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Robert F. Van Lierop Biography

Became a Journalist, Became a UN Ambassador, Continued in Legal Practice, Selected works


Attorney, filmmaker, and diplomat

Robert F. Van Lierop's varied and distinguished career has included spells as assistant legal counsel to the NAACP in the late 1960s, as ambassador to the United Nations for the Republic of Vanuatu, as a photojournalist and film producer, and as a founding partner in the law firm of Van Lierop, Burns, and Bassett. At the United Nations during the 1980s he was influential in negotiations on important global issues, including the ending of apartheid in South Africa, and on international environmental law. He was vice president of the United Nations General Assembly in its 43rd session, Chairman of the 4th Committee (Trusteeship and Decolonization) during the 44th session, and vice chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Whole during the 16th Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Apartheid and its Destructive Consequences in Southern Africa; he also served as the first chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) from 1991 to 1994.

Van Lierop continued to pursue his legal practice during the years of his United Nations service. He has advised national governments and corporations on international law and has been an important figure in the New York City Bar Association, in particular during terms as chairman of its Council on International Affairs and as chairman of the executive committee. Van Lierop's efforts in the fight for justice and peace around the world have brought him many awards and commendations, including the Vanuatu Independence Medal, which he received from the prime minister in 1991.

Robert F. Van Lierop was born on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu on March 29, 1939; his parents were Sylvia and Edward Van Lierop. After serving in the United States Air Force from 1956 to 1960, he attended Hofstra University on Long Island, New York, graduating with a B.A. in economics in 1964. He later attended the New York University School of Law as an Arthur Garfield Hayes Civil Liberties Fellow, graduating in 1967 with a J.D. After graduation in 1967 he went to work as assistant legal counsel to the NAACP, where he was involved in litigating on civil rights issues and constitutional law. In 1968 he became an associate of the firm Fleisher, Dornbush, Mensch, Mandelstam, where he stayed until 1971.

Became a Journalist

In 1971 Van Lierop's interest in political activism and human rights causes led him to take a break from legal practice and set himself up as a freelance photojournalist and filmmaker. His first documentary film, A Luta Continua, addressed the struggle for independence in Mozambique, a cause he pursued until the end of the civil war in 1975; he also led delegations of AfricanAmerican activists to Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Cuba in 1977 and 1978. He made a second film about Mozambique, O Povo Organizado, which was completed in 1976, and he also worked on behalf of the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement, which opposed corporate exploitation of South Africa. He also produced documentaries about the United Nations and South Africa as part of the weekly Like It Is series, which aired on WABC-TV from 1977 to 1978. The show, which Van Lierop co-produced, was a news and current affairs documentary series aimed at African Americans.

Van Lierop returned to private legal practice in 1978 when he became a founding partner in the firm of Van Lierop, Burns, and Bassett in New York City. Since its founding the firm has worked in the field of sports and entertainment law as well as advising governments and large organizations on international law, constitutional law, and civil rights law.

Became a UN Ambassador

In 1981 Van Lierop was invited to become ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations for the island of Vanuatu, which had gained independence from Britain and France the previous year. Van Lierop held the position until 1994 and contributed to making Vanuatu a leading member of the economic cooperation organization, AOSIS, which formed in 1991 to enable small island states to work together to compete in global markets. Van Lierop became the first chairman of AOSIS and led the organization during the period of its establishment as a key negotiator in the process of developing environmental laws and conventions. In particular he was a central figure in the negotiation of the United Nations Climate Convention, which became the cornerstone of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. By the end of his tenure at the United Nations, AOSIS had become an important voice in international negotiations on issues such as economic globalization, free trade, and climate change.

During his time at the United Nations Van Lierop held several important posts and was involved in many summits around the world. He served as a VicePresident of the 43rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Chairman of the 4th Committee on Trusteeship and Decolonization during the 44th Session of the General Assembly, and Vice Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Whole during the 16th Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Apartheid and its Destructive Consequences in Southern Africa. Van Lierop was also a non-aligned states delegate to U.N. summits at New Delhi, India, in 1983; Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1986; and Belgrade, Serbia, in 1989. In the 1980s and 1990s he also worked on behalf of the East Timorese to oppose Indonesian occupation.

Continued in Legal Practice

At a Glance …

Born Robert F. van Lierop on March 29, 1939, in Vanuatu; married Toy (a makeup artist); children: one. Education: Hofstra University, BA, economics, 1964; New York University School of Law, LLB (JD), 1967. Military Service: United States Air Force, 1956-60.

Career: NAACP, assistant counsel, 1967-68; Fleisher, Dornbush, Mensch, Mandelstam law firm, associate, 1968-71; film producer and photojournalist, 1971-76; TV producer, 1977-78; Van Lierop, Burns, and Bassett law firm, partner and attorney, 1978-81, 1994-; United Nations, ambassador and permanent representative for the Republic of Vanuatu, 1981-94.

Memberships: Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, board member; Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, board member; Black Economic Research Center, board member; American Committee on Africa; National Conference of Black Lawyers; Harlem Children's Theatre; National Lawyers' Guild; New York Civil Liberties Union; American Bar Association; Association of the Bar of the City of New York, various committee chairmanships; New York State Bar Association.

Awards: Hofstra University, George M. Estabrook Distinguished Service Award, 1991; Hofstra University Award, Alumni Achievement, 1993; Vanuatu Independence Medal, 1991; Grand Cross of the Order of the Infante Dom Henrique, 1993; Hofstra University, Doctor of Humane Letters, Donoris Causor, 1994.

Addresses: Office—Van Lierop, Burns and Bassett, Attorney and Counselor at Law, 320 Convent Ave, New York, New York, United States 10031-6331.

Van Lierop had continued to work in private practice throughout his time at the United Nations, but he returned to his successful law firm full-time in 1994, representing governments and corporations at the United Nations and advising them on international law. He has been a prominent member of many important organizations, managing to combine his activism and expertise on international affairs with high-level roles in the legal profession. For example, he was chair of the City of New York Bar Association's Committee on African Affairs (1994-97), and served on the association's executive committee (1997-2000); from 2000 to 2003 he chaired the association's Council for International Affairs.

Van Lierop has also been involved with many community and campaigning organizations and has throughout his career fought for equality and fairness in professional life and the interactions of organizations at an international level, as well as being involved in civic projects. His interests have ranged from being a board member of the Harlem Children's Theater to membership of the executive committee of the American Committee on Africa. He is a founding member of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and sits on the board of visitors for the City University of New York School of Law. He has never been unwilling to take a personal stand on important issues and in 2004 he served on the "Jury of Conscience" at the New York session of the World Tribunal on Iraq which found Western governments, in particular the United States and the United Kingdom, in breach of the Geneva Conventions, international law, and violations of human rights during the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Van Lierop's varied career has seen him take part at the highest legal and governmental levels in the effort to reform international relations, improve international law, and fight for civil rights and equality at home and abroad. He has been instrumental in the negotiation of important international conventions on environmental protection, while as a filmmaker he was an important voice in struggles for freedom in Southern Africa. He has received many awards, including the Vanuatu Independence Medal, 1991, and the Grand Cross of the Order of the Infante Dom Henrique, 1993. His personal papers, including correspondence and writings relating to his political activism and filmmaking, are available at the New York Public Library.

Selected works


A Luta Continua, 1974.

O Povo Organizado, 1976.


Like It Is (series co-producer), WABC-TV.



Sunday Times, (London, England), June 7, 1992, p. 2.


"World Tribunal on Iraq: New York War-Crimes Hearing Finds U.S. Guilty," International Action Center, www.iacenter.org/wti-final.htm (June 20, 2005).

"Jury Members: Robert Van Lierop," World Tribunal on Iraq, www.worldtribunal-nyc.org/jury/Robert_F_Van_Lierop.htm (June 20, 2005).

"Robert Van Lierop," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (June 20, 2005).

"Robert Van Lierop: Personal Papers," New York Public Library, http://catnyp.nypl.org/search/aVan+Lierop,+Robert./avan+lierop+robert/-5,-1,0,B/frameset&FF=avan+lierop+robert&2,,2 (June 23, 2005).

—Chris Routledge

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