International law is a normative order created by and guiding (the behavior of) its legal subjects. However it also is a professional activity geared towards the fulfillment of a wide range of different functions. Depending on their respective roles, international lawyers perform a variety of tasks, including making, interpreting, applying, enforcing, or systematizing international rights and obligations.
The nature of these functions differs between the various professional capacities within the profession. For instance, international judges chiefly seek to settle international disputes by applying and interpreting the law. Legal advisers principally advise governments and international organizations on the making, the enforcement, and the use of international law. Academics commonly strive to contribute to the systematization of international law. In that sense, the type of engagement that international lawyers have with international law is determined by their respective roles. This is true even if the professional capacities of international lawyers continuously change, or if they simultaneously assume several professional and institutional functions, or if they switch from one to another.
These different professional capacities may come with different discourses and conceptions about how the making, the application, the interpretation, the enforcement, and the systematization of international law is carried out. Significant differences exist, particularly regarding the way in which international lawyers construe and use international law. Some understand international law as a defined and specific diplomatic vocabulary, while others systematize it as a body of rules that is formally identified and enforceable. For instance, an attorney engaged in public interest litigation will shape and use international law differently from a government lawyer who must largely speak the language of diplomacy. Likewise, the conception of international law as a complex legal system, as classically defended by academics, contrasts with the way in which international law is understood and used by domestic lawyers dealing with the application of international law in domestic legal orders.
As an epistemic community, each role within the profession is affected by institutional and social constraints. These biases inevitably impinge on the manner in which the various roles of international lawyers are understood and carried out, as well as the concept of law which they embrace.
Understanding international law as a profession thus calls for a two-fold evaluation. First, it requires evaluating the different functions which international lawyers fulfill in their various capacities, as well as the challenges faced when conducting them in the 21st century. Second, it calls for an appraisal of the diverging discourses to which they resort when exercising these various functions. Such an appraisal necessitates delving into the multiple underlying concepts of law used by scholars, as well as examining the institutional and social biases of each function within the profession.
The Research Forum will explore four particular roles exercised by international lawyers: the international lawyer as a judge or arbitrator; as a legal adviser, counsel or diplomat; as an academic, researcher, or teacher; and as a domestic lawyer.