International law beyond 185 Pelham Street

Melbourne JD student Ken Zhunwye Kiat reflects on his time in Geneva as part of the Melbourne elective ‘Institutions in International Law’.

JD students in Geneva

In July 2019, I had the opportunity to participate in the Melbourne JD elective ‘Institutions in International Law’ along with 24 other JD students. A prerequisite of the subject is flying 16,519 km from Melbourne to Geneva, Switzerland, a city known for fondue and the freshwater Lac Léman. As part of the subject, students visit several institutions, including the International Labour Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Trade Organization.

Through frank interactions with senior staff members and lawyers with illustrious careers in international law, this subject provides an exclusive insight into the operations and challenges faced by international institutions. By personally stepping foot into these institutions and witnessing how they operate at a practical level, I ultimately deepened my understanding of international law. After all, the law is inextricably linked to the institutions that apply them.

Our days in Geneva were generally jam-packed with formal and informal activities. A typical weekday began bright and early (6am) for the fitness enthusiasts within the group. One of our professors ran an optional boot camp where students tested their physical and mental endurance. The sessions would involve a manageable number of push ups and sit ups and a 20-minute wall sit. Our reward for attending boot camp was the buffet breakfast that followed, which featured an oversupply of croissants and a view of the sunrise over the city.

The entire group would then convene in the hotel lobby for a briefing on the institutions we would be visiting that day. Just before the streets started buzzing with tourists and diplomats, we would be on a bus or tram to an institution. There, we would have the opportunity to meet and have an interactive discussion with senior representatives of each institution. They would speak to us about their experience working for the organisation and how they got to where they are today.

We would often conclude our visit of the institutions by around 5pm. However, thanks to European summer, it remained light until around 9:30pm. Many students would seize this opportunity to have a cooling swim in Lac Léman, to go grocery shopping at Manor department store, or to explore the beautiful masonry façades of Geneva’s Old Town. On some nights, the entire group would join our professors for a picnic by the lake.

A key highlight of the subject for me was sitting in on an International Law Commission session. There the President of the International Court of Justice, Judge Abdulqawi Yusuf, discussed the 2019 Chagos Advisory Opinion, which explored the role of General Assembly resolutions in the emergence of the right of self-determination as a rule of customary international law. It would be remiss of me not to highlight as well the interactive discussion with the Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization, Mr Francis Gurry, who provided insights into current trends and challenges in intellectual property law.

Aside from visiting key international institutions and interacting with international lawyers, we also had the opportunity to do some social activities as a group. Some of the more memorable social activities include catching a ferry to the flowery medieval village of Yvoire in France, hiking 1,100 metres up Mont Salève (also in France), and, last but not least, our impromptu attendance at the Lancy Tennessee country music festival.

Reflecting on my experiences in Geneva, I make two observations. First, the subject offered perspective. By visiting international institutions and interacting with their senior personnel, it became clear that understanding the context in which an institution operates, and its modus operandi, are as important as studying the substantive law applied by the institution. Second, the subject provided an unparalleled opportunity to form close friendships with 24 other highly motivated and genuine individuals.

‘Institutions in International Law’ is truly one of the most enriching, inspiring and memorable experiences of the JD. I strongly recommend this subject to anyone with even a modicum of interest in international organisations and international law. I am sure that taking the subject will be one of the best and most enlightening experiences of your time at MLS.

On behalf of the 2019 cohort, I would like to thank sincerely Professors Andrew Mitchell, Bruce Oswald CSC and Tania Voon, and Ms Kate Bartlett for making all this possible.

By Ken Zhunwye Kiat, JD student

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