Sunday, November 23, 2008

India has authority to pursue pirates

"Delhi has formally been given permission to act under a UN resolution allowing navies to pursue pirates into Somalia's territorial waters."

UN Security Council Resolution 1816 is a very odd creature, authorising pursuit of pirates into Somalia's territorial waters - where Somalia (or at least the internationally recognised, if ineffectual, Transitional Federal Government) consents. 

This is an authority the TFG could give under international law, with or without a UNSCR. Thus, Resolution 1816 is largely pointless. Nonetheless, this is the first formal report I've caught on an agreement stuck between the TFG and a foreign navy under the Resolution (which expires next month anyway).  

India has already shown it's prepared to use lethal force against pirates. In that case it appears to have been self-defence or returning fire. This would clearly be legal, though a shoot-on-sight policy towards pirates would not.

Pirates may be nasty characters but generally they are little more than common criminals who - while hostage-takers - are not interested in endangering life unnecessarily. (What use is a dead hostage?) We are not at war with pirates, and most legal systems don't authorise shoot-to-kill policies in the course of general law enforcement. That said, such an approach might well not generate much protest. 

I doubt, however, it would be much of a deterrent. So long as Somalia remains in chaos and easy pickings are available in the Gulf of Aden, piracy will continue regardless of the risks to the pirates themselves. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama on international law

In response to an ASIL survey:

"The next president will have to prioritize restoring our traditions of adherence to international legal regimes and norms. When I am President, America will reject torture without exception. America is the country that stood against that kind of behavior, and we will do so again. I also will reject a legal framework that does not work. There has been only one conviction at Guantanamo. It was for a guilty plea on material support for terrorism. The sentence was 9 months. There has not been one conviction of a terrorist act. As president, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and laws such as our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists."
How quickly could most of this be done after 20 January? Just about instantly, I'd hope.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Only in a Cambridge student paper ...

Headline on the US election: "Yes we could", thus identifying the correct use of the conditional subjunctive.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Welcome to pirate-town, we hope you enjoy your stay ...

So, I've posted previously on "polite pirating" off Somalia.

And I've followed with interest the story of the pirates who seized a ship carrying 33 Ukranian battle-tanks, has had a long stand-off with the US navy; meanwhile another hijacked vessel has been liberated by the army of Puntland.

I've known for some time from UN reports that in the Puntland area there are "pirate command centres" and even official pirate spokesmen.

But the surrealism of Somalia's increasingly pirate-based economy reaches dizzying heights with the Port of Eyl where restraunts have been established to feed hostages seized for ransom.

"Welcome to the maison des hostages, may we recommend the beef this evening? We hope you enjoy your meal."

This may even beat inviting your hostages to a BBQ.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Library blogs

An increasing number of law libraries have blogs of their own. As an all round bibliophile and library geek, I'll try and update this post a bit over coming days, but to start with a few palatial libraries ...

This is a remarkably useful website, as their catalogue is updated more often than the homepages of a number of leading journals. While not full-text searchable, if you want a comprehensive list of everything published on a topic/by a person in public international law, it's a one stop shop.

The library blog is on blogger and candid photos are found on flickr. Some of the photos are really good!

This really is one to bring out library-envy. I've only ever really studied in modern law libraries, even in Cambridge. The Lillian Goldman not only looks gorgeously kitted out, but it has its own facebook fansite, complete with photos. The blog itself is over here.

More suggestions welcome ...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Psst ... you chasin' some crusty local bread?

The definition of an entrepreneur is (I would suggest) someone who sees a profitable market opportunity and is willing to take the associated risks.

Among the most efficient entrepreneurs are organised criminals: organised crime being the proof that if there's money to be made, making something illegal does little but increase the risks involved and therefore the profitability of an activity.

It appears, though, that in these times of rising food prices those original criminal geniuses, the crime families of Italy, have taken another basic business principle to heart: diversify.

The Guardian reports that: 

"According to a report released last week, city officials and investigators suspect Camorra clans are behind many of the 1,400 unlicensed backstreet bakeries in and around the city which supply hundreds of street vendors who sell loaves out of car boots - and they may be spreading into selling other basic food products.

Open 24 hours a day, the street sellers are drawing shoppers with cheap, crusty bread fresh from wood-burning ovens, the way Neapolitans like it. But police say Naples' new breed of bakers are slowly poisoning their customers by burning old varnished wood, nut shells covered in pesticides and even planks pulled from exhumed coffins. 'Whoever buys this bread is eating dioxins and carcinogenic substances and putting their health at serious risk,' said Francesco Borrelli, assessor for agriculture for the province of Naples.

Borrelli's investigation into the underground bakeries prompted raids by Carabinieri police who found dough being mixed by illegal immigrant labour in filthy, humid and mould-streaked cellars, some perilously close to burning piles of toxic waste dumped in fields around Naples by the Camorra, which was linked earlier this year to suspected tainting of local mozzarella."
Contaminating traditional bread and mozzarella? Truly, these people they got no respect ...

Friday, September 5, 2008

Puffins and beer

Where did August go?

Mostly, on finishing the typescript for my first academic book. Partly, on a two-week holiday taking in the Edinburgh Festival, Orkney and the Shetland Islands.

The northern islands are amazing, in a dramatic, remote and relatively flat way. We were too late for Puffin nesting season, sadly. There were, though, still lots of peat, sheep, Shetland ponies and ruins everywhere you turned (neolithic villages/viking long houses/castles/crofters' cottages/abandoned MOD radar installations).

One of the more amazing things in the Orkney islands is Skara Brae: the only relatively intact neolithic village in the world. It's an archeologist's dream, and it's fairly incredibly to look at still recognisable furniture (stone dresser, stone bed-box, stone pestle) that was used by real people 4,000 years ago.  I doubt our flat-pack furniture will fare so well, even if covered by sand for a few millenia.

Nonetheless, as I stood at the world heritage site, a small Philistine's voice whispered in the back of my head: "With all the narrow sandy passages, little grassy knolls and wee stone walls ... It looks a bit like a putt-putt golf course, doesn't it?" 

Friday, August 8, 2008

A guide to polite pirating

Some may recall the dramatic episode in which Somalian pirates held hostage the crew of the luxury yacht Ponant and were then captured by French commandos after showing up to swap the hostages for the ransom.

With the approval of the Somalian Transitional Federal Government, the pirates were removed for trial in France.

There, as part of their defence, they have raised the fact that they were best-practice-following polite pirates. According to the Mirror:

The six raiders claimed they had a good conduct manual on how to seize foreign vessels to ensure their prisoners felt "relaxed and cheerful" during their week's captivity.

The written guide said they must not sexually assault women hostages, not shout at prisoners, give them food and drink regularly and let them sleep and use the toilet when they ask.

The gunmen even brought goats on to the 290ft French yacht, inviting their captives and 20 friends from their village in Somalia to an on-board barbecue.

After all, being rude could be bad for business.

However funny, this lack of violence is - in a way - good news. According to the IMO in 2007 attacks at sea or in port saw 20 mariners killed, over 153 injured and 194 kidnapped or taken hostage worldwide; 16 ships were hijacked, and one vessel and three crew remained unaccounted for as at April 2008.

Polite pirating certainly sounds better than being thrown overboard while pirates re-paint your cargo container carrier at sea to create a "phantom ship" they can steam into port to sell all the cargo ... (see paragraphs 179 and 180 of this UN report).

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A little water

Not on a scale, admittedly, with the horrendous UK floods of 2007 but this was the result of just 30 minutes rain on our street on Sunday. Nonetheless, the lessons of proper drainage maintenance don't quite seem to have gotten home to local government.

Of course, in that time 11 mm fell: so it was absolutely torrential. Coelacanth got caught out in and was utterly soaked.

A conversation by the river 15 minutes earlier went something like this:

Coelacanth: Hey, come meet some people!

Doug: No, I think I'll get home before it rains.

Coelacanth: OK, see you later then!

Optimism: 0; curmudgeon: 1.

More amusingly, I didn't quite get our lounge room window closed in time and the back of the TV got a bit wet. When we settled in to watch the ever-surreal Mighty Boosh that night the red-spectrum was missing from our screen, leaving everything an under-the-sea washed out green. As the TV slowly dried out under its own power, the colours faded back in.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Airport luggage: the case of the carry-on chainsaw

From the New Zealand Herald (12 May 2008):

Never mind the nail scissors, what about the chainsaw?

A reader writes: "My brother-in-law went through security at Auckland domestic airport and witnessed a passenger having to fish out her nail scissors from her handbag and leave them behind. He went through security and then boarded his plane. After being seated he could smell petrol. He knew you shouldn't be able to smell petrol on a plane, because planes don't use petrol. The smell got worse and eventually he got the attention of one of the flight attendants. They started to look around to see where it was coming from. They found in the overhead compartment a chainsaw in a bag that was leaking petrol into the compartment. His plane was delayed as the owner was identified and the chainsaw removed and put with the main luggage. The owner of the chainsaw said security had stopped him but had let him through because it wasn't one of the things on their list to confiscate.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Most amusing sign-post yet

So, I took some time off revising my PhD for its publication as a book (an experience that's a blog in itself), for a morale-restoring bike ride around some neighbouring villages recently.

I decided to take a short-cut between Coton and another hamlet by cycling down a "bridle path".

Bridle paths seem designated for horses, but judging by the single, grass-bare groove in the soil are frequently used by bikes.

Mountain bikes, probably, the serious type, rather than my enfeebled second-hand incredibly low-slung town bike. Nonetheless, like a good Australian I didn't allow totally inappropriate tools to prevent me tackling a job.

Anyway, while bouncing along the remains of a corrugated track made, it seemed, by giant tractor treads I came across this gem of a warning sign (click for larger image):

Because, y'know, its not as if horses hadn't been traversing this area for a while already ...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

No peace without justice: but can justice precede peace?

Two interesting articles on international criminal law came out of the New York Times stable this weekend.

Jean-René Ruez was an international war crimes investigator in the former Yugoslavia. An account of his experiences is published in the IHT. Ruez's motto is clearly, and understandably, "No peace without justice." But what happens when those goals come into conflict?

"The Pursuit of Justice vs. the Pursuit of Peace" reports on the plan of the ICC Prosecutor to seek an arrest warrant for Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan’s president tomorrow.

The predictable responses have included fears that this will:

(1) jeopardise the safety of the joint UN/African Union peacekeepers - presently unable to defend even themselves properly - and other humanitarian workers in Darfur, already accused of being spies for the ICC;

(2) be an obstacle to any kind of peace settlement; and

(3) destabilise the region, as an already paranoid regime - armed by China - resorts to increasing violence.

The permanent International Criminal Court could well do more harm than good here. There is simply no realistic prospect of Omar Hassan al-Bashir being arrested in the short term. As I've outlined below, on the topic of Zimbabwe, criminal regimes simply cannot be prosecuted before there is stability in their country and a transition of power,which will likely require their cooperation.

The ICC prosecutor is an independent officer, who has a job to do - and he is doing it. The problem here is not him fulfilling his duty, it's that the Security Council approved referring Darfur to the Court as a substitute for taking any more effective action in the first place.

Perhaps in the long run, this will bring pressure to bear on the Sudan that will produce constructive results; but in the short term, it carries incredible risks for those on the ground in Darfur.

PS: for the more optimistic among us, Richard Goldstone has published possibly the best set of counter-arguments to my position. (Although the argument that "the indictments may delegitimize the government in the eyes of the Sudanese people, especially the elites in Khartoum" seems especially optimistic.)

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Mugabe and crimes against humanity

Any number of bloggers and mainstream journals have begun to accuse Robert Mugabe of crimes against humanity. The Economist has one of the more sensible pieces.

Could Mugabe be charged with international crimes? Simply put, crimes against humanity are acts such as murder, torture, rape and politically-motivated severe human rights violations “when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack” (see Article 7, Statute of the International Criminal Court). In addition, such an attack must be committed, at least under ICC law, “pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack” (see the ICC Elements of Crimes).

A widespread and systematic attack against opposition supporters, planned and orchestrated by Zanu-PF and the government of Zimbabwe certainly appears to have proceeded the second-round presidential elections.

There are two principal obstacles to an ICC indictment for Mugabe. The first is that, as Zimbabwe is not a party to the Court’s Statute, the Security Council would have to refer the situation to Zimbabwe. Given Russia and China’s stance on intervention in another State’s “internal affairs”, that seems unlikely.

The second obstacle, and I say this with some trepidation, is common sense. Counter-intuitive as this may sound, any effort – even a successful one – to remove Mugabe is likely to be an obstacle to a peaceful transition in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe is not necessarily the largest part of the problem. As Allan Little of the BBC puts it:

Robert Mugabe is now cocooned with a group of men who came through the liberation struggle with him. ...

When the opposition talk of allowing Mr Mugabe to retire with dignity, these men know that this magnanimity does not extend to them; that a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe will expect a holding to account.

Mugabe, in a sense, is their prisoner. They won't let him go quietly, leaving them exposed to revenge.

Fear is the means by which they stay in power - the people's fear of them. But they too live in fear, fear of the reckoning that the people will, themselves, one day, demand.

A transition to a peaceful and stable Zimbabwe will, in the short term, require that all these men be bought off – odious a prospect as that may be.

So what role international criminal law? Is Geoffrey Robertson right to claim that justice is a necessary precondition to peace? In my view, yes and no. There will be no lasting peace without justice, but attempting to make it a precondition in every case risks destabilising post-dictatorship transitional societies.

The best option, in many ways, is the Argentine solution: allow the outgoing government to cover themselves in amnesty laws as the price of securing a stable democracy; then allow campaigners, national parliaments and courts, and international attempts at prosecution to progressively repeal those amnesties and put the criminals on trial.

Some might ask, but what would you have the West do? I actually think the very painful answer may be: if there is no reasonable prospect that anything you could do would make things any better, the right thing is to do nothing at all. Indictment of Mugabe, the laughable prospect of sanctions (how do you impose sanctions on a ruined economy?), or outright military intervention will only drive this cabal and their supporters to further violence. Indeed, any such action just makes Mugabe’s cabal and their ridiculous western-conspiracy rhetoric look more credible.

There will come a time to indict these men, but it may have to follow – not precede – a new internal constitutional settlement in Zimbabwe. In that process, only the voices of neighbours are likely to have any influence at all.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dog poo, school districts and terrorism

Despite equivocal evidence as to their effectiveness, the UK has more CCTV cameras than any other country in Europe. A fairly high tolerance of surveillance has thus become part of British life.

Against this backdrop comes a bizarre, but not entirely unexpected example of the normalisation and extension of counter-terrorism laws: a law initially justified as a terror prevention measure is now being used by local councils to spy on residents for matters falling a long way short of serious organised crime.

The UK government said that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 was intended to provide:
"a statutory basis for the authorisation and use by the security and intelligence agencies, law enforcement and other public authorities of covert surveillance, agents, informants and undercover officers. It will regulate the use of these techniques and safeguard the public from unnecessary invasions of their privacy."

To this end surveillance was only to be authorised when "necessary", meaning on grounds that it was needed:
  • in the interests of national security;
  • for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or preventing disorder;
  • in the interests of the economic well-being of the UK;
  • in the interests of public safety;
  • for the purpose of protecting public health;
  • for the purpose of assessing or collecting any tax, duty, levy or other imposition,
  • contribution or charge payable to a government department; or
  • for other purposes which may be specified by order of the Secretary of State.
The trick is that these powers extended to local authorities, some of whom have had a very interesting idea of what constitutes "crime" or "disorder".

We have so far seen examples where:
"a family in Poole in Dorset were tracked covertly for nearly three weeks to check they lived in a school catchment area"

(which, in fact, they did) and one council has admitted
that its officers were in the middle of an undercover operation using digital cameras and binoculars to catch those failing to scoop up their dogs' poo.

What is most worrying to my mind, though, is not the use of powers introduced to fight serious crime being delegated to local councils so they can snoop on poorly-behaved neighbours. Nor is it the blatant waste of resources. It's that this is proving popular in some quarters.

If those who will trade liberty for a little brief security deserve neither and will lose both, what is the fate of those who will trade liberty for slightly cleaner pavements?

Update: ICC Lubanga Trial

Mr Lubanga did not walk free on Tuesday. The International Criminal Court found his release would be premature while the Prosecutor goes on to appeal the ruling requiring disclosure of information initially gathered on terms of confidentiality.

As noted below, much of that information was provided by the UN and it is the UN which must waive confidentiality.

The Prosecutor has said of his appeal:

“The Foundations of the ICC have to be based on high standards and efficiency ... We will harmonise fair trials with respect for the institutions that provide information to us. The basic framework to solve this particular problem is settled with the UN and we will explain this clearly to the judges”.

I am ambivalent about this. If "the basic framework to solve this particular problem is settled" means that the UN will now allow the defence and the Court to see this material in a full and proper way, then that's fine.

If, however, the words "the basic framework ... is settled" and the worrying references to "efficiency" and "respect for the institutions that provide information" all add up to an assertion that existing practices are fine and all that judges require is a clearer explanation on appeal, then we have a real problem.

The right to a fair trial cannot and should not be balanced against "efficiency" of the value of the ICC's working relationship with the UN. If the ICC cannot proceed with a trial fairly (a different thing from "perfectly"), it should simply not proceed at all.

Whatever the outcome of the Lubanga appeal, it looks set to have consequences for the new ICC cases opening against Congolese militia leaders Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The quiet, procedural death of the International Criminal Court?

Tomorrow, the first man expected to stand trial before the ICC – Thomas Lubanga - may simply walk away to board the first plane out of the Hague, following three years in prison and without his trial having ever officially commenced.

This staggering outcome follows from a practice of the Prosecutor’s office that the Trial Chamber described in a decision on 13 June as a “wholesale and serious abuse”. Without accusing the Prosecutor’s office of bad faith, it seems clear that a procedural device for collecting evidence under conditions of anonymity in exceptional and limited circumstances became the Prosecutor’s tool of first resort. As a result, the possibility of running a fair trial was fatally compromised.

Basically, in order to gather evidence, the Prosecutor’s office promised suppliers of information that the evidence they turned over would be kept confidential – even from ICC judges. The intention seems to have been that if any information was identified as needed to run the trial, the prosecution would go back to the suppliers and negotiate for waiver of confidentiality.

The flaws in this approach were:
  1. this is not what Article 54 of ICC Statute, on a plain reading, allows the prosecutor to do (they are limited to using confidentiality only to gather leads which might point to evidence for use in the trial);
  2. it meant the prosecution was not in control of the evidence, the witnesses were (and for “the witnesses” read “the United Nations”); and
  3. it left the prosecution wide open to a defence allegation that they were withholding potentially exculpatory evidence that they were obliged to disclose, thus preventing a fair trial.
Inevitably, the defence did make that argument and it had some justification. The Prosecution claimed, as a result of confidentiality agreements concluded largely with the UN, that it was beyond its power to put some 207 potentially relevant documents into evidence. Of these 153 were UN documents.

The prosecution’s argument boiled down to “well, in fact, nothing we’re withholding would materially aid the defence or alternative evidence is available, so it doesn’t matter.” The Trial Chamber, quite properly, asserted that it was for the Court, not the Prosecutor, to weigh the evidence and the defendant was entitled to all potentially relevant prosecution material, not a selection of it.

I have more sympathy for the prosecution argument that UN and NGO witnesses in the field work under difficult conditions and confidentiality was needed to secure their cooperation (para 26). However, the Prosecutor’s office made a damaging concession (para 72), saying in its own evidence:

Of course, there was never any intention ... that these materials were received only for lead [finding] purposes. The point was to obtain these materials as quickly as possible for the sake of the ongoing investigation and then to allow the Office of the Prosecutor to identify the materials it wishes to use as evidence and then seek permission.

That is, the Prosecutor took the view that he could grant confidentiality first, and ask hard questions later. The result was not only a clear breach of the Statute but he also lost the practical power to control evidence, effectively putting UN legal counsel in charge of deciding what would go before the ICC.

As a result the Trial Chamber found that “the trial process has been ruptured to such a degree that it is now impossible to piece together the constituent elements of a fair trial.” This is utterly scathing judicial language.

The Chamber stayed the trial indefinitely and will hear an application for Lubanga’s release tomorrow. Unless the Prosecutor secures a wholesale about-face from the UN on the confidentiality of 200 odd documents, procedural justice seems to demand the defendant be released.

The Office of the Prosecutor must be a very unhappy workplace at present. If these are the realities of gathering evidence in the ICC, the prospects of any cases ever commencing seem pretty slim.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Curse you rain!

I'm going to my first May Ball in two years, and its Coelacanth's first May Ball ever. Ah, May Balls and May Week.

... And of course it's raining. That typically English rain that if you stood out in it long enough would never be heavy enough to soak you through, but you would start to grow moss. How very familiar.

I have by now perfected the British obsession with the weather and so cross-referenced the hour-by-hour predictions on and BBC Weather. The consensus is, it looks as though clouds will scatter and there will be hints of sun from 7-ish until sunset around 11 pm - when it will commence to bucket down heavily until dawn.

Black tie, sturdy boots and a good umbrella are called for.

Sunday afternoon postscript:

So the weather was nowhere near as bad as forecast and much warmer than a lot of May Balls I've been to.

We were able to head in early and up to a friend's rooms in college for some drinks and snacks (and a little of the football) beforehand, and when the ball itself commenced there were only two or three light bouts of misting rain.

For one of those, we didn't need to put up umbrellas as we were safely queuing for black-tie laser tag in an inflatable grid of tunnels - probably a highlight of the evening. (Along with ceidhle dancing, some decent - and indecent - stand up comedy and money-less gambling that taught me I should never be allowed to bet the farm on blackjack.)

Of nine who set out, six made the survivors' photo at 5.30 am after which Coelacanth and I got to wander 10 minutes back home through the dawn-lit streets of Cambridge and sleep until lunchtime.

It was a beautiful morning, a low English summer sun streaming over everything through the rain-cleared air. I'd forgotten how much fun it is, sometimes, to be awake before the rest of the world.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Working hard, eating hard

(Above, Coelacanth's* allotment: further proof of creeping Englishness.)

"Can't blog, eating" would just about summarise the last few days.

On Saturday one of my favourite teachers from the LLM was kind enough to invite a few of us to lunch at his cottage outside Cambridge. It was great to get out into the countryside out of town. Highlights of the day (other than the conversation) included, "How many degrees does it take to get an iron bench from a shed to a corner of the garden?"; "Kissinger? Well, not all of us had breakfast with him earlier this year"; Coelacanth enthusiastically weeding a garden bed while an emeritus professor of Trinity College took photographs and finishing the sparkling wine before lunch. All very civilised.

Last night, however, was dinner at our favourite Cambridge restaurant, Alimentum. I love it if only for the fact its incredibly classy interior looks out over a busy road onto a pine furniture warehouse.

The food as, always, was really very good indeed. But the discovery of the evening was wine no.44 on their list: a French-style cabernet blend from, of all places, Lebanon. Big flavours, amazingly well-balanced and a surprisingly light body. Quite a find.

Yes, Coelacanth and I have become wine snobs. But we're self-parodying wine snobs. So that's OK.

(*If "Coelacanth" seems confusing, see comments to the last post.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

End of the teaching term

“So, what do you do when you’re not teaching?”

There have been a couple of signs my first teaching year has gone well. Not all the course assessment forms have been processed yet, but I’ve scored well on the survey numbers I’ve seen so far. I’ve also had a lot of requests for reference writing, and I suppose students must think you’re OK – or somehow impressive – to ask for a reference. And, most pleasingly, some of my International Criminal Law students invited me for a drink, where the question above was asked.

In theory, I’m meant to be turning the PhD into a book. However, before I even get back to work on the book, by the end of this week I am meant to:
  • settle the marks on my exam with the second marker (done);
  • meet with my faculty-appointed mentor to check on my progress (done);
  • help draft an advice for a colleague (fun, but lots of work);
  • write a book review;
  • peer-review an article for a journal a colleague edits;
  • respond to queries from an author on the last article I peer-reviewed for a journal;
  • chat with a friend about a line of argument in their PhD;
  • speak with someone the faculty may be recruiting as a consultant/external teacher on a pilot project I seem to be taking the lead on; and
  • write a 3,000 word journal note on Somalian piracy (present draft over 5,000 words).

Still, I’m not complaining. It’s good to be busy doing things you enjoy, and the real upside of academic life is the variety and freedom to manage your own time.

Oh, and I’ve just discovered I may have committed myself to too much classroom teaching next year as I didn’t realise you get teaching credit for supervising new research students. Seems obvious that that should count as teaching once pointed out, though, doesn’t it?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

First time for everything

So, a month ago I was late for my first ever exam, the one I had set for my masters course.

As the course convenor I was obliged to be there at the start of the paper to make sure no students had problems along the lines of: “My exam paper appears to be missing/written in Chinese/the paper for another course/on fire, etc”. I also had to flip through the materials my students were allowed to bring in and check they hadn’t smuggled any forbidden knowledge in through notes in the margin.

It should be a reasonably easy thing to turn up to your own exam on time. Except, of course, the law school does not have its own exam hall and the central exam timetablers can send you pretty much anywhere. We also have a pretty spread out “campus”, which includes many anonymous-looking or poorly signposted buildings that could easily be just another office block.

Leaving - I thought - plenty of time, I set off in search of my exam. Despite the heat of the day (a rare full sun and 25 degrees centigrade in humid London), I’d worn a suit and tie. I think my idea was that students shouldn’t see me looking too relaxed while they had to face a masters’ exam. Whatever I had in mind, it didn’t work out well.

The street my exam was on was easy enough to find. No problem there. But as I wandered around the top of it, I noticed few building had numbers on display, and none of those numbers was high enough. I began to get edgy. I still had a few minutes up my sleeve, but not really enough to go back to my office, check details, and set out again.

I crossed a major road. The other side was a new street. I had a missing building on my hands.
Beginning to breath faster and perspire slightly, I pulled out my mobile to call my secretary. I say “my”, but she works for eight other people as well – mostly more senior than me. She has been around for a while though, and is a gold mine of practical information. Calling her would have certainly answered my problems.

If I’d had her number.

At this point, I did what any calm, collected young academic in a suit and hard-soled shoes would do in a crisis. I ran.

Three or four blocks later, dripping on the front desk at the graduate office, I panted out my problem and they pulled out the map of exam locations. I mentioned the street name.

“You do know that on that street the numbers run up one side to the main cross-road and then back down the other?”

Well, I did now. I’d showed up at the wrong end of the street. Good thing it was only another three or four blocks to run back.

I’ll say one thing about exam panic. At least it prevents LLM students noticing that their examiner, who’s seven minutes late, has just dried his shirt out by standing in front of the hand-drier in the men’s room.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Blogging revisited

Courting Disaster has been off-line for nearly 18 months – and let’s face it, it was hardly updating regularly towards the end of that time.

So, here we are: rebooted and hopefully updating two or three times a week.

In brief, the last eighteen months have consisted of:

  • moving house (yes, again!) in December 2006, to the most adorable part of Cambridge, Newnham;
  • interviewing for three or four teaching positions and being offered a lectureship at a London university;
  • submitting the PhD thesis in May 2007;
  • marrying the love of my life in Canberra in June 2007;
  • being examined on the PhD in August 2007;
  • starting the new job in September 2007;
  • crawling elated, scared and knackered by turns through a first term of teaching (while commuting from Cambridge);
  • graduating from the PhD and having a second wedding ceremony (well, a blessing) for UK friends and visiting Australian family in November 2007;
  • having a quiet Christmas in Dahab, Egypt;
  • crawling elated, scared and knackered – but generally more confident - through a second term of teaching;
  • writing questions for and administering exams (and there’s a blog in that!);
  • marking, marking and bloody marking exams (only 84 undergraduate essays, three dissertations, 92 exam scripts and double marking the same again);
  • proposing a couple of new courses;
  • getting the PhD turned into a book proposal, peer-reviewed, committee-approved and a contract issued with a publisher; and
  • oh, look it’s just about our first wedding anniversary.

Busy? Just a bit.