Teaching Public International Law: Reflections on the State of the Art in an Era of Uncertainty

13 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2017

See all articles by Mohamed Helal

Mohamed Helal

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law

Date Written: October 2, 2017


This paper appeared in the Journal of the African Union Commission of International Law, which is published by the African Union. It reflects on and critiques the prevalent methodology of teaching Public International Law in African universities. It examines syllabi from universities from the various African sub-regions and finds that Public International Law courses in these institutions are mostly taught using what this paper calls a ‘doctrinal mode of instruction’. This approach adopts a positivistic methodology that focuses on introducing students to the rules of international law, without examining the political, economic, historical, or social background of these rules. Moreover, this approach does not discuss the impact of these rules on inter-State relations and global governance, nor does it consider whether and why States and other actors comply with or violate these rules.

This paper does not suggest that professors of international law should wholly redesign their courses by jettisoning the focus on the rules of international law. Rather, this paper proposes adopting an ‘interdisciplinary mode’ of teaching international law by adding readings to current syllabi that shed light on the political, economic, historical, and/or social background of the established rules. This paper provides specific examples of how the rule-oriented syllabi that are prevalent in African universities can be complimented with readings that stimulate in-class discussion and enrich student experiences by placing the rules within their broader political and social context.

This paper also argues that this move to an interdisciplinary mode of instruction is especially important for Africa at a time when the liberal international order is experiencing a period of crisis. This crisis of the liberal international order will lead to the reconfiguration of the doctrinal content and institutional infrastructure of international law. This paper argues that this crisis offers Africa an opportunity to participate in the recreation of the international system. The African Union, African jurists, and African governments should seize this opportunity to articulate a political, legal, and economic agenda that promotes African interests. These actors should also seek to integrate this agenda into the remodeled international political and legal systems that will emerge in the coming years and decades. This makes an interdisciplinary mode of teaching and academic writing indispensable to enable future generations of African international lawyers to engage in this process of revision and renewal of the international political and legal systems.

Keywords: Public International Law, positivism in teaching international law, interdisciplinary teaching and research in international law, Africa

Suggested Citation

Helal, Mohamed, Teaching Public International Law: Reflections on the State of the Art in an Era of Uncertainty (October 2, 2017). Ohio State Public Law Working Paper No. 416. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3046633 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3046633

Mohamed Helal (Contact Author)

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law ( email )

55 West 12th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
United States

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