Posted on 16 October 2015
Asian Homecoming: Professor Kirsten Sellars Finds an Ideal Setting for Her International Law Scholarship at CUHK Law Faculty

“Hong Kong is a remarkable place,” says Kirsten Sellars, “and I’m delighted to be here.” Having spent part of her childhood in Bangkok, and most of her adult years in Europe, she is relishing her return to Asia. This began three years ago when she was appointed postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore’s law faculty, and continued when she joined our own law faculty as Assistant Professor last year.

Since taking up her post at CUHK Law, Professor Sellars has been impressed by the calibre of its research and teaching. “Public international law is a highly competitive field in a highly competitive profession,” she says, “and I am privileged to be able to work with people at the top of their game.” She also commends the quality of the students, describing them as “clever, able, and a pleasure to work with”.

In previous years, she worked in London as a writer and journalist for various newspapers and magazines, from The Times, Guardian, New Statesman and Spectator to Vogue, Arena and Esquire. “Journalism is interesting and unpredictable,” she says, “and it puts you in contact with so many different sorts of people, from politicians, diplomats and barristers to novelists, designers and artists. Sometimes you can just let the story tell itself, but at other times you have to reconstruct events in order to get to the truth.”

Professor Sellars has always had a global perspective — as well as living in Europe and Asia, she has also lived in Ottawa and Canberra — and it was this that set her on the road to international law. After completing her PhD at Aberdeen University, she now specialises in the law governing the uses of force, international criminal law, and the law of the sea. How did she find the transition from journalism to law? “They each have their own language and customs, but they share one important feature,” she says. “You must build a convincing case and present it with clarity and precision.” 

Academic life has offered her the opportunity to immerse herself in her chosen fields. “I am interested in how new ideas work their way into international law, usually driven along by political exigency and borrowed from domestic jurisdictions.” Take, for example, the current proposals to try national leaders for the crime of aggression at the International Criminal Court. “Putting politicians and generals in the dock for embarking on unlawful wars is fraught with problems, however much one might condemn their actions,” she argues. “The fact that the equivalent ‘crimes against peace’ charge had an operative life of only three years at the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals is testimony to the pitfalls.”

Her well-reviewed book on this theme, “Crimes against Peace” and International Law (just released in paperback by Cambridge University Press), offers a new perspective on the problem of aggression, as well as on the evolution of international criminal law itself. As one reviewer concluded, “There are many good books on the road to international criminal law, but if you were to read just one, I would recommend this.”

More recently, Professor Sellars has been putting the final touches to her latest book, the edited volume, Trials for International Crimes in Asia (Cambridge University Press), which arose out of a conference she convened at the National University of Singapore, and includes top scholars in the field, such as Professors Robert Cryer, Jia Bing Bing and our own Nina Jørgensen. She points out that the law literature on international trials usually focuses on European examples, from Nuremberg to The Hague. “This book breaks the mould by casting new light on trials in Asia,” she explains. “The contributors show how so many doctrines, such as command responsibility and joint criminal enterprise, were shaped by trials in Asia, and continue to evolve at hearings in Dhaka and Phnom Penh.”

She is presently working on the law of the sea, paying special attention to some of the geo-strategic considerations that have shaped Asian approaches to this body of law. “Momentous changes are afoot in this part of the world,” she says, “and these will have a profound effect on international law. We have already seen the seismic legal shifts that accompanied the transition from the European century to the American century, and similar shifts will accompany the move to the Asian century. It’s another reason why Hong Kong is such an interesting place to be.”

For Kirsten Sellars’ publications and academic details: www.law.cuhk.edu.hk/en/people/info.php?id=37

For her latest writings and activities: kirstensellars.com