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Reaffirming a Commitment to the Fundamental Principles of International Law
It is not every day an air raid siren goes off in the lead up to a presentation, but that is exactly what happened to Schulich Law 3L student Caleb MacDonald while at the ‘Stand Tall for the Rule of Law’ Summit in Ukraine in early December of 2023.
The summit, organized by the Ukrainian Association of International Law and the American Society of International Law (ASIL), brought together 75 international law experts and 75 of their Ukrainian counterparts in the city of Lviv. The event was focused on reaffirming a commitment to the fundamental principles of international law, responding to the call of the Ukrainian legal community for partnership, and reflecting on the role of international law at this historic inflection point. The summit coincided with the 75th anniversaries of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
MacDonald, one of ASIL’s nearly 4,000 international members, applied back in October for the opportunity to attend the event as part of the American organization’s delegation. He knew being selected might be a long shot since he was still a law student but much to his surprise, he was among the 75 selected from the hundreds of applications received. He credits his military experience and deep connections to Ukraine as the keys to what made him stand out from the rest of the candidates.
Prior to attending law school, he spent 20 years with the Canadian Armed Forces and the RCMP and had trained soldiers in Ukraine in 2019. He returned to Poland and Romania in the summer of 2022 with a group of fellow volunteers, to help the families of some of those Ukrainian soldiers by renting safe houses near the border and assisting in facilitating their safe passage out of the country after the war had broken out.
When he completed his military service, he decided law school was the next step for him. “My plan after I retired from the military was always to find a way to help refugees in crisis. Part of it was motivated by guilt because as a soldier many refugees fled their homes because of wars I personally fought in. Part of it was the realization that the military gave me the skills and experience to operate in those complex environments safely, and it would be selfish not to use those skills in service to humanity. However, I lacked the academic and legal knowledge needed to work alongside the major NGOs in those environments and I felt that becoming a lawyer would provide the skills and credibility I would need going forward.”
During the three-day summit, MacDonald, the only law student in attendance from the ASIL delegation, was asked to act as rapporteur for a session focused on post-war migration, minority inclusion, and the return of refugees. As rapporteur, he was also responsible for a five-minute presentation to the entire summit, summarizing the discussion and path forward. It was in the 45 minutes prior to this presentation when the air raid siren could be heard off in the distance.
His past experiences uniquely prepared him for how to remain calm in that exact type of scenario, as well as the rigours and stresses that came with travelling in a war zone. International delegates met in Warsaw, Poland to travel via convoy to Lviv. They underwent multiple security briefings before departure, were always accompanied by private bodyguards, and were escorted by local police to and from the Ukrainian border and Lviv.
Another memory from the trip that was close to his heart was when he was invited to visit ‘Unbroken’, a rehab facility for combat-wounded Ukrainians where he was able to meet with and talk to them about their experiences in the war. “It made a huge impact on me,” says MacDonald. “I met soldiers who lost their sight, their arms, their legs. We didn’t share a language, but we knew one another in a way only soldiers can. It was difficult, but I am glad I had that opportunity.”
Following his graduation in the spring, MacDonald will article at Grace Allen Immigration Law in Halifax. From there he hopes to use his unique combination of military, logistics experience and legal education to work with NGOs and other not-for-profit organizations – including going back to Ukraine to continue to help out on the ground.
Shared MacDonald, “The whole trip was an incredible experience, and frankly, a career highlight – which is saying a lot considering this part of my career has yet to start.”
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