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On UN International Law Commission, professor tackles world’s biggest issues through teamwork
Charles Jalloh speaks at an FIU symposium. (Photo taken prior to COVID-19 pandemic.)

On UN International Law Commission, professor tackles world’s biggest issues through teamwork

In 2016, Charles Jalloh became the second person ever from Sierra Leone to serve on the United Nations International Law Commission. He has now been nominated for a second term.

March 12, 2021 at 1:30pm

From sea-level rise to the deterioration of Earth’s atmosphere to threats of future pandemics, numerous issues threaten human health and prosperity in the 21st century if nations and states do not work together. 

Fortunately, though, there are people around the world coming together to work toward solutions. FIU Law professor Charles Jalloh is one of them. 

Jalloh serves on the U.N. International Law Commission (ILC), a globally elected body of 34 eminent legal scholars working to build consensus and codification around the world’s most serious issues. 

Their role as independent experts is to help codify and progressively develop international law for the General Assembly, where 193 U.N. member countries are represented.

“If lawyers and legal experts can agree on things, it can enhance the likelihood that states can agree, right?” Jalloh says.

Seats are allotted by continents in accordance with a system that countries agreed to in 1981 to ensure each part of the world is properly represented. Potential new members are nominated by their home states for five-year terms. And then the candidates are voted on by all members of the General Assembly.

Jalloh was nominated by Sierra Leone for one of the African seats. He was endorsed by the 55 countries in the African Union and elected by the assembly in 2016. Sierra Leone has also nominated him for a second term.

The ILC meets in Geneva, Switzerland, on an annual basis for weeks at a timeBuilding universal consensus sometimes takes years. The commission must translate its laws across five languages and involve people of all legal backgroundsfrom civil law to Islamic law. At the end of the day, they all try to agree. They don’t vote.  

Jalloh served as chair of the drafting committee for the historic 70th (2018) session, where the ILC discussed a wide variety of topics, including immunity of state officials from foreign criminal jurisdiction, interpretation of treaties and protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts. In 2019, his colleagues elected him as the rapporteur for the 71st session.

“[Watching Jalloh] working to reach consensus on various tough issues, that’s something that I keep in mind to this day,” says Thomas Campbell, an FIU Law alumnus who assisted Jalloh in Geneva. “There is nothing too crazy to not come to an agreement on. Everything can be worked out in some way.” 

With a desire to give back to young legal scholars, Jalloh has developed a program that helps students gain invaluable experience. At his initiative, he and FIU Law operate a fellowship that takes students to Geneva to write, collaborate and research alongside him at the ILC. FIU students get to work alongside peers from all over the world.

“When I was there, there were a bunch of students from NYU,” says Ashira Vantrees, a third-year law student. Jalloh had just been teaching in Sweden, so we had other research assistants that were from there. There were assistants from India. It’s really unique because you see the next generation of people who are interested in international law, like scholarly law, all coming from different institutions but doing the same things you are with the same goals.” 

The issues affecting humanity are evolving, and the ILC is working to adapt. For example, members are discussing what international law should be around sea-level rise, which is both displacing people and removing usable territory for states. The impacts are many, both for the concept of the nation/state, which is central to international law, as well as for populations.

"We have talked about environmental refugees, and no one really has an answer, because international law never really considered countries disappearing,” Jalloh says. “Australia is having people knock on its door and say, 'Hey we have nowhere else to go.’"

Jalloh and his colleagues are coming up with how they can legally guide countries and states in the protection of global commons. 

“A lot of these new questions don’t have clear rules. Things are happening so fast,” Jalloh says. 

Since its inception, the commission has worked vigorously to create international law. It has contributed significantly to diverse areas of international law, Jalloh explained, including to the law of the sea, international criminal law, the law of treaties, state responsibility and diplomatic immunity.

The ILC has also worked on questions around some of the most heinous crimes and how to hold people accountable. Genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression (between countries) have all been defined by the ILC.

As far as how effective these international laws are in reality, Jalloh has studied this extensively. He has spent the last two decades as a prolific scholar in international criminal law and international human rights law. His education includes a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Guelph, Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Civil Law from McGill University and a master’s in international human rights law, with distinction, from Oxford University, where he was a Chevening Scholar. He also holds a Ph.D. of Philosophy, specializing in international law from the University of Amsterdam.

Jalloh was called to study international criminal law in part from his personal experience. His home country of Sierra Leone became mired in horrific civil war during his teenage years. Jalloh left at 19 for Canada, where he was granted refugee status.

“I was really fired up about what I had experienced,” Jalloh says. “My passion was very much about getting to academia and this area of work.” 

He went on to become the founding editor of the African Journal of Legal Studies and the African  Journal of International Criminal Justice.  

Jalloh has also published numerous books. His latest work, The Legal Legacy of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, documents the impact of the international tribunal that the U.N. helped to set up in his home country following the war. It was a first in the history of international law; his work traces the legacy it left for African states and also for international law more generally.

Jalloh has also focused his scholarship on how effective the ILC has been and its role in developing international law. In 2018, he led the convening of a symposium in Miami with FIU Law Review that invited members of the ILC, delegates of states and leading jurists in international law from many countries to discuss the commission's role and contributions to the development of international law. The event was mentioned in the ILC’s report to the General Assembly and led to the publication of a special symposium issue by the law review.

Jalloh has been recognized with numerous accolades as a professor, including the FIU Faculty Senate Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Activities in 2018 and the 2018-2019 Fulbright Lund Distinguished Chair in Public International Law at Lund University in Sweden.

Jalloh (left) and Michael Kanu, Deputy Ambassador of S. Leone to the United Nations (right) at the FIU Law Review symposium in Miami.


After being nominated for a second term on the ILC by Sierra Leone, Jalloh has again received the endorsement of the countries in the African Union. The General Assembly is set to vote on members of the commission in November.


Attendees of the symposium at FIU with Jalloh (middle)