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Ideas: programmes and projects

The Edinburgh Centre for International and Global Law is a focal point for a diverse, eclectic, inter-disciplinary and well-rounded approach to the study of international law and global governance in all its contemporary dimensions.

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We connect our ideas, scholarship and projects to the pressing legal, social, economic and political challenges of our epoch, and endeavour to shape thinking about these challenges through our networks of knowledge, scholarship and academic exchange.

Professor Nehal Bhuta

Nehal Bhuta is developing three workshops on Artificial Intelligence and the Rule of International Law: AI on the Battlefield, AI and the Digital Welfare State, and AI and Border Control. He has assembled an interdisciplinary group from Law, Philosophy, Sociology and Informatics and has applied for a new Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland Workshop Grant. The aim of the workshop is to develop an international research network leading to a major Research Centre grant application addressing the following questions: Can essential global legal rules be “programmed in to AI systems to which decisions are delegated? What is the role of the human in interacting with the AI system? Can we design human-machine interactions in these contexts which improves legality? Can we envisage accountability for errors where the reasoning process of the AI System maybe undiscoverable?

Nehal Bhuta also undertakes intellectual history research on the history of the concept of the state in international law, and the relationship between various state theories and theories of sovereignty and international order. This connects to an ongoing interest in the production and maintenance of political order at the state and sub-state level, and the various ways in which contemporary international law embeds, reproduces and performs these concepts of ordering, and claims of knowledge about how to produce and maintain these orders.

Watch Nehal Bhuta discss Autonomous Weapons Systems

Watch Nehal Bhuta discuss AI and Autonomous Weapons Systems

Watch Nehal Bhuta discuss Sytematic Bias and Autonomous Weapons Systems

Watch Nehal Bhuta discuss the Ethics of Autonomous Weapons Systems

Dr Michelle Burgis-Kasthala

Michelle Burgis-Kasthala’sproject, The Privatisation of International Criminal Justice for Syria and Beyond, builds on extensive interviews and fieldwork conducted with the Commission for International Justice and Accountability and planned interviews with the UN’s Independent, Impartial Investigative Mechanism in June. The project seeks to identify the role of key public and private actors working towards the criminalisation of Syria’s civil war. To date, she has written two articles on this, both of which are under review. In the future, she plans to write specific pieces on the nature of extant archives generated as well as the relationship between international criminal justice and statebuilding. Further into the future, there may be scope for considering the phenomenon of privatised international criminal justice more broadly through a number of case studies.

Michelle Burgis-Kasthala’s future project, Building a State in Palestine through International Criminal Law?, builds on her sustained interest and expertise in Palestine as well as a range of preliminary interviews and fieldwork. The project seeks to place Palestine’s current reliance on international criminal law within broader practices of statebuilding and various legal interventions.

Dr Ana Maria Daza Vargas

Ana Maria Daza Vargas’s current work is concerned with mapping conflict around water resources in investor-state dispute settlement: Creating a database of all water-related investor-state arbitration disputes (ongoing) – classification under a typology of water usage and allocation. The typology divides investment disputes according to the economic activity that may trigger the conflict: trade in water; water services and sanitation; and water for industry. The first output using this database is a paper ‘Water is the new water: Mapping conflict around water resources in investor-state dispute settlement’.

Ana Maria Daza Vargas is also writing a paper on the Defense Burden in Investment Treaty Arbitration: An Empirical assessment of Costs, Capacity and Solutions’: Using the database of PITAD (Pluricourts – Oslo University), this paper seeks to: i) identify the costs that respondent states have collectively incurred in defending against investment treaty claims; and ii) determine the state-of-the-art regarding the degrees to which a respondent state’s defense burden in investment treaty arbitration might be considered to actually exist.

Dr Deval Desai

Deval Desai works in the field of administrative law and regulation, with an emphasis on the Global South.  He is currently undertaking a project entitled, Reversing the Gaze, in collaboration with colleagues from the Universities of Zurich and Basel, and funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The research explores the possibility of analysing political phenomena, such as the administrative state, by applying concepts derived from the Global South in the Global North – rather than the inverse, as is so often the case. This project develops his earlier work on the comparative knowledge and practices of legal experts in development, and engages with debates on decolonisation and methodological politics. 

Deval Desai also has an ongoing project supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation on the administration of social welfare funds and their implications for theories of the state. Drawing on the cases of India and Italy, the project studies the drives and effects of the hundreds of billions of dollars of earmarked welfare funds that have remained unspent and unappropriated. It examines the governance practices, sociopolitical contexts, and institutional designs that give rise to this phenomenon. Drawing on administrative law and fiscal sociology, it enquires into the limits of extant state theories in explaining a state that collects resources but does not spend them. 

Dr Filippo Fontanelli

Filippo Fontanelli’s current research concerns the EU Charter’s Application to National Measures. The Charter applies to national measures implementing EU law, and thus can serve as standard of review for their legality. In the ten years since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, this scenario has never arisen. The Charter has been used, occasionally, to declare the unlawfulness only of domestic measures that also violated other rules of EU law. Arguably, for all the lip-service to the member states’ responsibility to observe human rights when they act as agents of the EU, the Court of Justice has been upholding a tacit pact. The Charter shall not be used to restrict member states’ action, and the mechanism of Art. 51 is effectively an empty promise.

Filippo Fontanelli is also working on two other projects:

Jurisdiction and Admissibility in Investment Arbitration – a New Framework. In investment arbitration, the line between jurisdiction and admissibility is blurred. Objections going to the tribunal’s power or the claim’s inadmissibility are hard to distinguish. Filippo Fontanelli's work seeks to show, through a theoretical reconstruction of the two notions, the correct test that tribunals should use to tell them apart. More importantly, it shows the practical implications of the distinction, demystifying some received views that often go unchallenged.

Can the fictio of EU law as fact save the EU from isolation? This research chronicles and assesses how the fictio of treating law as fact has come back into style to keep EU law from isolating itself. The thread of Opinion 1/91, Mox Plant, Opinion 1/09, Opinion 2/13 and Achmea makes it difficult to come up with any hypothetical scenario in which the Court of Justice of the European Union could allow other judicial bodies to handle EU law. The Advocate General’s views in Opinion 1/17 apparently validate CETA’s drafting tactic to distinguish expressly between law-as-law and law-as-fact, a strategy that might have spared WTO from the CJEU’s wrath. The Withdrawal Agreement (R.I.P.) stayed away from the fictio and foreshadowed a 2/13-like fiasco. This research exposes the nature and function of this device. Arguably, it is more reassuring than necessary, but it might just work.

Watch Filippo Fontanelli discuss International Economic Law

Dr James Harrison

One of James Harrison’s  current projects is called 'Save our Seas through Law (SOS-LAW) – Strengthening the UK legal framework for the Protection of the Marine Environment’ and it is a collaboration with the Community of Arran Seabed Trust, looking at contemporary challenges with MPA governance in Scotland. The research draws upon relevant international law and best practices in order to critically analyse the current Scottish/UK legal framework for MPA designation and management. The project is funded by a College Impact and Knowledge Exchange Grant.

James Harrison’s other main project looks at legal reform of inshore fisheries governance in Scotland. James Harrison is carrying out this work in collaboration with the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust and is developing a case for substantial reform to the current legal framework for managing inshore fisheries. The project has both institutional and a substantive components to it. James Harrison's long term plans are to broaden this research to look at fisheries governance more generally, with a particular focus on the North-East Atlantic.

Professor Andrew Lang

Andrew Lang works in the field of global regulatory governance, and is currently undertaking a project on the history and evolution of the regulatory policy of the OECD, and its significance in the emergence of regulatory infrastructures for the global economy. This develops his earlier work on the regulatory impacts of international trade and investment law, which remains an important focus. It is also part of a broader strand of research re-thinking the nature and content of ‘neoliberalism’ as a politically diverse set of political practices, frames and habits of thought.

Andrew Lang also has an ongoing project looking at the rise of heterodox capitalisms in the global economic order since the 1990s. The immediate impetus for the project is the current trade tensions between the US and China, which to a significant extent have their roots in the emergence of what has been called ‘Sino-capitalism’, a capitalist form (or combination of forms) which has some familiar aspects from other East Asian economies, and some which are not at all familiar. It is common to describe some of China’s practices and structures as ‘distorting’ global markets, and more generally to use the concept of a ‘market distortion’ to attempt to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate variation in the institutions of market capitalism. This paper elucidates some of the conceptual difficulties associated with that term, and assesses four potential ways in which it may nevertheless become legally and practically functional for this purpose. The claim is that finding a pragmatic legal technique for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate institutional variation is a necessary (though hardly sufficient) condition for the re-stabilisation of a multilateral trading system.

Watch Andrew Lang discuss US-China Trade Relations

Watch Andrew Lang discuss Global Meta Regulation

Dr Kasey McCall-Smith

Kasey McCall Smith’s current research project 'Torture on Trial' examines the legal framework ensuring the complete prohibition against torture in an under-examined trial setting. The 2014 Senate Torture Report confirmed that many men detained in Guantanamo were tortured during the highly controversial US anti-terrorism campaigns. Five of these men are on trial in relation to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US in the KSM trial. The military commission tasked with hearing these charges is proceeding in Guantanamo where the defendants have been held under the laws of war as suspected terrorists for over 15 years. Specifically, the project examines whether violations of the rules prohibiting torture impact a trial in real-time. Fundamentally, the project seeks to reaffirm that maintaining the prohibition against torture far outweighs arguments for allowing exceptions to the rule.

Kasey McCall Smith’s next major project aims to develop the terminology and approaches to the incorporation of human rights treaties in national legal systems. Following on from an article she published this year looking at the incorporation of children's rights, her preliminary findings were that there is little common ground upon which a basis for discussion about the incorporation of international law can be framed. A coherent reference framework is necessary in order to better facilitate discussions in various contexts, including political discourse, law and policy development and civil society engagement with government organs.

Watch Kasey McCall-Smith discuss Human Rights Obligations and Guantanamo

Professor Stephen Neff

Stephen Neff's current research projects are two: (1) a book on the history of natural-law thought; and (2) Oversight (as a general editor) of the Cambridge History of International Law.  Regarding the Cambridge History, Stephen Neff is also the editor of one of the individual volumes (covering the period 1870-1920), in addition to being on the board of editors for the project as a whole.

Gavin Sullivan

Gavin Sullivan joined Edinburgh Law School in February 2021 as Reader in International Human Rights Law. He was previously a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Kent (2016 – 2020) and was awarded his PhD (cum laude) from the University of Amsterdam. Gavin’s research focuses on the politics of global security law, technology and rights using socio-legal and ethnographic methods. His research interests include international organisations and collective security; algorithmic governance, accountability and international human rights; transnational and informal law, global pluralism and constitutionalism; counterterrorism and preemptive security. In 2020 Gavin was awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship for his socio-legal research project, Infra-Legalities: Global Security Infrastructures, Artificial Intelligence and International Law (2021 – 2028).  He leads an interdisciplinary team of scholars in international law, anthropology, socio-legal studies, computer science and security studies to examine how AI-led security, and the data infrastructures that sustain it, are reshaping global security law, rights and accountability and security decision-making. He is joined in this project by Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr. Dimitri Van Den Meerssche.

Gavin Sullivan is a practising solicitor with advocacy experience in public law, environmental law, international human rights and global security law. Since 2010 he has provided pro bono representation to people targeted by security lists worldwide, including before the UN Office of the Ombudsperson. Gavin has worked widely as an expert consultant on counterterrorism issues, including for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. He is a member of the ‘Transparency’ and ‘Legal Frameworks’ working groups of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, co-covenor of the ESIL International Law and Technology Interest Group and on the Editorial Committee of the journal, Transnational Legal Theory. Gavin’s book - The Law of the List: UN Counterterrorism Sanctions and the Politics of Global Security Law (Cambridge University Press, 2020) – was awarded the 2021 International Studies Association STAIR Book Award for research bringing STS into dialogue with global politics, and the 2020 International Studies Association ILAW Book Award for research that makes an outstanding contributions to the field of international law.

Dr Dimitri Van Den Meerssche

Dimitri Van Den Meerssche’s research focuses on how digital technologies alter, disable or disrupt international legal norms and practices. He works as a Research Fellow for the UKRI-funded project Infra-Legalities: Global Security Infrastructures, Artificial Intelligence and International Law, where his specific current focus is on systems of algorithmic risk classification at the border. The aim of this project is to rethink global security governance by focusing on its material infrastructures and socio-technical settings – an approach inspired by science and technology studies and actor-network theory. In the context of this research agenda, Dimitri Van Den Meerssche also co-organizes the workshops on Artificial Intelligence and the International Rule of Law (a project led by professor Nehal Bhuta). In the next three years, Dimitri will be conducting ethnographic research in different sites of security governance – following the actants enrolled in and affected by its contemporary data infrastructures.

Dimitri Van Den Meerssche’s research on changing rationalities and techniques of governance also entails an engagement with problems of method(ology) and prospects of critique. In this light, he is currently convening a special issue on New Ways of Seeing Like a State – On the Problem of Critique in Global Governance, which takes on the invitation by professor Fleur Johns to reconsider and revisit the traditional tropes of critique in international legal theory.

Dimitri Van Den Meerssche is also still engaged in a research project on international organizations law – the law of the World Bank in particular. He is currently finalising a monograph – The World Bank’s Lawyers: The Life of International Law as Institutional Practice (under contract with Oxford University Press) – that provides a practice-based account of changes in the practice and politics of law within this institutional space.

Artificial Intelligence and the International Rule of Law

The Artificial Intelligence and the International Rule of Law Workshop Series aims to explore fundamental questions about the relationship between international legal obligations and emerging applications of artificial intelligence (AI) that bear upon key domains of international law: the laws of war, human rights and refugee law.

The challenges of AI are an ever-present subject of debate and discussion, and the public are presented with a constant refrain that AI will change everything. In actuality, current real-world AI development and application is particularly tangible and visible in one domain: the delegation of decisions by public authorities (national and international) to AI systems.

The workshop series will explore these processes within three specific domains: AI and battlefield decision-making under the laws of war; AI and the digitalisation of welfare policy; and AI and refugee determination and border control. These three domains of real-world AI application by public powers raise fundamental questions about the rule of international law in the creation, use and responsibility for AI systems to which law-governed decisions have been partially or fully delegated.

Each workshop will develop a case study based on an existing technology or in-development platform, and engage with policy-makers, computer scientists, technologists, industry representatives and individuals working at the cutting-edge of developing and using these systems.

More information on the Artificial Intelligence and the International Rule of Law project

The Cambridge History of Rights

The project’s output will be a 5-volume series, produced under the general editorship of Nehal Bhuta (University of Edinburgh), Anthony Pagden (UCLA) and Mira Siegelberg (University of Cambridge), published by Cambridge University Press. It will be a history not only of the ever-increasing importance of what we take to be “rights” for all significant legal and political claims, but also of the ways in which our understanding of what rights are has changed. Together, the volumes of the collection will explore that history from the ancient world to the modern. The Cambridge History of Rights project will be the first systematic attempt to do so.

More information about the Cambridge History of Rights

The Faces of Human Rights

The Faces of Human Rights was conceived both as a celebration of the UDHR and a tribute to those individuals who laid the groundwork for that document and, more generally, developed our current conceptions of human rights through their various distinguished contributions to the field: as academics, civil servants, civil society activists, judges, lawmakers, philosophers, politicians, and so on.

Through these pages, we seek to recall the reasons why human rights are so essential to the post-Second World War peace and how the flame that is human dignity continues to burn and move individuals to act in its pursuit. It is through this reflection that we recall that behind the UDHR, the many additional human rights treaties, the bureaucracy, the struggle and the heartbreak are the people who have fought to maintain the inherent self-worth and freedoms of every human, and continue to do so, one cause, one speech, one article, one conversation, one kind word at a time.

These chapters also serve as a witness to the many varied ways in which each person can contribute to the recognition of human dignity, from small actions close to home to grand interjections into the international framework. While everyone chooses to interpret the actions and contributions of the individuals we celebrate here, it is our utmost hope that our underlying concept is conveyed: at the heart of human rights are humans, and we all have a role to play in fulfilling the promise of a future where dignity is at the core of all action.

Watch the Faces of Human Rights book trailer

More information on the Faces of Human Rights from Hart Publishing

Incorporating Human Rights in Scotland

The First Minister of Scotland has committed to incorporating international children’s rights into domestic law, and the Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership has further recommended that Scotland should incorporate all human rights treaties. Recent research shows that incorporation is complex and that civil society groups are often confused by how incorporation can be done and what it can achieve in practice.

Dr Kasey McCall-Smith is working with key partners (Human Rights Consortium Scotland, Amnesty Scotland and Together) to develop a framework for best practice on incorporation, ensuring that civil society organisations have the information and training they need in order to influence key decision-makers.

More information on the Incorporating Human Rights in Scotland project


infra-Legalities rethinks global security law from the ‘infrastructure space’ it is creating, examining how AI-led security, and the data infrastructures that sustain it, are reshaping law and governance, rights and accountability and security decision-making. The project is funded by a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship, awarded to Dr. Gavin Sullivan.

The hypothesis is that the most far-reaching changes to global security governance are not being written in the language of international law, or enacted by expanding the formal powers of states and IOs, but being built through new configurations of socio-technical infrastructure and the expertise they are enabling.

The project develops and experiments with the concept of ‘infra-legalities’ to both account for these shifts and suggest novel ways of approaching the socio-legal study of algorithmic security governance. Infrastructure is usually disregarded as an invisible substrate and seldom conceived of as something through which power, knowledge, agency, governance and law can be generated and transformed.

Drawing from Science and Technology Studies, critical security studies, socio-legal studies and computer science, this project performs an ‘infrastructural inversion’ by analytically foregrounding and empirically mapping the seemingly mundane governance work that information infrastructure is doing in this domain (Bowker and Star 1999).

By methodologically ‘following the data’ through security encounters with targeted individuals and groups – and tracing the relations, knowledge practices, norms and socio-technical networks that security infrastructures are enacting – a different topology of global governance can emerge. Mapping data infrastructures in motion is key to understanding how AI and automation are reshaping law, security power, rights and accountability.

More information on the infra-Legalities project

The Politics of International Criminal Justice after the Arab Uprisings

Dr Michelle Burgis-Kasthala will be commencing a three-year Australian Research Council funded grant at the end of September 2014. During the project, she will be based at the Regulatory Institutions Network at the Australian National University. Her project is titled, 'The Politics of International Criminal Justice after the Arab Uprisings' and it will interrogate how international criminal law can reshape state-society relations in periods of transition after conflict or repressive rule. Since late 2011 socio-political and legal change has swept across the Middle East and North Africa, requiring us to understand the role that various forms of national and international law can play for redressing past wrongs. By conducting fieldwork in the region to carry out interviews with lawyers, judges and members of civil society in Libya,Palestine and Syria, this project seeks to understand the nature of the emerging Arab state and how it is shaped by international law and notions of individual criminal responsibility.

Prototyping the International Rule of Law – An Exploration in Enhancing Human Reasoning with Machine Learning in Domains of International Law

The ambition of this research project, led by Prof Nehal Bhuta and Prof Michael Rovatsos (Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Director of the Bayes Centre, University of Edinburgh), is to develop a prototype to yield insights (risks and rewards) into the uses of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) by governments in the exercise of decision-making constrained by the international legal norms. The key objective is not to create a model that can be applied to actual refugee decision making; rather, it is to gain insights into the dynamics, risks, rewards and data-related challenges of even attempting such an application of machine learning, where a crucial social value such as the “rule of law” is at stake. The project is funded by a grant from the Cisco University Research Program Fund, a corporate advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Reversing the Gaze: Towards Post-Comparative Area Studies

'Reversing the Gaze’ is a £2.1 million, four-year project that studies political phenomena in Europe through concepts developed in and from the Global South. By ‘reversing our gaze’ – that is, studying Europe through the Global South, rather than analysing the South through ideal-types developed from Europe – it aims to generate new empirical insights into European politics, and new methodological and theoretical perspectives on conducting comparisons.

Learn more about the 'Reversing the Gaze' project

Torture on Trial

Dr Kasey McCall-Smith has spend the past three years examining he international and human rights law issues relating to Guantánamo Bay detention operations and military commissions. US detention operations at Guantánamo Bay present a vivid example of the manipulation of international law in an effort to root out terrorists. The 2014 Senate Torture Report confirmed that many men detained in Guantánamo were tortured during the highly controversial US anti-terrorism campaigns. Five of these men are on trial in relation to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US in the KSM trial. The military commission tasked with hearing these charges is proceeding in Guantánamo where the defendants have been held as suspected terrorists for over ten years. This project will evaluate the legal framework ensuring the complete prohibition against torture in an under-examined trial setting. Specifically, the project will evaluate whether violations of the rules prohibiting torture impact a trial in real-time. Fundamentally, the project seeks to reaffirm that maintaining the prohibition against torture far outweighs arguments for allowing exceptions to the rule. This project is generously funded by a Royal Society of Edinburgh Arts and Humanities Small Grant. You can read blogs on the preliminary observations here.

The project builds upon a previous project, 'Getting to Grips with Guantánamo' which provided a ‘boots on the ground’ perspective of Guantánamo coupled with an evaluation of US and UK international legal obligations. A primary focus was the military commission proceedings against defendants charged with the planning of the 9/11 attacks on the US and the way in which the issue of torture influenced every aspect of the trial. Parts of the project were funded by the CAHSS/ESRC through an Impact Grant. Preliminary observations can be read here in addition to the public facing news article 'Inside notorious Guantanamo' in The Scotsman from January 2017.