Staff Seminar: International Law in Australian Public Debate

In this staff seminar, Dr Madelaine Chiam will present a paper titled, ‘International Law in Australian Public Debate’.


The debate over the Trump administration’s missile attacks on Syria demonstrates how governments are now routinely expected to provide international legal justifications for their military actions. For many international lawyers, this public relevance for international law stems from the 2003 debates over the Iraq War. At the height of those debates, for example, Professors Phillip Allott and Alan Dashwood wrote in a letter to The Times newspaper in London that ‘[t]he question of legality of the use of armed force against Iraq has assumed a surprising prominence’.[1]

This paper challenges the perception that international law was relatively absent from public debates about war before 2003. By examining texts from the debates over Australia’s participation in the 2003 Iraq War, the Vietnam War and the First World War, this paper argues that the contemporary prominence of international law in public debate is not new. Rather, the 2003 debates signified a shift of form: a move from the predominant use of international legal language as one part of bundled justifications for war to international law as an autonomous justification for war. The claims of legality that continue to be made in Australian debates are thus part of a longer practice of speaking international legal language in public debates about war.

[1] Phillip Allott and Alan Dashwood, ‘Letter to the Editor’, The Times (19 March 2003) 23.


Madelaine Chiam is a Lecturer at La Trobe Law School. She holds degrees from the University of Melbourne and the University of Toronto. Madelaine researches in the histories and languages of international law, and the relationships between the global and the local. Her most recent publication, ‘Tom Barker’s “To Arms!” Poster: Internationalism and Resistance in First World War Australia’ is forthcoming in the London Review of International Law. Madelaine is a regular member of the faculty at the Harvard Law School Institute for Global Law and Policy Workshops.


Date: Wednesday 17 May 2017

Time: 11.45pm to 1.00pm. Light refreshments will be provided from 11.45am-12noon.

Venue: Level 2, La Trobe Law School Moot Court (Social Sciences building, Room 232), La Trobe University, Bundoora

Cost: Free

RVSP: Please register via Eventbrite. For catering purposes, please register no later than Sunday 14 May.

La Trobe