Essential International Law Cases for the Classroom (Six Years Later)

by Duncan Hollis

As summer winds down, I’m beginning to look ahead to the coming semester in which I’ll be teaching public international law after a couple of years’ hiatus.  As a result, I’ve spent the week, re-working my syllabus (and thanking Ecuador for giving me a wonderfully topical way to start off the class).  Beyond current events, however, I’ve once again spent some time procrastinating thinking about those international law cases I “must” have my students read — essential elements of the international law canon if you will.  I’ve done this before — six years ago, in fact, I posted a top-5 list of public international law cases and encouraged readers to contribute their own “must-reads” for students entering the field of international law.  Here’s the list I came up with then:

(1) The S.S. Lotus (France v. Turkey), 1927 PCIJ (Ser. A) No.10
(2) Mortensen v. Peters, 8 Sess. Cas. (5th Ser.) 93 (1906)
(3) Case Concerning Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States) 1984 ICJ 169, 1986 ICJ 14
(4) Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, 630 F.2d 876 (2d Cir. 1980)
(5) United States-Import Prohibition of Certain Shrimp and Shrimp Products (“Shrimp Turtle”) DS58/AB/R (1998)

I still like this list a lot.  But, on reflection I’d probably remove Shrimp Turtle in favor of an older chestnut like the Reparations Case given that earlier cases’ import for the field of international institutional law (I also wonder about Filartiga as the best read on human rights, and although I’m inclined to keep teaching it in a U.S. classroom, I can see the argument for a case like Soering instead).

Of course, I hold no monopoly on making these sorts of lists.  So, I thought I’d get those of you prepping your own courses (not to mention students preparing to continuing their international law studies) to chime in with further suggestions. What cases would you say every international lawyer must read?

9 Responses

  1. Thanks Duncan, 

    I tend to agree with your exchange of Shrimp Turtle (good for international economic law or international environmental law) for the Reparations Case

    In my view, other important PIL cases could include: 

    Barcelona Traction (Belgium v Spain) (1970) ICJ Reports 3; and
    Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion, (1996) ICJ Reports 226.

    Arguably also: 

    R v Bow Street Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate, ex p Pinochet Ugarte (No. 3) [2000] 1 AC 147; and/ or
    Jones v Saudi Arabia [2006] UKHL 26. 

    And for an introduction to diplomatic asylum: 

    Asylum Case (Colombia/Peru) [1950] ICJ Reports 266; 
    Haya de la Torre Case (Colombia/Peru) [1951] ICJ Reports 71

    All the best with your class. 

    Stuart Bruce

  2. I would not consider the list complete without

    Liechtenstein v. Guatemala, Nottebohm, ICJ Reports 1955

  3. How about North Sea Continental Shelf?

    FRG v Denmark; FRG v Netherlands) [1969] ICJ Rep 3

  4. Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion, (1996) ICJ Reports 226.
    Tadic Jurisdiction Decision, 2 Oct. 1995
    Case Concerning Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States) 1984 ICJ 169, 1986 ICJ 14
    HCJ 769/02 The Public Committee against Torture in Israel v. The Government of Israel
    Barcelona Traction (Belgium v Spain) (1970) ICJ Reports 3

  5. I teach International Institutions rather than PIL, so let me offer a list more suited to my class:

    1.  Reparations for injuries suffered in the service of the UN
    2.  Certain expenses of the UN
    3.  Legality of the the use by a State of nuclear weapons
    4.  Tadic decision on defence motion for interlocutory appeal on jurisdiction
    5.   Conditions of admission of a State to membership in the UN

  6. Response…
    And why the SS Lotus?  A simple case regarding objective territorial jurisdiction under international law for Turkey, thus no reparations due to Lt. Demons (directly, rights under int’l law).  The misunderstood dicta?

  7. Jordan — I include it precisely for the dicta and the overarching question of whether international law permits what it does not prohibit or whether international law operates as a background for all State action.  Plus, there’s the split decision with the President’s vote deciding the case and the construction of the compromis which allows him to avoid the passive personality question, which I find has the added bonus of being a great introduction to the process side of international litigation.

  8. Response…
    but, of course, customary international law had already been binding on nonconforming and/or non-consenting (or dissenting) states and other actors, as the IMT at Nuremberg would famously affirm a generation later (regarding the fact that what was reflected in the 1907 Hague Conv. No. IV was customary international law by 1939, binding allies of Germany and their nationals even though the allies of Germany had not acceded to and/or had refused to ratify the treaty).

  9. I would add to this list ICJ judgment of 26 february 2007 on the Application of the Convention on the Prevention and punishment of the crime of Genocide (Bosnia&Herzegovina vs. Serbia and Montenegro) or/maybe ICJ Judgment on the Armed Activities on the Territory of Congo (DRC vs. Rwanda).

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.