Faculty Feature

Prof Simon Chesterman
Forefront of International Law

Professor Simon Chesterman, Dean of NUS Law, is a prominent figure in the academic arena of International Law. Editor of the Asian Journal of International Law and Secretary-General of the Asian Society of International Law, Professor Chesterman’s works has opened up new areas of research on conceptions of public authority - including the rules and institutions of global governance, state-building and post-conflict reconstruction, and the changing role of intelligence agencies.

He was also a Senior Associate at the International Peace Academy and Director of UN Relations at the International Crisis Group in New York. He has previously worked for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yugoslavia and interned at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Professor Chesterman shares with us some of his experiences and thoughts on International Law.


What have been some of the highlights of your career?

I’ve been incredibly lucky, over the years, to work with some amazing people. Initially, this meant the ones who helped me start my own career — my doctoral supervisor, the late Ian Brownlie; my first boss, David Malone. Looking back, however, I now realise that it is the achievements of my own students that gives me the most pleasure: those who go on to work for the UN, represent their country at the International Law Commission, go into academia themselves or become partners in major law firms.

If I had to pick a single professional milestone, however, it would be when I was given the responsibility of succeeding Tan Cheng Han as Dean of NUS Law at the end of 2011. It was both a tremendous honour as well as a challenge: how to build on the strengths of our faculty, how to improve our educational and extracurricular offerings. Again, I’ve been extremely lucky in having the support of my colleagues, and having students who are among the best law students in the world. 


What made you decide to specialise in International Law?

I was fortunate enough to attend a school in Australia that offered Chinese language at a time that Australia was rethinking its engagement with Asia. So before university I had the opportunity to live in Beijing for a year, furthering my language. When I returned to start the combined law and arts programme at Melbourne, it felt entirely natural that I should look beyond my domestic jurisdiction to see what the rule of law might mean at the global level, as well as nationally.  


What is the most pressing issue in International Law that you are advocating for today?

In some ways I think all international law experts see themselves fighting to have international law treated as more than one foreign policy justification among others. Unlike municipal law — especially as practised in a well-ordered state like Singapore — international law is routinely impossible to enforce (see Syria and chemical weapons). In many cases there will be no conclusive answer to key legal questions (see the 2003 war in Iraq). In our own region, I have been working recently to understand why Asian states in particular are so reluctant to embrace international law, when they have been the greatest beneficiaries of the prosperity and stability of a world ordered by law.


What would you advise students who are considering a specialisation in International Law?

In terms of study, I always encourage students to take subjects in which they are interested — not just what they think will advance their career. For students who want to work in the area of international law, it’s not easy. Some people think that if they work for the UN as a lawyer then they’ll be prosecuting war criminals all day. The reality, of course, is that lawyers in an international organization must do much of the day-to-day work of running it — procurement, hiring and firing, and so on.

The people who do well tend to be a little more creative in their career paths. Some take the initiative to go out and find field positions, work in the forgotten conflicts and humanitarian crises that give you experience and establish your credibility. Others are lucky enough to work in law firms that have small public international law practices, or do pro bono work on the side. I used to go through this and the various opportunities with my students, but now I also maintain a “Careers” tab on my personal website www.SimonChesterman.com


As Dean of NUS Law, what do you think are the top 3 qualities a student should have to succeed as a lawyer?

The students who make it into NUS Law are all extremely bright. While at law school, they work extremely hard. But to succeed in a dynamic profession like legal practice today, you need to be more than bright and hard-working. We try to ensure that our students also have the ability to think across boundaries. I mean this both literally, in the sense that they need to understand other countries, particularly those in Asia. But I also mean it figuratively, in the sense that they need to be able to see a problem from different dimensions other than law. That tends to help students who go out into the profession, particularly at the point, five or six years in, that they transition from doing the work that is assigned to them, to making the business case for their own presence within the firm.

I do like to emphasise, however, that an NUS Law degree shouldn’t just prepare our graduates for success as a lawyer. The critical and analytical skills that are honed here should be useful in almost any career. I think that’s why we have so many members of parliament who are our alumni, as well as diplomats, entrepreneurs and artists.

These broader skills are important because the profession of law is changing very quickly. That’s why my colleagues and I don’t focus on training students to work as a lawyer on day one, but giving them tools that will be useful on day one as well as year ten, wherever their career takes them.

For a list of publications by Professor Simon Chesterman, click here.