Sir Robert Jennings

Pragmatic president of the International Court of Justice
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The Independent Online

Respected for his scholarship, admired and trusted as a man of common sense, and held in the highest affection by friends and colleagues, Robert Jennings, Whewell Professor of International Law at Cambridge University from 1955 to 1982, was one of the pre-eminent figures of international law during a period when it underwent a radical expansion in its scope and importance.

Robert Yewdall Jennings, lawyer: born Idle, West Yorkshire 19 October 1913; Fellow, Jesus College, Cambridge 1939-82, Senior Tutor 1949-55; called to the Bar, Lincoln's Inn 1943; Whewell Professor of International Law, Cambridge University 1955-1982; Reader in International Law, Council of Legal Education 1959-70; QC 1969; Kt 1982; Judge, International Court of Justice 1982-95, President 1991-94; married 1955 Christine Bennett (one son, two daughters); died Cambridge 4 August 2004.

Respected for his scholarship, admired and trusted as a man of common sense, and held in the highest affection by friends and colleagues, Robert Jennings, Whewell Professor of International Law at Cambridge University from 1955 to 1982, was one of the pre-eminent figures of international law during a period when it underwent a radical expansion in its scope and importance.

In 1982 he was appointed a judge on the International Court of Justice. At the time, the court had a dearth of business. The number and importance of its cases, however, was to increase significantly. He sat on the bench for some of the most notable of them, including that brought by Nicaragua against the United States over US support for the contras, a number of boundary cases that demonstrated the increasing confidence of non-Western states in the court, and the Lockerbie case brought by Libya against the UK and US.

Jennings's analytical acuity and expert draftsmanship gave him much influence, and he was repeatedly elected to the drafting committees that prepared the court's judgments. As president of the court for three years from 1991, he was acknowledged to be superb: impartial, judicious, acute and efficient. He presided with great skill and urbanity, and did much to further the relations of the court with the United Nations (which controls its budget).

The role of international judges can be a difficult one. Adherence to principle may be criticised as ivory-tower idealism; accommodation of practicalities as unprincipled realpolitik. Somehow, Jennings managed, through his combination of intellectual honesty and principled common sense, to find solutions that were not only robust and carefully argued as a matter of law, but also had an air of unavoidable rightness about them. His gift was, and always had been, to make his analysis of a problem seem obvious.

Robert Yewdall Jennings was born in West Yorkshire in 1913. His father managed a small manufacturing firm, and his mother was a weaver at the mill. Educated at the local village school, and later at Belle Vue Grammar School in Bradford, he went on to study as a historian at Downing College, Cambridge. His family were strong Wesleyan Methodists and he followed the tradition, travelling around chapels near Cambridge as a local preacher during his student days.

After he gained an upper first class degree, the award of a Squire Law scholarship and some assistance from his local authority provided the financial support that enabled him to proceed to study Law. Again, Jennings excelled, gaining first class honours in both parts of the Cambridge Law Tripos and in the postgraduate LLB degree, and being awarded the Whewell and Cassell scholarships.

He had studied international law at Cambridge under Arnold (later Lord) McNair, who became a judge on the International Court of Justice; and in 1936 he left Britain for the first time, sailing on the Queen Mary for the US, to spend a year as Choate Fellow at Harvard, where the distinguished scholar and judge Manley O. Hudson was then teaching. In 1938 Jennings returned to Britain to begin teaching at the London School of Economics, and published in the American Journal of International Law the first of a series of papers and books in a career that spanned more than 60 years as one of the most lucid and trenchant of international legal scholars.

By 1939 he had returned to Cambridge, to take up a Fellowship at Jesus College. The Second World War years saw him working in military intelligence, on the interpretation of aerial photographs, and subsequently in India and Ceylon. He was also called to the Bar in 1943 by Lincoln's Inn, serving his pupillage in a Blitz-torn London in a building which he remembered as being without doors or fires and in which he and other barristers worked wearing overcoats in order to keep warm.

Demobilised in 1946, by then with the rank of major, he resumed his work at Cambridge, where he continued to teach law and also became Senior Tutor of Jesus College. Teaching law, and particularly international law, to a generation of men and women returning from military service and the experiences of wartime demanded an unusual sensitivity and realism about the role of law and what it can and cannot do. That experience cemented a pragmatism into Jennings's approach to the law that was apparent in all of his work.

In 1955 Robbie Jennings married Christine Bennett and succeeded Sir Hersch Lauterpacht as Whewell Professor of International Law. His priority lay always with his students, both in Cambridge and in London, where from 1959 to 1970 he was Reader in International Law at the Inns of Court Council of Legal Education, rather than with publishers. His lectures are remembered for their lucidity and incisiveness. His aim, he said, was to explain things so that the man at the back who was going to get a lower Second could understand.

Those qualities characterised his writing, too, as is evident from the two volumes of Collected Writings of Sir Robert Jennings, published in 1998. His study The Acquisition of Territory in International Law (1963), based on the Melland Schill lectures which he delivered in Manchester, is not only a classic exposition of the subject and often quoted, but a model of clarity and economy in its analysis and presentation.

He was never a prolific writer; but he put much effort into publishing the work of others, first as public international law editor of the International and Comparative Law Quarterly and later as co-editor of the British Year Book of International Law for over 20 years.

In 1982, Jennings reached the age of 68 and retired from the Whewell Chair. He was appointed a judge on the International Court of Justice following the death of Sir Humphrey Waldock in the summer of 1981. Knighted in 1982, he became Judge Sir Robert Jennings; but to all who knew him he remained, as he always had been, plain Robbie. His judicial appointment marked the beginning of what was in effect a second career.

During his period as Whewell Professor, he had had his first exposure to the professional side of international law. His opinions were much sought after, notably by multinational companies on such questions as the extra- territorial reach of the US anti-trust laws. He had been involved in several cases, before the International Court and before arbitration tribunals. He had acted as counsel in continental shelf disputes between Tunisia and Libya and between France and the United Kingdom, and also in boundary cases between Dubai and Sharjah, and Argentine and Chile. He was a quiet advocate who commanded respect by the solidity of his arguments and the restraint with which he delivered them.

He had also taken silk in 1969, but he had not been one of the most active practitioners and had little judicial experience, though he had sat as a judge ad hoc in the European Court of Human Rights in 1982. None the less, Jennings's years on the court saw an extraordinary blossoming of his career that was sustained right up to the time of his death.

He wrote, together with Sir Arthur Watts (formerly Legal Adviser to the Foreign Office), the great ninth edition of Oppenheim's International Law, published in 1992 and widely regarded as the most authoritative work of reference on international law. He was given numerous honorary doctorates and fellowships. The Sir Robert Jennings Chair in International Law was established at Leicester University in his honour. In Cambridge a road was named after him.

One might meet Robbie Jennings at a gathering in Grantchester, where he and Christine lived happily for many years, and know nothing of all this. His modesty was remarkable. He coped, he said, with the demanding official visits abroad he made as President of the International Court, where he was treated to tours and dinners and exhibitions as a high international dignitary, by imagining himself to be a small brown-paper parcel passed from host to host.

He was the very antithesis of the great legal personalities who appear lost and colourless outside the law. His study was dominated not by law books but by Wisden, Bach, Haydn and Mozart, and he would talk happily about the simple pleasures of the Lake District from a small cottage in Eskdale, where he would scythe the grass and rebuild the dry-stone walls. The physical contact with the brute earth seem to give him a rootedness in the real world that enabled him to see through false impressions and unimportant details.

Vaughan Lowe