(International) Laws Are Like Sausages


It’s been a while… for anyone still following, I moved back to the States from Beijing last summer, and I’ve recently finished my first year of law school at NYU. Because I apparently can’t get enough of living anywhere but home, I’m now abroad again for a few months in The Hague, Netherlands, working in international law until I head back to New York City to begin my second year.

What is the Hague Conference?

I thought I’d resurrect the blog to give a little explanation of my work here for friends and family who do not have a legal background and may be confused by my social media posts. I’m a legal intern at the Hague Conference on Private International Law, which is an international organization (kind of like the United Nations) that functions as a legislative body, drafting instruments of international law that are more commonly known as treaties. Treaties are essentially like contracts in which countries promise to do something, but they’re only binding on countries (in international law jargon, States) that choose to sign and ratify them. Once the ratification process is complete, the treaty becomes part of a State’s domestic law and is equally as binding as any law passed by Congress.

The Hague Conference is 125 years old, and currently has 83 Member States who get together periodically to craft new treaties about private international law, which generally concerns the harmonization of legal systems around the world to make life a little easier for people whose business and personal interactions frequently cross international borders. Years, even decades, of work go into each treaty, but my search for a summer internship just so happened to perfectly coincide with an event called a Diplomatic Session, a two-week series of meetings held whenever a particular treaty is finally ready for one last round of negotiations and then formal adoption. This is the first Diplomatic Session in twelve years, so the energy here at the Hague Conference is high and everyone is buzzing with excitement.

What is the Judgments Convention?

The treaty being negotiated at the 2019 Diplomatic Session is the Convention on Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Judgments in Civil and Commercial Matters. This is a mouthful, but the way the treaty functions is actually quite simple. The problem it seeks to solve is that, for example, if a United States court makes a judgment against a French defendant (e.g. decides this defendant owes money for an injury they inflicted on another person, or for breaching the terms of a contract they had with another company), but this defendant’s assets are all in France, then it is difficult for the U.S. to enforce its judgment and make sure this defendant pays what they owe. A successful Judgments Convention would ensure that French courts would have to recognize the legitimacy of this U.S. judgment if a certain set of conditions are met, then use their authority to enforce the judgment within France’s own national borders and obtain the money that is owed. Until now, most States have relied on their own national laws to determine which foreign judgments they recognize and enforce; the Judgments Convention instead creates a centralized international regime, one standard set of rules that every nation who ratifies it will use for recognition and enforcement, to enhance predictability and certainty in transnational lawsuits.

Back in February I had coffee with the Chair of the 2019 Diplomatic Session, a barrister from New Zealand who happened to be a visiting scholar at NYU Law this past year. “Have you heard the saying, ‘laws are like sausages’?” he asked me. “’It’s better not to see them being made.’ That’s what this summer will be like.” Now a week into the Diplomatic Session, I’ve learned that he is right, in a way—the making of international law is a messy process, one in which years and years are spent debating the precise wording of a single sentence and negotiators must carefully navigate cultural differences in a meeting room packed with legal minds from every geographic region imaginable. It can be frustrating. But it’s also one of the best examples of cooperation I’ve ever seen, and each day I feel unbelievably lucky to witness it.

As a follow up, here’s a quick run-through of two days in my life in the Hague, since a typical day at the office looks very different from a day in negotiations at the Diplomatic Session. The Hague is a small city (half a million people) and often overshadowed in tourists’ minds by its close neighbor Amsterdam, but it’s a lovely place to spend the summer, particularly for a student interested in international law—they call it “The City of Peace and Justice,” after all.

A Typical Day in the Life

On a regular day, my alarm rings at 7am. The sun will already have been up for two hours, streaming through the skylight in my attic bedroom; because of the Netherlands’ far north latitude, it rises at 5am and sets at 10:30pm in the summer (less exciting than it sounds when you’re trying to go to bed early and it’s still bright as day). I live in a beautiful apartment on a little Dutch canal with two other friends from my class at NYU Law who are also interning in the Hague.

I shower and get ready while listening to The Daily podcast, as I have every day for the last year and a half or so. For breakfast, I rotate between yogurt and granola, Isagenix shakes, and scrambled eggs, depending on what I’m feeling that morning. Then it’s off to work on my bike, a gorgeous 20-minute ride through the quaint little European city center and then a densely wooded park before I reach my office. I fell in love with cycling as a mode of transport last year in China, and I love it even more here (especially since here I have a bike that’s actually big enough to fit my long legs lol). Bikes are the primary means of getting from place to place for the Hague’s residents, and it makes me happy that “rush hour” here consists of rows of pedaling people in business suits.

I’m at the office from 9am to 5pm and spend that time working on various legal research, drafting, and administrative assignments related to the Judgments Convention. A lot of my first three weeks here were spent catching up on the 20+ year history of the Judgments Project, reading papers, working documents, and meeting minutes that would prepare me to follow the debate closely at the Diplomatic Session.

The Permanent Bureau to the Hague Conference has about 30 full-time staff, including us seven interns representing Australia, France, Ukraine, Brazil, Japan, China, and the USA. Roughly half the staff are legal officers with law training, while the other half handle various administrative duties. It’s a fantastic group of people—warm, fun, and ridiculously brilliant (seriously, some people have like 3+ degrees). Everyone usually brings lunch with them and we eat together in the kitchen, which is a great way to break up the day.

In the evenings, I’ll bike home at 5pm and either get dinner on the way, go grocery shopping (Albert Heijn ftw), or make something to eat at home. It’s so nice to finish work right at 5, because it means I have plenty of time to relax and enjoy the evenings. I’m FINALLY binging all of Game of Thrones, after reading the first book, watching the first season, and declaring that I wouldn’t keep watching until after I read more of the books (which never happened lol). Thursday nights in particular are intern drinks for all the foreign interns from the heaps of international organizations in the Hague, and it’s been great to go with my coworkers and meet some of the other Hague interns from all over the world. On the weekends I’ll either do day trips in the Netherlands or take a weekend trip elsewhere in Europe—it’s so quick to get to Amsterdam airport from where I live, which makes it easy to hop around!

Day in the Life: The Diplomatic Session

The Diplomatic Session began last Tuesday and has sufficiently shaken up my regular schedule (in a good way!) My morning routine remains the same, but instead of cycling to the office I’ll head to the Peace Palace, the iconic building that houses the International Court of Justice and where we have our negotiation space. 70+ nations have sent delegations of diplomats and lawyers to negotiate this treaty, which means the large meeting hall we use is a fascinating mixture of accents, languages, credentials, backgrounds, and experiences.

Negotiations begin at 9:30am each morning, break for an hour and a half lunch at 1pm, and continue until 6pm every evening. Each country is allotted between 1 and 4 seats at the various tables that line the room, and delegates raise the placard bearing their nation’s name in French whenever they wish to speak. If you’ve ever participated in Model United Nations, it looks exactly like that—except this is the real thing, with expert delegates who have been granted the authority by their home governments to negotiate and adopt this treaty on behalf of the nations they represent. It’s an inspiring feeling, being in the room while all this is happening.

Though there is an official agenda, the session has been hopping around from topic to topic over the last week and not really following the precise schedule, as a treaty provision could take as few as 20 minutes or many, many hours to decide upon. It’s not Congress, where proposals are voted on and (typically) majority rules; according to the Hague Conference’s mandate, all decisions must be reached by consensus. This means every delegation in the room must collectively agree on every word in the Judgments Convention (or, at the very least, not protest) in order for it to become law. In a process like this, compromise is key.

My own job during the Diplomatic Session is to update the Explanatory Report as discussions go on; the Explanatory Report is the hundred-page document that accompanies the treaty, explaining exactly what every word means and why it was chosen. It’s a very important piece of text because though it is not binding law in itself, it will be used by judges in the future as they attempt to interpret the Convention and figure out when, exactly, they must recognize and enforce a foreign judgment. As negotiations continue day to day, I’ll add comments to mark suggested changes to the Explanatory Report so that the authors of the document (called the co-Rapporteurs, two legal academics from Canada and Spain) know which points to elaborate on in their next draft. The nature of my work means I get a reserved seat in every session meeting, which is exciting since the room is so crowded!

In the evenings after negotiations finish for the night, there are often events and receptions to allow delegates to meet each other, network, and enjoy food and drinks (and sometimes even continue negotiating unofficially, ha). There are three of these held on the Peace Palace grounds that interns are able to attend, and additionally I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to the Chinese Embassy’s reception last night, where I even practiced a bit of my Mandarin with the ambassador himself. It’s all a fascinating foray into the world of diplomacy, which is essentially just about carefully developing camaraderie with someone until you agree on something…

So, that’s all for this long-winded explanation of my life and work here. It’s been amazing so far—I feel so lucky to be witnessing and playing a small role in this historic moment, and really couldn’t think of a better way to spend summer after 1L. I’m looking forward to another week of negotiations, some more European travel in July once the Diplomatic Session is over, and continuing to soak up life in the Hague over the course of my remaining six weeks here.

Thanks for reading!

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