Biography: Dame Rosalyn Higgins

At a conference in Florence a few years ago I saw a small crowd gathered around something. As the crowded parted, a smallish woman came towards me who I did not recognize immediately, but she must have been important. It was Dame Rosalyn Higgins, President of the International Court of Justice, the first woman to serve on the Court. And everyone was in awe. Only after I decided to write my tidbit  about Dame Rosalyn Higgins did I realize how much she influenced me as well. I remembered that I used her work in my PhD. And reading up on her, and re-reading even parts of her books, I saw a clear connection to how I view international law myself.

Dame Rosalyn Higgins

I think I should formally call here Dame Rosalyn. Dame Rosalyn’s career is old school. Literally. Textbook. Before she capped off her career with a stint at the International Court of Justice, Dame Rosalyn had a very distinguished academic career at – *sigh* – Cambridge, Yale, London School of Economics, Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and the University of Kent. By her own admission, she was influenced by Myres McDougal while at Yale and even adopted his humiliating variant of the Socratic style of teaching. During her life and career, making friends with many other international law big wigs when they were all still young. Among them are Eli Lauterpacht, Stephen Schwebel and Oscar Schachter. Only the last one has not acted as a judge at the ICJ.

Practical experience

It is not unusual, at least not international law, to lace one’s career with practical experience. In fact, it may be indispensable. Dame Rosalyn interned with the UN Office of Legal Affairs while at Cambridge. Later, she was a member of the UN Committee on Human Rights, but was also a lawyer in private practice dealing with petroleum law while at LSE (I did not know petroleum law was a separate thing). And oh yes, she became the first woman to become a judge at the International Court of Justice and the first woman to serve as its President.

First woman

Dame Rosalyn may have been the first woman on the Court, but it doesn’t seem like she was very excited about it. Sure, it was a big deal, but Dame Rosalyn is actually quite conservative on the issue. Essentially, she is a radical equalitarian. She doesn’t believe that there is a difference between a man and a woman in how they approach the law or manage an organization. Consequently, neither does Dame Rosalyn feel the necessity for quota’s. While I sympathize in principle, but practice is far more complex. Perhaps the environments that she encountered had less of male dominate cultures. In any case, since Dame Rosalyn served on the Court, several women have sat on the Court. In 2016, three women serve on the Court.

International law is not about rules

Where Dame Rosalyn and I meet, figuratively, is in a general approach to international law and an early interest in its development through the political organs of the United Nations. So I quoted her in the second line of my PhD: ”Thus, in 1963 Higgins noted that the choice of ’highly political organs as the frame of reference for a study on the development of law seems curious and perhaps eccentric’ and, therefore, ’calls for further explanation’.” Even 40 years after Higgins, an explanation was still needed. But I was also surprised that we agree on the nature and role of law and lawyers in politics. She got her ’golden rules’ from McDougal: ’think of the hat your are wearing’ when applying the law; and ’international law is not about rules’. The former relates to my interest in to the dilemma’s that face a government lawyer. The latter rule conveys the message that international law is a normative system that is about avoiding disputes, as much as it is about settling disputes. International law seeks to provide a measure of order in society, without the illusion of perfect compliance. As such, ’international law is no different from domestic law’.

And that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

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