Chatting with Diane Desierto
Welcome to the latest interview of the Völkerrechtsblog’s symposium ‘The Person behind the Academic’! With us we have Prof. Diane Desierto, and through the following questions, we will try to get a glimpse of her interests, sources of inspiration and habits.
Welcome Prof. Desierto and thank you very much for accepting our invitation!
May I first ask what it was that brought you to academia and what made you stay? What sparked your interest in international law?
International law was always an active interest at law school in the University of the Philippines, where I chaired the Philippine Law Journal editorial board, wrote and published on international law and human rights topics, wrote and filed a Supreme Court petition on redress for Filipina comfort women in World War II, and also won the world championship for the Jean-Pictet International Humanitarian Law Competition organized by the International Committee on the Red Cross/Red Crescent. But I never saw it as a feasible or realistic full-time career for me as a woman lawyer in the Global South 17 years ago. I always saw it as an inevitable area of law that I had to master because the Philippines deeply internalizes international law in its 1987 Constitution and is itself immersed in the international system, from the very founding of the First Republic and the Philippines’ active participation in the drafting of almost all of the major human rights, environmental, maritime, and development-related treaties. When I started litigation and arbitration practice after law school, I joined one of the top law firms in Manila, where I saw concrete applications of international law in landmark public and private disputes. I was, at that time, determined to take the conventional (and expected) path and pursue the path of full-time practice towards a partnership.
However, a grave accident in 2005 changed the course of my health and life choices. Being confronted with the uncertainties of mortality at 26 very much simplified my choices to think about what mattered most. I resigned from the high-powered law firm and shifted to a rickety wooden desk working full-time at the University of the Philippines on international law research, policy reform and advising for the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs across all areas of international law, working with the Philippine Supreme Court on rules revision for the recognition and implementation of international law and human rights treaties, some international law teaching, and only accepting to act as Counsel in very specific matters and causes. From there, after some time I was strong enough to pursue graduate studies and other academic positions (albeit at my own pace), while continuing to manage my medical situation.
Academia gave me full autonomy to choose what kind of work to take on and what questions of international law and human rights, were, in my view, most urgently in need of answers and contributions with real impact. My own internal sense of urgency drove me to seek out the hard (and often unconventional) questions. By living my life intentionally since 26, and only according to a pace that worked all the way till fully regaining my health some years ago, it became possible to flourish in academia in a very quiet and obscure way that made sense to my own health limits at the time. Whenever anyone points out my CV these days, all I see are incremental and intentional choices to engage in work that I deemed to be meaningful (or anticipated would be necessary eventually), or what I saw to be intractable problems needing scholarly intervention. It was by no means an easy path, let alone a predictable one that followed anyone’s professional expectations either. I attribute that simply to the fact that I had less a sense of method or trajectory because I did not have the convenience of thinking I had any long-term future because of my health at that time, which instead drove me to have a sense of urgency about human rights outcomes. I am very grateful that 17 years after, I remain healthy, intentional about my work choices, and committed to international law and human rights work.
Since 2005, being an international law academic has enabled me to gain both the flexibility and the scholarly abstraction and perspective to participate, observe, and engage in various endeavors involving international law-making, international law implementation, international law litigation, international law adjudication. I have benefited from mentorship and friendship in many continents and communities of outstanding individuals committed, one way or the other, to an idea of an international rule of law, human dignity, peace, and justice. 23 years since I first went to law school in the Philippines, international law is not an infeasible interest or a remote path anymore. It is my profession and also the unexpected blessing of being part of the invisible college around the world.
At Notre Dame Law School, I am glad to bring more international human rights lawyers forward at our LLM program under full scholarships, most especially those hailing from anywhere in the Global South; Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania, parts of the Middle East, and parts of Eastern Europe. I know all too well from my experiences at Yale Law School 15 years ago what a tremendous difference is made by full scholarship opportunities for graduate level education; they enable long-term professional excellence for the rest of one’s life in service of others.
If you were not an academic, what would you be?
Interesting question. It’s hard to imagine what that would be. Probably pursuing a mix of development economics policy work and legal practice. I was slated to go to a PhD program in development economics in the UK when I chose instead to pursue law after a very hard day seeing a forced eviction of urban shanty dwellers. That, along with my mother’s work as a housing lawyer and my father’s work as the government’s anti-corruption ombudsman, left an indelible mark on me about preferring urgent outcomes and needed impact to armchair theorizing.
Could you share with us three authors that have had a major impact on your perception of justice?
Michael Reisman, Rosalyn Higgins, Antony Anghie.
Which are three texts that you would wish all academics working on international law would read?
- W.M. Reisman, The Quest for World Order and Human Dignity in the 21st Century: Constitutive Process and Individual Commitment (Hague Academy Lectures, 2013).
- Rosalyn Higgins, International Law and the Avoidance, Containment, and Resolution of Disputes (Hague Academy Lectures, 1991).
- Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty, and the Making of International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Reading aside, which other factor would you say has mostly influenced your perception of justice?
Family and faith go hand in hand in my earliest experiences and understanding of justice. I don’t pretend to be anything else than who I am. My family is deeply rooted in Cebu, the Philippines, the island where Catholicism first arrived in 1521. The teachings of Catholic faith, love, charity, and justice have always driven my parents to teach me that seeking redress for another human being, in a very imperfect legal system riddled with imperfect human judgment, is itself a journey of witnessing the brokenness of the human condition while always seeking redemptive outcomes for the injured party whose rights have been violated, and the injuring party who has broken his or her sense of humanity in committing those violations. My father, who was himself ambushed, shot, and nearly killed in several assassination attempts by military he had prosecuted for their abuses, and yet still forgave those who tried to assassinate him, used to remind me early on that justice really is about loving one another as we are loved so unconditionally and undeservingly. Figuring out how to do that is our life’s work. It requires knowing what it means to love (e.g. willing the good for the other), knowing who it is we love (e.g. the humanity of the other for whom we will what is good), and acknowledging the fullest extent to which we are loved to begin with, so as to be able to do the same for others. (Rainer Maria Rilke said it better: “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all tasks…the work for which all other work is but preparation.”) That’s very hard to do when what is celebrated in media and elsewhere these days is all about navel-gazing modern individualism and triumphalist narratives of self-achievement. It’s hard to build community, let alone justice, when loving and seeing the human in every person is so elusive.
What is your favourite place to read and write? What is always near you when you read and write?
I’m an old-fashioned fan of public libraries anywhere I am in the world, preferring the tactile and visual experience of actual printed books rather than the monotonic pixels of an e-book, as much as possible. I have written books and other pieces from the most obscure corners of different libraries, from the public community library to the grand (and almost theatrical in size and scale) endowed university libraries. I always have a coffee, my favorite sharpened pencils, and a notebook when I’m reading and writing.
What is an energy and inspiration booster, at times when you have none?
I play tennis for fun and to decompress from stressful situations with a great team. I do a lot of watercolor painting for the sheer immersion of it in the present, and I tend to give paintings to family and friends. I also hike outdoors with my dog in almost any season, and will generally take any opportunity that presents itself to see or be in any blue green ocean that I feel connected to, especially growing up as I did in the Philippines. When none of that is available, sometimes even just taking a short walk to change your perspective is all you need to regain inspiration.
It is always interesting to see this artistic side of academics… Would you feel comfortable to share with us your favourite or the most recent painting that you have drawn?
I paint from memory, and often it’s about joyful memories I associate with certain places. The last painting I made over the Christmas break was for my older brother and law partner Dante, when he and I took a long walk at a pier and talked about what we still hope to do with our lives, while being buffeted by winds and marveling at the blue vistas of San Francisco Bay. My favorite painting of all was given to my co-author and dear friend, Stanford Professor David Cohen, which commemorates one impossibly golden ocean sunrise in Hawaii, a morning when we openly talked about the very hard challenges of human rights work (physical threats, lawyer burnout, experiencing detentions, arrests, pressure, etc.), especially doing it in Southeast Asia, and why we nonetheless respectively keep coming back to a region we each call home.
What is your favourite and least favourite part of being an editor of an international law blog, i.e. EJIL:Talk!?
My 4.30 am to 6.30 am, for the last ten years, has almost always been allocated to editorial work for EJIL:Talk! and journals where I’m doing editorial work. My favorite part is seeing the talent and ambition of new scholarship from early career scholars, especially in places where international law resources are scarce and yet international law is most pressingly needed. As an editor, I can almost see from the cadence of words from that scholar why a particular question of international law resonated for him or her to such an extent they were impelled to write about it.
My least favourite part of being an editor is having to decline publishing exceptional pieces when we have an overwhelming deluge of submissions at EJIL:Talk! – usually when there’s a war or an act of aggression or a very time-sensitive topic. When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, for example, we would have four or seven scholars writing about identical matters, so that the Editors really had to be sensitive to picking the best out of every exceptional roster.
Have you ever drawn influence from any form of art in your work? Is there anything artistic about writing academic texts on international law?
I am deeply moved by Henri Matisse’s work, and often think of writing academic texts on international law as something very much akin to his “The Red Studio” at the MOMA. You have to examine it from multiple angles to understand what Matisse actually put in that painting and then you realize you also put yourself in that painting through your own perspective. International law writing is exactly that. One would think that it’s just about weaving an assemblage of international legal sources to make some kind of normative argument, but it’s actually how you conceptualize and problematize your question, methodology, and reach specific observations, recommendations, and conclusions that you hope to convey in academic texts; that someday, someone else will appreciate that work from other perspectives (and probably reinterpret in densely imaginative ways) that situate your work within a larger discursive context. We dialogue transversally with others we don’t (or won’t) always to get to meet in person. That’s an aesthetic in common between art and international law writing.
Which of your publications is your favourite one? And which of them is your least favourite?
This is an interesting question. I don’t have favourites or least favourite ones. Each publication is written for a very specific context and set of questions that I do attempt to address, because I think the questions are sufficiently consequential to weigh in on them.
Probably my least favourite publication these days is the one where I have to push back against editors that go beyond the parameters of editing and make forays into direct authorship of my own work, by seeking to infuse their content, their voice, and their argument into my writing. I have often had to push back against this and remind editors of their proper functional roles, not because I don’t respect the independent judgment of the editor, but also because I value my own judgment and what words my name is deliberately signed onto. I am an editor myself in various international law journals and always have to be mindful that I am editing, and not writing, for someone else. In some instances, depending on how editorial comments are conveyed, comments can come across as somewhat colonizing when a Global North editor tells the brown woman from the developing world (e.g. me) that he or she wants a wholesale change in tone, syntax, as well as content. In those circumstances, I courteously withdraw the article from consideration. I’ve been in this profession for close to two decades now and I don’t aspire to be a clone of anyone else’s writing and scholarship. None of us should, for the health, relevance, and integrity of our own profession.
If you could, which unspoken rule of academia would you instantly erase?
I would instantly erase barriers that make it difficult for entry-level scholars to gain access to resources, conferences, mentoring, networks and other professional growth and collaborative opportunities. A classic example of this is the prohibitive costs of visa application fees and the extensive time taken for visa applications for Global South scholars, which conference organizers often overlook. I’m a Philippine national, US permanent resident, and Philippine passport holder, and know all too well the hard challenges of getting a Schengen visa, a UK visa, or visas for most of the world where the Philippines needs a visa. I’ve often had to ask conference organizers to send me invitations months in advance so I can make the necessary applications and allocate corresponding university resources to support the process. But not everyone is in the same boat, and I’m at a point of seniority in my work where there are thankfully many institutional sources for material support. It was so much more difficult when I was an entry-level scholar trying to get visas and travel support to speak at conferences, trying to connect to and discuss my work with other scholars in other international law societies, or trying to build cooperative networks in my own work. Not having a lot of women and not having a lot of Global South scholars represented in international law, also made it challenging to define and carve an arc to my professional oeuvre of scholarship when I was an entry-level scholar. Thankfully, there are improvements from then, and we are more conscious now as a profession about the inherent significance of diversity, collegiality, equity and representation to perspectives and contributions to international law.
Have you experienced or witnessed discrimination in academic circles? What do you think would help lessen discriminatory instances in academic circles?
In nearly two decades of my work mostly in academic positions in Asia, the United States, and Europe, I’ve both experienced and witnessed discriminatory attitudes or discriminatory conduct towards women, people with disabilities, minorities, people of color, people with different religious beliefs, people with different language aptitudes, immigrants, class, or generally, international law scholars who did not appear in any way as the dominant stereotypes. At the same time I’ve seen the best of international law scholars from both Global North and Global South who actively reject discrimination in any form and seek to eradicate it.
It takes deliberate leadership and moral courage to lessen discriminatory instances, especially from those who already are at the apex of international law academia themselves. I recall that Professor Joseph Weiler, as the then sole Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of International Law (EJIL), was always conscious about exclusions of diversity from international law academia. He intentionally brought Dapo Akande from Nigeria and teaching at Oxford, Marko Milanovic from Serbia and teaching then at Nottingham, and myself from the Philippines and teaching in the United States, as the first Editors of EJIL:Talk!, doing rather than saying what his beliefs were on diversity and representation. We were also among the first editors on the EJIL Board who were not Western European. Later, Joseph invited Sarah Nouwen at Cambridge to be Co-Editor-in-Chief of EJIL. Joseph always prized excellent principled scholarship, first and foremost, but he didn’t subscribe to any belief that such excellence was tied to any geographic or social circumstance. I didn’t know him and never met him personally at the time, but he simply read an article I submitted to the International Journal of Constitutional Law and reached out to collaborate on international law scholarship. It’s been over a decade at EJIL:Talk! and EJIL thus far, collaborating with the best, most open, most collaborative, most diverse and arguably the sharpest intellects of international law from everywhere in the world. Joseph led the charge nearly two decades ago, whereas other peer international law journals are only just now beginning to meaningfully diversify and recognize the inherent value of viewpoint diversity in international law scholarship.
Would you like to share with us a ‘sacrifice’ that you have made for your work? Do you regret it?
The sacrifice I have personally made is over 15 years of not being resident in the Philippines and not being able to personally care for my parents; my father is turning 88 and my mother is turning 80 this year. We nearly lost both of them to COVID (long before the vaccines arrived) and even now recovery is glacial post-long COVID. We are very close-knit families in the Philippines and we take care of our elders in our own homes. I help support family at home and depend on extended family networks, but that is of course not the same as being physically present for my parents’ care, especially as their youngest daughter. I am often back in the Philippines for Christmas breaks and summer breaks, or when law practice takes me to Southeast Asia, but of course that was impossible during the first years of this pandemic. That’s time away from them I will never recover, so for me every day, every piece of work, every intention and every endeavor has to count and has to be worthy of the time away from them. My parents like to say they contributed me to humanity, and we do our best every day to make sure we do not regret the unconventional paths of my contribution. My parents and I are grateful for life and every day I am healthy and able to contribute. We don’t ever take anything for granted.
Ideally, whom would you want to find waiting for a meeting with you outside your office next Monday?
Ideally, it would be a student whose interest in international law and human rights is kindled and wants to learn more about how to join this profession. I am very grateful for exceptional international and comparative law colleagues at Notre Dame, such as Mary Ellen O’Connell, Roger Alford, Paolo Carozza, Sadie Blanchard, Paul Miller, Francisco Urbina, Jen Mason McAward, Jimmy Gurule, Bruce Huber, Thomas Mills, Susan Azyndar, Jean Marc Brissau, to name a few. We all welcome having more colleagues in the invisible college of international lawyers, especially at this time when the international system, rule of law, and human rights is under siege everywhere. We need all hands on deck even more in these times.
What are you working on currently? What may we anticipate in the near future?
I have three final versions of books that I hope to have out this year (if not early next year); my Economic, Social and Cultural Rights book for OUP’s Elements series, my Restoring Human Rights in International Reparations monograph (also promised to OUP), and my co-authored Cambridge Textbook on International Economic Law (for Cambridge University Press). I am currently working on converting two keynote lectures into law review articles for submission this spring, one titled Human Rights, Climate Change, and Environmental Law in the Substance and Procedure of International Arbitration, which was my 2022 HSF-SMU Asian Arbitration Lecture; and one titled International Law and the Asia-Pacific, which was supposed to be my 2022 lecture for the UN Office of Legal Affairs that I unfortunately did not get to deliver due to unexpected health adjustments from which I’ve now recovered; and a third article long promised to the International Review of the Red Cross on the DRC v. Uganda Reparations Judgment. Finally, I am finishing a set of papers I co-authored with students at our Notre Dame Reparations Lab, on the World Bank Inspection Panel, and on Reparative Justice in International Courts and Tribunals, in general.
Thank you very much, Prof. Desierto, for participating in our symposium and for having taken the time to respond to our questions!
Thank you for the thoughtfully provoking questions.
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