J. Alan Beesley, OC, QC

Class of 1950

“What in hell is the Jokers Club?” reads the first line of a Ubyssey article published in October, 1945. “A club for all nitwits, screwballs, and zanies,” was the answer of Alan Beesley, founding member, Noise Joker and club publicity man. “We are lunatics at large.” The Jokers Club is the first thing Beesley mentions now when asked about his years at UBC. “I was so busy I had to take every second day off from my studies,” he deadpans. Started as an alternative to fraternities for servicemen recently returned from combat, the Jokers quickly became the largest club on campus, and provided much-needed levity in the early post-war years. A few years later, External Affairs turned up his involvement during a background check. Rather than hurting his chances, however, Beesley suspects his time as a Joker helped launch his exceptional Foreign Service career.

Beesley’s diplomatic work on behalf of Canada spanned close to 35 years, and arose out of a deep-seated desire to contribute to a more peaceful world. As both a diplomat and an international lawyer (and a self-proclaimed multitasker), he was involved in many of the major bilateral and multilateral negotiations that characterized the latter half of the twentieth century, and established treaties on an enormous range of subjects—Disarmament; Outer Space; the Law of the Atmosphere; the Law of the Sea; Aerial Hijacking; International Trade; the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Peaceful Nuclear Regime; Environmental Law; Human Rights Law; the Law of the Arctic; Humanitarian Law and the Laws of War; Climate Change; Aboriginal Law; Refugee Law; and International Crimes, to name just a few. The list of honours and awards Beesley has received for his work in these fields fills a page.

Beesley was posted in Israel from 1957 to 1960, during which time he lost two friends in separate shooting incidents, and reaffirmed his belief in the efficacy of peaceful solutions to conflict. In 1962, he participated in the 17th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), where he played a leading role in the negotiations on the “codification of the principles of peaceful coexistence.” While posted to Canada’s Mission to the UN in Geneva (1964-67), he participated in negotiations on legal aspects of the disarmament and arms control in the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Commission (ENDC). During this time, he also worked with UNESCO, UNCTAD, the League of Red Cross Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Beesley led the delegation that negotiated an anti-hijacking agreement with Cuba. From 1970-73, he led the Canadian delegation to the Working Group on Legal Principles of the Environment and, in 1972, was the Canadian delegate to the Legal Committee of the Stockholm Environmental Conference, the real achievements of which were seen 20 years later at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Throughout the '70s and '80s, he served mainly in Ottawa with special responsibility for peaceful uses of nuclear energy, was appointed Canada’s Ambassador for Disarmament and was elected to the International Law Commission. In the late '80s and early '90s, he turned his attention to climate change, the Law of the Atmosphere and the Law of the Arctic. He argued that international environmental law must be founded on the right of human beings to a healthy environment. Based on this premise, the Model Draft Treaty for the Protection of the North American Environment, which he co-wrote with an American and a Mexican colleague, was recently endorsed by the Sierra Legal Defense Fund.

Beesley is best known for his work on the Law of the Sea and, in a widely acclaimed publication on the negotiations leading to the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention, he was singled out as one of the two most influential delegates in the whole 12-year negotiation, by reason of his objective and fair-minded approach. “I didn’t involve myself in tricks,” Beesley says. “You had to be honest. Canadians were known for their honesty.”

Blessed with the ability to walk into a room thick with tension and simply know what to do, Beesley wasn’t above using humour to break the ice. “I learned something from the Russians: they could divert a conference with a joke,” he recalls. “I had no hesitation in doing the same thing. The interpreters would either laugh or say, ‘What the hell were you talking about?’ Humour as a negotiating tool was not common at that time, but I used it often.”

It was at UBC that Beesley became aware of the importance of relationships, and of his own skill in building them. “The most beneficial thing I did during law school was to work in the Law Library,” he quips, “not out of any sense of community spirit but to make money. I got to know all of the student body. I remembered faces and names, and people were very impressed. We got to be acquaintances, and friends. Allan McEachern, Frank Murphy and I sat at the back of the class wearing T-shirts while the others wore jackets and ties.” He names Norman MacKenzie and George Curtis as mentors, teachers who were genuinely interested in foreign affairs and who “used examples that were memorable.” He adds Herb Davey and Marsh Gordon to the list of people he regarded as having high ethical standards and who exemplified great personal integrity. “I guess we all soaked some of that up, too.”

Beesley returned to UBC in 1988 as Canadian Academic in Residence. “I had been negotiating night and day,” he recalls. “I was burnt out. I was ready for a sabbatical.” He used the time to teach, to write, to speak and to see his own work with fresh vision. Of peace, the goal toward which he has worked all his adult life, he says now, “I don’t think in my lifetime we’re going to suddenly resolve some of the problems that have been longstanding. In Israel, I remember asking Margaret Meagher how long this thing was going to go on. I was shocked to hear her answer, ‘Twenty years or more.’ She was right, of course, and longer than that. But there are people who have more than an instinct [for peace]. They hope. They care. There are such people in every country. I’ve never been in a negotiation where some progress hasn’t been made. If you can bank it, pick up where you left off, you can continue to make progress. You have to be patient as hell.”

He brings the conversation back to the Jokers Club once again. “We contributed to the university what people considered a highlight,” he says, and multiple issues of The Ubyssey back up his claim. “We weren’t always funny … but that’s because we lacked judgement.” The very art of self-deprecation.

Written by Diane Haynes and originally published in the UBC Law Alumni Magazine, Fall 2005. A PDF of the full issue can be found here.