Q and A with Dr Michelle Lesh

Dr Michelle Lesh (PhD Law 2012) talks about her interest in international justice which saw her contributing to Phase II of the Turkel Commission looking at how Israel investigates alleged war crimes.

Michelle Lesh

How did you first become interested in international humanitarian law?

My paternal grandparents survived the Holocaust in Poland but their extended families did not. It therefore seemed natural that when studying law my interest turned to the impact of the Second World War and the Nuremberg Trials on international law, on the 1949 Geneva Conventions and on the importance of the ideal of a community of nations.

My mother is nine generations Israeli. This personal connection to Israel, together with a more general interest in the relationship between history, politics and law generated my interest in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  

How did your interest in Israel's policy of targeted killing, the topic of your PhD, come about?

Almost ten years ago I did an internship at the Israeli human rights organisation, B'Tselem. I was there when Israel targeted Sheikh Yassin and his successor Abdel Rantisi. Discussions in the organisation about these killings, the state of the law and international reactions ignited my curiosity in the moral, political and legal understandings of what it means to be a civilian. In 2006, I was a foreign law clerk at the Israeli Supreme Court and had the privilege of working for Chief Justice Aharon Barak while he was writing the targeted killing judgment. 

When I finished at B'Tselem I returned to Melbourne to complete my undergraduate studies at Monash University and began an honours thesis on targeted killing. Tim McCormak offered to act as my external supervisor. He then persuaded me to develop my research and undertake a PhD at the Melbourne Law School, which I did under his supervision. Without Tim's extraordinary generosity and kindness I would not be where I am today.

Why do you think it is important to pursue research that can change the way the law is understood and applied? 

I am particularly interested in how the law, and specifically the laws of war, responds to changing realities on the ground and to changing moral attitudes.  My doctoral research concentrated on those issues as they apply to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. More generally, I have been interested in their relevance to asymmetrical warfare, the emergence of non-state actors in conflicts and the state-centric nature of international law.

As important as academic research is, the research done by human rights organisations and other NGOs is also important. I first came to appreciate this when I worked at B'Tselem. It and other human rights organisations contribute research that is particularly sensitive to realities on the ground.  Because international law is made by states, such, often contrary, voices are extremely important.

Who at Melbourne Law School helped to shape your approach to the law? 

I greatly respect and admire Professor Tim McCormack's practical contributions to the development of the law and his ability to convey and apply the technical intricacies of the law to current events in an accessible and down-to-earth manner. He has shown great kindness to me and has gone out of his way to provide opportunities for me that have greatly enriched my understanding of the law. 

I am very glad to have worked in The Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law (APCML), under the directorship of Professor Gerry Simpson. It played an important role in my understanding of international law. Cathy Hutton ensured that the Centre also provided a sense of community. 

I owe gratitude to Professor Michael Schmitt who voluntarily took on the role of external supervisor after his visit to the APCML as the Sir Ninian Stephen Visiting Scholar, and to my supervisor Associate Professor Alison Duxbury as well as to Associate Professor Bruce 'Ossie' Oswald. 

Conversations over the years with my step-father, Rai Gaita (now a professorial fellow in the Melbourne Law School), on Israel, and on law, morality and politics have greatly influenced my interests in, and ideas on, the topic.

The final report of the Turkel Commission, the national enquiry set up following violence on a Gaza-board flotilla of ships in 2010, was released this year. Can you tell me about your contribution?

As a legal advisor to the Turkel Commission during its second phase, my work included writing and drafting Part II of the Report (inquiry into the Israeli mechanisms for examining and investigating allegations of the laws of armed conflict). My work focused on the chapters outlining the normative legal framework for the obligation to investigate (international humanitarian law, international human rights law and international criminal law); on surveying state practice in the field of investigations and on formulating and presenting the Commission's recommendations. The work included liaising with international law experts who consulted the Commission, working very closely with the coordinator of the Commission and also with the international observer Professor Tim McCormack.

Congratulations on being awarded the Golda Meir Postdoctoral Fellowship to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for 2012-13. What do you hope to achieve in the coming year?

I have been looking at international humanitarian law, international human rights law and the interaction between these bodies of law from the perspective of the legal controversy over targeted killing. Because of my interest in the interaction between international humanitarian law and international human rights law I am currently working on the interplay between the two legal regimes in the context of the conduct of hostilities with focus on the right to life. I have also been exploring the interaction of the two legal regimes on the nature of investigations under international law, with a focus on the findings of the Turkel Report. The international legal ramifications of the unilateral bid for Palestinian statehood is a third context in which I examine the topic. I will submit the results of my research to academic journals and books for publication. 

Since being awarded the Golda Meir Postdoctoral Fellowship I have been working under the supervision of the Dean of the Law Faculty, Professor Yuval Shany. I have recently taken three months leave from the fellowship to take up a position as a special researcher on the Occupied Palestinian Territory for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

Dr Lesh was awarded the Golda Meir Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2012. Professor Tim McCormack was the first Australian to be awarded this fellowship in 1988.

Image: Dr Michelle Lesh
Credit: supplied

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 9, June 2013.