Carving a way through international crises

JEREMY Carver has a rather unusual job. As head of the only specialised international law department in the world, at Clifford Chance, he specialises in dealing with wars, kidnappings, and other international disputes. As one colleague puts it, whenever there is a crisis, expect to see Carver in its wake.

And, as of this year, it is Jeremy Carver CBE. The award is in recognition of his services to public international law. (He says that he is not really a “gong man”, but is obviously pleased.)

Carver currently advises, among others, Northern Ireland's first minister David Trimble, and a large number of interested parties in the ongoing Gulf conflict. And now he is throwing down the gauntlet to Tony Blair, by calling on the Government to live up to its much-trumpeted “ethical” foreign policy – however not with headline-grabbing arrests of geriatric former dictators.

This week, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials comes into force, under which anyone from 34 signatory states, including Britain, attempting to bribe a foreign official, will face prosecution.

Carver says the Government's attitude to the convention is one of “complacency bordering on hypocrisy”. The Home Office has undertaken a review of legislation, but its current position is that Britain already has sufficient laws to meet its obligations under the treaty.

Yet, since these laws were enacted in 1906, there has been only one arrest for foreign bribery – a Dutchman arrested in Scotland for corruption in Singapore – and he got off.

Carver, a member of the anti-corruption pressure group, Transparency International, is now calling on the Government to tighten up Britain's anti-corruption legislation. It is understood that his concerns are shared by some members of the Cabinet, most notably Clare Short, Minister for Overseas Development.

But, ever astute, he is reticent about laying too much blame on the Government. After all, every and any government is a potential client.

Carver is, for want of a better description, a bit of a smoothie. He is late for our interview, but by the time he has rushed in to the office, thrown his jacket over a chair and told me the sandwiches are on the way, I feel guilty for arriving on time.

One lawyer who has acted alongside him says: “He has tremendous energy and confidence. I imagine those on the other side can find him a little overpowering.”

Carver's first ever case came in November 1969, shortly after he joined Coward Chance (as it was then) – a hostage crisis in Yemen. The newly installed communist government was holding western bank staff at gunpoint, demanding a u5m ransom. Carver advised the bank. The hostages were quickly released and no money was handed over.

Although the headlines remain the same, both Carver and his work have changed dramatically in the last 30 years.

One barrister advising on the 1969 crisis offered Carver the view that: “English law is law, foreign law is fact, and international law is fiction.” Carver, an unmitigated internationalist, has worked throughout his career to turn this adage on its head.

Carver was an internationalist before he was a lawyer, and before he even went to school. His father, Colonel Leslie Carver, was appointed deputy director of a United Nations agency caring for Palestinian refugees following the 1948 Israeli “war of independence”.

It was pure chance that Carver was born in Britain – his family's roots are almost a microcosm of the UN, and he grew up in Beirut in the 1950s.

In those days an “international career” lay in the oil industry, and so Carver studied engineering at Cambridge. A family friend suggested a legal career, and Carver was offered articles at Norton Rose – the only trainee not to have a law degree. “I was something of a misfit, even at that stage,” he says.

Carver is a well-known figure to governments around the world. For example, he headed up the defence team in the u900m action against 23 governments following the collapse of the International Tin Council in 1986. He represented the legal profession on the City/Kuwait group, set up after the 1991 Gulf War, through which over three million compensation claims have been subsequently settled.

Last year, The Lawyer revealed that Carver was advising Northern Ireland's first minister David Trimble on constitutional issues arising out of the Belfast Agreement.

Carver says his role is comparable to that of a commercial lawyer. “I simply clear out the legal points so that problems, in my case perhaps political points, can be seen more starkly,” he says.

The obvious difference is that in the last resort, a commercial client can go to court. In the last resort, some of Carver's clients must go to war, economic or military, to enforce their rights.

But Carver asserts that does not necessarily mean international law is, in essence, an exercise in realpolitik. He says that the challenge is to work on a system of law which is responsive to the needs of the international community and commands respect.

He believes that international law, once the preserve of a few academics, is set to become more relevant and pervasive in the next millennium.

In particular, the collapse of the Russian, South East Asian and South American economies will have massive repercussions on, for example, pension funds. We could see many suits brought against governments, he says. And there will always be an unexpected crisis or two for Carver to sort out.