19 December 2017

PhD research on altruism in international law

Last September Jason Rudall defended his PhD thesis in International Law, entitled “Altruism in International Law”, at the Graduate Institute. Professor Andrew Clapham presided the jury, which also included Professor Andrea Bianchi, Thesis Supervisor, and Professor Tom Ruys, from Ghent University in Belgium. The thesis explores the emergence of legal relationships between states and individuals in other countries. It reveals that these relationships can imply the needs and interests of individuals beyond the traditional jurisdiction of the state are taken into account. More particularly, they may require states to consider such individuals in national policymaking, to take certain action internationally or to commit resources to ensure their human rights are respected and realised.

How did you come to study altruism in international law?

There is a widely shared assumption that law is primarily characterised by individualism. International law is no different. A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the role that self-interest and reciprocity have in the formation and ultimate function of international legal rules. Rarely has any attention been given to the presence of altruistic duty in legal systems, let alone the international legal system. However, an emerging trend in the creation of diagonal legal relationships between states and people in other countries is apparent in the architecture of international law. This observation about the nature of some legal relationships was the inspiration for my PhD project. These legal relationships defy characterisation as individualistic and pose an analytical problem for some of the mainstream theories of international law. Rather, I sought to investigate whether they might be more accurately characterised as altruistic in nature and fit better with the tenets of an alternative theory of international law.

What were the results of those investigations?

My research showed that diagonal legal relationships are evident in the substance of contemporary international law in many of its specialised areas, from human rights law, international humanitarian law and refugee law to international economic law and international environmental law. These legal relationships between states and people in other countries or future generations are altruistic in nature. Further, the impulse for the emergence of these relationships is a cosmopolitan ideology, which co-exists with a persisting statist ideology, among the major actors in the law-making processes. This results in an observable dialectic between individualistic and altruistic norms in the edifice of international law.

A consideration of the substance of altruism in international law also revealed that altruistically oriented legal norms possess certain common characteristics. While individualistic legal norms are more often manifested as strict rules, altruistic legal norms find expression in flexible standards. This suggests that there is a connection between substance and form in international law.

How will you remember your doctoral experience?

With fondness! I feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to pursue a PhD at the Graduate Institute, where I was able to engage with world-leading faculty and be exposed to a plurality of perspectives on international law. My supervisor, Professor Andrea Bianchi, often encouraged me to think outside of the box, to explore disciplines beyond international law and to be creative with different methodologies, all of which made for an incredibly enriching academic experience. I was also fortunate to spend six months at the University of Cambridge’s Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, where I was able to experience an alternative academic environment and exchange with other international lawyers.

Most importantly, however, my thesis was about altruism and, in writing it, I witnessed many individual acts of altruism. I am indebted to those that accompanied me on this academic journey, particularly my family and friends: their invaluable guidance and unwavering support made writing my thesis possible.

What are you doing now?

Throughout my PhD I have worked as the Programme Manager for the LLM in International Law at the Graduate Institute. Launching and running this programme has been an exciting challenge, as well as a welcome (and sometimes unwelcome!) change of scenery from my PhD research. Post-PhD, I am also trying to keep momentum with my academic writing. Over the next few months I will continue to work on two chapters for edited volumes, an article for a journal, and publishing my thesis as a book.

Full citation of the PhD thesis: Rudall, Jason. “Altruism in International Law.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, 2017.