Anusha Madhusudhan

Ms. Anusha Madhusudhan has been awarded the prestigious International Court of Justice Judicial Fellowship for the year 2023-2024. She is the first fellow ever to be representing an Indian University and being sponsored by the UN. With an undergraduate degree from NLU Kochi (2016) and LLM from NYU (2017), her illustrious career in international law has captured the admiration of many over the past eight years. She has a keen interest in the Intersection of Diplomacy, International Law, Art and Cultural Heritage.

Anusha sat down with us to share her insights into the path which led her into pursuing this prestigious fellowship.

1. Anusha, hearty congratulations on achieving this historic milestone. To begin with, please tell us a bit about your background, professional journey, and the formative years of your career.

Thank you for having me on this interview.

In my final year of undergrad (2016), I accepted an offer at NYU to pursue LLM in the well-regarded International Legal Studies track. Following the LLM, I joined the Indian mission to the UN as an advisor to perform both diplomatic and legal functions. It was very much interesting to see the Intersection of Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and international law. I represented the Government in complex multilateral diplomatic negotiations and actively engaged with other delegations in refining the text of various instruments. I was also involved in preparing advisory memos for Capital. It is amazing how much you can learn by being in the company of talented colleagues and of course, illustrious diplomats, especially in relation to resolving delicate issues in elegant ways.

My next big move was to Arusha, Tanzania where I worked as a Judicial Clerk to the President of the UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. This is the successor body to the ICTR.

Here, I assisted in drafting judicial decisions in Prosecutor v. Augustin NGIRABATWARE, 2011 SCC OnLine ICTR 84, which was the first ever hearing to be held at the Arusha Branch of the Court. That was my first time working in international litigation. My vision to work in the field concretized during the years I did Jessup at National University of Advanced Legal Studies, and even though this was in a criminal law context, it was the first time that I was able to witness a trial unfold at an international level and be a part of that, hence, it will remain a special experience. I was also involved in drafting diplomatic correspondence involving post-acquittal relocation of defendants, among many other aspects.

I then joined the legal team of another Government, this time it was a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) State, and I moved to New York once again, and was based at their UN Mission. This experience was also unique, in the sense that it is quite rare to be able to have the opportunity to work as a lawyer for a Foreign Government. In 2021, I moved back home to Bangalore City and worked for a boutique international law practice, Aarna Law, where I assisted on the international disputes and art law teams.

Last year, I moved to the EU, where I began to explore opportunities in an entirely new part of the world. And now I am at the ICJ.

2. What was your motivation to pecialize in the field of international law?

I should probably start by thanking my parents because I had an excellent education growing up. Being in the circles that we were in, exposed us to a lot of new ideas and encouraged dreaming big.

I would say that it was probably a result of many years of efforts, weighing decisions and learning where your skills and passions lie, all culminating to reveal a career that spoke to me. As I progress in my career, my convictions strengthened, and I have felt more and more like this was the right decision.

When I was in high school, I was part of Model UN and I had come across people who were in law school and doing Jessup. So, moot courts seemed like an experience that would help define what I would like and what I would not. When I was at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS), I did internships like all my friends. I interned at non-profits, the big law firms, with practicing advocates, etc., even though I had an inclination to do international law early on.

I was determined to do Jessup and I remember going through the process of thinking about classmates who were interested, had strong research and writing skills, and who could become good speakers. If I had to pinpoint the first time when I felt really motivated about pursuing international law, it would be the year that we did Jessup. It was about 6 months of very intensive preparation and being the first team from our college to make it to the international rounds was a big motivating factor. It was important because we (the team) ended up realising that the process is something that we enjoyed. That is the key. The affirmation of competence, combined with the fact that it was enjoyable — this was quite motivating.

3. Can you tell us a bit about the application process? Among the eligibility criteria for the Judicial Fellowship, a candidate must “demonstrate (…) an interest in public international law through their studies, publications and/or work experience”. How do you think one fits into these criteria? Also, could you also tell us a bit about the major hurdles you encountered in the process?

The application has to be presented by a sponsoring university. The application process for the fellowship is outlined on the website. I would recommend going step-by-step. You have to choose the right kind of material to showcase to the Selection Committee, distilling your work experience, your academic experience and positions you have held, and everything must be reflected in the manner specified. Being precise and compelling is the key. It is also wellorganised so you have to respect the process and related timelines.

First, spend some time picking the right people to recommend you. Depending on whether you have work experience or if you are applying right from college, you need to find people who can really attest to your capabilities in the field of public international law. I would not say it is about having a very high-profile recommender, it is more about somebody who knows you and who you have worked with and who can genuinely write you a glowing recommendation. Since this aspect is not entirely in your control, it would be best to start by identifying recommenders and speaking to them in advance.

Next, it is important to reflect on the personal statement. You need to treat the application like a living document in the sense that you review it and revise it. You might feel like changing your mind the next day, you might feel like going back to a previous version of the answer. So, give yourself the time to really know what it is that you want to convey until you are persuaded that this is the final version. It might help to not just do it in a rush.

It is important to demonstrate your capabilities through your writing samples as well. The work entails a lot of academic research and the writing is of a very high standard. So, the sample should reflect in-depth research and analytical skills. If someone aspires to apply for the fellowship in two years, that is a good amount of time to spend building on your research and your publications.

The trust fund was set up to enhance the linguistic and geographical representation of Judicial Fellows at the court. This opened space for colleges from developing countries who could not sponsor their fellows on their own; they can now apply separately and the selected fellows would be sponsored by the UN. In case of Indian students who come to serve as Judicial Fellows, they have generally (with an exception) been sponsored by the colleges they attended at the master’s level, the UK, US or elsewhere. Now, that does not have to be the case.

In terms of guiding prospective applicants through the application, I am happy to speak to anyone who needs specific guidance.

4. They say that hindsight is a beautiful thing. Now that you are the first Indian to have been successfully supported by the UN Trust Fund, is there anything you would have liked to do differently?

When I received the confirmation, I was obviously thrilled, but it was also a very busy time for me, personally. I had moved countries twice; I got married in May and I was planning a lot of social events in relation to that. I was also working with a law firm full time. So, I was quite overwhelmed.

I have written quite a few personal statements in the last few years, and so, I have a strong sense of how to present my work and aspirations. But maybe I would have liked to spend a bit more time on certain aspects of the application because you feel like there is always room for improvement, you know? This goes back to the point that it helps to give yourself enough time to keep going back and forth until you are convinced of the version of the documents you want to submit.

5. Considering how your career has been incredibly unique and exciting, I must ask you an SCC classic: If you were to make an alternate career choice as a young adult, what would it be? Do you think you get to embody the qualities in the alternate career in your current field?

I love this question (I am thinking of the Instagram reel that is trending).

My closest friends and I go back 25 years, and we were theatre kids in high school. We often joke that we should have been in television as actors and writers. We are all in different fields now. Some are in Medicine; some are in Pure Science, but we really enjoy creative writing. We would love to write scripts for shows, we would love to produce them, and we would have loved to act in them. I think choosing a career which has a highly creative angle to it, involving expression through writing and speaking, has always been alluring. I also love style and design, and I am currently redesigning my parents’ flat in Bangalore.

But I would say that my work in art and cultural heritage has been really fulfilling. When I was working on art disputes, I was able to meet with professionals who are not lawyers but forensic experts who can tell whether strokes of paint in a certain painting can be identified as the strokes that a certain artist would use or had used.

When I work on matters concerning repatriation of looted antiquities, I speak with museum directors and curators, people who work with auction houses, and art collectors as well.

So, I do have a level of engagement with people from other fields that I personally enjoy, and it helps me keep in touch with another part of myself.

I think that law appeals to me because of the subjectivity involved in persuasion, even though it is a precise field. The stylistic aspect of it or the way in which you write or communicate is unique to everyone, and I think you know people do emulate their mentor’s or teacher’s styles, but I would say that to a great extent there is an opportunity to express your creativity when analysing what the law is or should be.

6. What are some notable changes you have noticed in your field and where do you think your next step would be towards?

I am in my eighth year of practice and very excited for continuing my advocacy work in international disputes and restitution/repatriation of cultural heritage. This has been the field in which I have been able to merge my passion for Art Law, Cultural Heritage, and Public International Law.

Luckily, I am also looking to onboard my own clients in the context of preparing dossiers for getting cultural heritage inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List as well as promoting Indian cultural heritage in various fora.

If you are interested in doing a variety of work and being able to take that work on your terms, a certain amount of uncertainty in international law can be expected.

For now, I want to make most of my time here at the Hague and then continue the kind of work I have been able to do in the past while creating more opportunities for those interested in this field as well.

During the pandemic, I started working on launching my own mentorship programme. A lot of people reached out to me on social media, some just wanted to have informational chats, while others had specific questions on my career. I have talked to students from National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Jindal, NYU, NLS, various colleges around the world and hope to be able to formalise this mentorship programme.

7. You were a visiting professor at NLS, Bangalore, and have actively worked with aspiring law students, at such a young age and key career moments, what is the significance of such collaborations for you?

My first mentee has been working with me for about four years now. She was in her second year when I met her and it is just an unexplainably special feeling to see her progressing in her own career now, about to graduate and having done such amazing things along the way. I have recommended her for summer programmes and internships, and she has also started to help with my personal research and work.

I have seen a growing interest in international law among students, having been speaking to people for 6-7 years now. I hope to enhance access to information and opportunities.

When I started law school, there were not a lot of people in international law that I felt I could approach with the sensibilities I had.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without my parents’ support. My dad was the first person who saw something in me, and encouraged me to consider law, but public international law is quite a niche area. Because of my own experiences, I have found it easier to recognise and gauge what kind of guidance others might need. The ability to have access to a certain kind of network can be crucial in college, especially when deciding on whether you want to go down a particular path. If someone is convinced that this is the right path for them, and I play a small part in that process, it is so beautiful.

I am putting together a team and some processes for reviewing applications, CVs, what kind of work mentees should focus on, organising regular check-ins with them, making sure that they have all that they need, etc. It is much less stressful to figure out how to get somewhere when you have the right kind of help.

8. Finally, do you have any parting notes for the law students aspiring to apply for this fellowship?

My advice would be to prepare well, be systematic and enjoy the process. It is an opportunity to present yourself to the court, so it can be quite exciting. Surrounding yourself with the right people is also very important, since it helps you maintain a healthy perspective.

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