[Interview] Asser researcher Christophe Paulussen: “It was an interview with Benjamin Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, which pushed me to the field of international criminal law”

Published 11 October 2021

[Interview] Asser researcher Christophe Paulussen: “It was an interview with Benjamin Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, which pushed me to the field of international criminal law”

Dr Christophe Paulussen is a senior researcher at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut and coordinator of the research strand ‘Human dignity and human security in international and European law. He specialises in the fields of international legal aspects of counter-terrorism, international criminal law and international humanitarian law; areas that are often in the news, for instance in the context of the (returning) foreign fighters phenomenon. An interview.

What is the main research project you are working on?
“Lately, I have been working a lot on the issue of (non-)repatriation of foreign fighters and their families currently detained in camps in North-East Syria, as well as citizenship stripping as a counter-terrorism measure. Depriving foreign fighters of their nationality is problematic from a variety of perspectives, not only from a long-term security point of view, but also from the perspective of international law, including international human rights law and international humanitarian law. The measure should not be resorted to: it ensures people disappear off the radar and clearly undermines the fight against impunity.”

Why is this topic important?
“These topics are important as governments around the world continue to struggle on how to best respond to alleged terrorists and the complex (legal and security) situation caused by the phenomenon of (returning) foreign fighters. As a researcher in international law, it is my responsibility to engage in this discussion, and to explain and stress, among other things, the importance of the international legal framework applicable to the situation.”

What are you hoping to achieve with your research?
“My hope is that my research is not only interesting and innovative from an academic point of view but also useful from a societal perspective.”

“Researchers whose salaries are partly paid by tax payers’ money should not keep their observations to themselves. They should valorise these, to ensure that policy makers and the public at large are equipped with all the knowledge they need to make informed decisions and opinions. A while ago, I was invited by the Justice and Security Committee of the Dutch House of Representatives to discuss the scope of the threat of repatriating foreign fighters and their families from Syria. I did not have a popular message for several of the politicians present at that meeting, who are under pressure by their constituents to be tough on alleged terrorists. However, it was important that I could make my point on why repatriation, prosecution and reintegration is the only viable solution to this complex problem, as seen from an international legal, long-term security as well as moral perspective.”

What is the best thing about working at the Asser Institute?
“I have been with the Asser Institute and the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT) for more than ten years, so it’s clear that I very much enjoy my work! This is first and foremost because of the diversity of the work. I work not only on international legal aspects of countering terrorism, but also on international humanitarian law and international criminal law. Moreover, I appreciate the type of activities I engage in: writing academic articles, editing books, organising and speaking at conferences, lectures and expert meetings, advising governments and international organisations, supervising interns, coordinating the strand and networks, engaging with the media, conducting capacity-building missions etc. From this list, you can also see that the Asser Institute is ideally placed in between the academic world and the world of practitioners and that we have to able to engage with, and speak the language of, many different audiences. Another aspect is that I work with very talented, hardworking and kind people I am proud to call my colleagues.”

What has been your proudest or most challenging moment as a researcher thus far?
“Since I have been at Asser for quite some time now, the list of moments and activities I am proud of is also quite long. Let me just mention two relatively recent examples. The first is that in 2020, we (Global Rights Compliance, Maria Sperling and Martine van Trigt from the Asser Projects Office and myself) secured the MATRA project ‘Strengthening Ukraine’s Capacity to Investigate and Prosecute International Crimes’ – a big four-year project with a budget of almost 2 million euros. That truly was a wonderful moment, after many months of hard work. This project will allow us to do a lot of practical work on the ground, assisting the newly created War Crimes Unit in Ukraine. But we will also deliver vital technical and strategic expertise to other criminal justice entities in Ukraine, such as judges and lawyers, civil society organisations and journalists. From an academic point of view, I am quite proud of the book Human Dignity and Human Security in Times of Terrorism, which I co-edited and published almost two years ago. My co-editor was Prof. Martin Scheinin, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, and one of the biggest authorities in this field.”

Why did you choose to study international (or European) law? 
“I come from a family of legal practitioners. I am proud to say that Roger Cox, the Dutch lawyer who won the Urgenda and Shell cases before the District Court of The Hague and in my view one of the most influential lawyers of our times, works at Paulussen Advocaten. That is the firm that was established by my great-grandfather back in 1895, and where my grandfather and father worked their entire professional lives. Hence, my decision to study law did not really come as surprise [laughs]. However, the areas the firm was focusing on – corporate law, contract law, administrative law etc. – did not really appeal to me. It was the international and European dimension that had caught my attention and interest. And it was an interview on 25 June 2002 with the inspiring Benjamin Ferencz – the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor and someone I have been privileged to meet several times in my position as researcher at Asser – which pushed me to the field of international (criminal) law. I have never regretted this choice.”

If you were to offer advice to young academics, or legal scholars wishing to enter into the field you are in now, what would it be?
“My first tip would be to choose something you are truly passionate about, and that will keep motivating you, even in difficult times. My next advice would be to seize every opportunity that is offered to you. When I joined Asser in 2011, the institute’s management asked me whether I wanted to become a research fellow with ICCT . Even though I did not have a background in legal aspects of countering terrorism, I immediately said yes, and it has been one of the best decisions in my professional life so far. My third piece of advice would be to aim high, but be realistic as well: your first job may not necessarily be your dream job. I have spoken with many students who all want to work at the ICC, but to increase your chance to get in there, it may be wise to first get some practical court experience at the national level and then make the jump to the international one. Moreover: write. This is something every person can do in principle, even if you do not have the financial means to do two or three internships. It’s a very good and cheap way to show your skills and intelligence to the outside world. My fifth point of advice is to network: be bold and ask people with strong networks to have a coffee and let them know you are looking for a position. When you apply for a position, make your application letter specific and tailor-made to the organisation you are applying for. I have reviewed hundreds of applications in my life and I am still stunned by the fact so many candidates do not refer to the projects mentioned in the vacancy text.  Hence, don’t side-line yourself because of mistakes that can be easily avoided. And finally, in the words of Benjamin Ferencz: “Never give up, never give up, never give up!”

Dr Christophe Paulussen
Dr Christophe Paulussen LL.M. M.Phil. is a senior researcher at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut and coordinator of its research strand ‘Human dignity and human security in international and European law’, coordinator of the inter-faculty research platform ‘International Humanitarian and Criminal Law Platform’ and research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague.

Advance your knowledge on counter-terrorism
Our upcoming Masterclass (November 15 & 16) entitled ‘The modern foreign fighters phenomenon – repatriation, prosecution and/or reintegration?’ will delve into the question of how states can address the legal and policy conundrums triggered by this contemporary form of foreign fighting. All sessions in this Masterclass will be provided by the Asser Institute’s core researchers on countering terrorism – Dr Rumyana van Ark and Dr Christophe Paulussen – complemented by practitioners, such as prosecutors who have tried cases of foreign fighters themselves.

Read more
Towards a Right to Sustainable Security of Person in Times of Terrorism? Assessing Possibilities and Limitations Through a Critical Evaluation of Citizenship Stripping and Non-Repatriation Policies (Journal of Conflict and Security Law)
On the basis of the case studies of deprivation of nationality and the non-repatriation and possible prosecution of foreign fighters and their families, this article will argue that some counter-terrorism measures, adopted under the justification of protecting national security, will not make these countries, and thus also the individuals under its jurisdiction, safer. The article also assert that while the general concept of sustainable security can certainly help at the policy level in encouraging governments to move away from mere national security thinking, the situation is different at the level of human rights. The existing right to security of person arguably does not go that far to be able to block the inefficient counter-terrorism measures as discussed in this article and an extension of this right, to a right to sustainable security of person, should not be pursued.

Stripping foreign fighters of their citizenship: International human rights and humanitarian law considerations (International Review of the Red Cross)
This contribution concludes that citizenship stripping is not only highly problematic under international human rights law, but also from the perspective of international humanitarian law. The measure – which is likely to constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment – violates Article 3 Common to the four Geneva Conventions, but it also undermines accountability for international humanitarian law violations already committed and can engender new violations through the non-removal of the suspect from the conflict zone.