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Michigan Law's Transnational Law Conference Focuses on Legal Argumentation Outside the Classroom

By Lori Atherton
November 26, 2019

A diverse group of global academics and practitioners, including senior officials from the United Nations and the Africa Union, gathered at Michigan Law recently for the 2019 Transnational Law Conference.

"International Legal Argumentation Outside the Courtroom" was the focus of the two-day event, which was held November 1–2. Steven Ratner, the Bruno Simma Collegiate Professor of Law and a conference co-organizer, said he has had a longtime interest in the question of how legal arguments persuade and affect audiences outside courtrooms, and was eager to delve into the topic with the other 13 invited participants.

"Most international law interactions take place outside the courtroom between governments talking to one another bilaterally or in different multinational fora," said Ratner, whose teaching and research focus on public international law and a range of disputes involving states, non-state armed groups, individuals, and corporations. "I've always felt there was a gap in the scholarship about exactly what made a legal argument different from a non-legal argument and how it affected decision-makers."

The conference, which was co-sponsored by U-M's Donia Human Rights Center, provided a forum for attendees to share their interdisciplinary perspectives and scholarly papers on various subjects, including international humanitarian law and non-state actors, cybersecurity, human rights, and non-proliferation. That scholarship eventually will be published in a book co-edited by Ratner and his fellow conference co-organizer, Professor Ian Johnstone of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

"Substantively, I think we learned a lot about the ways that international law works in international settings," Ratner said. "We saw how legal arguments can make a difference depending on the area of law. In some areas, like human rights or the use of force, a legal argument may be less effective in some settings, while in others, it may be very persuasive. Seeing how legal argumentation varied across subject matters was a big payoff."

For Ratner, gathering with world experts who are well-respected in their chosen fields and who came from as far away as Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and United Arab Emirates was especially gratifying. "It was exciting to be in the same room with people whose work I had been following for years," Ratner said. "One of the things that most stood out is that despite all of the different ways in which people came to the issue—whether as an academic or a practitioner, or from an international law or international relations perspective—people were excited to be engaging and talking with one another."

In addition to Ratner and Johnstone, conference participants included Professor Jutta Brunnée, University of Toronto Faculty of Law; Professor Monica Hakimi, Michigan Law School; Professor Gina Heathcote, University College London; Edward Kwakwa, former legal counsel of the World Intellectual Property Organization; Professor Hyeran Jo, Texas A&M University; Stephen Mathias, deputy legal counsel of the United Nations; Namira Negm, legal counsel of the African Union; Scott Sheeran, legal counsel to the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Bruno Stagno Ugarte, director of advocacy for Human Rights Watch; Professor Ingo Venzke, University of Amsterdam; Professor Wouter Werner, Free University of Amsterdam; and Professor Lisbeth Zimmermann, Zeppelin University of Friedrichshafen.

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