Establishing and Directing an IHL Clinic: Lessons Learned from the Practice of the IHL Clinic at Leiden University

Establishing and Directing an IHL Clinic: Lessons Learned from the Practice of the IHL Clinic at Leiden University

[Robert Heinsch is an Associate Professor of Public International Law at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies of Leiden University, and is the Director of its Kalshoven-Gieskes Forum on International Humanitarian Law as well as the founder of the Leiden IHL Clinic. Sofia PoulopoulouLL.M. is a PhD Candidate at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies at Leiden University, and staff member of the Kalshoven-Gieskes Forum on IHL, where she has been supervising the projects of the Leiden IHL Clinic.]

In recent years, we observe a growing importance of IHL education at the university level, especially with regard to the work undertaken in this area by an increasing number of international humanitarian law clinics (IHL Clinics hereinafter). Considering the popularity of IHL Clinics among students and academic circles alike and the demand for more information on how to successfully set-up and direct an IHL Clinic, this blog post first (I.) introduces the concept of clinical legal education and presents the IHL Clinic of the Kalshoven-Gieskes Forum (KGF) at Leiden University. Moreover, it (II.) identifies five lessons learned from the practice of the Leiden IHL Clinic with the goal of sharing this information with colleagues interested in setting-up an IHL Clinic. Having done so, this post concludes by (III.) presenting the idea of a global network of IHL Clinics dedicated to the research, teaching, and dissemination of IHL.

I. What is an IHL Clinic?

The concept of clinical legal education originates from the practice of law schools mainly located in the United States, where law students provide pro bono legal advice to a wide range of clients under the guidance and supervision of University Professors. Legal clinics on different sub-fields of International Law, including IHL, have also been introduced in various Universities around the world, including at European Universities. One example of the latter, and probably the first IHL Clinic in Europe, is the IHL Clinic of the Kalshoven-Gieskes Forum at Leiden University.

The IHL Clinic at Leiden University was founded in 2012 by Associate Professor Dr. Robert Heinsch. It is designed to enable Bachelor and Master students to acquire first-hand practical experience in the field of IHL as part of their studies and within the framework of an academic institution. The students selected to participate in the IHL Clinic work on research projects involving issues of IHL, International Criminal Law (ICL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL), which are selected by the Forum in collaboration with its cooperation partners. The latter range from international organisations to state actors and NGOs, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), UN entities, Amnesty International (AI), the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), National Red Cross Societies and various human rights NGOs.

The research for the aforementioned cooperation partners is usually carried out by a team of three to six students who are enrolled in the (advanced and regular) Public International Law LL.M. programme at Leiden University. In order to ensure a high quality of the research undertaken by Clinic students, a system of internal control and supervision is in place. Each project is supervised by a senior supervisor (usually an Assistant Professor or Associate Professor) and a direct (daily) project supervisor (a Researcher or a PhD Fellow) who coordinates with the senior supervisor and maintains a close contact with the students throughout the project. In addition, thematic sessions and lectures on IHL and other areas related to the work of the IHL Clinic are organized for the students to further develop their knowledge of IHL and International Law. The lectures are complemented by a number of legal writing workshops, weekly feedback meetings and common seminar sessions, where the IHL Clinic teams present the progress of their research.

Up to this moment, approximately 200 students have participated in the Leiden IHL Clinic and 36 research projects have been successfully completed.

II. Lessons learned from the KGF’s IHL Clinic at Leiden University

After more than eight years of operation, and the successful conclusion of more than 36 IHL Clinic projects, the authors of this blog post would like to share with colleagues interested in clinical legal education the lessons learned from the establishment and practice of the IHL Clinic at Leiden University.

1. Clinical legal education in the area of IHL is a highly rewarding experience for teachers and students alike

IHL Clinics allow students to deepen their knowledge of IHL, ICL and IHRL and improve their proficiency in legal research and analysis, as well as problem solving. Moreover, participating in the IHL Clinic enables students to develop their oral presentation, communication, and organisation skills. Considering that the IHL Clinic cooperates with real-life clients, students are also confronted with ethics and professional responsibility, which enables them to put abstract notions into a practical context and prepares them for their professional career. In addition, undertaking research aimed at supporting the work and cause of a real-life organisation motivates students to perform at their best and allows them to feel ownership of the results achieved.

From our experience over the last few years, we can assure anyone who is interested in setting up or supporting an IHL Clinic that if they make the decision to engage with clinical legal education in the humanitarian field, they will be rewarded by a high level of enthusiasm and appreciation by the students. As practice from Leiden and other IHL Clinics has shown, Clinic students are extremely active and dedicated to their work.

2. For the set-up of an IHL Clinic, ensure the support of at least one like-minded colleague

The set-up of an IHL Clinic requires determination and persistence, and might go beyond the energy required for teaching an IHL course. We therefore recommend that this endeavour is best pursued with the support of like-minded colleagues and alumni. For example, during the first year of the Leiden IHL Clinic, two external colleagues and six former students of Leiden University’s LL.M. programme volunteered to support the supervision of the Clinic’s projects in order to ensure a high quality of the research undertaken for our clients. While it is ideal to secure support for the IHL Clinic from your academic department and colleagues, there may be cases where this is not possible during the early stages of this endeavour. Where this is the case, you can reach out to your network for support and assistance in supervising the IHL Clinic projects. You will be surprised to see how many people are usually willing to lend a helping hand. It might even happen that an IHL/ICL Clinic is set-up by a student initiative, as in the case of Edinburgh University in Scotland, and Paris Pantheon Assas University in France.

3. In the search for clients, approach the organisations close to you

An important step for an IHL Clinic to become operational is the selection of cooperation partners/clients. In our experience, the national Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies are among some of the most likely organisations to provide cooperation opportunities for IHL Clinics. National societies usually have a small number of legal advisors, thus creating room for the IHL Clinic to offer its research capacities to their service. Moreover, by assigning a research project to the IHL Clinic, the national Societies gain pro bono legal assistance while at the same time they fulfil their mandate of disseminating IHL to the broader public. The German Red Cross and the Netherlands Red Cross were among the first cooperation partners of the Forum’s IHL Clinic. This also holds true for the Bochum IHL Clinic at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV), which was created by the co-author of this blog post.

4. Think big but start small

The IHL Clinic at Leiden University started its work in 2012 with six clinical projects running simultaneously. While all six projects were successfully completed, this is something that we do not recommend for a newly established IHL Clinic, as it requires many helping hands and stringent coordination to ensure the quality of the research undertaken by the students. The risk is that the following year/semester the process of running the Clinic may seem overwhelming and result in its discontinuation. We therefore advise you to kick-start the work of the IHL Clinic with a maximum of two or three clinical projects and opt for quality over quantity. It is also absolutely fine to only start with one project and focus on it entirely. In the end, it is the quality of the research undertaken by the IHL Clinic that will attract more opportunities for cooperation and enhance its reputation.

5. No matter what, start the IHL Clinic anyway!

Establishing and running an IHL Clinic is not an easy endeavour. At times, the objectives that an IHL Clinic is envisioned to pursue may seem overwhelming or the support required for its smooth running may be missing. People or colleagues may doubt its value as an educational tool or may attempt to discourage you from starting an IHL Clinic because of the anticipated workload. In spite of that, we encourage colleagues to set these obstacles aside and proceed with setting-up an IHL Clinic anyway. In our experience, there will never be a right time for the establishment of an IHL Clinic. Difficulties will always arise, as IHL Clinics challenge the traditional educational system, its teaching methods and tools. Nevertheless, we can assure interested colleagues that the students will embrace the IHL Clinic and through its popularity – among students and cooperation partners alike – the running and management of the IHL Clinic will progressively become easier. In addition, most of the challenges of introducing clinical legal education at an academic institution are common among University Professors. Because of this, support, advice, and cooperation opportunities to colleagues directing, or in the process of establishing an IHL Clinic can be provided through a Global Network of IHL Clinics, a point which we present below.

III. Towards the establishment of the IHL Clinic Global Network

Considering its interest in and support for the establishment of IHL Clinics in different parts of the world (such as the IHL Clinics at Roma Tre University in Italy, Bochum University in Germany, the German University in Cairo in Egypt and Université Paris Panthéon-Assas in France), the KGF at Leiden University envisions the creation of a Global IHL Clinic Network. This follows and expands upon a five-year cooperation between a small number of IHL Clinics, located at Emory Law School (Atlanta, USA), IDC Herzilya (Israel) and Roma Tre (Italy), but aims at a broader audience. This new Global IHL Clinic Network is dedicated to connecting those who are already directing an IHL Clinic and providing practice-oriented support and expertise to those who wish to set up an IHL Clinic, including through an IHL Clinic manual. In this direction, we invite all interested colleagues to visit the Global IHL Clinic Network section of our website.

We strongly believe that the creation of a global network of IHL Clinics dedicated to the research, teaching, and dissemination of IHL can positively contribute to a better implementation of IHL during peacetime and situations of armed conflict. IHL Clinics have the capacity to train the future generations of IHL lawyers, legislators, policymakers, and other stakeholders, which in turn contributes to the dissemination of IHL. We therefore hope that this vision of a Global IHL Clinic Network continues to materialize in the near future!

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