Teaching and practicing international law in a global environment: toward a common language of international law.

Position:International Law in a Time of Change - Proceedings of the 104th Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law - Discussion

This panel was convened at 3:45 p.m., Thursday, March 25, by its moderator, Mahnoush H. Arsanjani, former Director of the Codification Division of the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs, who introduced the keynote speaker, Dame Rosalyn Higgins, former President of the International Court of Justice; and the presenter of the UN Audiovisual Library of International Law, Deirdre O. Schell, Legal Officer of the Codification Division of the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs.


The latter part of the 20th century was characterized by the consolidation of a transnational science-based civilization, and it is reinforcing and extending itself in the twenty-first century. One of the chief features of such a civilization is that knowledge becomes an essential source of economic and political power. In this civilization, knowledge constantly expands. So meaningful education becomes perforce an ongoing process.

As a practical matter, lack of education in any field, correlates with political inequality. Those who are fortunate enough to receive formal training in accredited law schools, under the tutelage of competent teachers, and continue through their careers to have access to libraries and research centers which enable them to maintain, update, and develop their knowledge, have more power. Others who aspire to become specialists in international law to serve their communities and receive some formal international legal training, but lack access to leading experts in the field and quality libraries and research centers, are unable pro tanto to serve their communities. Lack of equal opportunity for training among the specialists in our field correlates with inequality in the arenas of international law.

Because knowledge of international law is a basis for individual effectiveness, it is an important source of power. The opportunity for acquiring an understanding and appreciation of international law should now be open to all who want to learn it, as part of a program for ensuring meaningful equality. Indeed, many more people now need knowledge of international law, since it is no longer limited to interstate relations. International law influences domestic law, either directly through human rights norms, or by setting general guidelines as models to be adopted domestically. In a more subtle way, international law promotes, for example, democratic forms of governance. All this means that many others beside lawyers need access to knowledge and understanding of international law.

Some understanding of international law makes government officials more effective in the conduct of their domestic duties. It also alerts them to their international obligations toward their fellow citizens. For parliamentarians, knowledge of international law can alert them to the legislative obligations and limitations imposed by the world community. For judges, a window on international law and international judicial decisions can expand their horizons and alert them to their international obligations and competences. As for ordinary citizens and citizen groups, knowledge of international law, and, in particular, of their internationally protected rights, and the international legal obligations of their governments toward them, toward other countries, toward the environment, and so forth, empowers them to invoke those rights and demand compliance with them. Everywhere, understanding of and training in international law reinforces international symbols in their competition with parochial domestic symbols. The more international symbols replace parochial symbols, the better the chance for a viable universal culture of the rule of law.

In 1919 the brief preamble of the Covenant of the League of Nations framed the Covenant as the "firm establishment of the understandings of international law as the actual rule of conduct among Governments." Twenty-six years later in 1945, the more substantial preamble to the Charter of the United Nations begins with the words "We the peoples of the United Nations," and the penultimate preambular paragraph affirms as a goal "to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples." The shift of the ultimate purpose of international law from the relations between governments to the benefit of the people cannot be clearer. It is thus natural that it is the United Nations which has now undertaken to open, free of charge, access to international law materials and training in this field to all the peoples of the world.

It is fitting to begin this program with a keynote address by Judge Rosalyn Higgins, former President of the International Court of Justice. In her rich and illustrious career, as a scholar and thinker, professor, advocate, arbitrator, judge, and President of the International Court, Rosalyn Higgins has continuously written and taught generations of international lawyers the world over. If ever the words "This speaker needs no introduction" applied to anyone, they apply to Judge Higgins.

Following Judge Higgins' remarks, Deirdre Schell, of the Codification Division of the Office of Legal Affairs of the United Nations, will present the United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law; the audiovisual materials from the first virtual international law training and research center and its potential for contributing to international legal education in the twenty-first century.

By Mahnoush H. Arsanjani, Former Director of the Codification Division, United Nations Office of Legal Affairs.


In all professions, those who are just beginning need educating in the intellectual life ahead of them, and those who are practitioners need not only to know where to find the resources of their profession, but ideally also to be exposed to continuing education. This is partly because the world around one changes so much. The topics falling within international law develop at an astonishing rate: new institutions, treaties, and judgments arise continuously and relentlessly. Moreover, we international lawyers, like doctors, can become set and tired in our thinking and need periodically to be brought up to date, informed of new developments, and have our minds opened to new ideas and ways of thinking. And, importantly, the very tools of research for our subject themselves develop and improve all the while--often presenting the older generation with a real challenge!

International law governs much more than it once did. The starting point still must be that it governs relations between states, between states and international organizations, and between international organizations inter se. Ordinary persons in diverse countries around the world are interested in international law in this broad and non-professional sense. We could regard it as a civic duty that persons everywhere understand that the relations of their country with others, with the United Nations and with other organizations, are governed by a law other than their own national law. To avoid nationalism of the worst sort and ignorant parochialism, it is necessary that the ordinary citizen understand that there is a well-ordered structure for international relations--a structure and a system that all states accept.

As international law has in the last half-century been the umbrella for the widening and deepening of international human rights law and the various institutions and judicial bodies associated with that, the individual now has a corpus of law to turn to in his or her relations with his or her own government. This relationship must now exist within the framework of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. In that context, there are constraints upon the freedom of the state.

It is not...

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