An Interview With Prof. Benedict Kingsbury: International Law, Sir Brownlie and More

Written by  //  August 30, 2015  //  Law & The Judiciary  //  Comments Off on An Interview With Prof. Benedict Kingsbury: International Law, Sir Brownlie and More

Prof. Benedict Kingsbury is a distinguished scholar of international law. He is currently Murry and Ida Becker Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for International Law and Justice at New York University School of Law. Since April 2013 he is joint Editor in Chief (with Jose Alvarez) of the American Journal of International Law, a premier journal in the field.  With his NYU colleague Richard Stewart, he initiated and currently directs the Global Administrative Law Research Project, which is a project with pioneering approach to issues of accountability and participation in global governance. In 1984 he graduated at the top of his class in the M.Phil in international relations at Oxford, supervised by the distinguished theorist Hedley Bull. He subsequently completed a D.Phil in Law at Oxford, supervised by Chichele Professor Ian Brownlie QC, and thereafter held a permanent teaching position in the Law Faculty at Oxford before moving to Duke University in 1993.

Recently, Prof. Benedict Kingsbury engaged with the students of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore on “Some Core Approaches to the Study of International Law”. Post this interaction, we interviewed Prof. Kingsbury.

Q1. Why did you chose to foray into the field of international law as a student? What attracted you towards this area of law?

Well, I’m from New Zealand. It’s a small country with a population of around 4,000,000 only. Like every young New Zealander, I also wanted to travel and see the world. Intellectually, I felt about the same. New Zealand is a bit sheltered, and so I wanted to understand some of the issues and problems better by going outside New Zealand. I also thought about how there could be some scope about improving the quality of order and justice. I considered studying law and wanted to integrate it with other disciplines. I did my law degree in New Zealand, and then studied international relations for two years in Oxford, which also introduced me to Prof Hedley Bull, who was a great figure in that field. In fact, he had spent a semester at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and was at that time working on a book related to western dominance based on the post colonisation attitudes of the decolonised countries. I thought his work was very suggestive about what one could do with the study and application of international law, and I shifted my doctoral major to international law under Sir Ian Brownlie, QC. He was very engaged not only in the International Court of Justice litigation and arbitration, but also with the development of international law in states. Through these people, I saw the things you could do with international law. My own doctorate was on ‘Indigenous peoples in International Law’, which was at that time a very novel topic in international law, unlike today. I had worked as a lawyer with indigenous tribes in New Zealand. I felt that it was connected to a global movement, and so I took it up. At that time, it was a completely new topic in international law. Today, it is a standard topic. But at that time, I had a chance to be part of the process of creating this area of law, and this was another reason I was attracted to the study of international law.

Q2. Having been a student of Sir Ian Brownlie, could you tell us about him and his ideology? What were his defining contributions to international law, according to you?

As a person, he was inspirational! He had really good technique. Everything he spoke about was the product of his well-informed knowledge base and  careful thought processes. He was a real forensic lawyer, resisting slogans and platitudes. At the same time, he also had a vision of justice. He saw possibilities of using international law in creative ways. He had certain views of what could be done with international law, and was  thoughtfully dismissive of overly starry eyed projects and realism. His most significant contribution to international law, apart from his magnificent book, is a high quality systemisation of the practise of international law. He introduced a certain structure, and sharp use of principles of international law. His study had great depth and fortitude. He was also exceedingly well informed about other areas of law, such as laws relating to evidence, contracts, etc. I think you can see in his work a real blend of practise and systematic thought, and he was actually quite sceptical of theorising (although I am personally quite committed to theorising).

Q3. International law has often been understood to be a viable career only for academics and diplomats. Has the situation changed in the recent years? What are the new avenues for those who wish to have a career in international law?

The situation for careers in IL has been completely transformed now. In the earlier days, if you wanted to practise IL you would have to go into the Foreign Ministry or the UN or other such structures which were dedicated to the practise of IL. But now, IL as it is broadly understood, is everywhere. There are multiple transnational laws, there are multiple organisations which work with international laws and there is an international aspect t several areas of law now. For example, you could be working in the field of international sports law, climate change policy or studying global funds and structures which deal with HIV or other health issues. Even on the corporate side, areas like corporate social responsibility or e- commerce or even internet governance involves several aspects of international. Students often have an old fashioned understanding of what one can work on in international law. But it is a matter of looking at what disputes of legal issues arise across nations and addressing them using combined knowledge of multiple areas of law. For example, expertise in international civil litigation and evidence law can be beneficial to start a career in international law. There are multiple firms which also look for such talent, which combines an understanding and application of international law over disputes, and they also provide considerable opportunity for work in international law. Q4. What is your opinion of the developing countries’ perspective of international law as a new discourse within the academic literature in the field of international law? What are your suggestions for its growth and increase in relevance?

I think it is fair to say international law has been dominated by the North Atlantic writing and discourse to some extent, and a lot of the writing has conformed to the manner of international law laid out by this discourse. However, there has been a clear rise of high quality writing from certain institutions of higher learning and academics from the developing nations. Interestingly, the rise of the writing from developing countries in international law has coincided with the rise in the power wielded by these countries. At the American Journal of International Law, we try to promote the writing and ideas from developing country perspective. We have held multiple conferences for the same, in New Delhi, Cape Town, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, etc. In India, the work of Prof. B.S. Chimney has contributed greatly to the growing body of work in this area of international law, and is now the first India based member of the Board of Editors of the American Journal of International Law. This is an example of the fact that these voices are being heard, and there is full support for scholars and students to contribute to the growth of this discourse. But naturally, there is also a responsibility of these scholars to contribute original and innovative ideas, and not just write on the existing concepts and ideas.

Q5. What, according to you, are the certain skill sets students wishing to pursue international law should focus on developing?

First of all, I think it’s important to be a good lawyer! You have to take all areas of law seriously, and know how to work with all the elements of the law. So it is important to be good at contracts and evidence, if you want to be a good international lawyer. You need to have expertise in these areas and not separate them intellectually from international law, after which their integration is much more effective. You can start out with the same question and come up with multiple types of answers. So it is a good idea to have some view of the big picture, and then to look at the same questions again. Look at what are the big questions of justice – the larger issues around you. It is highly dynamic, and of course much more fluid and technical.

Q6. As an esteemed academic and an educator, what are your suggestions for students aspiring to produce original and quality academic literature?

So, about two thirds of a good research paper is the research question or the hypothesis. Start with something you really care about. You can care about nutrition of women or conservation of forests, but you must pick something very specific and realistic. Once you start with something you really care about, you must write what you think about it. You have to write your own opinion on the subject, without relying excessively on what other people have said about it. Keep it simple and within your scope, don’t be afraid to connect it to one village, or one individual or one house. I’d encourage you to have a very narrow, specific area of study, and to engage with it thoroughly.


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