Interview with Jenik Radon

Professor Jenik Radon, Adjunct Professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), is a graduate of Columbia College ‘67. He obtained his Master of City Planning (M.C.P.) from the University of California, Berkeley and his J.D. from Stanford Law School. 

Although he has worked extensively in both the private and public sectors, he is best described as an activist-lawyer. Indeed, Professor Radon co-founded the Afghanistan Relief Committee, which sought freedom for Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion and assisted refugees displaced by the Afghan-Soviet war. Professor Radon also advised Poland on investment laws, which led to his heavy involvement  in Estonia before it gained independence from the Soviet Union. He advised the Estonian government during the country’s independence struggle and co-authored the country’s foreign investment, mortgage/pledge, privatization, and corporate laws. Professor Radon was the first foreigner to receive the Medal of Distinction from the Estonian Chamber of Commerce, which recognized his contributions to Estonia’s transition to a market economy, and recently, he was honored with Estonia’s Order of the Cross Terra Mariana. For his oil and gas work in Georgia, he received its highest civilian award, the Order of Honor.

In 2006, Professor Radon worked with the Nepali government to draft the interim, or peace, constitution, which granted citizenship to the Terai people, many of whom were previously stateless despite having lived in Nepal for decades, and ensured that women held at least 35 percent of the seats in the Nepali parliament.

Professor Radon is also actively involved in academia. In 1990, Professor Radon founded the Eesti and Eurasian Public Service Fellowship, which provided students from select American institutions with the opportunity to intern with government officials and civil society in emerging nations, including  Cambodia, Estonia, Georgia, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Philippines, Tanzania and Uganda.

Professor Radon continues to teach classes at SIPA. His signature class is Energy, Corporate Responsibility, and Human Rights, in which he examines the role of corporations in the natural resource sector, including their environmental and community practices as well as the necessary regulatory role of the state. He is very popular, having been invited to more than seventy-five student weddings across the globe and only missing two, in one case because two were on the same weekend on different continents.

Professor Radon can be contacted at You can also read more about Professor Radon’s work at . 

Shambhavi Tiwari, CPR: Can you tell us about what you’re currently reading and whether you have any recommendations for undergraduate students?

Professor Jenik Radon, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University: My readings are extensive and delightfully eclectic—we all learn from different voices and narratives. 

For students, I would definitely recommend the classical readings required in the Columbia Core classes, Contemporary Civilization and the Humanities, as these have an engaging and intense grounding in the foundation of Western thought.  However, as we are living in an increasingly  globalized world, I would definitely also add readings from classical Asian philosophies, including Confucianism and Hinduism, as well as from African and indigenous cultures.  I personally appreciate many different writers and genres from different backgrounds, as all people have something to say. One author who comes to mind is Erich Fromm with his Escape from Freedom, which is very human in its thoughts and has given us much food-for-thought.  Also Karl Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies is excellent for its eye-opening wisdom.  And the modern classics by George Orwell, Animal Farm and 1984, are easy, enjoyable, and yet thought-provoking reads.  Friedrich Hayek with his focus on classical liberalism is also worth reading and studying.  And the list goes on. 

So I do believe in reading the classics, both old and modern, from our Western traditions, as they are the foundation for our culture in the United States and many other nations. But we also need to learn from the traditions and classical writings of other countries and societies. Each culture has something to contribute, and engagement with different people and thoughts is key.  The golden rule seems to be a universal principle, embedded in all of our cultures but expressed differently.  This conclusion that we have so much in common seems unfortunately to be missed by many people. Moreover, and again unfortunately, we have lost or not paid attention to the wisdom of indigenous societies around the world, which have a lot to teach us about respecting the environment.  I have recently increased my focus on the wisdom of Native Americans and what others have passed down to us about nature and the environment.  Only if we understand how our thinking came to be and appreciate what others have learned can we build on the wisdom of those who have come before us and advance our thoughts. 

To me it is obvious and clear. We can, and should, learn from each other, from our various traditions and cultures, and this requires respect.  Reading and learning is a lifelong endeavor of getting to know each other and creating respect.  So for me, global eclectic reading is in.

 Right now I am reading, or rereading, a number of books at the same time.  The Great Convergence by the Singaporean scholar and former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, who sees the future of Asia and the West optimistically; the autobiography of my dear friend, Y.V. Reddy, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, which has lessons for all who are active in the public space; Warriors & Citizens, which is edited by Jim Mattis, now US Secretary of Defense, and which gives valuable insight into the relationship between US civilians and the military; Collapse by the scholar Jared Diamond, which has lessons for the ages; Behave by MacArthur genius fellow Robert M. Sapolsky, which explores the biology of why we humans do what we do; and The African Kaiser by Robert Gaudi, which offers a military history of WWI in a German African colony but, surprisingly, also offers military lessons for our modern day struggles in different parts of the world; and a fun, tongue-and-cheek read given to me by a close Finnish friend, 101 Very Finnish Problems.   As I said, learning never stops —and why should it? 

ST: You’re known to have traveled extensively, to 105 out of the 195 countries. What motivates your seemingly endless curiosity about the world?

JR: As a child, I moved from Germany to the United States, several years after World War II.  I quickly realized that I had to understand how the culture of my parents, which was the culture I learned at home, fit in the American culture.   These were two frames, two ways of looking at things.

People becoming part of a new or different culture always have to ask themselves, “Who am I?” and “How do I fit in?” By asking those questions already when I was very young, I became curious about the world and world events. I wanted to understand why, for example, my uncle’s letters from East Germany were censored. I wanted to understand why people had to leave their own country in 1956 when I saw the Hungarian Revolution on television. This curiosity about the world has been with me since the moment that I came to the United States, so it has long been part of my nature, of who I am. 

ST: You run your own international law practice, Radon Law Offices. Can you tell us a little more about your motivation and experiences when starting your own practice, and how it fits into your career in academia? 

JR: I have always been an activist-lawyer, representing and advising, for example, governments that are engaged in negotiations on public interest matters and human rights issues, such as the rights of communities, especially in the natural resource sector and in self-determination, such as was the case with Afghanistan, Poland and Estonia.  My teaching is reflective to a great degree of my work as a lawyer.

My signature class at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs is Energy, Corporate Responsibility, and Human Rights. After my wife passed away, my mentor and friend John Barton, himself a former teacher of mine at Stanford, suggested that I start teaching.  I was not even sure which subject I should be teaching about in the first place; when John suggested that I teach human rights, I initially claimed to know nothing about it, much to his consternation!  John proceeded to describe my life and told me that since I have been living and practicing human rights, it was time to teach it.

I realized that my practice and experience made for a unique contribution to the classroom. My specialty in advising governments allows me to teach very practical lessons in my classes, though of course explained and elaborated in an academic context. A large amount of my class’s reading is material from cases that I have been involved with, from which I can draw parallels and lessons.

I’ve enjoyed teaching tremendously. It is a way of giving back, and studying at Columbia College was a very formative and happy period of my life.  But teaching also forces me to think more clearly and be more articulate, since students ask questions without having the obvious background and experience I have. As a consequence, I have to make my knowledge, the concepts and issues I take for granted, comprehensible to them.

One of the most important lessons I took from the Columbia Core is to always ask questions.  Have you learned to be curious and to not be embarrassed to ask questions, even if you make missteps sometimes? The reason I say that is because the only “dumb” question is the question you, a student, do not or did not ask. We all have different backgrounds, so it’s easy to take knowledge for granted that others may not find so easy to grasp. Our backgrounds are our second nature, our DNA.  Explaining often what you take to be second nature, effectively what you believe is, in fact, more difficult than explaining what you read in a book, as then you only have to explain chapter and verse.

Our brains store a massive amount of information. One of the initiatives that President Bollinger has taken while at Columbia is setting up the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, which studies neuroscience and nanotechnology, so that we can learn more about how our brains actually work. What I have observed, especially in the classroom, is that articulation, in a way, requires us to retrace our thoughts and explain why and how we drew certain conclusions. It’s not an easy task. It can take considerable time and effort, especially when much of our thinking is based on values we encountered and experiences we had when we were young—what we learned at home from our parents, for example.

ST: Moving on to the technicalities, you’ve worked to formulate privatization and foreign investment laws in Poland, Estonia, and Malawi, to name a few. How do you approach such law making? Whose best interests do you keep in mind and how do you know what is ‘fair’, in the light of the unavoidable conflict of interests in issues of natural resources?

JR: As it can take a considerable time and effort to draft a law, I always start by looking at the laws of other countries and examining what they’ve done on a particular topic. But there’s an important caveat: one cannot simply adopt another country’s law without first adapting it for the specific social context.  This entails that one has to understand why a precedent law was enacted, what the circumstances were, what the motivations of the legislators were, and what the intended effect or impact was.  We have to first understand before we can adapt and adopt.  Laws are not created in a vacuum.

Even within a given social context, what is fair? Fairness is, by definition, a concept that lacks an objective mathematical or clear definition. So I try, as best as possible, to always approach any problem from an ethical and objective point of view; I also examine the costs and benefits of a certain situation. Asking questions like, “Who are the parties that will be affected?” or, “What is the possible end result?” is important.

My upbringing was very important in helping me to understand morals and ethics and to include them as factors.  In high school, I was taught by the Jesuits, who are great ethical teachers. But most important for the formation of my ethical standards were my parents, who taught me everything I know. I often say that I learned nothing new at Columbia and Stanford beyond what my parents had already taught me; rather, my education helped me articulate what I had learned from them. They also taught me that I have only one real asset: my reputation. Earnings from my practice are only short-term assets.

Despite sometimes being pressured to not speak up, I am pretty forthright and very open.  People have often asked for my services because they know that I try to provide an objective perspective. And I don’t give up on core principles. It’s important to be secure in yourself and your abilities and values, which means you have to know yourself. You have to be comfortable with your goals and ambitions and be true to your ethical standards.

One of my concerns in doing work overseas is the people who have not been taken care of, who are being overlooked. Some people are obviously poorer and not as well-educated as others, but it’s important to address their concerns and consider their best interests. The goal at the end of the day, though, is to make sure that such people can stand on their own two feet so that their voices are heard. This is an important lesson I learned in my student days when I visited the Penny Foundation in Guatemala, a front-runner of a microfinance NGO and an organization that truly believed in people. The founders of the Foundation, the Greens, felt that it is crucial to ensure a person’s dignity and pride, which can only be done by helping them become independent and self-sustaining.  And I firmly agree.

ST: People often may not know what’s best for them. What do you do in those kinds of cases?

JR: I always consider the long-run implications of any action. Often, people I have counseled claim that they can’t conceive of the long term, to which I reply, “I can’t think in the short term!” You have to believe in the future.

Once again, articulation is important. I have to articulate to the people I advise and counsel as to why something is in their best interests, even if they are unable to conceive of the long run outcome. As an advisor, I have a wider perspective because I have worked on many projects, have traveled extensively, have had the fortunate opportunity to study at great institutions and learn from great thinkers, etc. and so I’m aware of the potential implications of actions. For many people, it is difficult to imagine, realize, or believe that their country can, and will, be better off tomorrow than it is today. Instead, they choose to sacrifice their long-term interests for purely short-term gains, simply because they have no confidence in the future. Such a choice often creates today the problems of tomorrow.

People often ask me to explain how I assess risks. When there’s an information gap, which is normally the case because no one can accurately predict the future, there is potential risk. I therefore believe in the “precautionary principle”, a term originating in the pharmaceutical field that I learned when I advised, and later headed, a pharmaceutical company. Moreover, I am reminded of what my parents told me: “Be a little cautious.”  Indeed, caution never hurt anybody. When evaluating a situation, I do a cost-benefit analysis, a combination of considering different scenarios, quantifying costs and benefits to the best extent possible, articulating or specifying those effects that cannot be quantified, and, to me, always considering the long-term impacts. With these skills, I can outline potential outcomes and implications, risks if you will, using both logic and experience at the same time.

I have noticed that most people are incapable of evaluating risk unless they’ve experienced it themselves. We can read about it in a book, but we do not really believe in the risk that we haven’t seen before. That’s precisely the problem!  The risk that hasn’t been experienced is often the one that we need to protect most against. Admittedly, risks that we do not understand can also create unfounded fears, but this is another topic.


ST: Your work in Nepal, Estonia and Afghanistan are all demonstrations of your passion for contributing to nation-building in developing countries. This kind of work seems quite different from the international corporate law practice that you run. How and why do you find yourself attracted to two such diverse fields?

JR: All of us have obligations to ourselves—to put food on the table, to educate our children, and to pay for our, and our family’s, health and well-being. Business is a normal part of life, and a way to sustain ourselves and fulfill these basic obligations.

I use my corporate skills, which are, in essence, drafting and negotiation and even thinking a problem through.  When you write contracts, for example, you have to anticipate issues and accordingly write with precision and clarity. My practice is, in a way, like preventative medicine. I try to prevent a problem before it becomes a problem. I simply apply the corporate skills that I have acquired over a lifetime to the public sector but with a different mindset, that of the public interest or the common good. 

There are important distinctions between the public and private sectors, which are too often overlooked or ignored. States are not purely economic actors. A state has two obligations to its citizens: to promote the economy by encouraging local and national businesses but also to protect and advance its citizens. A state has a regulatory function. Articulation, then, comes into the picture once again: as an advisor, one has to be able to articulate the difference between a purely business-related transaction and a transaction where one also has to be a regulator. That can be challenging at times, especially in developing nations, where the state as an economic actor is very pronounced and is often the main employer.

ST: Your work has been undertaken on a larger-than-life scale; from drafting constitutions in Nepal to writing foreign investment laws in Poland and Estonia, you have helped shape the trajectories of entire countries. Indeed, Estonia has commonly been regarded as a success story. Was it ever intimidating for you when you were younger to venture into such uncharted territory?

JR: The honest answer is no.  My father advised me to not accept any job or take on any assignment unless I honestly believed that I had the skills and mindset necessary to complete the task well.  He said, “Never fool yourself.” When I agree to participate or contribute to something, I have to feel comfortable in my skills and ability to meet the challenge.

I am comfortable knowing both what I do know and what I don’t know—it’s important to have an awareness of both! Importantly, I feel comfortable building on my existing knowledge and applying it.  And I like talking and listening to people; that helps.

In Estonia, in fact in all countries where I work, I work with the people of the country, so I am part of a team and I become part of the community. That’s the whole essence of my line of work—it’s impossible to be a lone ranger. One is always part of a group or a community, as one cannot accomplish anything of consequence by oneself. The hard part is when you work outside of your traditional community, which in my case is the United States.  In that case you have to become aware and knowledgeable of other ways of doing things, which are often just different.  And you have to respect those ways.

ST: You’ve often spoken about the importance of understanding and the need to “find out the real origin of a disagreement or conflict” when working on a new case. How do you usually go about gaining an understanding about the specificities of each case?

JR: The most memorable class I took at Columbia was a prerequisite to my anthropological field trip to Brazil. I called it “How to Do Anthropology” and it taught me how to engage and communicate with people from different cultural contexts and who speak different languages, in particular those that were new to me. It taught me to observe how people said things, their body language, and how they engaged with one another.  Professor Comitas, who still teaches at Teacher’s College, was my professor and had a lifelong impact on me.

If you ask most of my American friends, they would say that I am not very quiet. But when I go to a new setting, when I’m in a new country and engaging with a culture that is new to me, I am actually relatively quiet—I follow what I learned in Comitas’ class, watching and listening, even though I will  have read about the culture in question beforehand as well.  But I listen first, in order to learn and understand it.

It’s important not to forget that you are a guest when visiting a foreign country. After founding the Eesti and Eurasian Fellowship in 1990, I’ve always told those students that, when they are abroad, they are ambassadors for themselves, their families, their colleges, and countries. 

Even more importantly, as a guest, you don’t have all the background knowledge, so you can never fully understand another person’s social context. You have to listen to what people's concerns and needs are; therefore, you need to engage with people. Understanding the psychology and the sociology of the people you are working with is important in these situations, and engagement at this level can be quite time-consuming. But there is no doubt that such dialogue is very rewarding and fun.  It’s important that you inform and educate the people you work with about your actions and their implications: they need to understand why you do things because they are the ones who will carry on your work after you go back home. If no one understands the work you’ve done, then you’ve failed. You may excel in your field, but you’re not going to carry it on. Therefore, it is once again important to articulate.

ST: I find your work in Nepal with the Terai particularly interesting. You have written that, since the Nepali constitution is a form of binding self-government, “all Nepalese citizens become involved in the process of writing the Constitution” through the Constituent Assembly. Evidently, your work was a success. Yet, as an outsider, you helped make the constitution what it is. How did you ensure that all voices were heard and that you were not imposing a Western standard of political structure upon the Nepali people?

JR: A whole committee cannot draft an agreement, let alone a constitution, so someone has to take the lead and write the first draft. Think of it as an essay. You can’t have ten people sit down together to write it!

But then the engagement, after there is a draft for people to read and comment on, becomes critical. As a drafter, all I did was take the first steps and bring in alternate perspectives and ideas for the parties to consider. Admittedly, putting ideas and concepts in a draft is influential, as they then have to be accepted or reacted against with explanations.  A concept cannot simply be rejected once it is in writing. And I am very proud of what I introduced into the Nepali constitution.

I introduced updated human rights principles into the draft constitution in Nepal. However there will always be social issues that you don’t know as an outsider, and that’s where a good informant helps. The informant is not a spy, as the word might imply, but a person who understands both your culture and the local one and who can translate back and forth in between them and bridge them. I worked closely with Pravakar Adhikari, a Columbia Law School graduate and a native of Nepal, while drafting the constitution. Pravakar was a super informant. He was able to engage with the government, with the other parties and with the community due to his background and qualifications. He also obviously engaged with me—frequently asking questions about why certain provisions of the constitution were included, what their purpose was and, most importantly, how they helped to create a better Nepal.

The engagement with the people was primarily Prime Minister Koirala’s responsibility. He had to engage with the community and explain why certain provisions were there and why some were not. He of course also had to engage with the opposing political forces.  As I said before, we are all part of a team and no one can do it alone.

However, being an outsider gave me an advantage in preparing drafts. That may sound paradoxical, but if I was not an outsider I would have quickly been associated with a specific Nepali political party (the Congress, UML or the Maoist party), and would have made enemies simply by association as a result. But, as a foreigner, I was viewed as being neutral. This allowed me to articulate issues that were being avoided and so not even considered, let alone discussed.  This included, for example, the rights of the Terai people and their right to Nepali citizenship. Most of the Terai people did not have Nepali citizenship but were instead deemed foreigners.  They were stateless. So I am proud that I raised the issue, granted them citizenship in my draft, and that this was accepted.

I based the interim constitution of Nepal on the original one of 1991, choosing not to superimpose anything completely new or foreign. But fairness, for me, is a human rights issue. I consider human rights to be a universal standard, not just a Western one, and I tried to articulate that in the Nepali context, where there are many different social groups and it is important to be fair to all of them. One of my achievements that I think was particularly impactful was the inclusion of  a quota mandating the representation of women in the parliament. I wanted to make sure that all voices could be heard, regardless of gender.

I strongly believe that everyone should participate in the political sphere because if people are ignored, then they talk amongst themselves. And that has never lead to any good, sometimes even resulting in what I call groupthink, which may in turn lead to social turmoil!

ST: I would like to know about your take on the Rohingya crisis, given that it is an urgent issue with the UN Human Rights Chief calling it a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

JR: First, I’d like to make an important distinction between the situation of the Terai people versus that of the Rohingya. Atrocities on such a scale were never committed against the Terai, and the main issue was about their citizenship status as Nepali, which had been denied to them.   With the Rohingya, there are crimes being committed against them almost daily, atrocities with the goal of ethnic cleansing.

On a related note, one of the unfortunate things occurring around the world, especially in emerging nations, is that some national leaders have come to consider federalization a bad term, a slippery road to secession. But the United States, Canada, India, Australia, and Germany, as well as a host of other nations, are all federal states. These examples show that it is possible to have a unified state and yet still have delegation of authority to localities, provinces, or regions, which is the essence of federalization. By granting local control, people get the sense that their voices are being heard, that they can have an impact through meaningful political participation.

The Rohingya have been in Myanmar for centuries. So what is the harm in making Myanmar a federal state? Like in other federal nations, it is still possible to maintain a unitary state in terms of foreign policy, defense, and other common interests.

In the case of the Rohingya however, before federalization can even be considered, you have to stop the fighting, the killing, the burning of villages etc. Only then can you start the path to rebuild trust, which has clearly been lost. But, sadly, I believe that rebuilding trust in Myanmar is going to be a difficult and lengthy process, as destroyed trust takes a long time to restore. It will have to be a step-by-step, bridge-building process.  It will unfortunately be long and hard.

ST: In your opinion, should Bangladesh continue to welcome the Rohingya? If so, do you think that we need a more efficient system for migrant care? It seems that the migration crisis is quite unregulated, which can be problematic for both parties.

JR: Migrations are always unregulated.  From a humanitarian point of view, I applaud that Bangladesh is sheltering the Rohingya because they urgently need physical security. We often do not appreciate the contribution of neighboring countries in the case of refugee crises. In the Syrian refugee crisis, for example, Jordan has sheltered refugees well out of proportion to its overall population. Lebanon has also taken in thousands of refugees. And Turkey took in millions of refugees. Neighboring countries always bear the brunt of refugee migration and frequently, as is the case with Bangladesh, are not the ones with the capacity to bear this burden.

The international community should offer whatever support it can to the countries that are bearing the brunt of refugee crises.  But moreover, the international community should also impress upon Myanmar that, although the Rohingya are of a different ethno-religious group than many of the people in Myanmar, it is possible to have a united country notwithstanding such diversity and that the atrocities must stop. It should be mentioned at every meeting. 

In fact, diversity is enriching, as it brings in different perspectives. So it’s important to balance the humanitarian instinct, to provide new homes and safety, with the need to ensure that the Rohingya are not driven from their historic homes. The international community must do more.

ST: Regarding your work in the extractive industry, you’re known to work in the favor of countries like Afghanistan and Georgia to help prevent the exploitation of their land and natural resources by multinational oil corporations. Do you think that the paradox of plenty, or the resource curse, can be avoided by the correct regulations and institutions?

JR: Very few countries suffering from the resource curse have managed to escape it. The solution is to prevent the curse from ever happening in the first place. It all comes back to articulation: a country that has a permanent resource needs to manage it environmentally and sustainably over the long term, so that a liquid resource, cash, can be generated from the permanent asset, and then this cash must be invested productively. A resource in the ground is permanent capital, but once it’s taken out of the ground, it becomes liquid capital.

Natural resource development by definition poses not only the challenge of effective commercial or development management of that resource, but also, as by the very nature of the resource, its environmental and community impact; natural resource development also needs to be regulated.  A question that has troubled many countries is, “How do we establish environmental regulations which also balance the interests of the country to grow economically and how should they be enforced?” 

I personally believe that precautionary principle should be applied.  Sometimes going slow is, in reality, going fast. Going slow gives time for deliberation.  In addition, there should be regulations requiring companies to apply the best available technology, which would lower the cost of technologies that are expensive if no one uses them. The more demand for the technology, the lower its cost over time. So there is a Catch-22: a product is not used as it is too expensive; therefore, costs do not go down; and therefore, the advanced technology continues to not be used.  This cycle has to be broken and this requires forthright political leadership.

I read an article about Colombia, whose constitution allows local communities to decide themselves whether to allow natural resource development within their community. One reader commented that it was not fair for a community to decide what was in the best national interest.  But one should also ask, “Is it fair that the nation decides whose interests it should sacrifice for the sake of the national interest?” In my opinion, communities ought to be deemed partners in the development of the natural resource in their areas, and they should receive a larger stake of the proceeds, as they have to endure the day-to-day impact of the development.  And if the community is unable to use the funds productively in the short term, these proceeds should be invested in a trust fund for future use.   

And if I may add a closing comment:  all students should go forth with their youthful idealism, as that will sustain them for a lifetime and support them in tough times—and there will be tough times.  You can make a difference and a contribution, so do it