THE BLOG
01/16/2015 04:14 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

Amal Clooney is not a Saint

Amal Clooney's appearance at the Golden Globes on Sunday alongside "trophy husband" George unsurprisingly caused a buzz, and not just Giuliana Rancic's buzz from awkwardly doing a shot while the couple looked on. While Mr. Clooney was there to accept a lifetime achievement award for his work in film, host Tina Fey pointed out that Mrs. Clooney's achievements have somewhat dwarfed those of her husband. As Fey pointed out, "Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person U.N. commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip. So tonight, her husband is getting a lifetime achievement award." Yet although Fey makes Clooney sounds like a one-woman global savior, her actual professional history is a bit more complicated than that.

While Amal Clooney's resume reads like most human rights activists' wildest dreams (stints working for the UN, heads of states, and ambassadors are not easy to come by) the term "human rights lawyer" is somewhat misunderstood by the public to mean "saint." Although Clooney's work for organizations such as the International Court of Justice, where she clerked during law school, and the United Nations is laudable both professionally and morally, there are also some not-so-savory clients whose human rights violations make it clear that she is their defense lawyer, not prosecutor.

Clooney's client list includes not only the ostensible "good guys" like former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, but also very questionable characters like the King of Bahrain and Abdullah al Senussi. She served as Bahraini King Hasan bin Isa al Khalifa's legal advisor on the Bassiouni Commission, a royally established group charged with investigating claims of human rights violations during the Arab Spring uprisings in Bahrain in 2011. Briefly, troops sent by the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as the Bahraini security services crushed the uprising using excessive force, killing many civilians, and wounding and jailing thousands. The Bassiouni Commission itself found that people had been tortured to death in police custody - yes, tortured to death - and that hundr eds more had been injured or killed, confirming what rights groups had already reported although on a smaller scale. Yet in this context, Clooney worked not on behalf of the violated but the violator, advising the King on human rights, presumably in order to absolve him of as much responsibility as possible, as any good defense lawyer does.

Abdullah al Senussi, another one of Clooney's clients, served as Muammar Gaddafi's intelligence chief and was captured in Libya in 2011. The International Criminal Court charged him with crimes against humanity in 2011 for his role in Gaddafi's brutal government as well as the Lockerbie bombing. Clooney's decision to continue to work on his defense drew some fire after she became engaged to her current spouse, as if her professional life might take a backseat to her then-fiancé's humanitarian image. Clooney's primary role in the case appears to be appealing the decision to hold the trial in Libya's domestic courts, however, claiming her client's right to meet with his lawyers was denied by the ICC.

Clooney herself justified her choice to work on behalf of al Senussi, saying that everyone has a right to a defense lawyer (extremely true) and criticizing the International Criminal Court for violating the rights of her client. Even though this may seem ironic, given the charges of human rights violations against al Senussi, due process is an integral, essential part of the international legal structure, and failures to uphold due process undermine the entire system. When it comes to those accused of war crimes or human rights violations, this includes the right to a defense, which Clooney provided professionally and convincingly in al Senussi's case. What's more, Clooney, while being many other laudable things, is also a lawyer, and lawyers make their living and reputation from acting as both prosecution and defense.

Clooney's defense of al Senussi and legal advising to al Khalifa is part of her success as a lawyer, and defense as well as prosecution is essential to ensure the functioning of international human rights law. It is a reminder that human rights lawyers are still lawyers, professionals who need to make a career by playing both sides of the courtroom. She is certainly not a saint, but a shrewd and passionate professional (some would dare to say "ambitious") who has advanced her career by taking the unsavory clients along with defending those whose rights have been violated. In doing so, Amal Clooney has proved that she is no angelic philanthropist whose job is but a hobby after being a wife, but a determined professional whose interest in her own career has been just as paramount as her idealism. To reduce her to a savior figure not only infantilizes her work and the work of all human rights lawyers, but also boils her multifaceted and controversial career choices down to simplistic idealism, which is hardly a way to make a living, and certainly not to make a successful legal career.