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For nearly three decades, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, worked diligently and competently in the legal department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

She became a civil servant in the department in her mid-twenties and colleagues described her as an "excellent and able" lawyer, with a notably steady character.

Her efforts and expertise in international law were rewarded in 1997 when she was promoted to the position of deputy head of legal affairs for the FCO. The promotion cemented her position as one of Britain's leading experts on international criminal and diplomatic law. The next year, she received further recognition - she was made a Companion of St Michael and St George, one of the highest honours for diplomats.

During her tenure, Ms Wilmshurst led the UK delegation to set up the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, served as legal counsellor to the UK's mission to the UN, and gave evidence for the Foreign Office to the House of Commons International Development Committee on the legality of sanctions.

However, as her resignation letter has revealed, she was as impassioned a defender of her beliefs as she was knowledgeable and successful in her arena.

She resigned in March 2003 after defying her political superiors in the Foreign Office by stating her belief that joining the US invasion of Iraq would constitute a violation of international law.

It was a move that would have considerable political reverberations as well as an impact on her professional position.

She was thought to have been prepared to appear as a witness for Katharine Gun, the former GCHQ translator, who was to stand trial for leaking an e-mail concerning a UK-US spying operation. However, the case collapsed last year without her participation.

Ms Wilmshurst, 56, is now using her expertise as head of the international law programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the London think-tank at Chatham House. She is also a visiting professor at University College, London.

Her areas of international law expertise include the use of force, international criminal law and courts, the law of the United Nations and State and sovereign immunity.