Nation, World + Society

Human rights and legal practice inform UCLA scholar’s work

Law professor Asli Bâli is new director of Center for Near Eastern Studies

Aslı Bâli
Peggy McInerny/UCLA

With expertise on a wide range of legal issues, Aslı Bâli has become a much sought-after speaker on political developments in the Middle East both on and beyond the UCLA campus, where she teaches international and human rights law, as well as the laws of war.

With a strong desire to work in international human rights, Asli Bâli felt the pull to attend law school as a student of political theory and mathematics at Williams College in Massachusetts. But before she entered Yale Law, she took an interim step that broadened her view of human rights and her future.

She went to Cambridge University for two years on a Herchel Smith Fellowship. It was there that she realized “that human rights issues were intertwined with issues of development, which included elements of both law and political economy. So I thought about … how to craft a career in human rights that would address the multiple dimensions of governance failure, rule-of-law issues and sustainability in terms of political economy and development.”

Now a UCLA law professor and the new director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies at the UCLA International Institute, Bâli has accomplished all that with an expansive career that includes years in private practice in New York and Paris, pro bono work representing 9/11 victims as well as immigrant Muslim men detained in the aftermath, and the study of international treaty compliance regimes, international human rights, comparative law and constitutional transitions — and that’s just the short list.

To acquire the professional training she sought, she created her own joint J.D.-M.P.A degree, studying law at Yale and public policy at Princeton. While getting that degree, she worked in Yale’s human rights program and its political asylum law clinic, at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, for the legal department of the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa division, and for a private firm, where she represented sovereign governments in negotiations with U.S. banks and multilateral organizations. And after working as an attorney for several years, she returned to Princeton to do a Ph.D. in political science.

Since she arrived at UCLA in 2009, the legal scholar has delved into issues in international law ranging from arms control to the evolving doctrine of humanitarian intervention. She found herself especially well-positioned to analyze U.S. negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program and the resulting Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015 because her dissertation examined the compliance regime of the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, with a focus on the case of Iran.

With her razor-sharp intellect and eloquence, this law professor has become a much sought-after speaker on political developments in the Middle East both on and beyond the UCLA campus, where she teaches international and human rights law, as well as the laws of war.

A multidimensional career

Before becoming a university professor, Bâli managed to balance research, writing, a busy law practice and stimulating pro bono work. However, her route to the university was temporarily sidelined by 9/11, which occurred while she was working on her Ph.D. and on leave from her job at the international law firm of Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamliton LLP.  

“It was a transformative moment,” commented Bâli, “and I decided to return to practice, mainly because I felt a really strong desire to be back in New York working on post-9/11 matters. As someone who spent much of my life in New York, I felt a call to come back and work.” 

Once back with Cleary, she not only did pro bono work for some of the 9/11 victims, but she also led a team of Cleary associates who defended immigrant Muslim men detained in the aftermath of the attacks. The team also conducted research that contributed to a 2003 Migration Policy Institute report on the U.S. strategy of using the immigration system for preventive detention of potential persons of interest. Bâli later returned to the subject in a 2010 article, “Scapegoating the Vulnerable: Preventive Detention of Immigrants in America’s ‘War on Terror.’”

“I had a very full professional life at that time,” she recalled. “I was working for my regular clients at Cleary and doing demanding pro bono work relating to post-9/11 policies. In addition, I was still an enrolled graduate student and expected to make progress on research and writing my dissertation … and I was writing and giving a lot of talks.”

At the same time, she was helping the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee set up a New York office to protect the civil rights of Arab-Americans.

Despite feeling deeply connected to the communities she worked with, Bâli eventually transitioned back to the academy in 2005 to focus on research and writing. After a year at Princeton, she returned to Yale Law for two years on an Irving S. Ribicoff Fellowship and completed her dissertation. In the second year of her fellowship, she went on the academic market.

“I gave job talks around the country, but the offer that I was most interested in was at UCLA,” she recounted. “The wealth of resources and opportunities for collaboration at this university — an incredible research university on topics related to the Middle East and an excellent law school that had a very strong commitment to international and comparative law, as well as significant programs in critical race studies and public interest law. That was a very congenial configuration for me.”

Refocusing views of the Middle East

Appointed director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies last January, Bâli is developing programs that will draw on Middle East expertise throughout campus. “I’m committed to having the center be a place that serves all the varied interests of the scholars who study the Middle East at the university and the broader community that benefits from their research,” she said.

One issue she aims to address is the historical identity of the Middle East as place of many faiths and ethnicities where people have lived alongside one another for centuries. “That picture often gets obscured when we think of the region in terms of ancient ethnic hatreds,” she said. “Actually, it’s a region that’s much more characterized by ancient ethnic bonds and ties — across religions, across tribes, across ethnicities. I would like to do some programmatic work that recovers some of those legacies.

“I think that UCLA is actually very well situated to refocus on some of those histories of coexistence and shared community,” Bâli explained. She points out that the university has exceptionally rich expertise on minorities and migration. “There isn't quite the same sustained focus at any other university that I'm aware of in the United States.”

This story has been condensed. Read the entire story on the UCLA International Institute website.

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