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When can a state use force against another? When is war legal or illegal? How are war criminals, or people accused of crimes against humanity or genocide, hunted down and prosecuted? These are just some of the questions Dr Lawrence Hill-Cawthorne addresses in his lectures on international law.

Lawrence, who teaches on both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes at Reading’s School of Law, is passionate about his subject.

International law is very different from other areas of law. For example, under UK Criminal Law we don’t have any choice over it applying to us as UK citizens. If you are prosecuted for committing a crime, your first line of defence can’t be ‘I never consented to be bound by this rule of Law’. In International Law, it is exactly that argument which is deployed all the time - and it’s a very valid legal argument.

One of the modules Lawrence teaches is ‘The Law of Armed Conflict’. Once states are at war – what laws apply between them?

"In The Law of Armed Conflict module, students look at a wide variety of topical case studies and get to see how international law has operated in practice and where it might be failing – Syria, for example.”

Why international law?

Lawrence enjoys the unique nature of international law. He explains that a number of people have questioned whether it is really ‘law’.

“This is because there is no compulsory enforcement mechanism. You can withdraw from agreements, like withdrawing from the EU. Every state accepts that international law is law, but the interesting question is why do we consider it law rather than just a series of political agreements between states? What is the consequence of saying it is, or is not, law?"

He also explains how enforcement can be a huge problem with international law.

"“There is no international police force, and no court that has general, compulsory jurisdiction. We do have the International Court of Justice in The Hague, but states must have consented to its jurisdiction at some point in the past for their case to be heard, and we have had examples where states have pulled out from its jurisdiction following decisions of the Court with which they disagree.”

"States can’t be bound by the rules of international law without their consent, nor can they be subjected to the jurisdiction of an international court without their consent."

Making an impact

Lawrence researches extensively in international law, with much of his recent work focusing on cutting-edge issues in international humanitarian law (the law of armed conflict) and international human rights law. He is also heavily involved in practice and policymaking. For example, he works with barristers and law firms on cases in UK courts that raise international law issues, such as recent detention-related cases in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has also assisted the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, and has given lectures and training to government lawyers and judges on international tribunals.

His work beyond the University of Reading has allowed him to make a real impact in policy and practice, with his publications being cited by the Court of Appeal of England & Wales and the UK Supreme Court, and him being appointed by the International Bar Association to an international task force on targeted killings by armed drones.

Lawrence recently attended the Paul Reuter Prize Awards Ceremony and workshop at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva and was awarded the Paul Reuter Prize for his book Detention in Non-International Armed Conflict. Watch him speak about his book.

Detention in Non-International Armed Conflict

Dr Lawrence Hill-Cawthorne recently attended the Paul Reuter Prize Awards Ceremony and workshop at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva and was awarded the Paul Reuter Prize for his book Detention in Non-International Armed Conflict. Watch this video to hear Lawrence to talk about his book.

Getting students involved

Lawrence highlights the importance of getting students involved in research. Undergraduate students can do a dissertation – one student of international law recently worked on humanitarian intervention in Syria and Libya – while postgraduate students benefit from the Global Law at Reading research and teaching hub.

“The hub focuses on international law, human rights law, and EU law. Within this, we have research seminars where external speakers come in. We’ve had a navy lawyer come in and talk about applying the Law of Armed Conflict in practice, as well as a visit from a UN Special Rapporteur, Sir Malcolm Evans, who talked about his work on the prevention of torture.”

James Green: when is it lawful to go to war?

Professor James Green discusses use of force, armed conflict, and human rights.

Dr Marie Aronsson-Storrier: research in action

Understanding global disasters and conflicts.

Dr Beatrice Krebs: Advance justice

Dr Beatrice Krebs helps change the law on murder