8 July 2016

Interview: a “new Oppenheim” for Rosalyn Higgins

Rosalyn Higgins and the young collaborators working under her Balzan research project are on the final stretch of the enormous work of editing a "new Oppenheim". In an interview by Susannah Gold, Dame Rosalyn explained the phases of conceiving and implementing work on the new volume of one of the most fundamental treatises on law of our times.

Balzan.org recently spoke with Rosalyn Higgins, Balzan Prizewinner for International Law since 1945, about the project she undertook with the half of the Prize devoted to the research.  

Dame Rosalyn Higgins (in 1995 she became a Dame Commander of the British Empire) was awarded the Prize in 2007 with the following motivation: 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.

Dame Rosalyn’s project is to create a new volume in the Oppenheim series, named after Lassa Francis Lawrence Oppenheim (1858 – 1919), a renowned German jurist considered by many to be a father of international law, and author of the internationally renowned International Law: A Treatise, the first edition of which was published in 1905-1906.

Although Dame Rosalyn had been invited to take on the new Oppenheim project prior to her years at the International Court of Justice, the funds from the Balzan prize enabled her to fulfil a promise and a dream.  She noted that the Oppenheim, as it exists at the moment, is a «fabulous two-volume work on the international law of peace. There are a handful of editions of the Oppenheim that are 25-30 years apart».  
Before she became a judge at the International Court in 1995, she was asked by the two editors of the 1958 edition to create a new Oppenheim focused on international organizations. 
The Oppenheim, directed toward practitioners and academics and replete with substantial footnotes, is an opus of considerable note. «I was thrilled to be asked to work on this project but once I was called to the court, I did not have the time to dedicate to the work. I ended up being President as well and had no time at that point,» Dame Rosalyn recounted. «It felt as if I had a millstone around my neck from this promise that I had made back in the 1990s and could not complete even 10 years later».
In 2006 she decided to work on the United Nations solely. International organizations more broadly had become too vast and at least one fine book covered the ground. 

At the same time that one of the two authors of the 1958 Oppenheim passed away in 2007, the Balzan Prize«dropped into her lap», she noted with pleasure in our phone conversation. «Everything was made possible thanks to the monies from the prize. It allowed me to keep my promise, albeit the topic was slightly altered to involve younger researchers,» she added, «precisely what the Balzan Prize aims to do».

Dame Rosalyn left the court in 2009, and the project is still underway. «We always knew it was going to be a long project. Working in the sciences is very different than in the legal world, where people tend not to leave their full-time employ to participate in a project. Everyone in the project has a major career in the law and is writing a different section of the book». 

Dame Rosalyn said, «I consider the version we are working on a new first edition to the Oppenheim family of treatises, the Oppenheim United Nations.  After World War II, international organizations were rather dormant but so much has changed over time and the UN is a major centre of international diplomacy now.» Additionally, she noted that «the breadth of topics we cover is enormous – staff, immunities, human rights, peace keeping, you name it and it is being covered and it needs constant updating.»

She also spoke about the young researchers involved, and how they have been able to publish their own works using material acquired during the project. «My young project manager, Philippa Webb, who was my judicial assistant when I was President of the Court, has been splendid. We are very lucky that at the beginning of this project, she was able to devote herself fully to this». Dame Rosalyn mentioned the other members of her team: a British resident of Nigerian origin who is now an Oxford professor, a Canadian professor who is at the University of Glasgow, and another professor whose family is of Sri Lanka origin from Cardiff in Wales. «We have a very multicultural team and we have done everything I could have hoped,» she added.

Dame Rosalyn expects there to be a final writing meeting in mid-July and then to complete all the chapter revisions in the months to follow. Everyone reads everyone else’s chapters and comments on them, but the ultimate responsibility for the project is hers. The work will be published by Oxford University Press and is likely to be around 950 pages long. 

Balzan.org also asked Dame Rosalyn what she thought of the topic for this year’s Balzan Prize, International Relations: History and Theory, which will be awarded in September 2016.
«It will be interesting to see where the prize goes. The fields of international relations and law are proximate subjects. At London University we teach joint classes. In the 1970s when I was a professor at the London School of Economics, our international relations department was known as a practical department. In other universities, they were and are very theoretical.» 

Dame Rosalyn noted that she was very excited and surprised when she found out she won the Balzan Prize both because the legal field is not known for its monetary prizes and because the British Academy had nominated her. «It was a wonderful surprise on both counts».

Susannah Gold
New York

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