Interview with Philippa Webb (Part 1)

Philippa Webb Professor of Public International Law and Director of the Centre for International Governance and Dispute Resolution (CIGAD) at King’s College London. She joined The Dickson Poon School of Law in 2012 after a decade in international legal practice.

Professor Webb holds a doctorate (JSD) and an LLM from Yale Law School. She obtained the University Medal in her LLB and the University Medal and First Class Honours in her BA (Asian Studies), both of which were awarded by the University of New South Wales in Australia.

She has extensive experience in international courts and tribunals. She served as the Special Assistant and Legal Officer to Judge Rosalyn Higgins GBE QC during her Presidency of the International Court of Justice (2006-2009) and, prior to that, as the Judicial Clerk to Judges Higgins and Owada (2004-2005). She was the Associate Legal Adviser to the Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (2005-2006) and an Associate Officer at United Nations Headquarters (2001-2003).

Photo credits: Gary Schwartz

Question: How did you stumble upon Public International Law and what factors helped you decide that it would become your field of study and foundation of your profession? How much difference has international exposure made in terms of your work?

Answer: “Stumble” is indeed the correct verb to describe how I ventured into public international law. Like many Australians, I come from a multi-cultural background. My mother is from Philippines and my father is from New Zealand. They met in Australia during their university studies and I was born in Sydney. We used to travel a lot in my childhood so I grew up with a sense of the world and a keen interest in other countries and cultures. For some reason when I was looking at my law school and subjects, I thought that International Law would be a good fit. When I studied it during my undergraduate degree, I loved it. I found it fascinating. I love the interaction between international law and politics and it led me to undertake an internship with the United Nations Headquarters in New York which also confirmed my interest in international institutions, and led me to specialize in international law. I ended up undertaking an LLM and a JSD (Doctorate) in Public International Law at Yale Law School. So, it started off as a fairly random elective choice and became my field of study and the direction of my career. I left Australia around 22 years ago and I have lived in Tokyo, Kyoto, New York, The Hague, Paris, London, and Oxford: this was sometimes driven by personal factors but always for international law opportunities as well. Living in these different countries has helped in terms of building a network, learning languages, understanding different approaches to questions of international law, and for enhancing cross-cultural understanding. 

Question: Which public international law case that you have worked on in your career has been the most professionally stimulating one?

Answer: I have two cases that I would like to mention. The first one is quite a classic one; it was the case concerning Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro) at the ICJ where I worked as the Special Assistant and Legal Officer to President Rosalyn Higgins. It was a special case in many ways. It was Judge Higgins’ first case presiding as President of the Court. It was a very significant case concerning allegations of genocide by one state against another. There were six weeks of hearing, which is unusual for the ICJ. It was a very intensive  process of deliberation. I gained a number of insights. First of all, it showed me the evolution in the work of the ICJ. The traditional view is that the ICJ is there for territorial and maritime delimitation, but increasingly – as with with Ukraine v Russia, another case under the Genocide Convention –  the Court is being asked about alleged massive human rights violations. The Court is being looked to as a guiding light for how states should fulfil their responsibilities and be held accountable. I think the Bosnian Genocide judgment was a significant milestone in that evolution, but it also showed the limits of the Court’s jurisdiction because there was clearly evidence of crimes against humanity and other mass atrocities, but the Court was only able to decide the case in relation to the allegations of genocide. Sometimes the limitations on the Court are hard for the general public to understand: they see all this evidence of human rights violations, but then the Court decides that there was one instance of genocide and the requisite specific intent was lacking for other incidents. It was also a significant case for me because it was fact-heavy. There were live witnesses and reams of evidence. There was also an interesting interaction between the ICJ and the Yugoslav Tribunal. In sum, I think the case confirmed the challenges facing the ICJ, but also demonstrated its ability to be a real leader in this field.

As regards the second case:  international law crops up in domestic courts all the time, so when we think of “international law cases”, it does not necessarily mean only ICJ or ICC cases. I have been working on a case for four years concerning allegations of human trafficking, forced labour and domestic servitude of a migrant domestic servant in London. I have been representing the domestic worker in her case against the diplomat who employed her. On the one hand, it is a simple employment law claim. She is claiming that she was not paid properly, not treated properly and that her contract was breached. But on the other hand, it is a test case for the scope of diplomatic immunity in international law, specifically the question of whether human trafficking, forced labour and domestic servitude can fall within the exception in Article 31(1)(c) of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that pertains to a “commercial activity” outside of the diplomat’s functions. That case was heard in October 2021 by the UK Supreme Court and I hope that the eventual judgment will be one that advances justice.

Question: Covid- 19 has impacted international law litigation. What kind of incorporations/ reforms can be advantageous for International Courts so that a pandemic does not affect its working?

Answer: The impact of the pandemic has been interesting because in recent years there had been discussions about making courts more flexible, introducing technology to facilitate their work, perhaps allowing video conferencing when it was appropriate for either defendants or witnesses, but it had been a very slow progress. Then, suddenly we had a massive two-year experiment in virtual hearings forced upon us and courts had to adapt. I have to say the ICJ, the court I know best, is a very traditional court as the UN’s principal judicial organ, but it adapted surprisingly quickly. It quickly arranged to hold remote and hybrid hearings. Within three months of the pandemic, it had issued news rules that permitted not only the parties attending remotely but also the judges participating remotely. It also worked to maintain, the principle of open justice and to accommodate different time zones. The Court has continued to be able to deliver judgements and decisions that help resolve inter-state disputes, without building up a backlog. Of course, now we are thinking about which adaptations we keep as the pandemic wanes. Especially for the ICJ, there are advantages to in person hearings. These are cases of great significance to the parties. There are often diplomatic elements. It may be helpful to the parties to be meeting in person in the corridors of the Peace Palace, to be seeing each other to diffuse the tensions. This may militate in favour of maximising in person presence for ICJ cases. However, I think it may be helpful to retain some flexibility for when states or certain participants need to attend remotely. Another simple but practical change that I hope the court will consider is electronic filing of pleadings because typically it requires the delivery of 125 hard copies of the pleading to the Peace Palace. Many of these pleadings are hundreds of pages. It would facilitate matters on the parties’ sides, at least, if emailing the pleadings was an option.

to be continued…

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