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Berman was born 12 December 1939. He earned a B.A. in mathematics at the University of Cape Town in 1959, and a B.Sc. at the same institution in 1960. In 1961 he became a Rhodes Scholar, earning a B.A. with first class honours in jurisprudence from Wadham & Nuffield Colleges of Oxford.
In 1965, he joined Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service, and from 1965-1971 served as an assistant legal advisor for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He was called to the bar of Middle Temple in 1966; served as legal advisor for the British Military Government of Berlin from 1971–72, and at the British Embassy in Bonn from 1972-74. He was a legal counsellor for the FCO from 1974–82, counsellor for the UK Mission to the United Nations from 1982–85; and in 1983 was J C Smith Visiting Fellow at the University of Nottingham. He served first as deputy legal advisor, then as legal advisor for the FCO from 1988-99. He was made an honorary Queen's Counsel in 1992.
After the Diplomatic Service
He joined Essex Court Chambers in 2000, where he continues to practice law with a specialisation in international arbitration and advisory work in international law. He served as an ad hoc judge for the International Court of Justice from 2003–05, and has been a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration since 2010. He is a visiting professor of international law at the University of Oxford and the University of Cape Town, and of King's College London.
Boards and committees
He has been chair of the Diplomatic Service Association (1979–82), the Appeals Board of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (1985-2004), the Trustees of the University of Cape Town (member since 1999, chair since 2010), the Austrian National Fund for Compensation of Victims of Nazi Persecution (2001–present), and the Diplomatic Service Appeals Board (2002–06); and has served as a board member or trustee of many other organisations.
Berman was made a KCMG on 31 December 1993. He became an Honorary Fellow of Wadham College 1995, and of the Society of Advanced Legal Studies in 1997. He was awarded the Grand Decoration of Honour in Gold with Star (Großes Goldenes Ehrenzeichen mit Stern) by the Austrian Government in 2007. The University of Cape Town offers an annual Sir Franklin Berman Prize in International Law.