Karen Alter LLM

Prof. Karen Alter on her new book, “The New Terrain of International Law”

I trained as a lawyer in India, a country whose first independent legislature – the Constituent Assembly – included more lawyers than any other professional group. Dr. B R Ambedkar, the widely respected Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Consitution, served as the principal of my law school in the 1930’s. It would be fair to say, then, that I come from a context where law and politics and inextricably intertwined.

This interest in politics and law drew me to study at The Fletcher School, an institution whose approach to the contentious terrain of international law can be best described as “practical”. Eschewing the more abstruse academic concerns with the theoretical defensibility of the international law system in the abstract, Fletcher offers an opportunity to study law as a living subject, one that influences the choices of policy makers, practitioners and professionals around the world – and is influenced by those choices in turn.

It was most fitting, then, for the LLM Program’s first open event of the year to be a talk by Dr. Karen Alter, Professor of Political Science and Law at Northwestern University, on her new book, “The New Terrain of International Law: Courts, Politics, Rights”. As Prof. Alter explained, her book explores the role of international courts in the evolving understanding of international law, as also its interaction with domestic institutions, politics and overarching conceptions of human rights.

Prof. Alter described the new trends she has observed and captured in this new book, including the development of intrusive new courts, the embedding of international codes and norms in domestic law systems, the availability of transnational judicial remedy for human rights violations, and the political development she names the “judicialisation” of international relations. Drawing on a fascinating dataset (also represented on her website), she explained the increase in both the number and activity of international courts and ad hoc tribunals, despite their limited jurisdictions and limited coercive power.

As I have learned, it is typical of the Fletcher experience to hear a concept in a class one morning, then listen to leading experts expound upon it in the evening. Indeed, Prof. Alter’s suggestion that “countries transact in the currency of legality” took up seamlessly from Prof. Johnstone’s class – one I sat in only a few hours earlier – on the predisposition of countries to engage in justificatory discourse. Small wonder, then, that those classes routinely have to shift to larger rooms to accommodate the number of students interested in them.

As one of those students, I’ll be looking forward to my next class eagerly. As for the next LLM event – a High Table with Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, no less – suffice it to say I’m counting down the days.

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