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Chatting with André Nollkaemper


Welcome to the latest interview of the Völkerrechtsblog’s symposium ‘The Person behind the Academic’! With us we have Prof. André Nollkaemper, and through the following questions, we will try to get a glimpse of his interests, sources of inspiration and habits.

Welcome Prof. Nollkaemper and thank you very much for participating in our symposium!

May I first ask what it was that brought you to academia and what made you stay?

For me, academia is first and foremost a quest for understanding, advancement of knowledge, and, based on that knowledge, the improvement of the quality of the way we live together on this planet.  The curiosity that we all have when we are young stayed with me during my studies in political science and law. When the possibility arose to join the research group of Fred Soons (who was one of the two professors that taught me international law in Rotterdam, the other was Willem Riphagen) at the Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea in Utrecht, I took it. This spurred me to do a PhD, but at the end of my PhD the desire to learn, understand and seek to advance knowledge was by no means exhausted. Pursuing a career in academia felt as the natural next step – and I have not regretted it one second.

If you were not an academic, what would you be?

I could have envisaged two alternative paths after my PhD. One path not taken is to work in legal positions in international organisations. Their role is so critical in this timeframe and contributing from within international organisations to the pursuit of shared goals, and building the legal fabric that is necessary for that purpose should be an exciting and rewarding role. At the same time, trading the autonomy one has an academic for the bureaucracy of organisations would not have been an easy choice.  An alternative path would have been journalism.  Good journalism covering and investigating international law is undeveloped and it would have been exciting to contribute to such development, in fact share quite a bit with the academic mindset.

Could you share with us three authors or books that have had a major impact on your perception of justice?

All three names belong to my formative period as an academic. In my studies, I was much influenced by the work of Prosper Weil, in particular his Towards Relative Normativity in International Law and his Hague Lectures Le droit international en quête de son identité.  I studied at the time both political science and law, and his writings  helped me form my views on the distinctive nature of law in relation to politics and morality, and its position vis-à-vis other normative texts that seek to promote justice.

In quite a different direction, the work of Phillip Allott has impacted my thinking about international law. I still find his State Responsibility and the Unmaking of International Law a pivotal reading on the law of international responsibility. Long before critical theorists would argue this, his reading of how international law of responsibility made it more difficult rather than easier to determine responsibility was an eye-opener when I read it for the first time. And while not all of his later work will make easy reading for everyone, its optimism, even in dark times, is inspiring. As he wrote in an EJIL:talk! post: ‘The human world is made from ideas, and we can always change our ideas. Humanity can re-imagine itself. We are what we become, as individuals, as societies, and as a species’.  

A third title that had an impact on me was Edith Brown Weiss’ In Fairness to Future Generations.  When I started to work on international environmental law, there was a total draught of imaginative scholarly work on how international law could or should help to protect nature. This book was and still is truly innovative, opening new perspectives, and inviting a re-reading of international law through a new lens that only now, more than 30 years later starts to be recognized.  The book in a way combined the rigor that we should abide by as lawyers, with the imagination of what law can be.

Reading aside, which other factor would you say has influenced your perception of justice the most?

Probably my travel in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. One’s perception of justice is shaped by individual encounters and experiences of injustice. One can read and understand at abstract levels, but practical encounters with injustice bring these to an altogether different dimension.  The experience was not only relevant in relation to the specific situation between Israel and the Palestinian people, but also more generally for thinking what international law does, and what it does not do in relation to a very specific situation in a given place at a given time.

Would you say that your upbringing has had an impact on your research interests?

Neither of my parents went to university, so the impact is an indirect one. But love for nature and animals, with various philosophical underpinnings, was a very dominant theme in my childhood.  It is impossible to identify clear causal connections, but it may well be that my choice to focus the early part of my academic career on international environmental law, and to return to that topic, was influenced and shaped by that experience.

What is your favourite place to read and write? What is always near you when you read and write?

I recently moved to a new house in Amsterdam directly at the IJ river, with an amazing view over the river and city. For now, this is the ideal place that allows me to read, write and think while taking in the beauty and space around me, and with an espresso and a cat nearby.

What is an energy and inspiration booster, at times when you have none?

Inspiration boosters vary over time, but mostly some reading in areas disconnected from law. Recently I read some of the works of Adam Grant full of insights from organizational psychology. Large parts I skip, but there are bits and pieces that are helpful to step back and reflect, and on more than one occasion that triggered a burst in inspiration. For energy: around the corner from where I live there is a great cross-fit training box. One 45-minute session is exhaustive, but gives me more energy than it takes.

Have you ever drawn influence from any form of art in your work? Is there anything artistic about writing academic texts on international law?

The operas of Richard Wagner may have had some influence on my way of work; in many periods the music of Parsifal worked perfectly as a sphere in which I could write – moving forward on the cadence of the music. And while it would go too far to say that I drew a direct influence from it, Wagner’s idea of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ has some appeal to me when approaching academic research in relation to the hugely complex problem of global unsustainable practices – that requires that we overcome traditional boundaries between disciplines.

And yes, researching and writing academic texts certainly has artistic elements. To be sure, I do firmly believe in academic work as a scientific endeavor, building on previous knowledge, that is different from individual artistic expressions. But good academic work requires creativity, originality, and the courage to reject everything that was commonplace and start a new line – and in these respects there is quite a bit that academics and artists may share.

Which of your publications is your favourite one? And which of them is your least favourite?

The piece with my favorite title (inspired by Jeanette Winterson) is What you Risk Reveals What You Value’, and Other Dilemma’s in the Legal Assault on Risk. In substance I would consider my latest piece on International Law and the Agony of Animals and Shared Responsibility in International Law: A Conceptual Framework as close contenders. But for now, I probably would go for Concurrence between Individual Responsibility and State Responsibility in International Law, as it addresses the interactions between individual conduct and the systems in which individuals are embedded, which lie at the heart of all major challenges for international law.  On the other side of the spectrum, there are certainly publications with which, looking back, I am less satisfied – but I could not single out one individual one to deserve the label ‘least favorite’.

If you could, which unspoken rule of academia would you instantly erase?

Publish or perish. We need a slowdown in the push towards more publications, in the interest of scholars but also in the interest for the wider scholarly community that seeks to appraise the relevance of new publications. In particular young scholars need to be given more time to research and reflect before being pushed to publish. There currently really are too many publications that do not really add to our knowledge and understanding, yet that cause a lot of pressure on authors. We also need more diversity in types of publications. While some topics require space, I would much favour shorter forms of publications.

What advice would you give to early career researchers reading this interview?

Always realize and recognize that (unless you work on an absolute niche topic) there will be tons of earlier work on which you build and to which you somehow have to relate. Academia is about advancing knowledge and understanding, but that is a collective not an individual pursuit. It is often tempting to say or write that you have found this or that, but the value of such a finding is so much greater if you can explain to the reader how that is related to, and what it adds to, earlier work. Doing this at an early stage also helps to sharpen your research questions and research objectives.

Have you experienced or witnessed discrimination in academic circles? What do you think would help lessen discriminatory instances in academic circles?

Discrimination in its various forms and manifestations is a pervasive problem in our society, and this is not different in academia. I have witnessed it too often during my more than three decades in academia, often in subtle forms but sometimes in very overt forms, in hiring and selection committees, in professional appointment-procedures, in cum laude decisions of doctorate committees, in the composition of panels at conferences, and in the form of sexual intimidation. In many of these cases, the power hierarchies, combined with the culture of autonomy, are pervasive in academia and have played a clear role. In the past decade, positive steps have been taken. At the University of Amsterdam, during my deanship I drafted an Agenda on Diversity, Equality and Inclusion that is now being implemented, and many professional institutions, including ESIL, now have adopted similar policies. There is no quick fix, however; to change this we need strong leadership, improved and transparent procedures, and above all a culture change.

You have spent a relatively long period away from the substance of academic work, during your deanship of the Amsterdam Law School. How did you experience that deanship?

This period – almost 8 years – was very rewarding. Administrative positions such as dean of a law school are often underrated and seen as managerial hassle. While there inevitably have been managerial complexities that not all academics may want to spend time on, these are overshadowed by the positive possibilities of change and renewal. Law schools mostly are somewhat traditional entities, anchored in how law has been taught, researched and practiced in the past decades or even centuries. With the world so quickly changing around it, it was an exciting opportunity to work with staff and students to adapt to a changing world. We have given topics such as professional responsibility, digitization and sustainability now a place in the core curriculum of the law school and have invested in dynamic research groups on these topics. From this perspective, a deanship need not be a diversion from an academic career, but rather can be a very rewarding way to work with a larger organization to pursue the objectives of high-quality education, the advancement of knowledge, and and the relevance of our academic work to society.

What are you working on currently? What may we anticipate in the near future?

On January 1, 2024, I finished my deanship at the Amsterdam Law School, and started in a new position as University Professor of International Law and Sustainability.  This is an exciting, newly created position at the level of the University rather than the faculty of law. In this new role, I will continue to research and write on international law aspects of global sustainability challenges but will also seek to forge interdisciplinary cooperation on climate change and other sustainability challenges. My research agenda will be flexible. For starters, I will finish an English translation of my Dutch textbook on international law (now in its 9th edition in Dutch) and work towards a new edition of my 2011 book on National Courts and the international Rule of Law. But apart from that, I have set three priorities. One is the development of international legal scholarship on the protection of animals, in the context of problems of climate change, biodiversity and environmental pollution. My recent piece in EJIL on International law and the agony of animals was a primer of the work that I will do on that topic. The second priority is to pick up and develop my work on shared responsibility, that inevitably was a bit dormant during my deanship, in relation to sustainability challenges In 2024 I hope to complete a new monograph on shared responsibility for global environmental harm. The third priority, that in terms of time will be the most important one, is that in my new role I will forge interdisciplinary cooperation within the University of Amsterdam as a whole in relation to climate change and related sustainability challenges. This path is a natural extension of my work on complex responsibility. For understanding what caused particular types of harm, and what can be done to address such harm, law is only one small cog in the machine. Knowledge on such diverse topics as responsible consumption, finance, social psychology, communication, computational science, and sustainable chemistry are all key to understand the systemic nature of the problems, and what is needed to move to systemic change at a global level. This is an exciting line of research that will also lead to new forms of publications – for legal and non-legal audiences.

All these seem particularly interesting and I look forward to seeing the publications and other outcomes of these projects!

Thank you very much Prof. Nollkaemper for participating in our symposium and for having taken the time to respond to our questions!

André Nollkaemper

André Nollkaemper is University Professor International Law and Sustainability at the University of Amsterdam. He is member of the Institute du Droit International Law and the Royal Academy of Sciences of the Netherlands, and former President of the European Society of International Law.

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Spyridoula (Sissy) Katsoni
Spyridoula (Sissy) Katsoni is a Ph.D. Candidate and Research Associate at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV), Ruhr-University Bochum. She is a Managing Editor of Völkerrechtsblog.
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