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Special anniversary guest post

[The following is a guest post by Prof. Kevin Jon Heller inter alia contributor at Opinio Juris.org]

I’m honored that my colleagues at International Law Observer have asked me to contribute a post in honor of their second anniversary.  ILO enjoys a prominent place in my RSS list, and I never fail to learn something new about international law when I read the contributors’ posts.  My only complaint is that they don’t post more often!

Instead of writing something about some current legal issue, I thought I would say a few words about the nature of international-blogging itself, an endeavor in which I have been involved – amazingly enough – for nearly four years.  This is a particularly opportune time for such reflections, because my blogging career, such as it is, has been particularly eventful of late: in the space of the last two weeks, my posts at Opinio Juris have been (1) cited by the Prosecution in support of its request for leave to appeal the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber’s refusal to order Omar al-Bashir’s arrest for genocide, and (2) cited by the ICTY Trial Chamber in support of its decision to deny my client, Radovan Karadzic, his right to receive legal filings in his native language, Serbian.

The first citation demonstrates what is so remarkable about international-law blogging: its immediacy.  I wrote my first post about the PTC’s misunderstanding of the “reasonable grounds” requirement in Article 58(1) of the Rome Statute literally minutes after the summary of the decision was released publicly, and my sources (such as they are) tell me that individuals in the OTP read the post later that day.  The ability to have that kind of impact on the genocide debate, however small, would simply not have been possible just a few short years ago.  Imagine life before blogs had entered the academic mainstream: I would have read the PTC’s decision, spent a couple of months reading everything that had ever been written about the text and drafting history of Article 58, outlined my argument, turned the outline into an article, distributed a draft to colleagues, rewrote the article, submitted the article to journals, eventually accepted an offer, edited the galleys, and then waited six months to a year for the article to appear in print.  And by that time the Prosecution’s appeal would have run its course – making my article (which the editors hopefully let me update as the real world rolled on) obsolete the minute it was published.   Sure, I would have had a fancy new publication to put on my CV, and for a (relatively) young scholar that is far from nothing.  But I would have had no opportunity to become part of the debate itself.  That is why I blog, and that is why I encourage other international-law scholars to do likewise.  Our field simply moves too quickly to limit ourselves to the inherently reactive process of academic publishing.

That said, blogging also has its costs – as the second citation indicates.  I do not regret for a minute describing my meeting with Dr. Karadzic.  He enjoyed the post, and he and the defense team know full well that the Trial Chamber would have reached the same conclusion even if I hadn’t written that Dr. Karadzic spoke very good English.  But it is still regrettable that something I wrote on the blog ended up being used against my client.  Discussing his language skills was a mistake – and I knew it was a mistake not long after I published the post.  But by then, of course, it was too late.  I could have deleted the post, but it would still have lived on in Google’s seemingly infinite cache of embarrassing things that people wrote and then deleted thinking that would make them disappear forever.  And then it would look like I was trying to hide something.  So I took the lesser of two evils and left the post up – and it came back to haunt me.

Blogging, in short, is a Janus-faced enterprise.  At its best, it allows us to have an impact on international law that we could never have through academic publishing, a cold medium if there ever was one.  (And I guarantee that far more people know who I am through Opinio Juris than through any article I’ve ever published.)  At its worst, it provides us with a permanent public forum in which to embarrass ourselves.  I’ve experienced both the good and the bad – and I’m sure I will experience both again in the future.

Oh, and one final thing – international-law blogging is inherently narcissistic.  We blog because we think we have something to say that others might want to hear.  That assumption often rubs some people the wrong way, as demonstrated by the anonymous commenter (actually a colleague of mine at Auckland) who reacted to my post on Dr. Karadzic by expressing skepticism that Dr. Karadzic’s cell was big enough to hold him, me, and my ego.  (I’m sure this post won’t do anything to change his mind!)  So you can’t have a thin skin if you blog – if you do, you will respond imprudently to your critics.  And then both your post and your imprudence will forever be available for all to see…

In any case, happy anniversary, International Law Observers!  I’m glad you, as I, believe that the benefits of blogging outweigh the costs.I hope that belief will endure for many more years to come.

One Comment

  1. Shashank Shashank 10 April 2009

    Just today I was having a debate with a university faculty on the ‘weakness’ of international law. I, of course, argued that it is as much law as is traffic law, for enforcement is not the only criteria of normative legality. He said the comparison itself to traffic law shows the ‘weakness’ of international law. I replied trade law and its strict enforcement… it went on and, I must admit, left me with an uneasy feeling. Then came this post. Good work Prof. Heller and International Law Observer.
    Happy anniversary and keep up the good work!

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