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Who Speaks International Law?

Introducing the Symposium on the 2021 AjV-DGIR Conference


The legal concept of jurisdiction refers to an actor’s competence to provide binding answers to legal questions. Questions of legal validity cannot be answered without examining the notion of jurisdiction. After all, jurisdiction is derived from juris dicere – ‘speaking law’. With this year’s AjV-DGIR conference and the contributions to this symposium, we want to engage in conversations structured around the theme of who enjoys the privilege of speaking in the language of international law, who is neglected and excluded, and how these inclusions and exclusions are reflected in the distributive function of the fairly technical rules on jurisdiction in international law.

The Distributive Force of Jurisdiction

This enterprise is very much interested in modalities of power. As Shaunnagh Dorsett and Shaun McVeigh write, the question of jurisdiction engages with ‘the power and authority to speak in the name of the law’ and ‘encompasses the authorisation and ordering of law as such as well as determinations of authority within a legal regime’ (at p. 3). Approaching legal questions through the lens of jurisdiction thus enables us to look for the law’s purposes and desires and to examine institutional techniques and technologies that are crucial to distributing power, influence, and also material wealth.

In international law more specifically, the notion of jurisdiction is employed to distinguish between international and domestic spheres of competence, especially by means of the territorial principle. Jurisdiction thus serves to determine what is ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of international law. In this context, Sundhya Pahuja has offered an innovative account of international law through the lens of jurisdiction, using the notion of rival jurisdictions as a frame to re-describe the relationship between international law and its ‘Others’ and drawing attention to international law’s ‘worldmaking’ capacities.

Similarly, in her contribution, Shiri Krebs detects clear lines of separation in the realm of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Engaging with cinematographic representations of narratives, she uses the example of the film ‘Eye in the Sky’ to illustrate who speaks through the rules of IHL, to whom these rules are speaking, and who is relegated to being merely the topic of conversation.

Delving Into Doctrinal Questions of Jurisdiction

Of course, jurisdiction can be understood in different, perhaps even opposing manners. As a more technical, doctrinal matter, jurisdiction can be divided into three competencies, namely the power to prescribe rules (‘jurisdiction to prescribe’), to decide on their concrete application in an individual case (‘jurisdiction to adjudicate’), and, finally, the power to enforce the rules or the decision (‘jurisdiction to enforce’).

This triad raises an array of doctrinal questions. For instance, what are the exact rules applicable in an ever-expanding international legal system? In this context, Nicola Strain focuses on the jurisdiction to adjudicate on rules outside of the narrow scope of a specialised regime of international law, thus engaging with the well-known issue of ‘harmonisation’ or ‘defragmentation’ of international law through the principle of systemic integration.

Mapping Contested Spheres of Jurisdiction

The issue of contesting spheres of jurisdiction is a central one too. That the task of reconcealing the same is not only a crucial, but also an appealing exercise, was highlighted by Bruno Simma and Andreas Müller: ‘[T]he study of the rules assigning jurisdiction, limiting it and seeking to handle overlaps and tensions arising in this process of allocation is a fascinating lens through which to view the macro-structure of international law, since these very rules, in manifold ways, mirror the interplay, and conflict, of the governing principles of the international legal order’.

Júlia Miklásova does exactly that as she addresses issues of competing jurisdictions in the context of a violent conflict that has attained a certain degree of stability post-ceasefire. In her piece, she evaluates competing claims for jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh based on the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.

Continuing the Conversation

As we could only present a snapshot of this year’s activities here, we are delighted to share that there is much more to come. Over the course of two days, the conference explores the topic of jurisdiction in international law with two keynote sessions and five panels. In the first keynote session, Tendayi Achiume gives us an insight into how the notion of jurisdiction figures in her research on racism and borders. The second keynote session consists in a conversation between Sundhya Pahuja and Shaun McVeigh. Both keynotes will be live streamed on Völkerrechtsblog as part of this symposium.

In the five panels, PhD students and early-career scholars will present their work on jurisdiction and more established scholars will engage with their work in a comment – a form through which barriers of academic status shall be eased. The panels are structured around the themes of ‘narrators & narratives’, ‘powers & politics’, ‘borders & boundaries’, ‘crisis & crime’, and ‘courts & courses’. The approaches and methods adopted by the speakers are as diverse as the themes of the papers and panels. One of the aims of the conference is also to create a space where doctrinal scholarship can be in conversation with historical, empirical, and various modes of critical research. We invite you to enter these conversations by joining us as an engaged listener. As such you not only have the possibility to follow the conference via Zoom, but also the opportunity to connect with like-minded colleagues via the digital platform We consider this particularly important as many young scholars are somewhat restricted in their ability to draw attention to their research projects due to the pandemic.

Having pointed only to some of the many highlights of this year’s conference, we hope to have sparked not only interest in this blog symposium but also in the many questions accompanying the notion of jurisdiction. As outlined above, using the lens of jurisdiction invites us to engage with a set of debates in international law ranging from legal epistemology to conflicts of jurisdiction among courts and among states. We wish to promote a dialogue between different approaches and levels of seniority in international legal scholarship. We do so as we are aware that it is also of relevance for each of us individually to address the question of who speaks international law.


The authors are part of the organising team of this year’s AjV-DGIR conference.

Sué González Hauck

Dr. Sué González Hauck is a postdoctoral researcher at DeZIM Institute Berlin and Co-Editor-in-Chief at Völkerrechtsblog.

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Julian A. Hettihewa

Julian A. Hettihewa is currently a lecturer at the University of Bonn and a law clerk at the Higher Regional Court of Cologne. He was a PhD student and a research assistant at the Institute for Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He studied law in Berlin and London and is an editor at Völkerrechtsblog.

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