Home Articles posted by Sarah Nouwen

Anticipating the Chagos Advisory Opinion: The Forgotten History of the UK’s Invocation of the Right to Self-Determination for the Sudan in the 1940s

Published on February 19, 2019        Author:  and

What does 2019 have in store for international law? Little seems predictable, but 2019 is likely to be the year in which the International Court of Justice will for the first time in two decades pronounce on the law of self-determination. In the Kosovo Advisory Opinion, the ICJ managed to sail around this spiky fundamental concept of international law, but it will be harder to avoid in the advisory proceedings on the Legal Consequences of the Separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius. This case puts self-determination front and centre.

One of the questions that the ICJ may have to address is that of the legal status of self-determination as early as 1965, including Great Britain’s argument that it had, until then, consistently objected to references to a ‘right’ of self-determination. Influential legal literature underlines the trickiness of that question, as it locates the birth of self-determination as a legal right exactly in the period 1960-1970, but without pinpointing a specific birthday. 

However, legal historiography has thus far omitted a case that suggests that self-determination was imbued with legal meaning, by Great Britain itself, at an earlier stage, namely in the 1940s. Our forthcoming article in the British Yearbook of International Law shows that during the UN Security Council’s second year of operation, in 1947, the UK invoked the right of self-determination of another people, the Sudanese, as their legal entitlement, in its effort to counter Egyptian claims on the Sudan. While others have written brilliant histories of how the Sudan emerged into statehood, our article aims to restore the Sudan case to the legal history of self-determination, including the UK’s role in this. Thus, even if popular historical imagination envisages self-determination as a revolutionary ideal championed by the colonized but denied by the colonizers, in the case of the Sudan, the British propagated the Sudanese right to self-determination, albeit, as we argue, as an emanation of, not a deviation from, their own colonial predispositions. Read the rest of this entry…


Favourite Readings 2018: Discovering (new) classics, better late than never

Published on December 18, 2018        Author: 

Editor’s note: Continuing a tradition started by Isabel Feichtner a few years ago, EJIL’s Review Editor, Christian J. Tams, invited members of the EJIL board to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 2018. In the following days we will present some selections here on EJIL:Talk! They comprise a wide range of books, from (a few) doctrinal legal texts, to (many more) historical accounts and works of fiction. Unlike in many official book prize competitions, 2018 does not necessarily stand for the year of publication; rather, board members were asked to list books they read or re-read this year, and found inspiring or enjoyable. Today we have Sarah Nouwen’s choices.

Sometimes, writing is easier without reading. Skim-reading the most recent work on a topic, one may find sufficient disagreements to pick a fight with. But truly widely reading about a topic, going back several decades, if not centuries, makes one realise how many of one’s arguments have already been made, and much better. Ultimately, of course, it is such wide reading that allows one’s own work to mature. It is also an act of rebellion against the pressures of quantitative assessments of one’s work, and an inspiring source for the scholar’s primary job: to educate, first oneself, and then others.

So, in the spirit of better late than never, this year’s list includes some books that I should have read long ago.

Karen Knop’s Diversity and Self-Determination in International Law (2002)

I opened this book to develop a stronger grasp on the international law of self-determination. I closed it with an even broader understanding of everything that self-determination could mean, depending on who interprets it, and who gets to participate in the process of interpretation. Putting her finger on one of the paradoxes of self-determination, Knop shows that those most affected by self-determination are often excluded from the process of its legal interpretation. While this may be the case for many legal norms, it is paradoxical for self-determination, which is essentially concerned with people deciding for themselves.

But the book’s significance goes far beyond self-determination. I’ll use it for teaching classes on interpretation: thought you knew what this text meant? Read Knop and you’ll be surprised in how many ways the same few lines can be understood, depending on one’s world view and what we consider coherent or incoherent.

Rita Kesselring, Bodies of Truth: Law, Memory, and Emancipation in Post-Apartheid South Africa (2017) Read the rest of this entry…


A Moving Conference: Rights, Justice and Memories of the City

Published on November 21, 2017        Author: 

Conferences rarely get reviewed (but see a recent such review here), but given the amount of time, money and carbon emissions that goes into them, we may wish to evaluate them. Moreover, in reviewing a conference, we can try to capture and share an experience that, unlike a book, cannot be picked up again.

The conference Rights, Justice, and Memories of the City that took place in Lviv, Ukraine, from 9 to 12 November, is worth an attempt at capturing. If allowed to pick only one adjective, I would choose ‘moving’. Unlike most academic conferences, the conference involved a lot of physical moving around: the opening lecture took place at the Ukrainian Catholic University; the workshop next day, Placeless/Placeness: Ideas of Rights and Justice in Eastern Europe, was at the Center for Urban History and in the city hall on the city’s beautiful main square; the Saturday included a discussion at the Mayor’s office, a three-hour city walk and an art performance in the Lviv Philarmonic; while the Sunday offered a visit to the nearby town of Zhovkva. These were not mere ‘excursions’, agenda items peripheral to the core business of seated discussion. Rather, they were key to what was being discussed throughout the conference, including during the walks: the role of a place in the development of ideas on rights and justice.

Inspired by Philippe Sands’s celebrated East West Street: On the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity (Weidenfeld&Nicholson 2016, published in Ukrainian in September 2017), this event connected Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin and their legal work to the socio-political context within which they developed. Historians provided brilliant insights into the need for members of minorities to think and act in a cosmopolitan way. Reut Paz outspokenly illustrated the significance of Lemberg/Lwów/Lviv/Lvov with an excerpt from the Eichmann trial, where Eichmann mentions that it was here that he saw something he had not seen before: ‘Blutfontänen’, fountains of blood springing up from the soil due to the extent of killing of Jews that had taken place. Sean Murphy explained how the International Law Commission was working on a draft convention on the prevention and suppression of crimes against humanity, a concept inserted in the Nuremberg Charter at Lauterpacht’s recommendation. And the Ukrainian Judge on the European Court of Human Rights, Judge Ganna Yudkivska, pleaded civil society to continue its fight for human rights in an environment of backlash. Read the rest of this entry…

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EJIL Editors’ Choice of Books 2015: Sarah Nouwen

Published on February 23, 2016        Author: 

Editors Introduction: At the end of 2014, the EJIL Board members were invited to reflect on the books that had had a significant impact on them during the year. Their contributions, posted on EJIL: Talk! (herehereherehereherehere, and here), were met with great interest and curiosity. As the end of 2015 approached, the EJIL Board members were once again invited to look back on their reading in 2015. In pieces to be published over the next two days, Sarah Nouwen, Christian Tams, Jan Klabbers and Jean d’Aspremont write about the books that they read or reread in 2015 and which they found inspiring, enjoyable or even ‘must reads’ for their own work or international law scholarship in general.

It is actually not that easy to come up with a list of five books that, according to the criteria set by our Book Review Editor, Isabel Feichtner, ‘have had a significant impact on you that year’ or, more precisely, ‘books not necessarily published in 2015 (and not necessarily law books), but read or reread that year, and which you found inspiring, enjoyable or considered “must reads” for your own work or international law scholarship in general’.

As Jean d’Aspremont observed last year, we usually read functionally for our work: a few pages here and there that are relevant to a piece that we happen to be writing. Seldom do we read a book cover to cover (Jan Klabbers providing a praiseworthy exception), and if we do, it is often for a book review (My only book review this year – of David Bosco, Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics (2014) – seems disqualified from this list as it has already been published elsewhere). However, even of the few dozens of other books that I did read cover to cover this year, few qualify for this list, if we interpret the criteria to mean that even the books that one finds ‘inspiring’ or ‘enjoyable’ should in some ways relate to one’s work or to international law scholarship in general. While Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More has been studied page by page and proved hugely inspiring in the kitchen, the European Journal of International Law may not be the best forum to explain why. The same goes for the half a dozen books on how to get a baby to sleep through the night – all of which have been tried and tested; none of which I would recommend.

That brings me to a final introductory caveat: it is difficult to select five books that I (re)read this year that I would strongly recommend – that is, that I would suggest to colleagues that they read these five books instead of other books or, indeed, that they spend their Sundays reading these books instead of going for a run, baking an apple pie or attending a political rally. The key problem is that I do not read enough, but the problem is exacerbated by publishers who publish too much. Indeed, it is far easier to come up with a list of recommendations of five books not to read. However, this project does not fit so well with the spirit of the holiday season and, in our profession, might even be a litigation risk (as this journal knows all too well).

Against this backdrop, here are five books that I read, and in one case reread, in 2015 and, in fact, do strongly recommend to my colleagues. Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: EJIL Book Discussion
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