Indigenous Issues in the Teaching of International Law

Legal Education Review, 2009

Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 09/108

9 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2009

See all articles by Ben Saul

Ben Saul

The University of Sydney Law School

Date Written: October 7, 2009


This article illuminates the points at which indigenous peoples and their legal systems may be raised in general courses on public and private international law and in courses on specialised areas of public international law (including international intellectual property; international environmental law; international human rights law; international law of the sea; cultural heritage law; international economic law; international criminal law; international labour law). (1) In private international law, the recognition of indigenous customary law can be characterised as raising classic conflict of laws issues concerning the choice of substantive law applicable to a particular dispute and the persons involved in it. In places where indigenous legal institutions persist, it may also be necessary to resolve a choice of 'jurisdiction' question (so to speak, for there will seldom be indigenous 'courts' readily equivalent to civil or common law institutions). The teaching of indigenous issues as part of a private international law curriculum can shed light on the diversity of law systems and institutions which may be engaged by that subject, beyond the more typical (and in some ways more straightforward) 'conflicts' arising between different national or sub-national (federal) law systems. (2) In public international law, indigenous peoples are central to the historical development of foundational concepts such as acquisition of title to territory, sovereignty, Statehood, colonization and decolonization, self-determination, legal personality, and treaty-making. In addition, indigenous peoples surface in numerous specialised branches of public international law, including human rights, environmental law, law of the sea, intellectual property law, cultural heritage law, economic law, criminal law, and labour law. Whether an international law of indigenous peoples per se has emerged, or by contrast general international law applies to indigenous peoples in particularised ways, is a ripe jurisprudential question which can itself be taught as a theoretical question of some importance in the development (and diversification and fragmentation) of international law as a whole.

Keywords: indigenous peoples, private international law, public international law, conflict of laws, international law teaching, curriculum development, legal education

JEL Classification: K10, K30, K33

Suggested Citation

Saul, Ben, Indigenous Issues in the Teaching of International Law (October 7, 2009). Legal Education Review, 2009; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 09/108. Available at SSRN:

Ben Saul (Contact Author)

The University of Sydney Law School ( email )

New Law Building, F10
The University of Sydney
Sydney, NSW 2006

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