Obituary: Sir Robert Jennings ; Pragmatic President of the International Court of Justice
Lowe, Vaughan, The Independent (London, England)
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. …