Sir Arthur Watts: Foreign Office legal adviser who became a sought-after international lawyer

Arthur Desmond Watts, barrister and international arbitrator: born London 14 November 1931; called to the Bar, Gray's Inn 1956, Bencher 1996; Legal Assistant, Foreign Office (later Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 1956-59, Assistant Legal Adviser 1962-67, Legal Counsellor 1970-73, 1977-82, Deputy Legal Adviser 1982-87, Legal Adviser 1987-91; Legal Adviser, British Property Commission (later British Embassy), Cairo 1959-67; Legal Adviser, British Embassy, Bonn 1967-69; Assistant Solicitor, Law Officers Department 1969-70; Counsellor, Office of the UK Permanent Representation to the EEC 1973-77; CMG 1977, KCMG 1989; QC 1988; High Representative's Special Negotiator on Succession Issues, former Yugoslavia 1996-2001; married 1957 Iris Collier (one son, one daughter); died London 16 November 2007

The distinctive figure of Arthur Watts, immaculately dressed, leaning on his cane, seemed to portray a timeless image of the English gentleman an image reinforced by Watts's unfailing courtesy and the warmth of his personality. It would have been difficult to imagine a man more suited to the role of Legal Adviser to HM Diplomatic Service.

During a career spanning 35 years in the Diplomatic Service, Watts served both at home and abroad. Postings as Legal Adviser to the British Property Commission in Cairo, 1959-62, Legal Adviser to the British Embassy in Bonn, 1967-69, and Legal Counsellor to the UK Permanent Representation to the EEC in Brussels, 1973-77, were interspersed with spells as Assistant Legal Adviser and Legal Counsellor at the Foreign Office, and then the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Appointed Deputy Legal Adviser in 1982, he became Legal Adviser in 1987.

In the opinion of many, Watts set the modern standard for government legal advisers. He led UK delegations at numerous international meetings, including the UN Charter Committee in Manila in 1980, the Antarctic Minerals Negotiations, 1982-88, and the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings that took place in Canberra in 1983 and Brussels in 1985. The minerals negotiations entailed spending time in Antarctica, where, in order to enliven proceedings, Watts persuaded the New Zealand delegation to fly out a complete set of cricket equipment. This resulted in 1985 in the staging of the most southerly game of cricket ever to have been played.

Following retirement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1991, Watts joined 20 Essex Street Chambers, the same chambers as Sir Elihu Lauterpacht QC, and embarked upon a second career as one of the most sought-after members of that select group of practitioners which comprises the public international law bar. Over a period of 10 years he represented France, Nigeria, Slovakia, Indonesia, Colombia, Ukraine and Jordan before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. His speeches were reckoned to be some of the finest ever made before that court.

Interspersed with these cases were some of the toughest international law assignments on offer. Watts was the choice of the UN's High Representative Carl Bildt as his Special Negotiator on Succession Issues for the Former Yugoslavia. Following in the wake of the Balkan conflicts in the early Nineties, it became necessary to appoint someone to mediate the conflicting claims of the new states to, inter alia, hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of gold reserves held by the National Bank of Yugoslavia. Months of shuttle diplomacy between Belgrade, Sarajevo, Zagreb, Skopje and Ljubljana, and a display of almost superhuman diplomatic skills, and patience, resulted in an agreement in June 2001.

No sooner had these issues been resolved than Watts was appointed to the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission as one of five members of the commission charged with bringing an end to two years of vicious conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The war had echoes of the trench warfare of the First World War, with its stalemates and the slaughter of tens of thousands of young conscripts on both sides. It had been fought over an ill-defined 900km colonial boundary running through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet. The process was successful in putting an end to the war, and the award made in 2002 was accepted by both sides as far as the great majority of the boundary was concerned.

Watts held numerous judicial and arbitral appointments alongside his practice as an advocate, and was author or editor of many works in the public international law canon. Notable among these were Oppenheim's International Law (volume 1, ninth edition, 1992), and The International Law Commission, 1949-1998 (in three volumes, 1999-2000).

Arthur Desmond Watts was born in 1931 and educated at Haileybury and the Imperial Service College, followed by the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and Cambridge, where he read Economics and then Law at Downing College. An LLM (First Class) in public international law followed and he was awarded the university's Whewell Scholarship in International Law in 1955. In the same year, he won his county cap playing cricket for Shropshire. In 1956 he was called to the Bar at Gray's Inn and in the same year became a Legal Assistant in the Foreign Office.

In 1996, after his retirement from the FCO, he acquired land at Tortington, near Arundel in Sussex, which included the ruins of Tortington Priory, an Augustinian foundation dating from the 12th century. The priory had been largely destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. In the 17th century a thatched barn was constructed, using as two of its walls the two remaining walls of the priory. Watts's vision was to restore the remains of the structure as authentically as possible, at the same time creating a small residence within the curtilage of the courtyard which lies behind the barn.

This was achieved with outstanding success using local architects and craftsmen: the restoration has attracted three awards, including one conferred by the Sussex Heritage Trust in 2001.

Tim Daniel

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