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Chatting with Jan Klabbers


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

Welcome Prof. Klabbers 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?

I kinda rolled into it. I discovered as an undergraduate student that there were two things I could do reasonably well and I was terrible at most other things. I can write reasonably well, and I seem to be able to explain things – I figured this out when doing volunteer tutoring to first-year students, and it was this teaching experience that persuaded my first boss, at the University of Amsterdam, to hire me. So, becoming a teacher of some kind or else journalist seemed possible options, but I lack the sort of curiosity that sells newspapers: I am fundamentally not interested in asking politicians questions about the follies of the day, or trying to get scoops, but I rather want to figure out how things (in my case, the law and legal concepts) work. And then I was lucky enough to have some stimulating teachers, and to grow up academically at a time when writing a half-decent PhD thesis would almost guarantee a lectureship somewhere, and even luckier that this ‘somewhere’ turned out to be Helsinki.

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

Probably miserable. As a kid, I wanted to become a professional football player but I lacked talent and discipline. Becoming a rock star also seemed appealing but met with similar obstacles. So academic it is.

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

Hmm, I am not sure about the ‘justice’ bit here. But my thinking about law and how to best approach it has strongly been influenced by books as diverse as Lon Fuller’s The Morality of Law and Martti Koskenniemi’s From Apology to Utopia, with a further honourable mention for Fred Schauer’s Playing by the Rules. But none of this comes as a surprise, I would think. More specifically on justice, I should mention Aristotle’s Ethics, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and more recently Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, which should be compulsory reading for all academics.

Do you believe that religion has had an impact on your perception of justice?

I was raised a Catholic, but I have never been very religious, and tend to have considerably more affinity with virtue ethics – the above reference to Aristotle suggests as much. That said, I guess there is some overlap between religious ideas and the virtues: such character traits as humility or courage or honesty are pretty much universally appreciated, I would think, and across religions. But I try to stay very far away from dogmas of any kind, including religious dogmas.

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

That’s a nasty question! In a sense, all my books are provisional and could have been better. In retrospect, this applies probably strongest to the co-edited volume Normative Pluralism: I was perhaps a bit too relaxed in editing that (my fault, by the way, not that of my co-editor). It is a cliché to refer to the most recent book, but clichés tend to be clichés for a reason: I really like my most recent monograph, Virtue in Global Governance, and I am generally also pleased with my undergraduate textbook International Law, which still tells the story of international law pretty much as I think it should be told, with its mixture of doctrine and ‘law in context’, if you will. Some complain it is too doctrinal, and others that it is not doctrinal enough, so I must have done something right.

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

I don’t really have a favourite place, although having my books (i.e., my office at the University) close-by obviously helps. Typically, my glasses are always somewhere close to where I am reading or writing, but rarely where they should be – I am constantly searching for them. I have no other props though and I can just as easily read and write at airports as at my office. I wrote my doctoral thesis mainly at the kitchen table, and that probably helped generate a certain lack of fussiness about these things.

Which was the most recent concert that you attended? Which type of music do you enjoy the most?

The last concert was by an anonymous duo in a jazz bar in London – wonderful. I am an eclectic in many walks of life, including music. I grew up recognizing much in Springsteen (and still have a soft spot), but can also appreciate opera and classical, and Sinatra, Johnny Cash, or Stevie Wonder, to name just a few. I do however insist on melody, and preferably some halfway-clever lyrics, so all too poppy stuff is out. I am also not very fond of pretentious stuff, a category which for me includes most electronic music.

Would you like to share with us a ‘sacrifice’ that you have made for your work? Do you regret it?

I’m not sure I can answer this. I consider myself very lucky to have turned an interest in reading and writing into a profession, and a very pleasant one at that, most of the time (is this the moment to start complaining about administrative duties?). This obviously involves making some life decisions every now and then, but I never think of those as making a ‘sacrifice’ for my work.

Do you feel stressed before lectures or conference presentations?  What do you do/have you done to cope with this feeling?

I am of an age where this is rarely the case anymore. My ‘trick’, if that is what it is, is to jot down the structure of a talk, but little detail – I usually just have a few keywords, even for talks at big conferences. One of my props is to have a clear structure, logically going from A via B to C; another is to resist the temptation to squeeze too much into a single talk or lecture; and a third is not to take myself too seriously. I think that is generally a useful point: take your work seriously (there is no excuse for sloppiness, laziness, etc.), but do not think of yourself as having discovered the only available route to wisdom. Chances are, that your brilliant insight has already been someone’s insight, or will be shot down before too long, so relax.

I do however feel very uncomfortable at traditional academic rituals, such as conferment ceremonies, PhD dinners, and the like. I grew up a working class kid, and have never been able to shed the sense that these rituals serve in part to exclude people such as myself. This is not a matter of discrimination as such (something we might get back to), but it is not very welcoming either.

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

Your question assumes that if the rules are changed, the world will be a better place – and that is an assumption that probably does not hold water. But given the question, the one that I would wish to change is likely not an unwritten rule anymore: I would be very pleased to reduce the competitive aspects to the industry that academia has become. Partly this is because it is unpleasant in its own right to have to compete with your peers – it is much nicer to talk about things in a spirit of collaboration. Partly it is also because it contributes absolutely nothing to the Bildung of our students (quite the opposite: we have little time for them, and when we give them some time, we tell them they too should be competitive). And partly this is because, actually, for all the hoopla about big research grants, these have thus far done very little to enhance our understanding. None of the works I mentioned above, when you asked about justice, involved competitive funding in any serious way, and we have become so busy writing and reviewing grant applications that we rarely get around to actually following our intuitions and exploring our curiosities – yet that is, I suspect, why most academics become academics to begin with: out of sheer joy at the internal rewards of the practice rather than its external rewards, as Alasdair MacIntyre would say. Ask yourself whether Kant, Wittgenstein, or Foucault would have attracted external funding, and the answer will be in your face.

Have you witnessed discrimination in academic circles? How have you reacted to these instances?

Curiously enough, perhaps, I don’t think I have witnessed outright discrimination on the basis of gender or race or religion, at least not if this entails seeing or hearing someone being badly treated because or gender or race or religion. But maybe this is, actually, not all that surprising: I tend to think that biases in academia are structural rather than the result of evil intentions or misogynist or racist motives, and to think of discrimination as the result of individual actions mostly serves to deflect attention away from perfidious structures.

Two other things should be mentioned perhaps. What I have seen is manipulation of appointment processes, e.g., with some candidate clearly being favoured over another, for whatever reason. But this, as far as I can tell, tends to owe more to how people’s work is appreciated differently by different people than to considerations of race or gender. And of course, as long as there are formal rules about conflict of interest or recusal and people stick to these, there is not much one can say or do – other perhaps than question the wisdom of relegating this to formal rules to begin with (this is the virtue ethicist in me speaking, obviously).

Second, actually the more overt instances of discrimination, if that is the word, that I have witnessed, are related to schools of thought. Rationalist scholars tend to talk only to rationalist scholars; critical scholars only to other critical scholars, that sort of thing. I doubt whether this is very healthy, and I have written something to this effect (EJIL 2018, e.g.), but it may be too late to put the toothpaste back into the tube. This, incidentally, is why Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, the book I mentioned earlier, should be compulsory reading.

Ideally, whom would you want to find waiting for a meeting with you outside your office next Monday?

Hmm, tough one. Maybe Dutch footballing icon Frank Rijkaard, who always struck me as a thoughtful and kind human being shrouded in a little mystery, in addition to being a gloriously brilliant football player. Or else food writer Rachel Roddy, who could help me improve my cooking skills.

What is one question that one should never ask you?

I’ll be able to answer this when I hear the question; for the moment, I have no idea.

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

I actually managed to get myself a five-year ERC grant to work on relations between international organizations and the private sector. There is some empirical work involved, for which I was able to hire three excellent post-doctoral researchers, and there is a theoretical part: how does the tension between the public ethos and their contact with the private sector (between mission and market) affect the way we think about international organizations. A first edited volume is in preparation (working title: International Organizations Engaging the World), and much the same thinking has already informed the recently published Cambridge Companion to International Organizations Law (2022).

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

Jan Klabbers

Jan Klabbers holds master’s degrees and a doctorate from the University of Amsterdam. He has been teaching at the University of Helsinki since 1996.

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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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