Spotlight on: Amal Clooney

With cases that have spanned the globe and involved sham trials, war crimes, suppression of free speech and political prejudice, Amal Clooney is at the forefront of international human-rights law. Her work has had such a strong international impact that her marriage to actor George Clooney is often mentioned as an afterthought. Here’s what Amal Clooney has brought to the legal profession, and to those who rely on it the most.

  • Last updated Oct 15, 2018 11:16:15 AM
  • Becky Kells, Editor, AllAboutLaw
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Image by Sam Jenkins

Name: Amal Clooney, formerly Amal Alamuddin.

Current roles: Barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, specialising in international law and human rights. Co-founder and president, Clooney Foundation for Justice.

Notable for: Clooney has represented victims of human rights violations, unfair trials, war crimes and genocide. Her clients are individuals and groups all over the world, and include deposed presidents, minority religious groups and persecuted journalists.

Early life: Clooney was educated at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and New York University School of Law, but her life began in Beirut, Lebanon. Born in 1978, she and her family moved to Buckinghamshire at the height of the Lebanese Civil War. Amal’s name was inspired by a lull in this conflict—her father, Ramzi Alam Uddin, chose it because it means “hope” in Arabic. She went on to graduate with a BA in jurisprudence from Oxford, continuing her studies with an LLM in New York. Clooney received two awards during this period—the Shrigley Award at Oxford, and the Jack J. Katz Memorial Award in New York.

Law on an international scale: After a stint at Sullivan & Cromwell as a criminal defence lawyer, Clooney began her career in international law with a judicial clerkship in the International Court of Justice. She would remain in The Hague working with the UN-sponsored International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, before establishing herself at Doughty Street Chambers in London.

Clooney specialises in public international law, international criminal law and human rights. Speaking about international law, Clooney said that she “understands the scepticism—some of the most grave conflicts in the world are not being acted upon... [but] at the same time we do have examples of international justice, sometimes it just takes them time”.

ISIS war crimes against the Yazidi Muslims: Clooney’s cases are usually highly complex, often dealing with crimes that aren’t recent and spanning many years.

One such case is that of Nadia Murad, a woman who was part of the Yazidi Muslim community in northern Iraq. Murad was kidnapped and raped when her village was attacked by ISIS in 2014. It was systematic: 6,500 women and children were abducted, while around 5,000 Yazidi Muslims were killed.

Clooney began acting as counsel for the Yazidi Muslims at a time when ISIS was at the forefront of public attention. When speaking about the case, she highlighted the need for victims of ISIS to see its members brought to justice in a court of law. “Killing ISIS on the battlefield is not enough,” she said. “We must kill the idea behind ISIS by exposing its brutality and bringing individual criminals to justice.”

For this to happen, evidence had to be gathered on the ground in Syria. Clooney spoke of ISIS’ methods: an organisation obsessed with cataloguing its own expansion, it had created documents outlining its plans, as well as databases of its members. Aside from this, ISIS was leaving mass graves and DNA evidence in its wake— all of which could help bring those responsible to justice.

When dealing with such complex matters of international law, Clooney highlighted that there needs to be an accompanying international response. Speaking to the UN and directly calling upon the Iraqi government—last March, Clooney said, “The UN was created as the world’s way of saying ‘never again’ to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. And yet here we are, 70 years later, discussing the UN’s inaction in the face of a genocide that we all know about, and that is ongoing.”

Defending journalists during a “free-speech crisis”: Many of Clooney’s past clients have included journalists, facing charges simply for doing their jobs. Clooney told the BBC that the world is facing a “free-speech crisis”, referring to examples in Turkey, Thailand and Malaysia, “many more places than people realise”.

In Egypt in 2015, three Al-Jazeera journalists were sentenced to three years in prison for operating without a press licence and broadcasting harmful material. Clooney represented Mohamad Fahmy, one of the three, and said that the verdict “sent a very dangerous message— that journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job” and that “there are judges in Egypt that will allow their courts to become instruments of political oppression and propaganda”.

Other free-speech-focused cases taken on by Clooney include that of two Reuters journalists held in Myanmar, who were charged under the colonial-era Officials Secrets Act for reporting on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, and Khadija Ismayilova, who faced sham charges in Azerbajan after reporting on the corruption of the country’s president—later verified in the Panama Papers leak. With Clooney’s assistance, Ismayilova was released from prison after being acquitted of two out of four of her charges.

Clooney said: “Today we can all celebrate the fact that an innocent young woman has been freed. Khadija is a talented journalist who was instrumental in exposing corruption in her country. Her release is a victory for all journalists who dare to speak truth to power.”

“Amal Clooney and husband”: Being married to George Clooney has introduced an interesting element to Amal’s career, propelling her fashion choices, family life and indeed her work to an extremely public level. Clooney has been quick to emphasise that her career predates her marriage: “I don’t really see myself in the same way [as celebrities drawing attention to philanthropic causes], as I’m still doing the same job as I was doing before.”

When asked by BBC News if she felt that her public profile was a “help or a hindrance” in the cases with which she was involved, she responded with a laugh: “The profile of a lawyer is really irrelevant when you’re just sitting behind a desk for hours.” She was referring to the huge amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes into a case, during which the lawyer—famous or not—is away from the public eye.

Philanthropy: Clooney, along with her husband, often blurs the boundary between her work as a human-rights lawyer and her charitable work, as both endeavours have an international element. Last year, the Clooneys committed to helping 3,000 Syrian refugees to go to school in Lebanon, and the couple also sponsored an Iraqi refugee so that he could attend the University of Chicago.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice functions on a similarly international scale. On the Foundation’s website, the Clooneys made the following statement: “Justice is more than what is meted out in courts; it is litigated in communities as well. Advancing the cause of justice also means advancing justice for marginalised and vulnerable communities targeted by hate; justice for displaced children deprived of opportunities to learn; justice for refugees seeking to rebuild their lives abroad.”

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