with the death penalty, but I feel like the principal of discretion for the judicial decision makers is a really important one and I’d be very loath to jump on the bandwagon of supporting mandatory sentencing in relation to any category of offender.”