Patricia Whalen, JD 1979
What we say and do has a significant impact in Syria, Libya, and the next conflicts.”
Justice at the International Criminal Tribunal for Bosnia
You might think a justice at The Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina War Crimes Tribunal in Sarajevo would have some pithy advice for VLS students. But Judge Patricia Whalen laughs at the thought. "I did everything 'wrong,'" she says.
Raised in a large Irish family in Philadelphia, she moved to Vermont in the 1970s with her husband and baby and soon became involved with helping a pregnant neighbor whose husband had beaten her so badly she lost the child. "While I was with her at the hospital, he shot himself in the foot, and she got off her gurney to take care of him. That one night taught me everything I needed to know about domestic violence," she says.
Seeking legal tools against domestic violence, Whalen chose the then-fledgling Vermont Law School. After graduation, she worked at Vermont Legal Aid, even though "people told me, you'll never go anywhere if you work there." But at Legal Aid she spearheaded the creation of a statewide domestic violence network and found herself on the other side of the bench in 1990 when Governor Madeline Kunin appointed her magistrate in the state's new Family Court system, settling child support disputes.
Soon after, Whalen attended an organizational meeting of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ). "That meeting changed my life in so many ways," she says. She became active in the group, spoke on family law at international conferences, and organized annual visits by Afghan women jurists to Vermont so they could see first-hand the workings of an orderly, independent judicial system.
In 2002 she got a call from a former Vermont District Court judge and IAWJ member, Shireen Fisher, asking her to help draft The Hague Maintenance Convention, an international treaty on child support. Whalen immersed herself in international law and spent time in The Hague as well as in Vermont. Her visibility rose, and she was selected as a justice in 2007 for the war crimes court because of her experience harmonizing civil and adversarial systems of law.
The court is currently the busiest war crimes court in the world. Among its recent convictions are those of a high-ranking Bosnian Serb army officer who participated in the mass executions of at least 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica and of a Bosnian Serb army officer who ordered an artillery fire on a youth rally in Tuzla, a UN-protected zone, that killed 71. "We're finding that even though international law doesn't adequately address many of these contemporary conflicts, we believe what we say and do will have a significant impact in Syria, Libya, and the next conflicts," says Whalen.
"What we say and do has a significant impact in Syria, Libya, and the next conflicts."
The testimony can be harrowing. One witness who appeared recently before the court was mobilized into the army at age 18, along with his best friend. Their first week in the war, they came upon soldiers playing soccer with a severed head, and they were ordered to bury it. Afterward, disturbed by what they had seen, they woke up the wisest man they knew, their first grade teacher, who happened to live nearby. They went together to the burial place, dug up the head, and videotaped it. Their teacher told them, "You can't tell this story to anyone today. It's not safe. But some day, you'll have to tell this story." The young man, now in his early 30s, said to Judge Whalen and the other judges: "Your Honors, today is that day."
When her term ends at the end of this year, Whalen will rejoin her husband of 30 years, Putney attorney Fletcher Proctor, and they'll enjoy visits from their three grown children, who work in art, technology, and international public health. "And I'll get to go to community town meetings, where everything seems real and important and sensible," she says with a quiet laugh.