Professor Sanoj Rajan is a pre-eminent scholar of international law and human rights, currently serving as a distinguished Professor at Zhejiang Gongshang University, China. With a robust academic journey that includes prestigious roles at Harvard University and ICRC, his intellectual contributions to International Humanitarian Law and International Criminal Law are globally recognised. Professor Rajan’s comprehensive works, such as his groundbreaking book International Humanitarian Law in India: A Handbook, reflect his deep understanding and commitment to the field. A gifted speaker, an impactful teacher, and an indefatigable advocate for human rights, he continues to inspire students, academics, and legal practitioners worldwide.
1. To begin with, please tell something about yourself, your journey in the field of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and your experiences.
I am Professor Sanoj Rajan, a practitioner, scholar, and teacher in international law and human rights. I am currently serving as the Distinguished Professor of Law at Zhejiang Gongshang University in China. I have had the honour of working for esteemed institutions such as Harvard University, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Almaty, and the International Christian University in Kinshasa, Congo, fostering my growth as an academician and practitioner. I also have had the privilege of being the Head of Academic Programmes for South Asia for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and being associated with two universities in India as Dean and Head of Law School.
The field of human rights has brought me around the globe, from being the first Indian to be invited for lecture at The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, to deliver a lecture on Instructional Course Lectures or International Criminal Court (ICL) to co-founding the Statelessness Network Asia Pacific (SNAP), a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) initiative, involving 50 countries in the region. I had the privilege to deliver invited talks on the international law and human rights topics at more than 135 institutions in multiple countries including Canada, China, the USA, Hong Kong, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Nepal, Kenya, Iran, Thailand, Malaysia, and India. Lectured institutions include the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Melbourne University, Australia, and Harvard University, USA. These experiences have offered me invaluable insights into the complex dynamics of international law and humanitarian aid.
In addition to teaching, I have an extensive portfolio of publications, including research articles, book reviews, and op-eds. My latest work, International Humanitarian Law in India: A Handbook, is a comprehensive resource designed to bridge the gap between IHL theory and practice in the Indian context. I have also made notable contributions as an Editorial Board member of the Indian Society of International Law’s Yearbook and as a peer-reviewer for ICRC Commentaries to the Geneva Convention.
A recipient of the Commonwealth Scholarship, my academic qualifications include a PhD, an LLM in International Law, an MBA in Personnel Management, and a Masters in Human Rights from Oxford University.
2. What motivated you to pursue law, and why specifically the field of international law and human rights?
My interest in law, specifically in the fields of international law and human rights, has both a personal and a literary genesis. As a young boy, I was deeply inspired by my eldest brother, who had already carved a niche for himself in Kerala’s legal landscape. His dedication to the pursuit of justice, and the transformative potential he demonstrated in his profession, left a profound impression on me. This familial legacy of lawyers provided a powerful backdrop against which, my fascination for the law was kindled.
My interest in international law and human rights was sparked at a surprisingly young age when I came across Frederick Forsyth’s intriguing novel, The Odessa File. The narrative, based on the pursuit of justice against war criminals, captivated me and led to a realisation of the transformative potential of legal frameworks. It deeply moved my 12-year-old self, fuelling a desire to bring about change through the medium of law. By the time I started my legal education, I had no doubt that I was headed to the world of IHL and ICL.
3. How has your journey been from being a lawyer at the Kerala High Court to working at the leading institutions of the world like Harvard?
My journey from practising law at the Kerala High Court to engaging with world-renowned institutions like Harvard has been both enlightening and inspiring. This diverse trajectory has afforded me profound insights into the international law and human rights space, continually encouraging me to further deepen my knowledge and expertise.
My foundational experiences as a lawyer in Kerala, where I had my initial brush with the law’s complexities, were instrumental in shaping my interest towards international law and human rights. This interest prompted my decision to further my studies, a journey that led me to the prestigious University of Oxford as a commonwealth scholar. There, I pursued my Master’s degree in Human Rights, an experience that vastly broadened my academic perspectives and offered a robust theoretical foundation.
Further in my career, I had the privilege of working with the ICRC. Serving as the Head of Academic Programmes for South Asia, I got the opportunity to contribute significantly to the discourse on international humanitarian law in the region.
My tenure as an Associate Director at the Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University and later as an affiliate at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative was a pivotal juncture in my journey. At Harvard, I was not just surrounded by some of the brightest minds in the world, but also got the chance to lead key research projects and people with tangible impacts on global humanitarian policies.
Simultaneously, I have been fortunate to impart knowledge and share my experiences as an academic and administrator in various universities worldwide, including the University of Kerala, Chinese University of Hong Kong, erstwhile Ansal University, India, NorthCap University, India, Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Almaty, and the International Christian University, Kinshasa, Congo.
Each step of my journey reinforces my passion for this field and my desire to continue making a significant contribution to the domain of international law and human rights.
4. What are the major differences which you could find between the Indian judicial system and that prevalent in other countries?
Every judicial system across the globe is a mirror reflecting the cultural, historical, and socio-political contours of its country, and through my experiences in different parts of the world, I have had the opportunity to understand this diversity up close.
The Indian judicial system, rooted in the common law tradition inherited from the British colonial era, has its unique characteristics. It functions on a hierarchical structure of courts and the principle of stare decisis. However, it sets itself apart with a staunch commitment to socio-economic justice, a commitment enshrined in the fundamental rights and directive principles of State policy in our Constitution. The Indian judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court, has frequently and uniquely adopted an activist approach, crafting landmark judgments that broadened the scope of fundamental rights.
In contrast, my experience in China demonstrated that their civil law-based system leans more on statutes rather than judicial precedents. Judges primarily interpret codified laws in a more restrained fashion compared to their Indian counterparts.
My time as a Visiting Professor at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Kazakhstan provided me with an understanding of a legal system transitioning from its Soviet past, striving to balance traditional norms and the necessities of a modern legal system.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, while working at the International Christian University, I witnessed the challenges of enforcing the rule of law in a region marred by conflict, showing me the critical role of law in peace-building and post-conflict reconciliation.
Finally, my tenure in Hong Kong was a unique exposure to a fusion legal system where common law principles coexist with Mainland China’s civil law influences.
In my work with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, my focus was on international humanitarian law and international criminal law, both of which operate beyond national jurisdictions. This domain is concentrated on establishing and upholding universal norms to maintain global peace and order.
Each legal system carries its strengths and opportunities for development, and it is this cross-cultural understanding that can foster effective exchanges of legal ideas and practices, ultimately advancing justice delivery. This diverse richness of legal experiences has profoundly influenced my academic and professional journey, inspiring my ongoing work in research and education.
5. What do you think of the education provided in law schools today? Does it cover enough about the field of IHL?
Reflecting on my experience across multiple continents, I can confidently state that legal education has been undergoing an impressive evolution globally, adapting to the ever-changing socio-political context. Law schools today aim to equip students with practical skills alongside theoretical understanding, nurturing them to become more than just lawyers, but also problem-solvers and catalysts of societal transformation.
However, there remains considerable room for improvement when it comes to imparting knowledge in specialised areas like IHL. IHL, by nature, is complex and dynamic, reflecting upon the realities of an ever-changing world order. Its study requires an understanding of not just law, but also politics, diplomacy, and military strategy, which are often not adequately emphasised in many law schools’ curricula.
In many countries, including India, IHL is typically offered as an elective course rather than a core component of the curriculum. In others like Kazakhstan or the Democratic Republic of Congo, geopolitical factors and localised legal concerns may overshadow its teaching. My experience in China and Hong Kong showed me that even though they value the significance of IHL, its instruction could be more comprehensive and in-depth.
I strongly believe that it is essential for tomorrow’s legal professionals to understand the principles and applications of IHL, given the pervasive and persistent nature of conflicts and crises globally. This realisation underpins my work at Harvard University, where we strive to bridge the gap between academia and real-world humanitarian issues, promoting an interdisciplinary approach to IHL.
Ultimately, to adequately prepare law students for the globalised world, we need to prioritise the study of IHL and similar subjects in our legal curricula, instilling in them an understanding of the legal frameworks that govern our shared global spaces.
6. What is the importance of human rights and why should the citizens be aware of the same?
In my understanding, human rights serve as the cornerstone of any democratic society, granting each individual the inalienable right to dignity, freedom, and equality. Through my work, be it as a legal practitioner in India or as an academic in institutions around the world, the significance of human rights has remained a consistent theme.
During my tenure at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as the Head of Academic Programs for South Asia, I had the privilege of working closely on human rights issues and spreading awareness about IHL throughout the South Asian region, including Iran. This experience strengthened my belief in the importance of fostering a deep understanding and respect for human rights among the general populace.
The reason why citizen awareness of human rights is crucial can be twofold. Firstly, it empowers individuals, helping them to understand their rights and responsibilities within society, which is vital for them to protect their interests and seek redressal when their rights are violated. Secondly, an informed citizenry can hold institutions and governments accountable, ensuring that power structures uphold and respect human rights.
Despite the strides we have made globally in establishing human rights frameworks, their implementation often faces challenges due to the lack of awareness, systemic gaps, or political issues. As an academician and practitioner in the field, I have made it a focal point of my work to bridge this gap between theory and practice, to ensure human rights are not just principles confined to legal texts, but are lived realities for individuals across the globe.
I believe that by educating citizens on human rights, we are not just creating informed individuals, but fostering a society that values dignity, advocates for justice, and promotes a culture of peace and mutual respect.
7. How has your experience been judging various moot court competitions, and what common mistake in research do you feel that the students make when dealing with international law?
Over the past two decades, I have had the unique opportunity to engage with the future generation of lawyers and legal minds through moot court competitions across almost all continents. As a Judge since 2002, I have seen young legal minds grapple with, explore, and innovate within the sphere of international law. During my tenure as the organiser of the South Asia Regional Rounds of the Henry Dunant Memorial Moot Court Competition and the National Rounds in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, I have witnessed firsthand the transformative power of such competitive platforms in honing research, advocacy, and interpretation skills of law students.
Yet, a common mistake I have observed among students when dealing with international law relates to the approach to research. Often, students tend to over-rely on secondary sources, such as textbooks or commentaries, without engaging directly with primary sources. Understanding the spirit and context of international law often requires a deep dive into treaty texts, resolutions, protocols, international judgments, and State practices, which form the bedrock of international law. Therefore, I believe that grounding oneself in these primary sources is crucial to mastering the field.
Further, I have noticed a tendency among students to approach international law in a vacuum, without considering its intricate connections with national laws, geopolitics, and cultural contexts. International law does not operate in isolation; it is invariably influenced by, and in turn, influences various factors at the domestic and regional levels.
In conclusion, while moot court competitions provide an excellent platform for students to immerse themselves in the study of international law, it is essential for them to foster a nuanced understanding of the field, giving due importance to primary sources and the interconnectedness of the international and national spheres.
8. What are the future prospects in the field of international law and human rights, and how can students of law make a career in the same?
International law and human rights is a field of ever-growing importance in our globalised world which offers numerous career prospects. As our world continues to become more interconnected, international legal norms and principles increasingly impact national legislation and policies. From diplomacy to international litigation, and from human rights advocacy to policymaking in intergovernmental organisations, the spectrum of opportunities in this field is broad and varied.
However, it is important to bear in mind that pursuing a career in this field requires more than just an intellectual interest. It calls for a deep-seated passion and unwavering commitment to uphold human rights and work toward the betterment of humanity. The issues you would be dealing with — ranging from conflict resolution to refugee rights, from humanitarian concerns in times of war to human rights advocacy — can be challenging, both intellectually and emotionally. But the fulfilment that comes from contributing to these vital areas is immeasurable.
For law students wishing to pursue a career in this field, I would advise nurturing a strong foundation in international law principles during their law school years, keeping abreast with global developments, and seeking out internships or voluntary positions that can provide practical exposure. Networking and building relationships with professionals in the field are also crucial.
Above all, remember that a career in international law and human rights is not just about building a personal portfolio; it is about dedicating oneself to the cause of justice and human dignity. It is a path to be taken by those who are willing to commit themselves to making a real difference in the world. So, if you find within yourself a genuine passion for human rights and humanitarian work, then a career in international law and human rights may well be your calling.
9. International law being a niche area, what are certain qualities that every law student should have to master that area?
From my experiences in practising, teaching, and shaping international law, I believe that mastering this niche area requires several key qualities.
Firstly, a keen intellectual curiosity is paramount. International law is a complex and evolving field, shaped by a myriad of factors ranging from geopolitical dynamics to emerging global trends. Law students must have a thirst for knowledge and a readiness to engage with these complexities in a nuanced manner.
Secondly, critical thinking skills are vital. As is the case with any legal discipline, the ability to analyse issues from multiple perspectives, anticipate arguments, and construct well-reasoned responses is essential. Given the often-contentious nature of international law, these skills become even more important.
Thirdly, perseverance is crucial. International law, with its intertwining of legal principles, political considerations, and cultural contexts, can be challenging to navigate. It requires a level of perseverance to engage with the material deeply and consistently.
Lastly, effective communication skills are the key. As a discipline that often involves cross-border interactions, being able to articulate one’s arguments clearly, convincingly, and respectfully is of utmost importance.
Furthermore, being culturally sensitive and having a global perspective are also vital. Understanding diverse cultural backgrounds and viewpoints allows a student to appreciate the intricacies of international law in its true sense. Students must develop empathy and deep respect for human rights, as these are the fundamental principles that underpin international law.
Above all, the journey to mastering international law, much like any other specialisation, requires dedication, passion, and a commitment to continual learning. This is not just an area of study, but a path that can shape global justice and human dignity.
10. Any message that you would like to share with law students and professionals?
To the next generation of law students and professionals, the world you will be stepping into will be unlike anything we have seen before. The coming years will witness profound changes in our professions, driven largely by technological advancements, particularly in artificial intelligence (AI).
AI and related technologies are not only reshaping the way we work, but also redefining the skills and knowledge we need to succeed. For law professionals, this means that mastery of legal concepts and principles will no longer be enough. You will need to embrace these changes, adapt to them, and learn to use them to your advantage.
For instance, while AI can automate certain routine tasks, it cannot replace the critical thinking, creativity, and empathy that are inherent to the practice of law. As such, it is imperative that you hone these skills. Emphasise the human elements of your work, like client relations, negotiation, and advocacy. Continue to foster your understanding and respect for justice, equality, and human rights.
Moreover, embrace interdisciplinary learning. Familiarise yourselves with technological advancements, their impacts, and implications. As law professionals, you must understand the legal, ethical, and societal issues that arise with these developments. This will not only equip you better to address the emerging legal questions, but also to contribute towards shaping the legal frameworks around these technologies.
Remember, while these changes might seem daunting, they also bring opportunities. They give us the chance to reimagine and redefine our profession. Therefore, keep learning, stay adaptable, and be ready to navigate the exciting challenges ahead.
Lastly, always remember why you chose this path — to uphold justice, to champion rights, and to make a difference. In the face of all changes and challenges, let this be your guiding principle.