Eugene Cotran, lawyer
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 02.12.2007:
I was approached by Mr. Sani Meo to write a piece about a “Day in My Life” for the December issue of This Week in Palestine. I quote from his request that “it should be a typical day in your life (could be in the past) – we are not looking for a CV.”
I am afraid that I find this an impossible task. I am almost 70 and now semi-retired; and to find a “typical day” is a very tall order. I do qualify, however, as a typical Palestinian who made his life as a lawyer in the Diaspora and shall therefore proceed with memories of my life citing significant events rather than one day.
I was born on August 6, 1938, into a Greek Orthodox family – the Cotrans – originally from Acre (Acca). I went to the Freres School at New Gate in Jerusalem and still have vivid memories of the time of the troubles between 1946 and 1948. Indeed I still remember seeing, from the balcony of our home in Upper Bakaa, the King David Hotel blown up.
In early 1948 my father felt that it was no longer safe for us and moved the family to Alexandria, Egypt. I remember the day we left in a convoy of three cars with the families of Costandi Salameh and Ragheb Nashashibi, via Gaza, thinking that we were going for a temporary period. Indeed we were never to return to our homes in Jerusalem.
I spent my formative years, from age nine to sixteen, in Alexandria. I went to school at Victoria College (which was then known as the Eton of the Middle East). There I forged many friendships with fellow pupils from all over the Arab world. I remember vividly the excitement of the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, and once again, from the balcony of our flat, witnessed the departure to exile of King Farouk in his yacht – the Mahroussa.
In 1954 I left Alexandria for England to pursue a career in law. I went to Leeds University and Lincoln’s Inn to read for the Bar. I spent four happy years at the University of Leeds where I was very active in student politics especially at the time of the Suez Canal crisis. Thereafter I went to Trinity Hall Cambridge to specialise in international law.
Although I had in mind a career in the United Nations or one of its agencies, I found myself stultified by the fact that I was stateless. Finally I was offered a post at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – University of London – as a research officer in African law. This took me to Kenya, with a brief to re-state African Customary Laws. This research culminated in two volumes known as the Restatement of African Customary Law. This resulted in my becoming an authority on the subject, and I became a lecturer and was awarded a doctorate – LLD – at the University of London. By then I had obtained British Nationality, got married in Cairo to Christiane Avierino, whose paternal grandfather held the post of Honorary Consul of Greece in Acre and who married a Saykali related to my grandmother. The Avierino family, originally from Greece, had immigrated to Egypt from Palestine in the 1930s.
Back in England, after Kenya, I felt I did not want to spend my life in academia and joined the Chambers of Sir Dingle Foot, QC, an Arabist, who was an MP and did a lot of work in the Commonwealth and its highest court of appeal, the Privy Council. In turn I became a specialist in that field alongside my academic career. The highlight of my career at the Bar was doing constitutional cases from the Commonwealth and going out to do cases in Commonwealth countries.
In 1977 I was appointed as a High Court judge in Kenya. It was a difficult decision to make in view of my practice in the UK and my academic career and the fact that, by then, we had three boys at school in London. We took the decision to go to Kenya and spent five happy years there. Unfortunately I did not always see eye to eye with the “Establishment” who expected judges to “toe the line” in government cases, although I did get the reputation of being “the people’s judge.”
In 1982 we came back to England and I rejoined my old Chambers. By that time Sir Dingle Foot had died and I became head of Chambers together with my old friend and colleague Desmond de Silva, QC. My speciality switched from the Privy Council to immigration law and in particular, to arbitration work from Arab countries. I was invited by SOAS to become a visiting professor and chairman of a newly created Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law (CIMEL). Since 1994 I have had several publications on international law issues connected with Palestine/Israel.
During that period Dr. Anis Qasim, an eminent lawyer, was the Chairman of the Legal Committee of the Palestinian National Council (PNC). He had moved to London and joined our Chambers. It was also the period when the PNC had declared independence and much legal work was needed. I was honoured and delighted to join him in that exercise, which started with the declaration of the State, followed by the Madrid Process and ultimately by the Oslo Agreement and the Declaration of Principles in 1993.
In that same year, shortly after starting this work, I was offered a judgeship in England, which I was honoured to accept. Much publicity was given to my appointment as the first Arab/Palestinian judge in England. As a judge, I could not delve in anything political. We did, however, have a wise Lord Chancellor who gave me permission to continue to work with Dr. Anis Qasim for the Palestinians from a legal point of view. I continued this collaboration after Oslo and this ultimately resulted in the Basic Law for the Palestinian Authority. I was also honoured to be asked by Dr. Hanan Ashrawi to join her human rights commission – the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights (PICCR) – a form of ombudsman unknown in the Arab world. I was delighted to become a member of the board of which she was commissioner general. It started with much good work in the field of human rights in addition to the Basic Law which was, after much debate, passed by the Legislative Council – an experiment unique in the Arab world. This was coupled with a programme of law reforms aimed at the unification of laws in the West Bank and Gaza. We were hopeful that by the end of the five-year period contemplated by the Oslo agreement, we would become an independent state. But it was not to be.
All this work resulted in my return to Palestine after some fifty years. What I saw was a great disappointment – the transformation of my country and its population. I went home to find it had been plundered. As I was leaving Gaza after attending a conference there, the immigration officer (a Falasha from Ethiopia) questioned me about my status. I told him that I was a judge in England and showed him my credentials. He said “I do not believe you,” and added, “How can a Palestinian be a judge in England?” That perhaps was the saddest day of my life.
Today the Palestinians are divided, but I know that we are a resourceful people and will continue the struggle for self-determination that has been our hallmark since the beginning of the Nakba. Now in semi-retirement I shall certainly soldier on as the proposed new head of the Palestinian community in the United Kingdom.
When we win our national independence, that will be the happiest day of my life.
This Week in Palestine