Tool up for intellectual DIY work

International Law. First edition - International Law. First edition

May 28, 2004

It would be difficult to imagine a more glittering galaxy of authors than those gathered together in Malcolm Evans' new work on international law. Although not a text in the classic mode, this collection of essays is intended to cover the full reach of university syllabuses and so provide a comprehensive analysis of what is now one of the "sexiest" subjects in the law curriculum. This, at least, is easily achieved and there is enough here for even the most demanding of undergraduates: indeed, for those about to embark on higher-level specialised courses, I doubt that this collection could be beaten as a point of departure.

Each of the contributors writes on their specialist topic within the general corpus of international law, and although those familiar with their writings will find little here that they have not said before this does not detract from the considerable merit of the work. Too few text writers remember that their readers require a thorough and comprehensive exposition of fundamentals, and not only as a prologue to deeper understanding. Rarely does this collection fail on the first count; but neither does it fail to satisfy the reader who wants to travel away from the safety of well-trodden paths.

As this is not the work of a single author, those searching for an integrated exposition of the subject will be disappointed. There are doctrinal, interpretative and ethical disagreements at those points where the individual contributions overlap. This is not the smooth analysis of a single mind synthesising the subject for the uncritical student. The reader has to think and sometimes to choose. For me, this is a strength, and it reflects the reality of international law as a subject rooted in politics, economics and practice where "the right answer" can be elusive and its blind acceptance positively dangerous. Indeed, I am happy that the seams stitching the essays together remain visible; for those readers who want more for their money, and are game for some intellectual DIY, this collection should be at the top of the list.

The fifth edition of Malcolm Shaw's now-heavyweight book is of a completely different kind. It is a synoptic analysis of international law from first to last principle, and it will provide everything the student needs from a single perspective. I mean no criticism in describing the book as a paradigm of its type. For a student of the subject, this is a comprehensive, authoritative and readable analysis.

The grounding of the subject in the realities of international affairs is a marked strength, for while theory and doctrine are not overlooked, the author's general approach is to keep a beady eye on how the international legal system operates in practice. Some might find this limiting, but for too long international law has been criticised because much of it has been shot through with ideology, or the subject has been presented as if it existed in a make-believe world without law-breakers or law dissenters.

Shaw avoids over-reliance on doctrine and does not seek refuge in theory when there are difficulties or inconsistencies to explain. He does not shy away from often-intractable real-world problems or seek to elide examples of real-life law-breaking; and his analysis is much the better for it.

With its origins in a considerably smaller book, Shaw's book is no longer an "introductory" work. With successive editions, it has matured into a work of depth. This has not been as painful as it might have been. Although there are parts (admittedly not many) where the book reads as if material has been included because that is what is expected - rather than because it is justified by the analysis - on the whole it is not wordy. A gentle prune here and there might have done no harm, but this is a matter of taste, not necessity. As other works of similar weight lose their currency, this modern analysis is likely to become the weapon of choice for diligent students in their battles with examiners. One suspects, too, that copies will be found on the bookshelves of chancelleries and government legal departments worldwide.

Martin Dixon is senior lecturer in law, Cambridge University, and visiting professor of law, City University, London.

International Law. First edition

Editor - Malcolm D. Evans
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 841
Price - £32.99
ISBN - 0 19 925114 2

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