Archive of posts for category
Other Issues

New General Editors for CUP’s International Law Series

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’m delighted to announce that two good friends, Leiden’s Larissa van den Herik (also one of my PhD supervisors!) and Manchester’s Jean d’Aspremont, are the new General Editors for CUP’s prestigious Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law book series, which celebrates its 70th birthday next year. Here is Larissa’s statement:

It is with great enthusiasm that I take on the general editorship of one of Cambridge University Press’ flagship series in law. I feel honoured to lead this series into the twenty-first century with a view to promoting the most outstanding scholarship on international law as we previously did as joint editors-in-chief of the Leiden Journal of International Law. Building on the Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law series’ impressive heritage and committed to fostering its repute of excellence, it is my ambition to be open to new and fresh voices in terms of perspective and geography as well as to a great range of themes and approaches. Such an overture is essential, in my view, to preserve the Law series’ generalist character and its position of standard-setter in international legal thought and practice.

And here is Jean’s:

Books, like courtrooms, are where choices about what we call international law and what we do with it are debated, made, and unmade. Books are serious matters. Taking the helm of the prestigious series is thus a huge responsibility. It is also a great honour given the unequalled credentials of the preceding General Editors. The challenges ahead are gargantuan, especially in the light of some of the dramatic changes witnessed in the scholarly landscape. In order to keep some a-temporal relevance, scholarship must denote a certain degree of methodological, conceptual and political self-awareness. This means that it must be possible to situate any claim made about what we call international law by any professional of the subject. In my view, it is only as long as the series nurtures such a culture of self-awareness that it can make the works it publishes today relevant to the thinkers and practitioners of tomorrow.

CUP has done well replacing James Crawford. The series is clearly in good hands. Please join me in congratulating Larissa and Jean!

How Not to Wish Us a Happy Yom Kippur

by Kevin Jon Heller

Wishing Jews a happy Yom Kippur — good. Doing so over an image of the yellow star Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis — not so much:


Not surprisingly, WGN Chicago has since apologized.

Congratulations to Anna Dolidze!

by Kevin Jon Heller

Anna, who has guest-blogged for us in an academic capacity on a number of occasions (see here, here, and here), has just started a new job as Georgia’s Deputy Minister for Defence. See if you can spot her in this photo:

11223926_724597757669568_3889740954970463914_o (1)

Heartfelt congratulations to Anna. Academia’s loss is Georgia’s gain. I have no doubt that she will do exemplary work on behalf of her country.

A Bad Weekend at the Office for CNN

by Kevin Jon Heller

First it confused ISIS’s flag with a gay-pride flag depicting various sex toys:


Then it placed Hong Kong somewhere in Brazil:


Interested readers may want to apply for fact-checking positions at CNN. I hear they’re hiring.

Book Symposium: Is there Existential Interpretation in International Law?

by Duncan Hollis

I want to start off our conversation about the larger project Bianchi, Peat and Windsor have undertaken with their new book before introducing my own contribution to it.  For years, the concept of interpretation has had a fairly narrow focus within the international legal landscape.  It has almost uniformly been associated with a discrete set of objects — treaties. From Grotius to Oppenheim, let alone McNair to Gardiner, when international lawyers have thought about interpretation, there has been a strong push to do so almost entirely with respect to treaty instruments.  Moreover, for several decades now the vehicle for interpretation has been widely accepted in the rules of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.  Although there was a time when the issue of how to interpret treaties garnered a really diverse range of views, modern discourse has largely devolved into claiming that the VCLT approach gives priority to (or at least endorses inclusion of) different methods of interpretation (e.g., intentional, textual, teleological). Now, to be clear, these are tremendously important issues given the role of treaties in international law today; scholarship on these topics has been, and remains, an important part of international legal discourse.  Nevertheless, what I like about the Bianchi, Peat and Windsor book (putting aside my own contribution) is the editors’ willingness to deal with the traditional games of treaty interpretation while also expanding the discourse to frame interpretation as a much larger project within the international legal order.  It is an important move, and one I hope to see continued in future scholarship as international lawyers begin to recognize all the ways interpretation operates within every nook and cranny of the field.

As for my own chapter (which is still up on SSRN, although you should really buy the book), its inspiration lay in one other aspect of the conventional approach to interpretation — defining interpretation simply as a process of giving meaning to treaty texts.  I’ve always thought that this approach under-claimed the functions interpretation can serve.  Certainly, interpretation has an expository function where its processes help interpreters ascertain what meaning to assign some treaty provision or other aspect of international law.  But, interpretation can have other functions as well.  For example, although still controversial in some circles, there is the idea that interpretation has an inventive or creative function where instead of simply “finding” meaning, interpreters craft one for the circumstances presented.  Alternatively, interpretation may serve a relational role in delimiting not what specific things mean, but how they relate to one another (i.e. whether one treaty provision supersedes another, whether some international humanitarian law rule takes priority over a human right guarantee, etc.).

My contribution to this functional analysis is to highlight the existential potential of interpretation.  My chapter explores how, in ascertaining meaning, interpretation operates to confirm—or even establish—the existence of the subject interpreted within (or outside) the corpus of international law.  I argue that all interpretations have existential effects as they create, confirm, or deny the existence of the subject of interpretation. At the same time, I identify a particular structure of interpretative argument – what I call “existential interpretation” – by which interpreters ascertain the existence of their subjects.  Interpreters can foreground or background existential interpretations depending on whether the existence of the subject-matter is accepted or disputed. Moreover, I find existential interpretations are not limited to the treaty-context.  Rather, they are visible at all levels of international legal discourse, including which particular (i) authorities, (ii) evidence, (iii) rules, or (iv) sources exist for purposes of international law.

Some of these existential interpretations are quite prominent and should actually be familiar to most international lawyers even if not previously couched in such terms.  Does the U.N. Human Rights Committee have authority to sever reservations as inconsistent with the object and purpose of the ICCPR?  For purposes of identifying customary international law, is evidence of “State practice” only comprised of what States “do” or can it also count what States “say”?   Is there an “unwilling or unable” test in the jus ad bellum in response to non-State actor attacks?  Is R2P now a part of international law?  Is the new Iran Deal a treaty or not? Are decisions of international organizations a separate source of international law?   These are all examples of existential interpretative inquiries.

My chapter seeks to illuminate the existential function of interpretation and illustrate such interpretations in all the various aspects of the international legal system.  But my paper is not simply an exercise in interpretative taxonomy — identifying different frames for interpretative questions.  Rather, I seek to illuminate the consequences that the presence or absence of an existential interpretation may have in terms of international legal (a) discourse, (b) doctrine, and (c) theories of international law.  For starters, existential interpretations delineate the boundaries for interpretative discourse, narrowing it in cases of consensus on the existence of the interpreted subject, and broadening it in cases of dispute. Where interpretative resolutions of existential questions are possible, they may impact the content of international law doctrine, either directly or indirectly. And, where resolution is not possible, existential interpretations may operate as proxies for theoretical disagreement about the nature or purpose of international law (e.g., positivists may insist interpreters exclude from their toolbox the same soft law sources that naturalists insist require effectiveness as a matter of right).

I conclude my paper by calling for further study of existential interpretation for practical and theoretical reasons.  As a practical matter, it would be useful to know more about when and how actors actually foreground existential interpretations.  Obviously, there may be cases where an interpreter does so in good faith, but I suspect existential interpretations might also be deployed instrumentally.  Consider the possibilities when a State (or other actor) objects to an interpreter X claiming that Rule Y means Z.  Of course, the State might simply disagree that Z is the correct meaning of Rule Y. But a State could expand the scope of the interpretative dispute by also questioning whether X has authority to interpret, the evidence on which Rule Y rests as well as the source of international law it is derived from. The objecting State may thus complicate the dispute by expanding its scope.  In doing so, moreover, the objecting State may change the nature of the dispute itself, shifting a discussion away from the initial question (e.g., protecting victims of a humanitarian crisis) to issues of authority or procedure (does international law contain a rule requiring such protection and who has authority to invoke its mantel).

As a theoretical matter, existential interpretations can serve as a new lens for mapping the unity and fragmentation of the international legal order itself. Instead of examining fragmentation along a single axis (eg norms), mapping existential arguments offers a way to gauge the extent of unity versus fragmentation along multiple axes.  Since existential interpretations are manifest throughout international legal discourse, questions of unity or fragmentation can be examined in terms of authority, the sources of international law, the rules of international law and the evidence on which they are based, the actors who may participate, or the remedies international law affords.  In each area, the number and depth of existential debates offer a rough gauge for mapping unity versus fragmentation.  Where existential inquiries are absent or where a consensus exists on the answers, unity may be presumed.  Conversely, where there are existential disputes, they indicate a fragmentation of the legal system.

In sum, as much as I love treaties, I believe that there is significant value in thinking about interpretation as more than a process of giving treaty provisions meaning.  My introduction of the concept of existential interpretation is an effort to show just how broadly interpretative processes reach and structure the international legal order.  In doing so, I hope to illustrate — as the book itself does — the importance of thinking about interpretation as its own field within international law.

[An introductory post to the book symposium can be found here.]

RIP, Chinua Achebe (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I just learned — much belatedly — that Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist, died two years ago today at 82. Here is a snippet from his 2013 obituary in the New York Times:

Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist and Nobel laureate, hailed Mr. Achebe in a review in The New York Times in 1988, calling him “a novelist who makes you laugh and then catch your breath in horror — a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.”

Mr. Achebe’s political thinking evolved from blaming colonial rule for Africa’s woes to frank criticism of African rulers and the African citizens who tolerated their corruption and violence. Indeed, it was Nigeria’s civil war in the 1960s and then its military dictatorship in the 1980s and ‘90s that forced Mr. Achebe abroad.

In his writing and teaching Mr. Achebe sought to reclaim the continent from Western literature, which he felt had reduced it to an alien, barbaric and frightening land devoid of its own art and culture. He took particular exception to”Heart of Darkness,”the novel byJoseph Conrad, whom he thought “a thoroughgoing racist.”

Conrad relegated “Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind,” Mr. Achebe argued in his essay “An Image of Africa.”

“I grew up among very eloquent elders,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2008. “In the village, or even in the church, which my father made sure we attended, there were eloquent speakers.” That eloquence was not reflected in Western books about Africa, he said, but he understood the challenge in trying to rectify the portrayal.

“You know that it’s going to be a battle to turn it around, to say to people, ‘That’s not the way my people respond in this situation, by unintelligible grunts, and so on; they would speak,’ ” Mr. Achebe said. “And it is that speech that I knew I wanted to be written down.”

Chinua’s passing fills me with great sadness, because I had the honour of getting to know him quite well in the late 1980s — just before the car accident that left him paralyzed — when I was a graduate student at the New School for Social Research. He was a dear friend of the anthropologist Stanley Diamond, for whom I did research and whose journal, Dialectical Anthropology, I edited. I will long treasure the memories of Chinua’s kindness and warmth. He would always go out of his way to include me in conversations, and to ask me — a lowly graduate student, barely 21 — what I thought about things. And his terrible accident did not dim his spirit in the slightest; he was just as kind and warm the first time I saw him after the accident, when he was still recovering.

Chinua was also, needless to say, a remarkable novelist. I just wish he had written more — his two-decade-long writers block, which he attributed to the trauma of the Nigerian civil war (as the obituary notes), cheated us all out of so many great novels that will now never be written. I plan to re-read “Things Fall Apart” in his honour as soon as I can. It remains one of the great novels written by any writer — not just by an African one. Chinua’s fiction, though so inextricably tied to his country and to his continent, always transcended the limits of geography. I still get angry when I think about Saul Bellow’s profoundly racist comment concerning the supposed non-existence of great African literature: “When the Zulus produce a Tolstoy, we will read him.” I don’t know about the Zulus, but the Ibo certainly produced one. His name was Chinua Achebe.

Requiescat in pace, Chinua. You will be missed — and remembered.

UPDATE: I have updated the post to reflect that I only found out today about Chinua’s death. I hope these thoughts are better late than never.

JFK: Keeping the World Safe for Santa

by Kevin Jon Heller

Courtesy of Chris Moody, here is an actual letter written by John F. Kennedy in 1961 to a little girl in Michigan:


Santa Claus has always seemed a bit communist to me. More of the Vietnamese or Chinese nationalist variety, I guess.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Congratulations, Dr. Kersten

by Kevin Jon Heller

Mark Kersten, creator of Justice in Conflict, long one of the most important blogs in international criminal justice, successfully defended his thesis yesterday at the LSE. Heartfelt congratulations, my friend!

And, of course, now that Mark has the word “Dr.” in front of his name, we can finally take him seriously.

A Question for My European Colleagues About PhD Applications

by Kevin Jon Heller

Here is the question: are there any norms governing how many potential supervisors a student looking to apply for a PhD can or should approach? I get a few emails expressing interest in my supervision each month, and they generally fall into three categories: (1) proposals that are clearly directed toward me, because they discuss my work and propose topics I’ve written about; (2) proposals that have nothing to do with my work or interests and seem to be little more than academic spam; and (3) proposals that seem to be directed towards me, because they discuss my work, but propose topics that are at the very outer edge of my intellectual interests. I have little trouble with the first two categories — proposals in the first tend to be strong; proposals in the second tend to be anything but. It’s the third category that I find difficult to deal with. The students are often more than qualified and the proposals are usually quite good. But I cannot escape a sneaking suspicion that even when the proposals are addressed specifically to me, I am one of many potential supervisors to whom the student has written.

To be honest, I never know what to do in that situation. Given the uncertainties of acceptance and financial support — particularly in the UK — I understand that potential PhD students need to apply to multiple universities and thus need to approach multiple potential supervisors. But I also want there to be some kind of intellectual connection between me and my PhD students; I don’t want to work with someone just because he or she knows my name and sees the “Professor” in my title.

So, European colleagues: how do you handle situations like these? How many simultaneous approaches is too many? Is it kosher to write back to a student and ask how many others they’ve written to? Can I ask for names?

Any advice would be most appreciated…

Dapo Akande Promoted to Professor of Public International Law at Oxford

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to congratulate my friend — and friend of Opinio Juris — Dapo Akande on his promotion to Professor of Public International Law at Oxford University. It’s a massive accomplishment, and one richly deserved. Here is a snippet of Dapo’s impressive bio:

Dapo Akande is also Yamani Fellow at St. Peter’s College and Co-Director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC) & the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations. He has held visiting professorships at Yale Law School (where he was also Robinna Foundation International Fellow), the University of Miami School of Law and the Catolica Global Law School, Lisbon. Before taking up his position in Oxford in 2004, he was Lecturer in Law at the University of Nottingham School of Law (1998-2000) and at the University of Durham (2000-2004). From 1994 to 1998, he taught international law (part-time) at the London School of Economics and at Christ’s College and Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.

He has varied research interests within the field of general international law and has published articles on aspects of the law of international organizations, international dispute settlement, international criminal law and the law of armed conflict. His articles have been published in leading international law journals such as the American Journal of International Law, the British Yearbook of International Law and the European Journal of International Law . His article in the Journal of International Criminal Justice on the “Jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court over Nationals of Non-Parties: Legal Basis and Limits” was awarded the 2003 Giorgio La Pira Prize.

Dapo has advised States, international organizations and non-governmental organizations on matters of international law. He has worked with the United Nations on issues relating to international humanitarian law and human rights law; acted as consultant for the African Union on the international criminal court and on the law relating to terrorism; and also as a consultant for the Commonwealth Secretariat on the law of armed conflict and international criminal law. He has also provided training on international law to diplomats, military officers and other government officials. He has advised and assisted counsel, or provided expert opinions, in cases before the International Court of Justice, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, international arbitral tribunals, WTO and NAFTA Dispute Settlement Panels as well as cases in England and the United States of America.

There are four scholars who write in my areas that I am afraid to disagree with — because when we do disagree, odds are that they are right and I am wrong. The first three are Marko Milanovic, Steve Vladeck, and my co-blogger Jens Ohlin. The fourth is Dapo. He is, quite simply, one of the finest scholars writing today.

Congratulations, Dapo!

Does Greece Really Have a Legal Case for the Return of the Elgin Marbles? I Doubt It

by Julian Ku

Amal Alamuddin-Clooney, Kevin’s Doughty Street Chambers colleague, made news this week by visiting Greece as part of a legal team working for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece from Britain.  This is not ordinarily global tabloid fodder, but Alamuddin-Clooney’s recent marriage means she will draw media attention wherever she goes.

I don’t doubt her legal credentials (as well as that of her colleagues), but I do doubt the strength of their legal case for the return of the Marbles.  At the time the Marbles were removed from Greece, the Ottoman Empire had sovereignty over Greece and there is pretty decent historical evidence that Lord Elgin had their authorization to remove the Marbles, or if he did not have authorization, his removal was ratified by official acts of the Ottoman government.  (John Merryman seems to have made the most complete case here).

To be sure, there are strong moral arguments for the return of the Marbles to Greece. But Alamuddin-Clooney and her colleagues are hired for their legal expertise. On this front, I think they have a very tough case (which may be why they appear to have ruled out litigation already).  But I am open to counter-arguments (based on law, not on cultural nationalism) for the Greek case. .

Matrix Chambers Is Hiring!

by Kevin Jon Heller

My friends at Matrix Chambers have asked me to post the following job announcement, for established practitioners in international law:

Founded in 2000 to meet the complex challenges of law in the 21st century, Matrix Chambers has 70 members and 7 associate members supported by a dynamic and modern staff team. We have offices in London and Geneva.

Individual members of Matrix Chambers have experience and expertise in a wide range of international law areas including maritime, humanitarian, environmental, boundary disputes, oil and gas disputes, investment treaty disputes, and disputes between States. Members of Chambers attract an increasing amount of private international law work in addition to the public international law cases for which they are renowned for, along with a commitment to developing non-litigation work, including advisory work on Corporate Social Responsibility, investigatory work, and international mediation.

Members act for a full range of clients including individuals, companies, NGO’s, and States. They appear before the major international courts and tribunals, including the International Court of Justice, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the WTO dispute settlement bodies, and international criminal courts and tribunals, as well as before domestic courts where issues of international law arise. Members also act in ICSID, PCA and other arbitrations. Members are ranked highly in international law in all the major legal directories.

In accordance with its policy of controlled growth, and given the heavy workload of the team, Matrix wishes to recruit additional members to complement the core International Law team. Matrix invites applications from experienced barristers, lawyers, and academics who have an established and exceptional international law practice, either here in England and Wales, or in other jurisdictions.

The successful candidates will need to demonstrate that they are outstanding International Law practitioners with a strong reputation in the international arena, who support the Core Values of Matrix. You can request an application pack by e-mailing recruitment [at] matrixlaw [dot] co [dot] uk or call +44 (0)20 7404 3447.  The deadline for receipt of applications is Friday 12th September 2014.

Any potential applicants who wish to discuss their application may contact Practice Manager Paul Venables (paulvenables [at] matrixlaw [dot] co [dot] uk) or the International Law group coordinator Professor Zachary Douglas (zacharydouglas [at] matrixlaw [dot] co [dot] uk). All applications will be treated in the strictest confidence.

This is an amazing opportunity for the right candidate. Matrix is obviously one of the UK’s best barrister sets, with a particularly strong international-law group — Prof. James Crawford, Philippe Sands QC, Raza Husain QC, Cherie Booth QC, Ben Emmerson QC, Michelle Butler, and many others.

Note that the deadline for applying is coming up soon — a week from today, September 12. You can download the application pack here.