Philadelphia's Enid H. Adler marks first decade of International Criminal Court, which she helped create

Enid H. Adler, lawyer, activist.
Enid H. Adler, lawyer, activist.
Posted: December 04, 2012

She was a guest of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, but it wasn't royal connections that landed Philadelphia lawyer Enid H. Adler at the Hague.

It was her years of work in helping to create a forum where others might seek justice.

Adler's life as a teacher, journalist, and advocate for people fleeing persecution drove her to help establish the International Criminal Court, founded in 2002 for the prosecution of war crimes across the globe.

Adler, semiretired and battling cancer, traveled to the Netherlands to take part in the official ceremonies last month marking the 10th anniversary of a permanent, independent, international court.

"This has been talked about since Nuremberg," she said last week from Brussels, where she was visiting a friend. "It's new ground."

Adler is known in Philadelphia legal and activist circles for her belief that all people deserve dignity, no matter their station or standing, and her determination to turn that vision into reality.

"When it comes to the ICC and victims' rights and war and abuse, she steps up," said Christiaan Morssink, president of the United Nations Association of Greater Philadelphia. "Human-rights issues from a victims' perspective, that's her motivation."

A series of seminars marking the anniversary - and connecting the court's goals to the Constitution written in Philadelphia - are being held here through Adler's persistence. She pushed to create the Philadelphia Global Initiative on the Rule of Law, uniting the Temple University Law School, the International Law Committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association, and the U.N. Association of Greater Philadelphia as sponsors.

"She's tenacious as hell," said Jessica Hilburn-Holmes, a former U.S. diplomat and now a human-rights lawyer in Haddonfield. "She's not just a pistol, she's a cannon. . . . She's grounded herself on those principles, not only that all lives are equally worthy and due respect and dignity, but that one should work all the time to make people aware of that."

Many people, if they have heard of the international court, see it as an obscure and distant body. To people caught up in wars and rebellions, who may be victims of atrocities, it offers a path toward justice.

"She has had a true interest in the development of the International Criminal Court, virtually from day one," said Philadelphia lawyer Michael Scullin, who has served several terms as cochair of the International Law Committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association. "She has been an abiding advocate for the validity and necessity of the ICC, even when people didn't want to listen or weren't interested."

To date the court has indicted 30 people.

In 2010 it put out an arrest warrant for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, the only sitting head of state to be charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. He has evaded arrest on allegations stemming from the killing of civilians in Darfur, where an estimated 300,000 died.

The court issued its first ruling in March, finding rebel leader Thomas Lubanga of the Democratic Republic of the Congo guilty of recruiting child soldiers, a verdict that established the use of children in war as an international crime. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison, less six years already served in custody.

While 121 nations are parties to the treaty that created the court, the United States is not among them. Neither are China and India. Critics say the court is slow and cumbersome. Lubanga's trial lasted three years. And one verdict in a decade?

"It's young," said Adler, who lives in Center City. "Where was our judicial system after 10 years? They're building law, developing law and precedents."

Importantly, she said, the court attends to victims, letting them participate at trial and receive reparations afterward, including money for surgeons and psychiatrists.

"She has a high interest in people," said David Adler, her husband of 55 years, known locally as an authority on bonsai.

Adler was raised in Norristown and educated at Temple University, graduating in 1958 with a degree in education and music. She and her husband had three children at the time the family traveled to Israel in 1973.

The Yom Kippur War erupted three days after they arrived in Jerusalem. David Adler was pressed into service running the neighborhood air-raid shelter, and Enid Adler covered the war for newspapers in Montgomery County.

"I tried to approach it more from the human rights, human interest perspective," she said. "I saw what war was like."

Adler protested the Soviet Union's harassment of Jews, and in 1983 she and her husband traveled to Moscow to meet with refuseniks - families denied permission to leave. They carried a suitcase full of Passover foods, insisting to suspicious border guards that they required a special diet.

But Adler wanted to do more in human rights, and stronger credentials to do it. She took a step: At 50, she enrolled in law school at Villanova University. She graduated in 1988, and in 1993, because of a background in immigration law, became involved in a landmark case: the Golden Venture.

The name sounds like a casino advertisement. In fact, the Golden Venture was a cargo ship carrying 286 illegal Chinese immigrants when it ran aground near New York City. Ten people drowned as they struggled to reach shore, and news of the wreck traveled worldwide.

Adler thought of the St. Louis, the ocean liner that left Hitler's Germany carrying about 930 Jewish refugees. Denied entry into Cuba, the United States, and Canada, the ship was forced back to Europe, where more than a quarter of its passengers perished in the Holocaust.

"I thought, what does it matter, Jewish or Chinese?" Adler said. "They needed lawyers."

The Golden Venture survivors had been taken into custody, the case testing the U.S. practice of detaining asylum-seekers in prisons. Many Chinese said they fled in search of freedom, specifically to have more children, banned under China's birth policy. Most were eventually deported.

Adler persuaded a judge to grant asylum to one client, Jiang Deshui, who sought religious asylum, seeking to openly practice Christianity. He was later reunited with his family in Allentown.

Adler, spurred in part by that work, became deeply involved in the effort to create the international court, representing the interests of nongovernmental organizations. The Rome Statute of the Court was adopted in 1998 by a vote among nations. It became binding in 2002.

"If I've done something, fine," Adler said, turning away credit. "There's a lot of people doing a lot."

Contact Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415,, or on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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