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ICJ - Judicial Fellows Programme

The Institute is happy to announce its participation in the Judicial Fellows Programme of the International Court of Justice. Established in the late 1990s, the programme’s goal is to enable promising international lawyers to gain working experience of the Court. Each year, selected Law Schools and Institutions from all over the world nominate up to two candidates for the programme. The Court reviews all applications, and accepts up to 15 Judicial Fellows per year. Each Fellow will be assigned to one Judge. During the Programme, a Fellow will participate in the Court’s public hearings, will conduct research for the Judge on legal questions or factual aspects of pending cases, and will be involved in the work of the Court in general. The ICJ clerkship begins in September each year and lasts for a period of 10 months. The first term will be 1 September 2020-30 June 2021.

Further details concerning the next Application Process will be announced in due time.

Tom Sparks, senior research fellow at the MPIL, has been selected as a Judicial Fellow at the ICJ for the 2020-2021 Judicial Fellows Programme.


A Conversation with Tom Sparks

MPIL: Tom, congratulations on being selected for the fellowship programme and thank you for taking the time to talk to us today! Could you start out by telling us a bit about Thomas Sparks: When did you discover your passion for international law in general and your interest in the work of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) specifically?

Tom Sparks: Thank you! I have to go quite a long way back to get there. The two things that made me want to study law happened at the same time, when I was starting secondary school. The first was that I had the opportunity to take part in a mock trial competition. At the same time, I was becoming more and more aware of human rights and their abuses. I saw the law as a really powerful tool, so I wanted to study law and be a barrister working on human rights questions.

As I went through law school in Durham (UK), I had a fantastic international law lecturer who made the subject seem really fascinating. All of those things then came together, my interest in courts, the law, and international law specifically, and led me to do a PhD in the field.

MPIL: So how did your research career take you from Durham to Heidelberg?

Tom Sparks: More than anything else, it was a question of fantastic timing. I wrote my PhD on the humanization of international law. My work was based very closely on Anne Peters’ book, “Beyond Human Rights”. Just as I was coming to the end of writing that PhD that’s based on her work, she advertised a research position. I came here more or less directly from my PhD and since then, I’ve still been working on the individualization and humanization of international law to some extent, but I’ve also spread out a little bit into other areas. I’m working much more on courts and procedural law, as well as international environmental law.

MPIL: Beyond your cooperation with Anne Peters, how have your research and you personally benefited from the Max Planck community and infrastructure?

Tom Sparks: The Institute is a fantastically supportive place to work. I think there are very few other places in the world where, as a scholar of international law, you have a privilege to be around this large group of expert scholars in various fields of international law. Certainly, I’ve never been in an environment where you can have such incredibly productive, challenging, exciting conversations on a daily basis. It’s a community of people who are incredibly generous with their time and their criticism. When you add to it that we have one of the best or possibly the best international legal library in Europe and the world, it’s just an extraordinary place to do international law research.

MPIL: Lots of reasons to come back after the fellowship then! Let’s get to that programme: What do you expect at the ICJ? What are some of the Court’s current cases?

Tom Sparks: It’s difficult to have a good guess at what will be before the Court when I’m there. But there are some really fascinating, exciting cases on the Court’s docket: the Myanmar Genocide case is going to be interesting. Then there are the various cases between Iran and the US at the moment; geopolitically important because they could reshape the balance of power in a way. It’s an exciting time for the Court to be dealing with these cases. Of course, one of the interesting things is what comes up spontaneously. Cases on provisional measures are dealt with before anything else. It could be that a case that none of us have heard about crops up tomorrow and that’s what’s before the Court most of the time I’m there.

MPIL: What role do you believe can the ICJ play in this time of global crisis, especially with many states arguably undermining the role of international law?

Tom Sparks: Although we’ve seen in recent years this huge backlash against international courts and we’ve seen increasing nationalism, to an extent the ICJ seems to be immune from that. Its docket is growing, it’s now being seen as a very authoritative voice where you go settle your disputes. We might not be seeing many cases involving the big powers, but that’s always been a problem. I think the Court has really been changing its attitude, its way of dealing with states, in the last few years. Some gentle signs that it’s being more assertive, that it’s being more protective of its own authority. I think in some ways, the Court seems to be the exception that proves the rule in terms of the diminishing multi-nationalism in dispute settlement. Let’s hope that continues.

MPIL: Returning to the fellowship programme itself: What was the application process like? In what form was the MPIL able to support you in the process?

Tom Sparks: Basically, the documents ultimately needed for the ICJ application were considered internally by a panel of MPIL scholars. They looked at the internal applicants and decided to forward my application to the Court. The applications are considered by the Court “behind closed doors”. I don’t know what’s involved in that process. A couple of weeks afterwards I found out that my application had been accepted, I was told that I’d be attached to Judge Peter Tomka for the duration of the clerkship. He’s now the longest-serving Judge on the Court, he’s a former President and Vice-President, so he’s seen every aspect of the Court’s work. I’m sure he’ll be a really wonderful person to learn from.

MPIL: Seeing as the MPIL will be able to regularly nominate candidates for the fellowship, what are your suggestions for international lawyers looking to take this opportunity?

Tom Sparks: Well, I’ll probably have to save most of my advice until after I’ve actually done the thing. My advice at the moment would just be to go for it, because it’s a really exciting opportunity and the Institute has been wonderful in supporting me through the process. It’s an opportunity for young scholars to see how international law works at the very highest levels of practical application and to build a network amongst people who are working actively in the international judicial process. Whether it’s to see whether that’s something you want to do or whether it’s purely about being able to come back and write with greater authority about the practice of international law, I think it’s an extraordinary opportunity. It’s also hopefully a contribution we can make to the actual practice of international justice.

MPIL: Do you think that having had a taste of international law in practice, you might continue in that direction? Or do you want to stay in research? Where do you see your career taking you after the fellowship?

Tom Sparks: It’s a question I’m asking myself. One thing I’m really excited about is that I get this opportunity to see the other side and to see whether it could interest me. At the moment, for sure, I’m not looking to jump the ship of academia. But one nice thing about international law is how flexible it is in that sense: Many of the people who have substantial practice before the ICJ also have active teaching and research profiles. The two do tend to go together in international law, much more so than in domestic legal systems. It’s nice because that makes it possible to combine my two interests in the future.

MPIL: We’re sure you’ll make your mark. We wish you good luck for your time at The Hague and thank you again for speaking to us, it was a pleasure!

Tom Sparks: Thank you!

Interview conducted by Jakob Hach, Berlin Office