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International law judge delivers SCIL Annual Lecture

ByEthan DeWitt

Nov 18, 2014
courtesy of brielle danko

Sir Jonathan Greenwood, Judge of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and one of the preeminent scholars in the field of International Law, gave a lecture of University of Edinburgh students last Wednesday.

Sir Greenwood, who was appointed judge to the ICJ in 2008 after previously serving as a barrister, was invited to speak on the developing relationship between international and domestic courts.

In his speech, Sir Greenwood examined the treatment of international court decisions in national courts; the treatment of national court decisions in international courts; and the areas in which legal conflict arose.

A central contention underpinning his lecture was that relationships between domestic courts such as the UK Supreme Court and the ICJ had not just strengthened, but become almost symbiotic.

“When I started in practice, there was very considerable skepticism that there was any scope at all for a relationship,” Sir Greenwood, who had appeared before English and international courts for decades before his appointment, told the audience.

He continued: “But there is no doubt today that if you are a judge in the United Kingdom, you are highly likely to be confronted with an issue of public international law.”

The ICJ, established with the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II, is the judicial arm of the UN, created to act as a final authority on matters of international law.

The court has proven increasingly instrumental in determining customary international law: laws and customs that aren’t directly agreed to by states but that can be inferred by their practice.

As states interact globally and create legal relationships, and treaty law expands, Sir Greenwood explained, national courts have increasingly been unable to avoid considerations of international law, even when their country was not even party to the treaty in question.

He explained: “What you very rarely find today is a national judge who is willing to say, as many of them would have done, ‘well I don’t really care what the international court of justice or any other international tribunal has said on this subject, I can work out myself what this treaty means.’

“That is a sea change in attitudes.”

To illustrate the jurisdictional misconceptions that still trouble the system, he recounted an experience where an expert opinion he provided to an American international claims case was assailed by both parties.

One lawyer dismissed his advice as insufficiently accounting for “international law as interpreted by the U.S. Second Circuit Court”, to which Sir Greenwood scoffed: “There is nothing called ‘international law as interpreted by the Second Circuit Court’; there is only international law.”

The opposition lawyer bristled that a foreign jurist would even try to weigh in on Second Court decisions.

Such legal confusions are representative of the awkwardness that often persists with national application of international law.

But Sir Greenwood expressed faith that such difficulties would iron themselves out over time.

“Do we have a crisis? I don’t think that we do,” he said.

But “we are still a long way away from being able to talk of international law and national law as a single unified body.”

The lecture, sponsored by the Scottish Centre for International Law, drew throngs of law students and professors alike, easily over-filling the Old College lecture theatre with attendants.

Lene Korseberg, organiser of the lecture, said: “Sir Christopher Greenwood has been, and continues to be, a prominent figure on both the British and international legal arena. We were delighted to present him as the speaker for SCIL’s Annual Lecture, and he certainly lived up to our expectations, presenting a lecture that we hope was enjoyed by both members of staff and the large number of student attendees.”

“You can, I think, see why Judge Greenwood was such a popular and esteemed lecturer,” Alan Boyle, professor of international law, said in concluding remarks.

“The lucidity and clarity with he can set out very complex issues is outstanding.”


By Ethan DeWitt


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