International Law and Human Rights master's programme
International Law and Human Rights is a 2-year master's programme providing comprehensive knowledge of the principles, regulations, subjects and practice in the field of international law and human rights. Master’s programme in International Law and Human Rights is offered in our campus in Tallinn.
Please see the interview with Lauri Mälksoo, Professor of International Law at the University of Tartu, about the aims and development plans of the master’s programme in International Law and Human Rights.
Professor Mälksoo, how would you characterise the aims and achievements of the University of Tartu’s ILHR MA programme?
Of course, the primary aim of any higher education programme is to offer the best education possible. In our case, it is to do so in the fields of international law and human rights, the latter being understood in our context primarily as special interest area within international law. We conceived the MA programme together with René Värk, Associate Professor in International Law, who teaches various core courses related to international law in our programme. The first intake of students was in 2016, so the programme has run for more than four years already.
A specific feature of our MA programme is that it is taught in the University of Tartu Law School’s building in Tallinn. Tallinn being Estonia’s capital city, we can see how it creates additional advantages for the programme – the proximity to practitioners in key Estonian ministries and elsewhere, the advantages of a bigger city in order to find part-time jobs for funding one’s studies, places of internship, etc.
I think our programme has contributed significantly to the internationalisation of academic life at our law school, especially in our Tallinn location. We have an English-language sister programme in Tartu too, in IT Law – and I believe they have had a similar impact in terms of the internationalisation of academic life in our historic location in Tartu. Of course, it makes us proud when we see our students succeeding in their countries or internationally. We have, and have had, students from essentially all over the world. I am particularly happy when I see very well researched and written master’s theses defended at the end of the academic year. By the way, master’s thesis defences happen typically in May each year but also, if a student needs more than two years to complete his or her studies, in December.
For me, an important part of specialised studies is a great library that students can use for writing their master’s theses. Over the years, we have managed to accumulate the best academic library of international law and human rights in Estonia, and the National Library is also nearby in Tallinn.
The connection between ‘International Law and Human Rights’ in the title of the programme, is it random to an extent or is it conscious, perhaps ideologically chosen even? If human rights law is part of international law, why emphasise this part of international law and not, for example, international economic law?
A fair question. One answer is pragmatic: we do have a group of scholars who have particular background in international and European human rights law, especially our Senior Research Fellow in International Law Merilin Kiviorg and Lecturer in European Law and in International Law Katre Luhamaa. In 2004, our Law School became a member of EMA, The European Master’s Programme in Human Rights and Democratisation. Ever since, our core staff has taught in this European programme as well as supervised student theses when the EMA programme students have come to the University of Tartu. For the EU countries, human rights are and remain, of course, a very important part of international law, also politically and ideologically if one wants to put it like this. This is particularly relevant for Eastern Europe where there are countries in which civil and political rights are still not self-evident and the governments are concerned about state sovereignty rather than the advancement of individual rights and democracy. Thus, I realise that emphasising human rights as part of international law is in itself inevitably political, in a way. However, at the same time, I must emphasise that ours is an academic programme and we are not human rights activists – although we do work together with local NGOs such as the Estonian Institute of Human Rights.
In a way, there is a tension between classical international law and human rights as the former is still based on state sovereignty and countries interpret their sovereignty largely based on their perceived national interests. Yet we cannot deny that since the mid-20th century and at least in the Western world, human rights have managed to transform how we understand international law and even state sovereignty as one of its foundations. The point of the title and direction of our MA programme is that all this deserves to be noticed and studied.
What plans do you have for coming years, related to the master’s programme in International Law and Human Rights?
The current challenge of COVID-19 makes one explore further possibilities of distance learning. While I personally prefer face-to-face interaction with students, I think some parts of online learning have come to stay. They create flexibility and offer new opportunities.
Moreover, it is my firm belief that the key element of the long-term success of academic programmes such as ours is the research and teaching excellence of its staff. Currently and until 2024, our academic team is conducting a study on international law in post-Soviet Eurasia. The research project is funded by the Estonian Research Council under its very competitive and prestigious individual grant scheme. We want to learn to what extent there is regional international law (also as opposed to universal international law), as a replacement for the previous Russian/Soviet Empire. Generally, if you’d ask me whether there is any comparative advantage of doing research about international law and human rights in Estonia, I would point at this new catchy direction called comparative international law. Estonian universities cannot compete with the New Yorks and Oxfords in the Western world but one of our advantages is our location at the intersection between the East and the West. For example, scholars or my generation know the Russian language as well. It so happens that with some students whom I supervise, I also discuss international law and human rights in the Russian language. I see it as a cultural advantage that creates more diversity in the academic life.
In September 2022, we’ll take in the first students from another related master’s programme that we have developed in cooperation with the University of Glasgow. It is called International Law of Global Security, Peace and Development (Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree). This cooperation will lead to further synergies in our own master’s in International Law and Human Rights as well.
Of course, our aim is also to develop further the Martens Summer School on International Law, which will take place for the ninth time at the University of Tartu Pärnu College in 2021. Pärnu is Estonia’s best summer resort but it also happens to be the birth town of Friedrich Martens, the prominent Russian Baltic international lawyer.
What we see over time is also that our successful MA students are increasingly interested in our Law School’s PhD programme in law. The University of Tartu is the only university in Estonia to offer a PhD programme in law.
Overall, I would like to encourage qualified students from any country to apply to our master’s programme in International Law and Human Rights. The programme has been of interest not only to students from foreign countries but also from Estonia.
The specialised master’s programme will soon be five years old. However, the study of international law and human rights have long-established traditions at the University of Tartu. Can you tell us more about this history?
Indeed, this is quite a fascinating history. The University of Tartu was founded in 1632. At the end of the 17th century, Swedish scholars Olaus Hermelin and Gabriel Sjöberg taught various courses related to natural law at our university, and dissertations drew on the writings of Grotius and Pufendorf. When the Great Nordic War broke out in 1700, Hermelin semi-officially presented Swedish legal and political arguments in the war.
A great time for the study of international law at our university was the second half of the 19th century. We had Baltic German scholars such as August von Bulmerincq and Carl Bergbohm as professors at our university who both became well-known in Europe for their works on international legal theory, in the spirit of legal positivism. Their successor as professor of international law at our university, Vladimir Grabar (Hrabar) was a leading historian of international law.
In 1918, the Republic of Estonia was proclaimed and during the interwar period, one of the leading Estonian statesmen, Ants Piip, simultaneously worked as professor of international law at the University of Tartu. He was prime minister and foreign minister on several occasions but academically, Piip’s main contribution was producing original textbooks of international law in the Estonian language.
During the Soviet period, the focus of research was on the international law of the sea. Professor Abner Uustal came from the island of Saaremaa and was a leading Soviet expert on the law of the sea. Of course, the Soviet doctrine of international law did not emphasise human rights at the time; rather, to the contrary.
The restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1991 created excellent conditions for the free and unrestricted study of international law and the relatively new part of it, human rights law.