In the latest in our series, profiling Irish and Northern Irish lawyers and jurists who have worked abroad, or are working abroad, we spoke with Eric Tully, a lawyer from Co. Kildare. Eric works primarily in the field of International Criminal Law and since 2009, he has worked for the defence of five separate accused before three different Tribunals (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and he currently works on the defence team for an Accused before the Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC) in the Hague. He also worked as a Legal Officer with the UN peacekeeping mission to Southern Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
Lawyer Eric Tully.
"I had a deep interest in the subjects I had been exposed to over the course of my time at the Irish Centre for Human Rights. From that point on, it was clear to me that I wanted to work in international law."
IRLI: What are you currently doing?
EC: Recently I have become involved in capacity-building projects taking place in certain regions of Iraq with Axiom International (A British company, operating globally, delivering sustainable solutions in some of the world’s most challenging areas), tasked with delivering workshops and training to the local judiciary, focused on fair trial rights, which has been a very rewarding experience and one I’m very glad to be a part of.
In addition to this, since 2017, I have been representing individual clients in administrative matters before various international organisations, which can involve instances where staff members’ rights have been violated by the organisation they work for, where they have been subjected to harassment in its various forms, or where they face allegations of misconduct/disciplinary proceedings. (These are the main examples of the cases, but it can be a pretty mixed bag in terms of subject matter – I never know exactly what the case is going to be until I pick up the phone!)
What is your background/training?
I studied Law at UCD as my Bachelor's degree. I studied International Human Rights Law at the Irish Centre for Human Rights in NUIG as my LLM, where I focused on conflict/post-conflict studies and IHL. I sat the New York bar exam and qualified as an Attorney at Law and the following year, I further qualified as a Solicitor in England and Wales.
Why did you become interested in legal work?
While in secondary school, I was fairly clear from Junior Cert onwards that I wanted to study law and that never really varied. However, upon completing my Bachelor's degree, I wasn’t very interested in pursuing a further career in the field and happily worked as a waiter in Dublin for the year following my graduation. This involved a lot of late nights and of course, as a 21-year-old straight out of university, spending a fair share of my tips immediately following the end of my shift! Of course, I loved it, but it became clear after a while that I probably couldn’t sustain it in the long run. With some gentle pushing from my parents, I was about to enrol in an LLM in Trinity, with no particular direction as to where it would take me, but as a result of a chance phone call with an old classmate from UCD, I decided at the very last minute to apply to the LLM in Int. Human Rights at NUIG, for a change of city, if nothing else. However, it became clear to me somewhere around the halfway mark of the course that the subject matter meant more to me than just a title to get printed on a piece of paper, and I actually had a deep interest in the subjects I had been exposed to over the course of my time at the Irish Centre for Human Rights. From that point on, it was clear to me that I wanted to work in international law.
What do you hope to achieve from the work you are doing?
In the short term, my focus is really on the best interest of the clients I work for at any given moment, which now would be the accused currently in pre-trial at the KSC or the people I am representing in administrative proceedings.
It’s difficult to say with any great certainty beyond the present since this work can be all-consuming, but I do hope to keep diversifying my experiences within this field and beyond. I’ve found that a career in international law doesn’t always stick to a linear path, so you have to be ready for changes in direction as they arise and adapt accordingly.
Eric Tully (left), in the hills of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, taking a break between fair trial workshops with his colleague, Peter Haynes QC and their local security focal point, Rashad.
"It was a shock to go from an LLM academic perspective of reading about International Criminal Law jurisprudence to being involved in the actual nuts and bolts of an active ICL trial! The difference between theoretical and practical is quite a gap to bridge, especially when you’re thrown in the deep end of a case halfway through the prosecution’s presentation of evidence."
Can you tell us some of your professional experiences that have left quite a mark on you personally?
In terms of specific incidents, one springs to mind which came from my time with UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon). There had been an exchange of fire at the “Blue Line” (The informal border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel), allegedly between the IDF and Lebanese non-state actors and it wasn’t out of the question that it could lead to a significant escalation. The town I lived in was roughly 20 km from the Blue Line. While these kinds of exchanges are not unheard of, this particular one was of a degree that a palpable sense of imminent conflict with the neighbouring country was in the air. As UN staff members, we had been advised on the evacuation procedures and collection points should conflict arise and were on heightened alert. I had close friends who were locals from the town where I lived and I was struck by their reactions. There was clearly an air of nervousness, but quite a lot of the time, the attitude seemed to be a sense that life just goes on (coupled, at times, with quite a lot of “gallows humour”). Thankfully the situation de-escalated. It was a reminder to me that it can be deceptively easy working in our field to slip into an attitude where we read these incidents from afar as statistics or look at them solely in the abstract for their legal or political causes/effects. Worse still, they can be looked at as simply happening “over there”. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that these “incidents” are endured by people whose lives and homes would be directly affected by the consequences of living in those firing lines and that for them, life must carry on regardless.
You have worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), can you tell us a little about the work?
The ICTY was an ad hoc tribunal set up in the mid-90s to try those accused of the most serious crimes committed in the context of the wars that occurred in the territories of the former Yugoslavia. The crimes prosecuted fell under the headings of grave breaches of the Geneva Convention, violations of the laws of war, crimes against humanity and genocide.
I began as an intern there, in what seems like a lifetime ago, 2009. It was a shock to go from an LLM academic perspective of reading about ICL (International Criminal Law) jurisprudence to being involved in the actual nuts and bolts of an active ICL trial! The difference between theoretical and practical is quite a gap to bridge, especially when you’re thrown in the deep end of a case halfway through the prosecution’s presentation of evidence.
The main thing that struck me immediately as a new arrival was how impossibly vast every moving part of these trials seem; from the rules of procedure to the mountains of evidence (which would take a lot of work simply to read a list of documents descriptions, let alone the documents themselves), to the intensely complex history of the region, which of course is required reading in order simply to arrive at square one of comprehension. Of course, these factors aren’t out of the ordinary for complex criminal trials in general, but at the ICTY especially, those factors were turned up by orders of magnitude.
Once I settled into the process though, it really was a case of working very hard, long hours on what at times were minute details of evidence that may never actually see the light of day, to complex and over-arching questions of law which went to the very heart of the charges faced by the accused (and of course, maintaining excel sheets. So, so many excel sheets…)
After six months as an intern, I managed to secure a paid position as a legal assistant/case manager on a second case, and then onto a third case within a year. Everything else I have worked on to date has just kind of flowed from that point on really. Although it could be overwhelming at times, and it very much was a case of “learning by doing”, by the time I left the ICTY, I had a clear picture of the value of working for the defence and this really shaped my approach to the field.
Overall, my experience was immensely positive. It reinforced my enthusiasm for the field and I made friends and acquaintances to whom I am still very close today.
Eric as a member of the defence team at the he Defence at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).
"I think that unfortunately there remains a general misunderstanding about the role of the defence, as well as the fundamental importance of a robust, effective defence in terms of the rule of law and international justice. A strong and well-prepared defence is as essential to a healthy system of justice as any other party or office."
What sort of cases have you been involved with that you would like to discuss/feel are important?
When you’re working on these cases, they are always dealing with the most serious of charges – crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide etc, so there is no case I have worked on that I could rightly say is more important than another.
Working for the defence in these cases always has significant challenges – for example, since the defence is naturally involved in the trial process at a later stage to the prosecution, it must play “catch-up” in terms of preparation. As there is often a disparity in resources between parties, this can be quite a stressful process of simultaneously preparing an effective defence, learning the relevant information as quickly as possible, conducting extensive and at times complex litigation (for access to disclosure, or for filing challenges to the indictment for example), while at the same time managing your time effectively.
I have always been impressed with my colleagues and the senior Counsel who in the face of these obstacles can keep the defence of the client at the forefront of considerations and not let politics/rhetoric/difficult circumstances cloud the goal of protecting the right to a fair trial.
I think that unfortunately there remains a general misunderstanding about the role of the defence, as well as the fundamental importance of a robust, effective defence in terms of the rule of law and international justice. A strong and well-prepared defence is as essential to a healthy system of justice as any other party or office. The proper functioning of these systems demands that every person is afforded the same rights at trial, which naturally includes the right to a defence, regardless of how grave the charges against them may be. I am very proud of the work I and all of my colleagues throughout my years in this field have been involved in.
You also worked at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), as well as in Lebanon itself. What did that involve?
The STL is a tribunal set up to try those accused of carrying out the attack of 14 February 2005 which killed 22 people, including the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, and injured many others. It is an independent, judicial organisation composed of Lebanese and international judges. It is neither a UN court nor part of the Lebanese judicial system. It does, however, try people under Lebanese criminal law. In this sense, it is regarded as a “hybrid tribunal”.
My work at the STL was quite unique, in that it was the first of its kind to deal with terrorism as a discrete crime. Additionally, the trials were carried out in absentia, which was something of an alien concept to a common law lawyer and which brought with it its own problems, not least of all being the lack of instruction from a client, which in turn brought with it a host of other issues. Despite these difficulties, I enjoyed working on the case and the experiences it brought with it, and in any event, the team I worked on secured an acquittal for the Accused. I am proud to have been a part of that and I believe that acquittals in these kinds of trials is a sign of a properly functioning justice system.
One of the most interesting aspects of that trial was that a lot, if not the majority of the case presented against the accused was based on telecoms evidence. This is, of course, a common feature of modern domestic criminal trials, but I’m not aware of another ICL case which relied on telecom evidence to the same extent, or at the same volume (at the date of this interview, at any case!). In short order, we all had to become very familiar with the technicalities of the field and to translate this into legal language in order to meet the prosecution’s case. It was especially important to understand exactly what this evidence could, and couldn’t without other supporting evidence, tell the person analysing it.
I worked as a Legal Officer with UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) from 2019 to 2020, when I took a sabbatical from the STL. This experience was also one that left a positive mark on me. In the Legal Office at UNIFIL, I worked with some of the best professionals in the field and as well as carrying out the tasks typical of a Legal Office in a mission, there were weekly, if not daily, issues relating to the integrity of the “Blue Line” and the operation of the mission as a whole within the legal parameters of the mandate. As an Irish person, it of course had a personal connection to me, as we all grew up with the knowledge that every year since 1978, the Irish Army has contributed troops to this peacekeeping mission. It was fascinating to actually be able to not only see where the troops are deployed but to also be a part of and contribute to the mission.
During my time there, I provided legal training courses, for example regarding the Protection of Civilians, but in my first few days at the mission I was placed in charge of the Rules of Engagement legal training program for newly arrived troops, which was definitely a daunting experience at first, but one I grew to love. I’d like to return to this work at some point in the future.
Eric Tully with members of the Legal Office and legal advisors from several troop contingents receiving a briefing from members of IRISHBATT in South Lebanon.
"With the work with Axiom International projects, my drive is really to deliver the highest standard of guidance concerning international fair trial rights that I can and to contribute in building towards a more robust understanding of those rights, particularly from a defence perspective."
Why did you decide to work abroad (bring your professional experience and knowledge elsewhere)?
The simple answer is that the work I want to do in this field is located abroad. It’s a happy coincidence because I love the experience of visiting, adapting to and working in new environments (as challenging as it can be at times), so it’s a feature of our field that appeals to me. Although I have been primarily based in the Hague since 2009, I have lived and worked further afield in various roles and the cases that are based here can involve travelling for investigative missions, so I don’t often get itchy feet for too long. Working with Axiom International projects taking place in Iraq has definitely been enough to keep my plate full, travel-wise!
Your hopes working as you do/What drives you to do what you do?
It’s a difficult question to answer! In any role I have taken on, the goal is always to carry out the work with diligence, honesty and integrity. I guess once that’s the basis on which you put your first foot forward, the work itself will take on its own meaning. As I said above, the primary concern with this work is always to work in the best interests of the client, whether that’s a person who is standing charged with offences under international criminal law, an individual staff member whose rights hang in the balance within the organisation they work with or delivering the best legal work I can for those relying on my services. With the work with Axiom International projects, my drive is really to deliver the highest standard of guidance concerning international fair trial rights that I can and to contribute in building towards a more robust understanding of those rights, particularly from a defence perspective.
Would you like to work elsewhere/make a difference elsewhere through your work?
I have never taken an extremely rigid approach to what kinds of experiences or work I want to get involved with. I would like at some point in the future to get involved in investigative work, from a human rights or international criminal law perspective and as noted above, I would also be interested in returning to peacekeeping work. However, right now I’m working on the pre-trial for a defence team at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, representing clients in international administrative proceedings and also planning another capacity-building project in the Middle East, so I’m busy in a few different directions. It’s great to have your eyes on other opportunities, but first things first!
Your advice to young people entering the legal profession?
Pay a lot of attention to the work of your colleagues and supervisors/seniors, they can be the best teachers you will ever have. On that – don’t be afraid of making mistakes yourself, even the best lawyers are still learning on the job, but the key is to always learn from and don’t repeat those mistakes. Always consult with people who are in the field longer than yourself and who have experience doing the things that you ultimately want to do. If you see something you don’t understand, don’t stay quiet – either go learn it yourself immediately or even better, ask for guidance from someone who would know. Don’t be afraid of criticism and definitely don’t be too precious about your work! This is one of the best ways for those lessons to be passed on. Above all, take your time, do your work step by step and go easy on yourself. It’s not an easy profession, and defeating yourself over the size of the task ahead of you before you even start won’t help anybody, least of all yourself.