By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
UCLA International Institute, March 14, 2016 — When you realize that, among her many identities, Aslı Bâli is a New Yorker, her razor-sharp intellect and articulate presentations — not to mention their pace — suddenly have a deeper context. Bâli joined the faculty of the UCLA School of Law in 2009, where she teaches international and human rights law, as well as the laws of war. In January 2016, she became the new director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) at the UCLA International Institute.
A sought-after speaker on political developments in the Middle East (both on and off the UCLA campus), Bâli’s wide-ranging intellectual interests make her ideally suited to promote the CNES mission of interdisciplinary research and education on the region. Those interests, the focus of impressive educational and professional achievement before she even began her academic career, include the design and efficacy of international treaty compliance regimes, international human rights, comparative law and constitutional transitions — and that’s just the short list.
A deep and varied intellectual journey, punctuated by practice
Bâli brings a wealth of experience in the practice of law to her scholarship and teaching. Not only has she worked in private practice in New York and Paris, she has also had a career working, often pro bono, in human rights and public interest law.
The legal scholar’s expansive intellectual interests go back to Williams College in Massachusetts, where she studied mathematics and political theory. Prior to attending Yale Law, she spent two years at Cambridge University courtesy of a postgraduate Herchel Smith Fellowship. There, she completed two master's degrees (an M.A. and an M.Phil) while studying topics in social and political thought.
Originally motivated to go to law school by a desire to work in international human rights, her exposure to the study of the Middle East at Cambridge broadened her view. “It became clear to me that human rights issues were intertwined with issues of development,” she remarks, “which included elements of both law and political economy. So I thought about my professional training in terms of 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.”
The upshot was that she created her own joint J.D.-M.P.A degree, studying law at Yale and public policy at Princeton (at the university's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs). While completing the joint degree, the UCLA professor worked for both the human rights program and political asylum law clinic of Yale Law. Her summer placements enabled her to gain hands-on experience at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the legal department of the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa division, and a private firm, where she represented sovereign governments in negotiations with U.S. banks and multilateral organizations.
Once she joined the international law firm of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamliton LLP, she plunged into the practice of law, keeping the idea of an eventual transition to an academic career in the back of her mind. “It was an exceptional place to work,” comments Bâli. And she continued to write, publishing a research article in a law journal and contributing commentary essays to magazines and journals involved in policy debates.
Eventually she returned to Princeton to pursue a Ph.D. in political science. “Cleary was very generous and allowed me to take a leave to try to complete the coursework in a year,” she recounts. Yet just as the firm extended her leave so that she could defend her prospectus and begin to fulfill her teaching requirements, the September 11th attacks occurred.
“It was a transformative moment,” comments 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-September 11th-related matters. As someone who spent much of my life in New York, I felt a call to come back and work.”
Handricrafts in Isfahan, Iran. Creative Commons CC0 1.0.
Upon her return to Cleary, she became involved in the pro bono representation of victims of the September 11th attacks. Over time, Bâli also began to represent some of the large numbers of immigrant Muslim men who had been detained in the aftermath of the attacks. She subsequently led a team of Cleary associates who represented immigration detainees. The team also conducted research that contributed to a 2003 Migration Policy Institute report (see below) 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 says. “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, which I was, and I was writing and giving a lot of talks.” At the same time, she was doing advocacy and pro bono legal work for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), helping them set up a New York office to protect the civil rights of Arab Americans.
Entering academic life
Despite feeling deeply connected to the communities she worked with as a lawyer, Bâli eventually transitioned back to the academy in 2005 to focus on research and writing. The work was fulfilling enough to persuade her to make that shift permanent.
Quite apart from human or immigration rights, the subject of Bâli’s dissertation was the design and implementation of international treaty regimes. Specifically, she examined the development of the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, analyzing how its incentives had evolved over time and the consequences that those incentives had for enforcement. The core of the dissertation centered on the case of Iran. The project gave her the expertise needed to subsequently analyze the negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program and the final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concluded in 2015.
After a year at Princeton, she ended up back at Yale Law for two years on an Irving S. Ribicoff Fellowship, where she 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 recounts. “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,” continues Bâli.
Since she arrived, the legal scholar has worked on international law topics ranging from arms control issues to the evolving doctrine of humanitarian intervention, as well as comparative law topics connected to the Middle East, including the trajectory of electoral authoritarianism, the emergence of constitutional transitions, the role of constitutional courts and the specific constitutional crises that have transpired in Turkey over the past half-decade.
Looking forward at the Center for Near Eastern Studies
Virtually from the day Bâli arrived at UCLA, she has been working collaboratively with the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES). Now the director, she in the planning stages of future thematic programming that will draw on Middle East expertise throughout campus. In addition to the Center's ongoing interdisciplinary series that highlights cutting-edge new scholarship, different lecture series will focus on historiography, social science approaches and the comparative literature of the region. “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 remarks.
One issue of particular interest is the multiethnic, multiconfessional identity of the Middle East. “That picture often gets obscured when we think of the region in terms of ancient ethnic hatreds,” she says, “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,” she remarks. 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,” she comments.
Tunis, Tunisia. Creative Commons CC0 1.0.
Bâli’s own current research seeks to explore the legal and policy implications of current approaches to conflict resolution in the Middle East, from proposals to redraw the boundaries of “failed states” to arguments in favor of humanitarian intervention. “The conflicts that I study in turn invoke topics that have long been and will remain central to the programming of CNES, including the many contemporary challenges facing the region in the areas of human rights and migration, environment and climate change, armed conflict involving states and nonstate actors, and the continuing fallout of the Arab uprisings,” she says.“Whether seen from the perspective of modern history, sociology, anthropology, political science or law, these problems remain central to the lived experiences of the communities of the Middle East and focal points for scholars engaging with the contemporary region.”
CNES, it would seem, has the great fortune to have a director with the intellectual breadth and vision needed to navigate the tectonic changes occurring in the Middle East. For people seeking to better understand the region in these troubling times, the Center promises to be one of the places where you will learn the most.