Teaching the course ‘Public International Law’ at UvA online

July 27, 2020

From March until July 2020, I taught the course ‘Public International Law’ at the University of Amsterdam, together with my colleagues Jessica Dorsey, Lizan Nijkrake and prof. Marjoleine Zieck. In the previous three academic years (2016-2019), I had the honor to teach the same course at PPLE College at the University of Amsterdam. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I didn’t travel to Amsterdam the past four months. Instead, we switched to online teaching and I taught the course from my office at home. We adjusted the course only a little bit and gave all lectures and tutorials online. None of us had experience in online teaching, although I have been in international calls a lot over the past years for my assignments for the UN and NGOs. I had used BlueJeans, Microsoft Teams, and other teleconferencing tools in the past. However, Zoom was new for me and being in a meeting is something else than teaching a course and transferring knowledge. I was very happy that it all turned out really well, so it was a nice learning experience for all of us!

What is PPLE College? 

PPLE is a Bachelor’s programme combining four disciplines, namely Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics (PPLE). It is a collaboration between the faculties of Economics and Business, Social and Behavioural Sciences, and Law. The programme is founded on the notion that the contemporary challenges posed by a globalising economy, international terrorism and social inequality cannot be addressed from the vantage point of one academic discipline. PPLE College started in September 2014 and has built up a steady flow of 200 students a year, and this number is increasing. What I especially like about PPLE is that about half of the students come from abroad. See this website for more information about the academic programme.

Book ‘International Law’ of Henriksen

The academic years 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, I have taught this course with prof. Yvonne Donders and we have used different handbooks over the years, including the textbook of Rebecca Wallace and Olga Martin-Ortega, entitled International Law, which is published by Sweet & Maxwell. However, in the academic year 2017-2018 we decided to change it and we used the textbook of Anders Henriksen, also entitled International Law, which is published by Oxford University Press. This year we also used – a new edition of – the book of Henriksen, as both the students and ourselves were very enthusiastic about it.

Public International Law

Public International Law is a second year course and provides a general introduction to the fundamental principles of public international law and the nature and structures of the international legal system. It addresses the sources of international law, such as treaties and customary law, the main players on the international scene, being States, but also non-State actors such as international organisations, individuals and multinational corporations, and the relationship and interaction between international and national law. The course briefly touches upon the basics of different fields of international law (international humanitarian law, international environmental law and international economic law) and address several specific substantive issues such as the use of force, dispute settlement and state responsibility. This year, we had a focus on international human rights law, international refugee law and international humanitarian law. Upon completion of the course, students will have an analytical understanding of the system of international law which will enable them to proceed with more advanced courses in the area of public international law.

Intense course

The course was already intense with two lectures and two tutorials per week, but due to the switch to online teaching it became quite challenging for many students. The lockdown situation in many countries was much ‘hasher’ enforced compared to the situation in The Netherlands. The lectures (given by prof. Marjoleine Zieck) were recorded in an (empty) lecture hall at the UvA and provided a general introduction into the main doctrines and topics of public international law, with a focus on the UN system. The recordings of the lectures were made available on Canvas. The tutorials were live via Zoom. During the tutorials we addressed the topics addressed in the lecture and those were object of more interactive analysis and discussion.

Topics I covered during my tutorials included, among others:

  • Relationship between international and national law
  • Recognizing the sources of international law
  • Secret treaties
  • States, recognition, sovereignty and jurisdiction
  • Immunity
  • Air and space law
  • International law of the sea
  • Non-state actors and state responsibility
  • Harmful practices and violence against women
  • Climate change refugees
  • ICJ jurisdiction
  • The Syrian conflict through the lens of international law
  • Law of armed conflict

Examination

Usually, the examination for this course included a mid-term half-way the course, an assignment and a three-hour written exam. However, as many students went back to their parents in their respective home countries due to Covid-19, a physical exam in Amsterdam was not possible. In addition, the government in the Netherlands wouldn’t allow that – at that time – yet. Therefore, we decided to change the examination to weekly assignments and a 4.000 word paper.

Reflection

Although this whole situation was new for all of us – and it was challenging at times – I really enjoyed teaching this course again. I love to explain the difficult elements of international public law, by using examples from the field, for example from my missions for the UN.

I just finished all the admin and filled in all the grades (including for the re-sits) to the Education Desk, which means that the academic year now really came to an and. I am so happy to see that the students did great! We had only two students (out of 105) who didn’t pass the course this year. And more importantly: despite the unusual circumstances, my student evaluations were very positive!

Ps: All students gave permission for this picture to be published on my website.