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PhD Defence

Navigating Between Principle and Pragmatism: The Roles and Functions of Atrocity-Related United Nations Commissions of Inquiry in the International Legal Order

Wednesday 7 November 2018
Academy Building
Rapenburg 73
2311 GJ Leiden


  • Prof. L.J. Van den Herik
  • Prof. C. Stahn


PhD defences are free; you do not have to register.


The United Nations system envisages many strategies to respond to situations of mass atrocities, including international commissions of inquiry. At least thirty inquiries have investigated suspected violations of international law, identified those responsible and made recommendations for corrective action. UN atrocity inquiries resemble legal processes in some ways, while remaining non-legal in others: their reports have no direct legal effect and their recommendations may address political as well as legal actors and processes.

This research explores UN atrocity inquiries’ turn to international law and their navigation of considerations of principle (the legal) and pragmatism (the political), to discern their identity in the international legal order. The thesis traces the inquiry process from establishment and interpretation of the mandate to legal analysis, production of findings and recommendations.

The research finds that the turn to international law fundamentally shapes the roles and functions of UN atrocity inquiries. Commissions seeking to promote accountability and the rule of law are linked to truth-seeking, giving a voice to victims, condemning violations, raising alert and provoking corrective action. Yet, commissions’ interpretations of their mandates, legal analysis, findings and recommendations reveal an awareness of their liminal position between international law and politics. Their informality renders commissions well-placed to propose innovative legal interpretations, draw attention to violations and catalyse follow-up, while space is retained for diplomatic approaches and discretion in implementing recommendations. In short, UN atrocity inquiries continuously navigate between realms of law and politics, with the equilibrium shifting in different moments and contexts.

PhD dissertations

PhD dissertations by Leiden PhD students are available digitally after the defence through the Leiden Repository, that offers free access to these PhD dissertations. Please note that in some cases a dissertation may be under embargo temporarily and access to its full-text version will only be granted later.

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Maarten Muns, Scientific Communications Adviser, Leiden University
+31 71 527 3282

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