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In the line of fire

It seems fitting that, as a scholar of International Law, Dr Sarah Nouwen has spent much of her career travelling the world.

Sarah grew up in the Netherlands, home of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court (ICC). At the age of eleven she attended an international summer camp in Japan and, finding herself surrounded by people from a range of different countries, immediately felt at home. She then embarked on a career in law that has seen her travel between The Hague, New York, Utrecht, Cape Town, Paris, Rotterdam, Darfur, Kampala and Cambridge.

Now a fellow of Pembroke, and based at Cambridge’s Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, she is embarking on a new project. Titled Peacemaking: What’s Law Got to Do With It?, it will attempt to understand to what extent peace negotiations are governed by international law. As you may have seen on our news pages, Sarah has won a Future Research Leaders grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to implement this project. She will also dedicate the Philip Leverhulme Prize that she was recently awarded to this research.


Photo credit: Sarah Nouwen

This new project project is based on a decade of experience observing and advising specific countries caught up in issues of peacemaking, reconciliation and state succession. Her PhD focused on the domestic responses to the ICC investigations in Uganda and Sudan. She was keen to test the hypothesis that states sometimes act to investigate and prosecute certain crimes in order to protect their sovereignty and prevent the ICC from stepping in. The only way to find out was to spend considerable time in situ.

Then, in 2010, she was seconded as an advisor to the African Union High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) for Sudan. Funded by the European Union, she was part of a team advising three former African Presidents on issues of state succession related to the self-determination referendum in Southern Sudan and on a peace process for Darfur. How did she end up involved in such a project? ‘It is a long story based on encounters in Darfur, Khartoum and work elsewhere in Africa,’ she explains. ‘Ultimate it goes back to a meeting with Bishop Tutu in 1998. He encouraged me to come and study in his South Africa – who could decline such an invitation?’

As an independent adviser, her experience in Sudan taught her some important lessons about the usefulness, and the limits, of international law. During the negotiations, international law was rarely referred to. Instead, the various parties struggled to reach mutual understanding and a genuine consensus by a long process of open-ended negotiation. ‘The outcomes were not predetermined by international law,’ says Sarah. ‘Nor were law or courts the way to go for the parties to understand each other’s existential needs. That said, drafts of peace agreements and adjudication by international tribunals can be useful if seen and used as markers along a longer political route towards consensus.’


Photo credit: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Her PhD research was published in the book Complementarity in the Line of Fire: The Catalysing Effect of the International Criminal Court in Uganda and Sudan in 2013. While this research confronted the relationship between international criminal law and peace processes, Sarah’s involvement in the Sudan negotiations triggered her interest in the relationship between peace negotiations and international law more generally. Her experience ‘in the field’ was therefore the direct inspiration for her latest research project.

Indeed, throughout her career Sarah has balanced academic research with practice. She says: ‘My book is called In the Line of Fire and I suppose that’s where I always wanted to be. I never had a moment where I decided that I wanted to be an academic. I assumed I would study for several years and then go into practice. However, I realised that being an academic would enable me to be the practitioner that I wanted to be: as independent as possible. Academia has given me the opportunity to find real freedom of thought.’

Discover more about Sarah’s work on the Faculty of Law website.

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