Conversation with Professor Linos-Alexandre Sicilianos

1.    This past July, you’ve finished the General Course of the 100th edition of the Academy Summer Courses. How was your experience and what were your main takeaways from this year?

Concluding the General Course during the Academy’s Centennial year has been an exceptionally rewarding experience. Undoubtedly, it stands out as the pinnacle of my academic journey. The diverse composition of the international student body, characterized by varying levels of proficiency in international law, presented a unique challenge during lectures at the Academy. Engaging with students from different nationalities, both during afternoon seminars and post-course discussions, was particularly enriching. My key takeaway from this experience,  is the realization that conducting an interactive General Course is not only possible but immensely beneficial.

Also, incorporating a bilingual PowerPoint turned out to be a valuable tool, fostering clarity and conciseness for both the students and myself. The interactions throughout the course, combined with the preparatory phase beforehand, was truly wonderful.

As I’m now finishing the written version of the course, the process has allowed me to delve deeper into international law, prompting a thoughtful reevaluation of my previous positions on several issues of international law. This aspect of academic exploration is unique and enriching in one's career.

2.    You’ve been a member of the Academy’s Curatorium for many years now. How do you think the Academy has changed since you first joined?

I’ve been a member of the Curatorium since 2010. I think the Academy has changed a lot while also remaining the same. Let me please explain this partly contradictory statement. Our commitment to excellence and our tried-and-true modus operandi persists, dedicated to achieving the best outcomes for both students as well as the lecturers.
Simultaneously, significant changes have unfolded and I've observed a notable transformation within the Academy.

The introduction of the Winter Course and the expansion of activities at the Academy have been pivotal. We've been fortunate to have had two outstanding Secretary-Generals, Professor Yves Daudet, now the President of the Curatorium, and Professor Jean-Marc Thouvenin, who has held this position since 2017. Under their leadership noteworthy advancements were made such as the further development of the External Program and improvements to the publications, including the introduction of pocket books. Efforts to enhance diversity are evident, such as increasing the representation of women in the Curatorium and ensuring a global representation beyond Europe, spanning the Americas, Asia (China and Japan), Africa, and Australia.

The Curatorium has evolved into a well-balanced group, a source of great satisfaction. This diversity not only enriches our courses by bringing together participants from various nationalities, but also allows for opportunities to further diversify the programs which ultimately contributes to the global character of our academic community.

3.    The Academy recently held a commemoration service for ICJ Judge Antonio Cançado Trindade. Did you know Judge Cançado Trindade or did he have an influence on your work?

I have been acquainted with Judge Cançado Trindade since 1992, when we first met at an event in Sintra, Portugal. The memory of that initial encounter is vivid, as it marked the beginning of a close relationship, not only within the Curatorium but also within the Institut de Droit International. Our paths intersected at the International Institute of Human Rights, where he taught and I served as vice-president for several years. During this time, we taught in parallel of one another.

Additionally, I extended invitations to him on numerous occasions at the European Court of Human Rights during my tenure as the Court's president. Whenever I traveled to The Hague for Curatorium matters, Judge Cançado Trindade consistently invited me for splendid dinners at Restaurant La Passione. These occasions were characterized by wonderful meals and intellectually enriching conversations, contributing not only to our gastronomic experiences but also fostering the exchange of profound ideas. 

4.    As a professor of international law, what initially brought you into academia?

I come from a lineage of university professors spanning three generations, and this, to a significant extent, is rooted in our family traditions. Another influential factor is my mentor and professor Emmanuel Roucounas, who taught at the Academy on two occasions. Additionally, Judge Valticos, a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights and former president of the Curatorium, played an important role in shaping my academic path. Both professor Roucounas and judge Valticos have not only encouraged and supported me, but have been a continued source of inspiration. Professor Roucounas, in particular, remains an influential figure with whom I maintain close contact. His impact extends beyond just me, as he has inspired quite a number of students and professors of international law all over the globe. 

5.    Do you remember your first encounter with international law or what sparked your interest in international law?

My initial exposure to international law occurred during my first year as a law student at the University of Athens. The curriculum included various courses on international law, such as human rights law, international economic law, and the law of international organizations. These subjects captured my interest from the outset. Throughout my studies at the Law Faculty, where I now serve as the dean, I found inspiration in my colleagues and the insightful lectures on international law. My post-graduate studies in Strasbourg and Paris further enriched my understanding, thanks to exceptional professors. I am very much in debt to my professors in both Greece and France.

6.    What sparked your interest in human rights law? 

My interest in human rights law was sparked by the Marangopoulos Foundation for Human Rights in Greece, founded by my late uncle during the dictatorship. His experiences, from resigning as a councilor of State to later becoming the president of the Council of State, the highest administrative court in Greece, influenced my career. I've been closely involved with the foundation since the 1990s, serving as Director and currently as vice-president.

Throughout my career, I’ve remained dedicated to human rights by the various roles I held at the UN, among others as an independent expert and vice-president of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, but also at other organizations such as the Human Rights Agency of the European Union and in different committees at the Council of Europe. These experiences, combined with my engagement in public international law, explain very well my choice for the topic of the Academy's General Course, namely the human dimension of international law. In the General Course, I have given my own perspective on international law, through the lens of human rights law. 

7.    As former ECHR president, what were some of the most memorable (positive or negative) cases before your court?

Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of being involved in a multitude of cases. I’ve been rapporteur in approximately 500 cases and a member of the composition in more than 6000 cases. So, it’s quite challenging to make a selection, but among the myriad of impactful cases, several stand out prominently. Notably, Chowdhury v. Greece case addressed the grave issue of human trafficking, shedding light on this egregious violation. The case later became the subject of numerous prestigious journal articles throughout the globe. Another memorable case was of Big Brother Watch v. UK, concerning the activities of MI5 and MI6. 

As president of the European Court of Human Rights, I have presided over the Grand Chamber in the case between Ukraine v. Russia concerning Crimea and also Georgia v. Russia (II), a case concerning the intervention of the Russian Federation in Georgia in 2008 and its aftermath.

I have also presided over the second advisory opinion before the European Court of Human Rights which was important, because it concerned article 7 of the European Convention of Human Rights, the principle of nullum crimen, nulla poena sine lege. In the realm of cultural and religious rights, the Molla Sali v. Greece case reached the Grand Chamber, addressing the jurisdictional competences of the Mufti and questioning the applicability of Islamic (Sharia) law in Greece. The main legal question in this case is whether Islamic (Sharia) law is applicable in spite of the objections of the interested parties. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the imposition of Islamic (Sharia) law upon interested parties lacks legitimacy unless expressly consented to by both parties. This judgment had a tremendous impact on Greece and is considered a landmark case as national legislation was changed, particularly regarding the competence of the Mufti.

Another landmark case of pan-European interest was Roman Zakharov v. Russia, which brought to the forefront the intricate principles governing secret surveillance of cell phone communications. This case contributed to shaping the operational framework for intelligence services across Europe. Each of these cases, with its unique legal complexities, contributed to the rich tapestry of jurisprudence during my tenure at the European Court of Human Rights.

8.    Is there a specific case that all students of international and EU Law should know about?

Certainly. Another seminal case is the Al-Dulimi v. Switzerland (2016) by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. This case delves into the impact of UN targeted sanctions on domestic and EU legal frameworks, closely paralleling the well-known Kadi case (I & II) from the European Court of Justice. In my perspective, the Al-Dulimi case refined the tools employed by the ECJ, making Al-Dulimi and Kadi akin as twin cases in the European courts. Both cases serve as pivotal instances addressing the intricate relationship between the UN legal order, EU legal order, and the European human rights legal order—a topic I find not only intriguing but also exceptionally significant.

9.    Given the ongoing war in Ukraine, what role do you see international law playing in resolving some of the international crises of the 21st century?

International law serves as a foundation for the functioning of the international community. In recent years, we have witnessed an increase in international crises being brought before international courts like the ICJ and ECHR, evident in cases such as the Crimea case (ECHR), Georgia v. Russia II (ECHR), Nagorno-Karabakh case (Armenia v. Azerbaijan), Canada & the Netherlands v. Syria, and Gambia v. Myanmar at the ICJ. It's important to note that while these court judgments contribute to the development of international law, they may not conclusively resolve the issues on the ground.

The evolving landscape of international jurisprudence reflects a trend toward addressing matters involving human rights and international humanitarian law. They demonstrate, in this respect, the humanization of the case law of the ICJ. This is underscored by the observation that a substantial number of cases - 26 as localized in one of the Seminars I gave at The Hague Academy last July - concern issues of international human rights and humanitarian law before the ICJ. In my view, this is an extremely important development that requires comprehensive and in-depth study. 

10.    What do you think is the biggest challenge to international law today?

The primary challenge in international law revolves around the contestation and violation of foundational principles of international law, such as the prohibition of the use of force and the perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The most significant obstacle, in my view, lies in the flagrant violation of these fundamental principles.
Despite these challenges, the international community has demonstrated strong reactions to breaches of international law. Notable instances include the response to the ongoing war in Ukraine, where global organizations, not only at the UN level via the General Assembly, but also at State level and at the level of all international law societies including the Institut de Droit International which issued a resolution concerning the war in Ukraine. Similar reactions are now emerging in response to events in Palestine.

I believe that the edifice of international law remains strong and robust. International lawyers have a pivotal role to play in safeguarding and preserving international legal frameworks.