The International Law Commission: Viewed from the Inside

by Samuel Matsiko

The 53rd International Law Seminar at the United Nations was part of the annual calendar seminars designed for, young scholars of international law, diplomats as well as lawyers in the field of international law, to widen their knowledge on the work of the International Law Commission. The primary mandate of the International Law Commission is codification and progressive development of international law. The objective of the seminar was to offer an opportunity for lawyers coming from different legal systems and cultures to exchange views regarding items on the agenda of the International Law Commission.

The 53rd International Law Seminar was officially opened on the 3rd of July 2017 at the United Nations Palais des Nations in Geneva Switzerland. I participated in the seminar as a recipient of the United Nations Fellowship and a member of the working group on Universal Jurisdiction.

The session: The International Law Commission: viewed from the inside, was opened by Dr. Vittori Mannetti who introduced Dr.Eduardo Valencia-Ospina. He gave a background of his work as a member of the commission and as a Special Rapporteur on the Protections of Persons in Event of Disasters. Dr.Eduardo Valencia-Ospina introduced himself and topic in Spanish and agreed to speak in English to illustrate the linguistic diversity of members of the commission.

Dr.Eduardo Valencia-Ospina started by indicating and describing the historical foundations of the International Law Commission as a means of implementing Article 13 of the charter of the United Nations with the purpose to initiate studies and make recommendations for the progressive development and codification of international law. He went on to discuss the mandate of the commission with particular emphasis on its role to progressively develop international law and codify international law. He clearly emphasized that codification and progressive development of international law were an integral part of the work of the commission. He went on to discuss the distinction between codification and progressive development of international law.

Dr.Eduardo Valencia-Ospina further discussed the codification movement before the establishment of the commission and the San Francisco conference. He categorically stated that the codification movement was not limited to public international law and but also dealt with matters of private international law. He emphasized that the progressive development of international law was the main object of the commission and then codification. The two terms were methodological as illustrated by article 15 of the statute of the international law commission. 

Dr.Eduardo Valencia-Ospina went to discuss the procedure for elections of members to the commission, criteria for choosing topics to be considered the commission, the workings of the plenary, working groups and draft committees. Several participants raised questions on the distinction between codification and progressive development and whether there was some gradation or hierarchy in which of the two concepts was more prioritized.

Other participants asked questions about the gender composition of members of the International Law Commission, fragmentation of international law and the relationship of the commission with the United Nations Sixth Committee.

Dr.Eduardo Valencia-Ospina concluded by stating that the work of the International Law Commission was evolving. The International Law Commission was producing more guidelines, principles, conclusions as products as opposed to the traditional draft articles. He thanked the participants for the interesting questions and wished them a successful seminar. The participants continued their legal sightseeing of the International Law Commission.

The sightseeing of the International Law Commission involved a guided tour of the Palais des Nations, an outstanding testimony to twentieth century architecture, situated in a beautiful park in Geneva overlooking Lake Geneva, with a splendid view of the Alps and, on a clear day, the Mont Blanc. On our sightseeing of the building we were informed that the air conditioning was from water from Lake Geneva.

We also viewed some art work. The Palais des Nations art collection brings to life the prestigious cultural heritage held within the Palais des Nations. It comprises over 2,000 works dating from the League of Nations period to the present. Most of them are official donations of Member States .The collection is a representation of artistic endeavour from all corners of the world.  The art captures the values of peace and human rights. I managed to see a basket that was donated by the Government of Botswana in 2005.

On our sightseeing we also visited the cafeteria. We later had the opportunity to have lunch with members of the International Law Commission.

Samuel Matsiko is a research fellow at the Syrian Legal Network at the University of Amsterdam. He was a lecturer of international law at the Uganda Christian University and Vice President of the International Law Association Uganda Branch. In 2016 Samuel was a receipt of the young African scholars for international law award made possible by the Royal Netherlands Society for International Law and Tilburg University.

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