The LL.M. in International Criminal Law

A closer look at some of the specialized LL.M. programs in this emerging field

The 20th century was truly an “age of extremes.” And some of the worst of these extremes helped spawn the emergence of International Criminal Law (ICL). ICL is a unique hybrid of International Law and Criminal Law that deals primarily with offenses that threaten global security, crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes, and human rights violations.

The first major international tribunals emerged after World War II to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity. More tribunals were set up in response to conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda during the early 1990s. Later that decade, a permanent International Criminal Court was established at The Hague.

“It has really been phenomenal to see how the field has expanded, and to see how the opportunities for employment have expanded in parallel,”" says Richard Vogler, who directs the International Criminal Law LL.M. program at the University of Sussex, the first such LL.M. program in Britain.

Mirroring the growth of the field, more specialized LL.M. programs have emerged in recent years, including those at Kent, Nottingham Trent, Northampton, NUI Galway, Luxembourg, Helsinki, Leiden, and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) program in Turin, Italy.

International Criminal Law courses are also an integral component of International Human Rights LL.M. programs, of which there are dozens worldwide.

A relatively new program is the Transnational Criminal Justice and Crime Prevention LL.M. program – a cooperation between South Africa’s University of the Western Cape and Humboldt University in Germany. The program covers ICL topics, as well as transnational crime issues, such as organized crime, corruption, trafficking, and money laundering.

Gerhard Werle, who co-directs the program, says most students are African lawyers looking to boost their domestic careers.

"Some aim at the academic field, but I would say that most are looking at a practical job, either in the judiciary, as a private lawyer, or at an inter-African or international level," says Werle.

International exposure is also alluring for lawyers in this field, says Werle, since it could improve their ability to work in their own country and on international cases related to their country. It could also give them an advantage when it comes to nomination of staff from their country for the international courts and tribunals.

Another new, international-oriented LL.M. option is the International Criminal Law program offered jointly by the University of Amsterdam and Columbia University. The students come from Europe and the United States, and they split the academic year between New York City and Amsterdam. 

Annemieke van Verseveld, the program's academic coordinator, says that the experience gives students exposure to different teaching styles, as well as international experience that is essential in this field.

"“People say International Criminal Law is a stand-alone field of law, but of course it is not,"” she says. "While students may have knowledge of their own domestic criminal system, they must also understand that ICL is shaped by both civil law and common law systems."

“"All the people in the field – the judges in the courts, for example – are from one of these systems, and bring their own system into the field,”" adds van Verseveld. “"Knowledge about this aspect of International Criminal Law is very valuable to working in practice.”"

Students looking for immediate proximity to The Hague might consider the International Criminal Law specialization offered by the University of Leiden. This program draws on the participation of judges, lawyers, diplomats, and advisors working at the ICC and other institutions at The Hague, which is just a ten-minute train ride from the university.

According to program director Carsten Stahn, the LL.M. is designed to provide students with advocacy and litigation skills necessary to pursue a career in the areas of peace and justice. Stahn says many graduates end up working in The Hague, or at various international organizations and NGOs globally.

"“The nexus to The Hague is supportive to the learning environment and career prospects,”" says Stahn. “"Through internships and first-hand access to leading academics and practitioners they become part of the international law and international justice community.”"

Global security = job security

In terms of career outlook for lawyers advancing their focus in International Criminal Law, it will likely remain a constantly evolving and relevant field, even if its growth might be limited.

"Some people say the International Criminal Court will be a success if it has no cases at all," says Annemieke van Verseveld at the University of Amsterdam.

"The idea is that the states themselves will prosecute perpetrators of international crimes," she adds. "That said, the domestic courts will need people with knowledge of international crimes, and all of the issues involved." 

But as the ICC plans construction of a new, modern building, it is not expected that ICL cases will dry up anytime soon. Moving into the 21stcentury, the extremes of the past may evolve into new issues that current laws need to adapt to.

For Richard Vogler at the University of Sussex, as globalization continues, there will be a need for international standards.

“We have to get this right," says Vogler. "It’s actually crucial for development, growth, and for peace that we have effective institutions." 

"The world is not going to stop globalizing," he says, "It’s very important that wherever people go in the world, there are principles of human rights and principles of fairness which apply universally. We can no longer consider that law is merely contained in national jurisdictions." 

"If you have a state where there is a defective system of justice and impunity, international criminals will operate from there, and that harms all of us.”

Photo: "Netherlands, The Hague, International Criminal Court" by Vincent van Zeijst / Cropped and Rotated

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