Interview with Philippa Webb (Part 2)

Question: You served as Special Assistant and Legal Officer to President Rosalyn Higgins of the ICJ. What did you gain from this experience?

Answer: I have to say that until now this experience has been the highlight of my international law career. While I was at the Court, I was lucky to see the progress of 15 cases from the institution of the proceedings to the delivery of the judgment. That was a wonderful insight that certainly informs my own practice now as a counsel and an advocate who appears before the Court. It was a very special experience to gain an insight into the working of the Court and also to see President Higgins in that role. She is obviously hugely successful and respected in international law with an outstanding reputation, but what I really appreciated was her human side. It was instructive to see the person at the top of the principal judicial organ of the UN, treat everyone with kindness, to make a genuine connection to people from all backgrounds, and to maintain interests outside of the law. She was, and is , a wonderful mentor.

Question: The Human Rights Council has decided to establish a Commission of Inquiry to look into the violations that have stemmed up from the Russian aggression in Ukraine which has been supported by the European Union. How else can International organizations act in order to prevent war situations faster and lessen their ramifications?

Answer: A lot of international activity has taken place since 24 February 2022. We have had the ICJ ordering Russia to suspend military operations in Ukraine; an order that has not been respected. We have had interim measures issued by the European Court of Human Rights, and expanded on two occasions. We have had a General Assembly Resolution with 141 states condemning Russian aggression. We have seen the fastest and most comprehensive response to an act of aggression by the international community compared to past events. Even so, we have also seen the weaknesses of our international institutions. We have seen the UN Security Council unable to act under Chapter VII because of the veto of the Russian Federation. That also has ramifications for the ICC because potentially it could have had jurisdiction over individuals via a Security Council referral to the ICC, but that is not possible. Technically, the provisional order of the ICJ, which is not being  respected by Russia at the moment, could be put before the Security Council for action  – but again the veto is blocking this route. We have an international political system that was designed nearly 8 decades ago and it is showing its inability to act in certain situations. This calls  for a reconsideration of our institutions. Are they fit for purpose? Do changes need to be made? Change would be very difficult because the veto is built into the UN system, but is there more that other UN principal organs or regional organisations can do? Is there more that coalitions of states can do? Is there more that national jurisdictions can do exercising universal jurisdiction? What about the role of civil society?

We need not be too discouraged by the weaknesses that have been exposed in the international system – we should use it as a motivation to deploy all the tools that we have. What I hope is that we are able to maintain and increase international action and not fall back into old patterns. This is the moment for international lawyers or any committed citizen of the international community to push for a better system.

Question: What message would you like to give to young women who are climbing up or aspire to step on the ladder for a career in public international law?

Answer: The first message I would say is go for it! It is a fascinating and important area of law.  Recent events have shown us how important international law is and how much work is left to be done. We need the next generation and their energy and ideas to help make changes. I tell my students that international law is a winding path and you have to be comfortable with some uncertainty about where your next position is coming from, where you have to move next, who your colleagues might be. It is not predictable like a commercial law path where you have clear timelines and steps to take until you retire. I think it is inspiring that an international law career does not require you to tick the right box. If you did not go to a particular university or you did not do that particular clerkship, you can still pursue this path. But you have to accept that it is a winding path, so always make the best first impression you can and be open to a bit of adventure along the way! 

(This interview was taken by IntLawGrrls Submissions Editor, Prerna Tara)

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