Research Network at Humboldt-University: Jurists in International Relations


The Members of the Commission of the League of Nations, Paris, France, 1919. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In the last decades, legal historians – in particular those of international law – have broadened their perspective considerably. They have aimed to include new juridical issues, non-Western world regions and a wider set of historical actors. Curiously, however, jurists in international relations often remain hidden figures. Legal historians rarely shed light on what they did exactly, what motivated them or what their intellectual and social background was.

To remedy this and contribute to a discussion about theoretical and methodological questions regarding the analysis of jurists as historical actors, the DFG-funded network “Juristen in der internationalen Politik” (Jurists in International Relations) was established in 2017. Organized by Marcus Payk (Humboldt-University of Berlin) and Kim Priemel (University of Oslo), the group consists of about twelve scholars from history, law, and political science. Their goal is to examine the role individual jurists or groups of jurists have played in international relations, and to critically evaluate their contribution to the development of international law. They do not call for yet another paradigm in international law historiography. Rather, they want to encourage a shift in perspective in order to generate new research questions.

In April, the network’s members met for the third time at Humboldt University to discuss their research topics. The respective papers covered the 19th and 20th century and the diverse settings in which jurists shaped international relations: amongst others, as judges in international tribunals, jurists at international conferences such as the Paris Peace Conference, scholars and experts, exile lawyers, legal advisers, legal activists, or commercial lawyers. They raised questions such as: In which circumstances did jurists embrace these different roles, and which rules governed their actions when they did? What was their agency in shaping international politics? What can their stories tell us about the relationship between international law and politics? In which cases did law become a political tool, and when were international politics juridified? And are the two spheres ever really separate?

These fascinating questions will continue to engage historians of international law for a long time, but for now find a suitable discussion forum in the network. A forthcoming edited volume will enlarge upon these questions further.  As my own research concentrates on the role émigré jurists have played in discussions on international criminal law, the workshop has offered many new insights and perspectives as well as different ways to conceptualise individual agency within international networks.

More information on the network can be found here.


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