Institutions in International Law

By Stephanie Löwe and Eleanor Clifford

Can you give us an overview of the subject (what was the focus, what were the expectations)?

Institutions in International Law is an intensive subject, with eight seminars over two weeks in March and then two weeks meeting lawyers and members of international institutions in Geneva in July. The subject has been running for 13 years, and is led by Bruce ‘Oz’ Oswald, Andrew Mitchell and Tania Voon. The subject examines the place of international institutions within the international legal order and examines notions of fragmentation and unity in international law through experiential learning and visits to inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations. We visited multiple institutions and heard from up to six speakers a day, who shared a diverse range of experiences including their career path, their current role, reflections on the institutions they work for and general reflections on their area of international law.

What motivated you to apply for the subject?

Steph: I first heard about the elective during orientation, and it sounded too good to be true. Two weeks in Switzerland? Visiting the UN? Where do I sign up? I have always envisaged a career abroad, but quite frankly had little idea what ‘working in international law’ might involve. Oz, Andrew and Tania have carefully curated the subject so as to introduce students to diverse areas of law (both public and private) including international humanitarian law, economic and trade law, human rights law, migration law and private diplomacy. Knowing this, I applied for the subject hoping it would be the perfect way to glean invaluable insights into what a legal career in Europe might look like in practice, and howan Australian law student might ultimately make this a reality.

Eleanor: I heard about Institutions in International Law and Global Lawyer before I started the JD and, like many other law students, already knew international law was something I wanted to explore. I was motivated to apply because I wanted to understand what working in international law was actually like on a day-to-day basis, I also wanted exposure to a wide range of areas of international law in one subject. Additionally, international law often feels like an unrealistic career option and can seem particular inaccessible for law students in Australia, so I wanted a greater understanding of what I could do to work in international law.

Can you describe what an average day in looked like?

Our days started with an optional sunrise boot camp next to the picturesque Lac Léman, led by Oz. This was followed up by a well-earned buffet breakfast with panoramic views of the city from our hotel. We would don our business wear and meet in the hotel lobby for a briefing as to which institutions we would be visiting that day, and who we would be in conversation with. The institutions we visited were either within walking distance or a brief tram journey from our hotel.  Although I was aware that Geneva is renowned for being an international legal hub, it was still surreal to discover that the UN, WTO, ICRC, ILO, WHO and WIPO are all within a stone’s throw from each other. Typically, we would spend the morning at a particular institution, and have interactive discussions with three interlocutors.  We would break for lunch before travelling to another location and hearing from two or three additional interlocutors. We would usually wrap up the day around 5 pm. Summer temperatures in Geneva sit around 30 degrees, and the sun sets around 9:30 pm. Cue an afternoon swim in the crystal clear freshwater of Lac Léman. Often, dinner involved a group picnic. Large screens by the lake were broadcasting the FIFA Women’s World Cup, taking place in nearby Lyon. We would often watch a game before retiring to the hotel.

What was your favourite institution to visit and why?

Steph: The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue stood out for me. The Centre is a private diplomacy firm whose mission is to help prevent, mitigate and resolve armed conflict through discreet dialogue and mediation. The Centre’s headquarters are at the 18th century Villa Plantamour on the shores of Lac Léman, however much of the Centre’s substantive work takes place in the field in conflict zones – making contact with relevant parties and encouraging these parties to engage in mediation. Previously, I considered the only actors with power to affect real change in the peace-keeping arena would be multilateral international organisations like the UN. It was interesting to learn from our interlocutor how the increase in women negotiators facilitating the mediation process has led to a noticeable impact in building relationships of trust during negotiations.

Eleanor:My favourite institution we visited was, surprisingly for me, the World Trade Organization. Before the subject, I knew next to nothing about the WTO and international economic and trade law. However, I found the full day we spent at the WTO eye opening in shaping my understanding of the complex, interesting questions faced by lawyers,  the intertwined nature of legal and political decisions at the WTO, and the quasi-judicial function of the Appellate Body. In comparison to the discussions with international humanitarian and human rights lawyers, I found the WTO’s work enticing in its frequent resolution of disputes and actual application of law in day to day work. I also loved visiting Sidley Austin, a commercial firm that works on a variety of international trade law cases and hearing about the both litigious and negotiation-based work that it requires.

What was one experience or message that stands out in your memory?

Steph: I recall Oz remarking that to understand the law, you have to understand the institution. Indeed, my experiences visiting these institutions and engaging in discussion with our interlocutors have given me invaluable insight into the legal and political contexts in which these institutions operate, which has consequently enriched my understanding of the law as applied by that institution, and by the international legal community. Closer to home, the message I take away from this is the importance of seeking out experiential learning experiences to complement the academic perspective learned within the four walls of MLS.

Eleanor: The main message I have taken away from Institutions in International Law is to not limit yourself to a particular interest or area of law simply because it’s the only one you’ve been exposed to. I went on the subject believing my future was in international human rights law and left wanting to learn more about economic and trade law as well as a certainty that I wanted to practice law in Australia before trying to relocate abroad. It is easy to think that you will only be successful in an area of law that relates to what you studied in your undergraduate degree or connects with your outside interests, but in reality, you can be surprised about what legal disciplines you find interesting and can see a career in.

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