Roger O'Keefe, International Law Seen from Down Under

Roger O'Keefe, International Law Seen from Down Under


The Roman philosopher Seneca once wrote that each individual belongs to two republics. The first one includes gods and human beings, the second is that in which the circumstances of our birth have enrolled us. Professor Roger O’Keefe knows this paragraph of De otio very well. A public international lawyer who has published on topics of international criminal law and international cultural heritage law, he likes to explore the points of contact and tension between the global and the local, the universal and the specific. He is incoming Full Professor of International Law at the Department of Law of Bocconi, coming from University College London. He was born and raised in Australia. «My family started out on the wrong side of the law», he says. «My father’s ancestors in fact were sent as prisoners from Ireland to Australia. But my father served as a judge. Nothing is predestined».
In Australia, extra training is required alongside a Law degree. Roger O’Keefe, who was born in Sydney in 1968, did not choose Economics as many colleagues did. He opted for History and Italian. «I used to travel a lot with my family. We did these long trips to Europe during the Australian summer. I adored Italy and I wanted to speak your beautiful language. It was a completely uninstrumental choice which proved unexpectedly useful». The young O’Keefe was interested in what he calls the legal way of thinking, which he sees as a form of play within a framework of freedoms and limitations. «Then, in my fourth year, I discovered international law. In Australia we put emphasis on it because we feel we are – to use the colorful words of one of our prime ministers – at the ‘arse end of the world’. There is a sense that everyone else knows much more than us and we have to keep pace with them».
At first, Professor O’Keefe did not plan to pursue an academic career. He was working at a law firm when a secretary asked him to assign her something to do. He gave her an essay he wrote to type. It was eventually published by a leading UK law journal. «Maybe I am good at this, I thought». He moved to England to do a Masters and a PhD in International Law at the University of Cambridge. He taught there for «fifteen exciting years».
In 2014 he moved to University College London. In his inaugural lecture, available on YouTube, he told the tale of Dionisio Hans Georg Hans-Georg Salamander, an entertaining story of an academic international lawyer. It mixed law, history, philosophy and fantasy with a witty sense of humor. «I love performing», he admits. «My uncle Johnny O’Keefe was the Elvis of Australia, an old school rock star who appeared with Little Richard. One brother is a TV personality». At one point, Salamander says that international law is a conversation. «It is a discursive process that involves States, courts and academics. That is what makes it so fascinating».
Professor O’Keefe has a variety of research interests inspired by a concern for the point where the local meets the global, where the national meets the international. The subject involves complicated political questions. He is interested, for instance, in the right of the International Criminal Court to force States to act unlawfully in relation to other States. Another strand of research is the international law of cultural heritage. What rights does a state have over artifacts that are valued by the global community? And what interest does the global community have in their protection? «Most recently, I was in charge of an international team that put together for UNESCO a military manual for soldiers deployed in culturally rich areas, like Mali».
In Milan, Professor O’Keefe will teach Law of International Organizations and intends to turn his research to the place of cities in international law. «Local municipalities now have their own ‘diplomatic’ departments that engage with questions like climate change and human rights, yet international law is still framed around States», he says. He was attracted by what he calls the entrepreneurial spirit of Bocconi. «Having passed 15 years in an institution 900 years old that moves slowly, I found the internationalization process that is going on in Bocconi very exciting. I look forward to contributing, alongside my colleagues, to putting the Department of Law on the world map».
Roger O’Keefe is on the editorial board of several scientific journals, has given evidence before British and European institutions, and has contributed to the United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law. «This is all part of the ongoing conversation that is international law», he says. Passionate about swimming, he has already discovered the Bagni Misteriosi in Milan. «Going to swimming pools is a great way to know a city», he says.
Find out more
The Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2006)
International Criminal Law (Oxford University Press, 2015)
Universal Jurisdiction: Clarifying the Basic Concept, in Journal of International Criminal Justice, Vol. 2, Issue 3, pp. 735-760, 2004.
The Doctrine of Incorporation Revisited, in British Year Book of International Law, Volume 79, Issue 1, pp 7–85, 2009.
Curriculum vitae: A Prequel, Current Legal Problems, Volume 69, Issue 1, pp. 1–27, 2017.

by Claudio Todesco


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