Acceptance Speech – Bern, 23.11.2007


Rosalyn Higgins

2007 Balzan Prize for International Law since 1945

For her outstanding contributions to the development of international law since the Second World War and her role as an academic, judge and Court President; for her clear, constructive as well as innovative and groundbreaking books, writings, articles, and court decisions in defence of the rule of law and human rights; for her leading role in strengthening and enlarging modern international law.

Mr. Federal Councillor,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am astounded to be standing here before you, accepting a Balzan Prize for 2007.

The designated field for my Award “International Law since 1945” is, of course, deliciously ambiguous.  Was it for the person who, since 1946, has been pre-eminent in international legal scholarship?  Or who has best understood what has happened in the field of international law since 1946 (and who may be mercifully ignorant of what went before)?  Or is it about the application, interpretation, and perhaps even a role in the development of international law over the last sixty years?

One thing is certain:  so far as pure scholarship in international law is concerned, I am definitely not your person. But I must suppose that the Prize Committee has known what it was looking for, and I am surprised and grateful in equal measure to be here this evening.  

International law is one of those wonderful areas when some scholarship, some teaching, some practice, some judging, can all – if one is exceptionally lucky – be combined together.  And I have had that exceptional luck.

The years 1946 till 2007 have provided a fertile terrain for all these aspects of international law.  I feel exceptionally fortunate to have participated these last 45 years, – along with other marvellous colleagues who could so readily have been the 2007 Balzan Prize Winner – in these most exciting of times.

When asked – as I often am – which of these different aspects of my life in international law I have liked the most, I find it truly impossible to answer.  I have loved each one of them.  I loved the research and writing, the teaching of bright young people from all over the world, (even if not marking their examination papers) and appearing before national and international courts.  For the last ten years I have been poacher turned gamekeeper, as now I judge in that same Great Hall of Justice where, as Counsel,  my heart used to beat so loudly that I was sure it was audible to every judge.  And I have found that judging seems to suit me very well.

International law is not rules.  ‘Rules’ are just accumulated past decisions.  And if international law was just ‘rules’, then international law would indeed be unable to cope with, and contribute to, a changing world.  To rely merely on rules – accumulated past decisions – when the context in which they were articulated has changed, is not only to ensure that international law will not be able to assist in the resolution of today’s problems, but further, that it will be disregarded for irrelevance. 

A famous British predecessor of mine at the International Court of Justice, Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, correctly rejected the notion that the role of the Judge is to “find the appropriate rule in an impartial manner”.  The Judge, he argued, does not ‘find rules’ but rather ‘makes choices’ – and choices “not between claims which are fully justified and claims which have no foundation at all but between claims which have varying degrees of merit”.

Rules purport to be value-free.  International law, though, is a normative system, the purpose of which is the achievement of common values – values that speak to us all, whether rich or poor, black or white, of any religion or none, coming from countries that are developing or industrialised.

The research that this marvellously generous prize will make possible (and keep me away from all the as yet unplayed golf courses awaiting me when I leave the Court), will be directed to the preparation of a study on all aspects of international law in the United Nations. It is intended to be comprehensive, scholarly, but also useful for practitioners, including Legal Advisers of governments. It will deal not only with the law as envisaged under the Charter but the law as it really is, with all the practices and anomalies that have developed at the United Nations since 1946. I think it is a marvellous thing that the prize envisages engaging young scholars in challenging research. I am looking forward to working with a small group of selected young scholars on this great venture.

Finally, I want in this short Acceptance Speech to mention my parents, whose enthusiasm for all I did was the best encouragement a young person could have; and my husband, whose tolerance and support is legendary.  And those of us absorbed in our passionate intellectual pursuits know also that it is our children who happily force us also to live in worlds beyond our own.

With these words I repeat my gratitude and appreciation for this extraordinary Prize

Insert your email address here to sign up for our newsletter with all the latest updates on the International Balzan Prize Foundation .

By subscribing, I confirm that I have read and understand the General Terms and Conditions of EU Regulation 2016/679, in particular with regard to my rights, and hereby consent to the processing of my personal in the manner and for the purposes indicated therein.
Fondazione Internazionale Premio Balzan