A lightning-rod figure in international criminal law has left the bar: Jacques Vergès died in Paris Thursday. He’d been born in what was then Siam 88 years earlier – “theoretically,” according to Le Monde. The obituary hedges because Vergès’ birth, to a Vietnamese mother and a father who was the head of the French consulate, may in fact have occurred many months before the date that his parents married and proclaimed his arrival. Vergès made that personal history part of his public identity, even titling a 1997 memoir Le salaud lumineux (The Shining Bastard).
As an attorney, he took part in the defense of persons charged with heinous international offenses, such as genocide and crimes against humanity. These included Klaus Barbie, the German Nazi officer charged and eventually convicted in French national courts of World War II-era crimes (prior posts); Slobodan Milošević, the former President of Serbia who died in custody midway through his trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (prior posts); Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan, still on trial before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (prior posts available here) (credit for 2008 photo of Vergès at the ECCC); and Laurent Gbagbo, the former President of Côte d’Ivoire who awaits trial before the International Criminal Court.
Vergès’ signature technique was the défense de rupture, a turning of the tables that put not the accused, but rather the judicial institution and the instant prosecution, on trial. Such challenges compelled close examination of the courts and the proceedings. Put succinctly, Vergès’ techniques gave concrete reality to the notion of adversary proceedings. French legal experts remembered him as “courageous,” “provocative,” “intelligent.” And infuriating: his opponent in Barbie, attorney/author Serge Klarsfeld, told Le Monde (my translation):
‘Having conveyed my hostility to Jacques Vergès sufficiently while he was alive, I will refrain from speaking at this moment of his death.’