Okeke discovered his professional niche twice, first when embarking on his successful, over two-decade career in international law and development, and again midway through that career, when he established himself as an expert in privileges and immunities.
In May 2018, Oxford University Press published his book, Jurisdictional Immunities of States and International Organizations, which explores the latter issue in depth. Okeke, who worked for the United Nations and UNESCO as a Legal Officer, and now is Senior Counsel at the World Bank, developed the idea for the book 14 years ago during a meeting of UN system legal advisors. One of the items on the meeting agenda was the immunity of international organizations.
“I was surprised at the confusion regarding that subject,” Okeke says. “I saw a gap in knowledge that I figured I could seize on, and so I studied the subject as closely as possible over the years.”
His niche, as it turns out, is in high demand. Every international organization is made of up member states, and subjecting the organization to the court system of a member state would “curtail its independence,” Okeke says. Thus, international organizations are granted privileges and immunities that govern their relationship with their member states.
It’s an especially complex and sometimes contentious area of the law. That’s where Okeke’s book comes in. It explains, in plain language, the immunities foreign states and international organizations have from lawsuits brought in national courts.
“There are a few nice books on state immunity alone, but there is none that addresses the immunities of both states and international organizations, concepts that are sometimes confused,” he says. “The scholarly writings are mostly critical of immunity, but for a practitioner, that’s not very helpful. If you’re dealing with a concrete case, you need to understand what the law is, not what academics believe it should be.”
“My goal,” he adds, “is to make the law comprehensible for anyone facing an issue or problem related to immunities.” Thus far, the book has generated praise from the international law community, illustrating its effectiveness in that regard.
Privileges and immunities is central to Okeke’s day-to-day legal work within the World Bank. As part of the Bank’s 200-plus legal department, he works on legal issues that affect the entire organization, including employment, litigation, governance, taxation, and contracts.
Much of his time is currently occupied by a case before the U.S. Supreme Court related to privileges and immunities and involving a sister organization of the World Bank.
“The timing of my book couldn’t have come at a better—or worse—time,” he jokes.
International law wasn’t Okeke’s plan when he enrolled at NYLS, but as an Evening Division student working full-time at the UN, he seized on the opportunity to gain specialized knowledge from his day job while attending law school. His career took him from New York to a four-year UNESCO role near Paris, and then back to the United States.
“The UN was associated with international law, and I figured that I might as well be good at international law, since I worked at the UN,” he says. “And looking back, I don’t know if I could have done anything else. I’ve gotten to travel across the world, and yet I’ve always felt at home in this field.”
Find details on Okeke’s September 25 book launch event in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the World Bank and the American Society of International Law.