Skip to content

HE Judge Rosalyn Higgins delivers Institute's 2007 Grotius Lecture

On 16 October, Judge Rosalyn Higgins, President of the International Court of Justice, gave the 2007 Grotius Lecture on 'The Rule of Law: Some Sceptical Thoughts'.

The event, which was chaired by the Rt Hon Lord Bingham of Cornhill, Chairman of the Institute, and hosted in the grand setting of the Middle Temple Hall, drew a large and appreciative audience of Institute members.

In her lecture, Judge Higgins took up the 'rule of law' theme explored at the Institute's Annual Conference earlier this year, and shared her views on the current fervour in world politics for strengthening the rule of law internationally and for the development of so-called 'rule of law' projects. According to Judge Higgins, this widespread enthusiasm must be approached with a certain cautious scepticism, since it is unclear what the very concept of the rule of law even means at the international level.

In attempting to clarify the meaning of this term, Judge Higgins turned first to domestic law, from which the concept was taken. But the familiar national rule of law models do not provide the answer, because their fundamental principles do not fit easily within the current international framework. Looking at the current international system, Judge Higgins pointed to a number of the difficulties in applying this template: the executive of the United Nations, the Security Council, is far from representative of the membership as a whole; its decisions are not, despite best efforts, applied in a consistent or equal manner, but are instead subject to "the achievement of the possible"; nor are its decisions subject to judicial review for non-arbitrariness by the International Court of Justice. Moreover, there are deficiencies in the judicial adjudication and enforcement of international law: the ICJ is restricted by the requirement of state consent in its ability to adjudicate international disputes; and there is a risk of inconsistency in the application of international law, as the many international courts and tribunals now operating are not united in a clear hierarchical structure.

Nor do the current debates in international relations reveal the true meaning of 'the international rule of law', according to Judge Higgins. In fact, it is in the context of the UN activities on the subject where the need for scepticism is strongest. States appear to be repackaging an eclectic variety of old projects as 'rule of law' initiatives in the hopes of receiving priority on the UN agenda. As a result, the term has been stretched to cover an enormous list of topics: everything from law reform, elections, human rights, gender issues, children's issues and protection of minorities to anti-corruption, environmental protection, international criminal justice, and even domestic legal capacity-building, As Judge Higgins remarked, the idea of the rule of law is now so "conceptually disparate" that it could end up being "all things to all people" and, therefore, virtually meaningless.

But while there is no agreement on the precise meaning of the 'international rule of law', Judge Higgins noted that there is a general acceptance at the UN now that the rule of law is an important subject, and that efforts must be made to improve its implementation. Judge Higgins emphasised that these improvements must be made at both the national and international levels, for a greater degree of compliance with international law can only be achieved if efforts to enhance domestic legal systems are matched by concerted action to strengthen international institutions, to publicise international law widely, and to ensure that it is enforced equally and adjudicated independently. As Judge Higgins concluded, the international rule of law remains very much a work in progress.

BIICL Evidence Project on the ICJ Convenes Discussion Forum - Wednesday 17 October

The BIICL study on Evidence in the International Court of Justice entered its final phase on Wednesday, with a Discussion Forum convened to review the draft publication written over the past six months by Project Director Anna Riddell and Research Fellow Brendan Plant.

The purpose of the Forum was to complement the academic research done to date with the practical insights and knowledge of the thirty distinguished Judges, practitioners and academics who attended. Given that the research has been conducted on the basis of the case law and academic literature, it was hoped to achieve a more comprehensive perspective by hearing about the practice of the Court. A fascinating and amusing keynote address was given by Professor Hugh Thirlway, formerly First Legal Secretary of the ICJ, followed by open discussion amongst the participants.

The very useful feedback and practical perspectives offered at the Discussion Forum will enable the Researchers to expand and improve upon the draft publication with a view to publishing the book in early 2008.

Keep In Touch