In conversation with Aakarsh Banyal on his experience in academic externships in the area of Public International Law

Aakarsh Banyal is a final year law student and university merit scholar at SLS, Pune. He has interned with the Chief Prosecutor’s office at the International Crimes Tribunal, Bangladesh and under the UN Special Rapporteur for trafficking in persons. He is serving as an extern to Prof. Sandesh Sivkumaran (Prof. of International Law, Cambridge) and Dr Anna Petrig [Judge ad hoc, (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea) ITLOS]. In this interview with Nipun Bhatia, the Student Ambassador of SCC OnLine for SLS, Pune, he discusses about his experience in academic externships in the area of public international law (PIL).

1. Could you kindly introduce yourself to our readers and tell us what made you choose law as your professional career?

I am a fourth-year law student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune. Outside of law, I have a penchant for music, philosophy, travel, documentaries (highly recommend Icarus by Bryan Fogel), and a love for horses.

My journey with the law began in high school. I was a science student with an appetite for philosophy. I chanced upon a brilliant book on bioethics by Peter Singer and was left wanting more. His other monographs dealing with the idea of rights, equality and morality (thanks to his legal background) led me to develop an interest in law. Add to this a few Model UNs and volunteer work involving civic engagement, and I felt I could do much more as a lawyer to advance societal change. Thus, I decided to exchange my lab coat for a gown.

2. What intrigued your interest in public international law?

Like many others, I discovered international law through moot court competitions. I appreciated how the subject operated in “greys”, and there was always room to question existing doctrine.

However, I built a personal connection with international law during my internships. I could see how the subject had a very real impact on everyday life. Be it the victims fighting for justice at the International Crimes Tribunal, Bangladesh or countries from the Global South such as Sri Lanka seeking to espouse a more just understanding of international law at the United Nations.

I became sensitive to many such issues and, consequently, international law’s intention and impact in resolving conflict. I knew I had to be part of this grand design in every way possible.

Over time, my “why(s)” for pursuing international law have only increased, and — as clichéd as it may sound — I find a new reason to pursue international law everyday.

3. How are academic externships and research internships different from enforcement internships?

My personal experience would guide this answer; thus, it may differ across individuals. Having said that, I would define an academic externship as one where you work with a scholar(s). In contrast, you work with practitioners or law firms in enforcement internships.

As a natural consequence, you serve different masters and work towards different objectives. Generally, scholars need assistance with research they hope to eventually publish. On the other hand, law firms and practitioners require assistance typically with ongoing disputes or compliance since they represent clients.

Academic externships require you to take a more interdisciplinary approach to legal issues. This is because the scope of analysis is broader for an academician than a practitioner. In my experience, I found the work to be more varied in an academic externship ranging from legal research and brainstorming discussions to editorial support and website development.

Ultimately, it depends on what you wish to learn from a professional engagement since each internship has something different to offer.

4. How was your experience with international institutions which offer internships in the field of PIL?

While interning with the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the UN, I interacted with a different side of international law: lawmaking and diplomacy. I could see the sheer amount of thought and research that went into drafting and negotiating a single model law provision. Despite the fact that numerous foreign policy considerations reigned over these discussions, it was inspiring to see the effort States made to reach a consensus. My work mainly pertained to the legal analysis of model laws in consideration at Working Groups under the auspices of UNCITRAL (United Nations Commission on International Trade Law), such as ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) reform, electronic commerce and cross-border insolvency.

My internship with the Chief Prosecutor’s office at International Crimes Tribunal, Bangladesh was replete with drafting assignments. Among other things, it gave me an opportunity to bridge my ignorance about the Bangladeshi peoples’ encounter with extreme conflict during the Liberation Struggle. The ICT-BD statute and decisions are also telling insofar as they reveal a harsh reality of international law. Despite the [International Crimes (Tribunals) Act] ICT Act’s enactment in 1973 [well before the ad hoc tribunals and the ICC (International Criminal Court)] and trials taking place for the past decade, scholarship regarding ICT-BD is virtually non-existent in comparison to its western counterparts.

On a more personal level, you get a chance to interact with individuals from different backgrounds, allowing you to develop cultural sensibilities. These experiences facilitate holistic development by instilling fundamental values of inclusivity and acceptance.

5. In particular, how was your experience at Basel and how did it help you with respect to PIL?

The Basel Winter Arbitration School was a gratifying experience. I had the opportunity to meet and discuss ideas with stalwarts of international law whom I have admired since my formative years at law school. Further, as the youngest student at the arbitration school, I learned a lot from fellow students with diverse career aspirations (solicitors, doctoral candidates, researchers, professors, mediators, etc.) but a shared interest in international dispute resolution.

What struck me as unique about this programme was its learning journal. After every lecture, we had to write down our thoughts on topical issues (framed as guiding questions) related to that lecture’s theme. I found this exercise incredibly useful, and this is something I do now after all my classes.

Once again, I thank the organisers for their generous support scholarship that made this experience possible.

6. What career prospects and challenges could one expect in the field of PIL?

International law can allow you to don the hat of everything from a practitioner to an academic. You can use your education in international law (derived through a degree, work experience or otherwise) as a stepping stone towards many exciting careers in advocacy, diplomacy, academia, governance, journalism and policy. It all depends on one’s specific interest in international law.

As an undergraduate student, opportunities in this field remain hypercompetitive and scarce. Specific issues that vex Indian students are lack of funding prospects and visa-related limitations. Nevertheless, I am in touch with many seniors who have fared well despite all odds.

7. How important is doing proper legal research, and how should law students equip themselves with legal research skills. And could you please throw some light on “exhaustion of research” and its importance in PIL?

Broadly speaking, a strong foundation in legal research is essential to perform well as a lawyer, regardless of your area of interest.

Academic intervention is intrinsic to international law’s development. Hence, I cannot stress enough when I say that constantly developing your skills in legal research will always hold you in good stead.

I believe it is imperative to take your first year “research methods and methodology” lectures seriously. Although it may seem like drudgery, this course is vital to ensure a solid foundation in legal research. In addition, it is helpful to take time while devising your research question since that determines your research approach.

Similarly, suppose you are assisting someone with research. In that case, it is necessary to understand what the researcher or research question is asking of you. Otherwise, you can end up conducting research with no practical consequence. This also ties into what I have to say about the “exhaustion of research”. In my opinion, this phrase refers to reaching a point where you can reasonably assert that no more research is required for you to address a given question sufficiently.

In international law, the scope of inquiry is usually broad. So, it is pretty cumbersome and difficult to assert that you have exhausted all research. There are various lenses (even outside the legal realm) through which you can analyse a given proposition of international law. Therefore, as someone who wishes to pursue research in this field, I think having a broad reading base is critical. A decent understanding of subjects such as history, sociology, political science and international relations can always provide a fresh perspective on any issue.

8. Finally, could you tell our readers what your law school mantra is?

I am not one for mantras, for there would be a certain tautological emptiness in any one-liner I concoct. Rather, I can say that carving your individuality and path in law school (and beyond) goes farther than jumping on the bandwagon. Grades may seem paramount but are only important. Taking up every collegiate activity may seem necessary, but most of them may be redundant. Instead, the disciplined pursuit of “less” alongside having a “why” for any enterprise will help you overcome any challenge (law school) life throws at you.

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