Ms Shubhangi Agarwalla is an Indian law graduate currently working as a Legal Assistant at the International Law Commission (ILC). In this interview, she describes her journey to the ILC, the work that she does there, and provides an insight into the path to an international law career.

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


1. Glad to have you here. Tell us about Shubhangi Agarwalla – not the international lawyer, but the person behind the titles; her interests, hobbies and guilty pleasures.

I like connecting with people, and I am fortunate to be friends with the kindest, happiest and smartest people I know. I enjoy tennis and reading particularly partial to the prose of Julian Barnes. I have recently started to learn how to play the piano and I feel like a child who has unlocked a new realm of the human experience.


2. Tell us about your journey from law school to the International Law Commission. Was working in international law something you were sure of since you entered law school, or did that vision develop itself over time?

It is funny because I have friends who read the Nicaragua judgment and immediately realised that international law was their one true calling but that was definitely not the case for me. I had done moot court competitions that deal with various aspects of international law and was largely ambivalent about the discipline because it did not seem like something that mattered at the end of the day.  I applied for the annual internship with the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Law (the application details are all online on their website) because I wanted to work on comparative constitutional law. It worked out and by sheer luck I met and worked with several TWAILers (TWAIL stands for Third World Approaches to International Law) who introduced me to critical international law and that completely changed my understanding of how the domestic order interacts with international law and what are the material impacts of international law on the everyday lives of people. Shortly thereafter I started a blog (International Law and the Global South) initially for my own note-taking purposes but it has gradually grown into a space where bright young international lawyers and academics who are much smarter than me discuss issues pertaining to the Global South. Incidentally, I am a big believer in showing your work online for free, not to claim expertise, but because it exponentially increases your learning and it also creates a network of people who share your interests and recommend you for more opportunities.


Of course, my understanding of what international law is or what it should be has developed overtime working with different international institutions, particularly when I started working with Professor Dire Tladi, who is a brilliant doctrinal scholar, at the UN ILC, but the initial inquiry of “whether the work I am doing matters to the people I care about” is still very important to me.


3. Is there something you wish you could change regarding the path you took?

This is a brilliant question and I am glad you asked it.  I would change the mindset I had when I was working towards getting these opportunities, during the initial years. Not only does law school structurally privilege hyper-competitiveness amongst its students but international law is a notoriously difficult field to truly break into. This, coupled with some personal issues, made me consumed with individual excellence, which is a pretty mediocre way to live. I think this belief has only magnified during the past 1.5 years of the pandemic where it seems very silly to only be thinking about yourself. That being said, I do believe that being competent at whatever you do is really valuable. So I guess, it is a matter of investing time for yourself in a way that helps you be intentional about creating value for people around you.


4. This segues quite smoothly into my next question: what does your work at the ILC look like? And keeping in mind the importance of the Law Commission, what can you tell us about the environment in which you work in?


Your overall experience is largely shaped by who you work with and I am extremely fortunate to work with Professor Tladi who, like I mentioned earlier, is an exceptional scholar of international law and currently UN Special Rapporteur on Jus Cogens. I am working with him on two projects – a book project and the Final Report on Jus Cogens.  I was working with him remotely since UN internships are all unpaid till I received the Helton Fellowship by the American Society of International Law. Apart from being incredibly knowledgeable about the law, he is very encouraging to the people who work with him and I can only express sincere gratitude at being given this opportunity early in my professional life.


I do want to mention that the field of international law has an acute gender and class imbalance which no doubt influences your individual experience but overall I think most people are kind and willing to help if you show initiative.


5. What can you tell us about the work of the ILC and the way it affects the world on an individual and personal level?

I think this is an interesting question because the ILC does not profess or attempt to make an impact on the lives of individuals more than a codification of an international law would incidentally do. What might be relevant to your question is that it has moved beyond its initial goal of providing drafts on the traditional subjects of international law for treaty formations, on topics such as diplomatic and consular relations, to what are the “pressing concerns of the international community as a whole” that might be related to human rights law or environmental law that might also serve as a practical guide for a non-State audience.


6. You have worked in several international institutions across the world, what are the skills you have seen most commonly among your peers? Are there any other skills you are grateful to have picked up during law school?


Most international organisations typically do not offer solid legal training; lawyers are expected to hit the ground running. Thus, most of my peers are quick on their feet and biased towards action. But most importantly, given that this is career in which you have a series of very rewarding but short-lived experiences, they have the ability to stay motivated when facing the lack of international work at the beginning of their career or the required length of time it takes to develop a career. Quite a few of them have a master’s degree and as per my understanding, it is certainly advisable to get a masters if you want a career in international law. Additionally, some of my peers are proficient in languages apart from English, and while that can certainly be helpful to an international law career, but it is definitely not a requirement.


I think my experience in National Law University Delhi (NLUD) helped me immensely. Some of the faculty members such as Dr Satish, Dr Chandra and Dr Scaria really challenged me on how to think about the law. Further, I think mooting and writing papers for international conferences in particular taught me how the rest of the world views international law differently, honed my analytical and writing skills, and taught me how to network in professional settings.


7. Working and researching in international law is undoubtedly expansive. How can one equip themselves for the same?


I do not think anyone expects you to be an expert when you start out, but I would suggest investing some time and effort in really learning the basics that you can build on these basics while researching regardless of your specialisation. I think that even if you want to get into critical international law, learning the doctrine gives you an excellent foundation to build upon. Embrace your ignorance and be excited about what you do not know.


8. For my final question, even though more and more domestically-educated Indians are engaging with international organisations, the UN and its bodies still seem like a distant idea to many. If you had one minute to mentor a law student to get them to the ILC, what would you say?


To not take any advice that comes in one-minute soundbites.

But, jokes apart, I think funding is the main barrier to getting your foot in the door. I would suggest planning these career opportunities months in advance to see whether they truly advance your career goals. Then, researching on fellowships and scholarships that you can avail of. For example, the United Nations has recently established a trust fund for judicial fellowships at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Previously, the student’s home institution was required to pay for all of the expenses of the student who gets the fellowship which, quite frankly, is not something any Indian university could afford to do. So this is a very exciting opportunity for students in India. You can also try to get certain concessions from the host institution or an independent party who might be willing to fund you. It does take some creativity and a fair amount of luck but that should not stop you from applying.

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