In conversation with Mohit Khubchandani on working at the ICJ and being an International Law Practitioner

Mr. Mohit Khubchandani is a Law graduate who currently works at the International Court of Justice. In this interview, he gives his insights regarding the work he does at the ICJ, his journey to the hallowed court and the qualities it takes to thrive at the highest court in the world.

He has been interviewed by EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador Sarthak Yadav who is currently pursuing law from USLLS GGSIPU. 

1. Can you please introduce yourself to our readers? We would love to know about your hobbies, interests and favourite foods.

I am an international dispute resolution attorney, I graduated in 2015 and since then I have been working primarily in international law. My hobbies are dancing, as well as reading about international affairs and international law. My other interests involve reading about astronomy. I do not have any favourite foods because, and this is a pattern you will probably see in my other questions, I do not really keep favourites; so I like jumping from one cuisine to another (or perhaps one country to another), to keep trying new things.

2. From studying in Amity Law School in 2015, to doing your masters at Stanford, to finally being a Judicial Fellow at the International Court of Justice, tell us about the journey you’ve had and the obstacles you have faced?

So, in my mind I do not think there ss any distinction between motivated law students in any law school. Yet, sometimes in India there is an unfortunate notion of students being at a disadvantage if they are not from top law schools. There is a welcome change as this notion is diminishing by the day, but in 2010 when I was in law school, it was very prevalent. So the obstacles are in terms of access to research materials, not having coaches for moot court competitions, not having a strong pitch to give if you are reaching out to people, things like that. Yet, the obstacles are there but I derived a latent benefit out of these obstacles, because I believe in the theory of changing poison into medicine; I feel that my obstacles and my adversities are my opportunities and these things helped me become stronger at my core. I knew at the outset that I would have to go the extra mile in each task I did and sometimes go beyond my potential, in order to get the things that I want. There were no expectations and when there are no expectations, as an underdog, you feel very relieved because no one expects you to achieve anything and whatever help you get, you see it with gracious eyes. There have been lots of failures, but there have also been lots of achievements because of those failures later on. So yeah, the lack of pressure and becoming self-dependant for each task, these are the biggest benefits I have got from law school.

Now, to able to get to the International Court of Justice, you need to have a nominating university. You cannot apply in an individual capacity. So when I worked at the ICJ, in essence, Stanford is working at the ICJ. For me, I had this ultimate goal which was also the reason for me to join law school, which was to join the ICJ somehow. I followed a reverse chronology in my approach and I looked at my ultimate goal in life, which was to get to the ICJ. So working on this reverse chronology, you firstly need an LLM and your university needs to be sponsoring you. Obviously, there are a lot of contingencies and ifs and buts here, but I took my chances. The reason for going to Stanford was to get to the ICJ and the step that took me to Stanford was working at the Office of the Attorney General of India. After law school, I had the option of joining either a Delhi HC Judge or the Attorney General’s Office and I made the decision to go with the latter because I knew it would get me exposure to international cases.

Before that, during law school, a lot of things I did pertained not just to international law but specifically to the ICJ. I did moot courts such as Phillip C. Jessup, Stetson, Manfred Lachs and Vis Vienna and all of these competitions (especially the first three) have an ICJ setting. My publications were also related to many topics of public law and I setup Amity Law School’s first International Law Society. So, I was doing all of that in order to build a CV that can allow me to have the best legal jobs in India, which could then allow me some international exposure, as well as training in domestic law, which is also extremely important for the ICJ. And once I knew I had the exposure and practical training, I went to Stanford.

After Stanford, I navigated through a few more UN positions to get to where I am now. For me, it was a reverse engineered approach but the beauty of the Judicial Fellowship Program is that we have all had very different experiences and very different mindsets. I can say certainly that I might be the outlier in this situation, where I wanted to get to the ICJ, whereas my friends happened to be here. It just goes to show that there is no right or wrong approach; it is just about how you build your personal narrative.

3. You have told us that getting to the ICJ is something you knew you wanted to do right in law school and you have told us that you were interested in international law, but what was it that made you go “this seems like the right fit for me”?

In my case, the first thought that comes to my mind when I think about law, is “international peace and justice”. I was drawn to these words much before I knew what the ICJ was, I have always had these strong notions which led me to the ICJ. I think it is the right fit for me on a moral standpoint. But on a personal standpoint, as has been mentioned earlier, you can describe me as a “wanderlust” type of a person, and I am just not satisfied reading about only one jurisdiction and how things work there. I want to read about cases and legislations of other countries and getting into international law allows me to delve into all these other jurisdictions. So that is why even if you were to ask me about any domestic subjects that I like, then it would be constitutional law and environmental law because constitutional law judgments have a lot of comparative constitutional enquiries and environmental law in India is also very internationalised since it is based on international principles. So this is why the ICJ was a right fit for me, as I like to understand what the world is doing about each and every point, before I make a decision.

4. Tell us about the nature of work that you do at the ICJ as a Judicial Fellow?

Being a Judicial Fellow at the ICJ can be best understood as being a law clerk before a Judge in any court of law. It means doing research for the Judge that you are working with, or for cases coming inside the court and sometimes for engagements even outside the court. In essence, you are basically assisting a Judge in their judicial duties, as well as for their commitment outside the courts. The work that we engage in is inherently confidential and I cannot emphasise enough that here, we talk about disputes between two different countries, and these are the highest stakes ever for any dispute on the planet. It is extremely important for the court to have people who are absolutely deferential to the high stakes and to the respect of the countries involved. It is one of the most confidential positions I have worked in, and rightly so, since it has a direct impact on an entire nation.

5. In your opinion, what are some qualities that the ICJ inculcates? What kind of people do you think would prosper at the UN?

The qualities we can learn from working at the ICJ are firstly, a skillset which can help you navigate through any domestic legislation or decision, through an international lens. There is something known as the general principles of international law, which are enshrined under Article 38(1)(c) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice. These are accepted principles of municipal regimes, for instance res judicata: We have heard this phrase a lot in domestic law and it makes one ponder that “if this exists in our regime, it may also exist in others”. So when we look at this in reading domestic law judgements of all courts across the world, we realise that it is not just domestic law we are reading, it is also international law. So the ICJ gives you this lens of examining domestic laws and understanding the international principles behind them, to understand the specific law.

To answer your next question, the first thing I would like to say that is for a person who wants to work at any international setting, ICJ or not, it is likely that they will prosper only with not just a superficial, but an inherent respect for each and every country. I think that is definitely one thing I can accurately say for myself, that this inherent feeling of equality among States, respect for all cultures, races, sexes, religions, etc., allows me to have a broader perspective of the world.

For international law, there is much more than an inherent interest which is needed. You also need an adequate amount of passion to examine each and every detail of international law. As I have mentioned, I wanted got into law school with the dream of getting to the ICJ, which is why one of the first things I did was to go to our library and pick up Brownlie’s Principles of Public International Law, which I still study to this day! So it is not just an inherent interest, but I would also say that a certain level of knowledge and know-how I have acquired over the years (for instance, knowing how to draft pleadings for International Law due to moot exposure) is very helpful for my daily tasks at the International Court of Justice. So it works both ways: you are coming here to learn, but you should also learn enough to come here.

6. Based on your own journey and the experiences of your colleagues, what can you tell us about the financial commitment it takes to reach the UN?

A6) This does not have one answer, because it is about being at the right place at the right time. Some people have a lesser financial commitment, some may have more commitment, it really relates to when, where and how you are getting an opening. What I can tell you is that in my case, after graduating in 2015 and working as an associate under India’s highest legal officer for two and a half years, and after even doing my master’s at Stanford, I found myself in a situation where I was initially unable to find paid positions. But again, I made a conscious decision, I had some conversations with my family and they were willing to bet on their financial resources for the greater benefit, and I am very thankful for that. I would, in-fact, call this an investment rather than a commitment, as this investment is bound to come back manifold. To some extent, it is true that the people who have the luxury to be able to make this financial commitment are more likely to get into UN circles, however, I am seeing a positive sea of change where more and more international organisations have started paying interns and other early practitioners. In India we are still far behind, but this is a pitch that is being made on an international platform and I hope that it gets resolved, so that everyone who is deserving can get where they should be, regardless of financial capacity.

7. What does a legal research look like for someone who has to deal with a number of different jurisdictions on any given day? How do you equip yourself for the same?

So as I have mentioned, going through different jurisdictions is not much of a problem, because in my mind, I approach a jurisdiction is by first identifying if it is a civil law or a common law jurisdiction. I have had exposure to both systems and you would be surprised to know that there are so many similarities in the ways legislations and decisions look like. When I am examining them, I have got the lens of international law which already filters a lot of aspects I am not required to see. The aspects that I am required to see are any relevant State practices or opinio juris to say that X number of countries believe in the existence of Y international principle. So how I equip myself is by having the international lens in mind and extrapolating principles from domestic regimes and then inferring what all of them are eliciting as international principles. Variety in individual regimes and their systems of law does not play a big part as my job is not to look at domestic laws procedurally, but to understand the international principles behind those laws.

Whenever I am doing any research, and this may serve the students reading this interview, I go by Article 38 of the statute of the International Court of Justice. This has come up many times today, but it really is the core of not just the ICJ, but international law itself. I look at relevant treaties and customs first, in order to prove or disprove any legal point, then I look at the customs and general principles. After that, I look at the cases and opinions of the most highly qualified publicists of various nations. It is a generally accepted principle that as per Article 38(1), parts A, B and C are considered as primary sources, while cases and opinions falling under part D are regarded as secondary sources.

8. I understand that your morals play a huge part in your career and decision making, so in that regard, what is the meaning of “justice” that is part of the ICJ? What kind of justice does the Court seek to do?

There is a very interesting Article in statute of the ICJ, even though it has not ever been used. It is Article 38(2) and according to that, the Court always looks at fair and equitable solutions to any case. Even though it has never really been invoked, the duty of the Court is to see that parties are compliant with international law, and international law is nothing but a compromise of the most equitably distributed State concerns. So, the fact that we are looking at international conventions is itself a very high moral ground. In a court of law, there is very little scope of including moralistic concerns, but the very high equitable grounds on which conventions are enacted necessitates that the Court is not affected by the stature of the countries that stand before it, developed or not. So according to me, being unperturbed by any political considerations or the stature of parties and interpreting international law principles as per the objective purpose of the treaty concerned, is “justice”.

9. Lastly, is there any advice you would give to our readers in law school, who might want to get into the UN?

I am often asked about my UN experience and how to get to the UN, but I think it is a very, very difficult question to answer. I think on one hand I am very grateful to be at a UN institution, but on the other hand I just want to say that one should just strive for excellence in international law or whatever subject they are interested in. And this is a cliché, but I say this to everyone I meet regarding international law. In my case, my career has taken me to several places and even right now I might be at the ICJ, but it is a time-limited position and I might have to go to other places after the ICJ. So in my mind, I never had this necessity that I have to be associated with the UN in some form or the other. It was my dream to come to the ICJ, but it was not a dream to be only at the ICJ and the passion just keeps building with each setting. I think I got lucky in that regard, because for some people there is also a phenomenon of “being in the ocean” when they are at the UN and then they start feeling insignificant about their efforts. So I would like to say to everyone to be open to all opportunities, whether it be taking up lectureship at a university, or working with your foreign ministries, with UN institutions, international law firms, whatever they may be. In my opinion, someone who has navigated all these roles could be considered to be a true international law practitioner.

Another thing I can say in this regard is that it is very, very imperative to be extremely grounded, so much so that, when moving out of India in an international context, you should be buried into the ground while being confident at the same time. It is necessary because you will see, so much scholarship around you, so many highly qualified people and this is not to say that you are not competent or qualified, but it is just to be very-very deferential. Being grounded opens you up to opportunities that you initially might feel do not suit your level of experience or persona, but later you may realise that this is something you would have benefitted off of if you had done it earlier. I have very humbly accepted positions that have come my way, even positions where I was working for free but putting in the same effort as I would in a paid position. Because ultimately, it begins with the first notion that I mentioned, which is just to strive for excellence in international law. One should be driven by the will to learn rather than the prestige of a position and this mindset will always come back to benefit you in your life. One should also remember to pass on this benefit to interested practitioners, because that is the cycle of a moral professional career.

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