LAWPUBL 758 - Special Topic: An Uncensored History of International Law

A course that focuses on the histories of international law.

Lecturer biography

Dino Kritsiotis is Chair of Public International Law in the University of Nottingham, where he has taught since October 1994. He specialises in the use of force, international humanitarian law and the history and theory of international law. He has held the L. Bates Lea Visiting Professorship at the University of Michigan (2003-2010) and, since the summer of 2011, has been a member of the faculty on the Masters Program on Human Rights at Oxford University. He is co-editor, with Michael J. Bowman, of Conceptual and Contextual Perspectives on the Modern Law of Treaties (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Course outline

This course will focus on the history - or, more properly, the histories - of international law. It will investigate, firstly, the reason for the turn to understanding the history of international law (Martti Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations; the Journal of the History of International Law), and, secondly, the methodological approaches available for any such project (e.g., interdisciplinary insights; feminist critiques of international legal study; the sense of a ‘visual culture’ of international law and legal practice). As part of its ambition, the notion of ‘censorship’ will feature prominently in the project design, either in its pure form (such as the 1956 Protocol of Sevres; President Woodrow Wilson’s ‘open treaties’ idea) or by virtue of its indirect meaning and impact (e.g., how technical expertise and the notion of ‘crisis’ have undermined the commitment to the study of history of the discipline). Applying these techniques, we shall consider a range of different topics including the role of religion in the formation of international legal narrative (e.g., the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas), the idea of slavery and ‘human rights’, the methods of colonisation and decolonisation, the rhetoric of institutional virtue and self-determination and the methodological options open for engagement with history (e.g., the 2000 Tokyo Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal).


The syllabus will take on the following topics and themes:

  • Why and when the ‘turn’ to the history of international law? Whose ‘history’ (or ‘histories’)?
  • The idea of history in ‘three keys’ (Paul A. Cohen): event, experience and myth
  • Religion: The Structure and Contents of the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas
  • Connecting with Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533): International Law, Science and Statecraft
  • Slavery and the ‘Dawn’ of Human Rights: How to Write a History of ‘Origins’
  • Ceremonies of Possession/Dispossession: Deconstructing the European Polity
  • The Capitulations of the Ottoman Empire: The Idea of An International Legal Form
  • Unequal Treaties: A History of A Relationship with China
  • The Concept of ‘Civilization’: Writing the Hereroes of Namibia Back into International Law
  • Japan and Racial Equality: Welcoming the League of Nations
  • Atomic Apocalypse: Understanding Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the Twenty-first Century
  • A Feminist Reckoning: the Second World War and the 2000 Tokyo Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal
  • Secret Diplomacy: The 1956 Protocol of Sevres and the Politics of Israel, Britain and France
  • The Fate and Fury of the Chagos Islanders: Britain, the United States and the Cold War


The main objective of this course is to introduce students to the significance of a historical understanding of international law, but to be deeply aware of the complexities that surround any such exercise. At the same time, key elements of what constitutes this ‘history’ will come into play (most typically, the Treaty of Tordesillas, but, more untypically, elements of the ‘visual culture’ of international law (in the form of Holbein’s The Ambassadors)). We shall try to understand why international legal history has been undervalued within the formal discourse, and why it is important to turn to the insights of international law from other disciplines (e.g. Patricia Seed’s Ceremonies of Possession).

Learning outcomes

On completion of this course students should be able to:

  • Critically appreciate the modern importance of ‘history’ for international law
  • Understand the key events of international legal history, including how to connect these events to other events that are not typically understood as ‘key’ events
  • Consider the different methodological possibilities for an ‘uncensored’ history of the discipline
  • Engage the particular politics - both of the public space and of individual identity - associated with the historicisation of international law


  • 90% research essay of 12,500 words
  • 10% class participation and presentation


Each student is required to submit a research essay of no more than 12,500 words including an abstract/synopsis of 500 words.

The essay is to be original work, relying on secondary and primary sources. It MUST be the work of the enrolled student. Another person, other than the enrolled student, MUST NOT write the essay nor do the research on behalf of the enrolled student.

Plagiarism is not permitted and in that regard each student should read the University’s plagiarism policy and adhere to it. All students will be expected to sign a plagiarism declaration when submitting their essays. Students must also use proper legal citations and include a reading list at the end of their type-written essay. The essay should be comprised of properly crafted English sentences (note form is unacceptable). The use of sub-headings is encouraged and footnotes rather than Harvard style in-text referencing are to be used. Descriptive essays are not encouraged.

Class participation/presentation

Each student will be asked to prepare a brief (15 minute) answer to one of the focus questions in the Learning Guide and present this to the rest of the class. In addition, each student is expected to make individual contributions to seminar discussions throughout the course. Students will be individually assessed on the quality of their contributions.

Criteria and marking

Students will be individually assessed on the quality of their contributions with reference to the following criteria:

  • The extent to which the student has identified the important and relevant issues
  • The clarity of argument
  • The depth and thoroughness of understanding of the seminar material
  • The strength and clarity of the arguments presented
  • The overall lucidity of the contribution
  • The extent to which issues are placed in their wider context
  • The extent to which the student has displayed a grasp of the doctrinal and normative issues
  • The analysis and synthesis of material
  • The ability to draw worthwhile conclusions

Class participation will assessed over the full span of the course, and this may include some presentations from members of the class. Quality rather than quantity will be assessed but clearly if a student is not present for all the classes, it will be impossible to achieve the maximum marks possible even if a student’s contributions are brilliant when he/she does speak. Students are reminded that the full range of marks is available to the lecturer in assessing class participation. Please be assured that the lecturer is very aware that mistakes are part of learning.

Course details


Semester: One
Type: Intensive
Points: 30
Date: 14-25 May 2018
Time: 4-8pm
Venue: Building 810, Room 3.32
1-11 Short Street
Assignment due date: 12 noon, 26 July 2018

Contact details

Postgraduate Student Adviser
Law Student Centre
Level 2, 1-11 Short Street