‘Oxford is a complicated place; it is both very diverse in some ways, and not at all in others’
In September 2019 Professor Dapo Akande, Professor of Public International Law at the Blavatnik School of Government, Fellow at Exeter College and Co-Director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC), became the first black professor to be honoured with a portrait at St Peter’s College, Oxford.
As a professor of public international law, he has both acted as a policy advisor to states and international organizations and acted as counsel or adviser in cases before courts such as, the International Court of Justice, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, and the English courts, including the UK Supreme Court.
Professor Akande — whose research plays a key role in shaping our approach to international governance — discusses Brexit and the biggest challenges facing the world today and how he felt seeing his portrait for the first time.
Congratulations on your portrait unveiling, how does it feel to see your image on the St Peter’s College walls?
In all honesty having a big picture of you in a public place is quite awkward, but of course I am very flattered.
Growing up in Nigeria I never really thought about identity and belonging — my teachers were just like me. But when I got to the UK I realised that it is important for people to see others like them achieving good things, and to feel that they belong.
As a young man growing up in Nigeria I never really thought about identity and belonging — my teachers were just like me. But when I got to the UK I realised that it is important for people to see others like them achieving good things, and to feel that they belong.
What do you think your portrait means to other students?
Personally, it has taken me a while to realise the importance of celebrating diversity, and for people to feel comfortable in this university — wherever they are from. When you don’t see people like you, even if it isn’t an issue at first, at some point you might start to question whether you actually belong in that place.
I received a message a few weeks ago from a black female student who was due to start at St Peter’s College in October. In her email she said that she found it so encouraging that Oxford was celebrating someone like her, and how she was looking forward to seeing the portrait for herself. When she started her course she actually wrote to me again to say she had seen and been encouraged by the portrait, which meant a lot to me. We are going to meet-up, which I am really looking forward to.
You have been at Oxford University for 15 years now, how has it changed over time?
It is difficult to talk about the University as a whole because you do not see everything. But I have always found it to be a very supportive welcoming environment — even more so over time.
I would say that the University has changed a lot in terms of putting effort into showing that it is welcoming and supportive of people of all kinds of backgrounds — race, gender, ethnicity — even just being more family orientated, and accessible for older, or more mature students.
It helps to visualise yourself in a place when you can see people like you being celebrated and acknowledged, it makes it easier to think ‘I can do that.’
When I was an undergraduate law tutor I would organise a dinner for new students, with the aim to get them to meet people who had been in their shoes, and see where they are today. It helps to visualise yourself in a place when you can see people like you being celebrated and acknowledged, it makes it easier to think ‘I can do that.’
Do you think access is a big issue at Oxford University?
Having worked at other universities, I actually think that Oxford as a whole, does a tremendous amount on access issues — more than other universities where I have been. But, I think we need to do a lot — partly because we get so badly beaten up on these issues, but also, the more we do, the better.
I think that Oxford as a whole, does a tremendous amount on access issues — more than other universities where I have been. But, I think we need to do a lot — partly because we get so badly beaten up on these issues, but also, the more we do, the better.
When I started at Oxford 15 years ago, I don’t think the feeling of ‘belonging’ was as important to me as it is now. I have now lived in the UK longer than I lived in Nigeria, and this is home. So if someone were to say ‘go home’ to me now that would be incredibly hurtful, but back then, not as much.
How has the University changed in terms of access?
On my first visit to Oxford 20 years ago I was sat near to a young white girl on the train both ways from Nottingham — where I lived at the time.
I asked her what had bought her to the city, and she said that she had been to an Oxford open day. I said, ‘how exciting, are you going to apply? And she replied, ‘No, I don’t think it is for people like me.’ Which I found so sad.
For this girl to have come alone on the train she was either very self-motivated to come, or, someone spotted potential in her and encouraged her to come. But, unfortunately having spent a day in Oxford, she got the impression that it was not for people like her, and decided not to apply.
The University has changed a lot since then, but I have always wondered what happened to that girl, and tried to encourage students and make them feel they belong here.
What is your favourite thing about Oxford?
That the University always strives for excellence. Also — surprisingly to some, its diversity.
Oxford is complicated in the sense that it is both not diverse in some ways, as well as being very diverse in others. There are some areas of the world which are not as well represented — and we’re well aware of those.
I have worked in other universities both around the country and abroad, and just in terms of the spread of countries and regions that people come from, Oxford is the most diverse by far.
One of the things I like about the city is the unique combination of being relatively small but relatively cosmopolitan. In a relatively small city of no more than 100k+ people you can go to Cowley Road and choose from 28 nationalities of restaurant. I moved here from Newcastle, which is a much bigger place, but I actually felt like I was moving to the big city in coming here.
What would you change?
People like tradition, history and a sense of longevity at Oxford, which can cause a reluctance to try new things and expand our horizons. I think we need to be more adventurous.
The Blavatnik School of Government is an exciting venture for the University. It is still relatively new to a traditional university, and as an academic there is a sense of making strides forward.
Last year you moved your research focus from the Faculty of Law to the Blavatnik School of Government, how has the nature of your work changed?
My research focus is similar, but I am now based somewhere with an explicit mandate on the idea of making government and governance better, there is a more direct connection between academia and policy making.
Can you tell us more about your area of research?
I am specifically interested in how international cooperation works and how international disputes are settled, or not settled. What are the structures and mechanisms that we have for promoting justice internationally and achieving international cooperation?
International law and armed conflict is a very specific research area, have you always had an interest in foreign affairs?
Growing up I would listen to a lot of BBC World Service, and always thinking about what is going on in the world as a whole, which has led me to where I am now — something as simple as that has shaped my life and career.
As boring as it may sound, academia also runs in my family, and I knew fairly early on that I wanted to be an academic and a lawyer. I used to argue a lot at school, and loved to debate. People would joke and say ‘you should be a lawyer’, and I thought ‘ok, that sounds like me.’
When you look at the various issues facing the international community, what troubles you most?
There is a very ‘us first’ mentality in recent years, and a much more competitive international regime as opposed to a cooperative one. We are at a stage — nationally and internationally, where there is a retreat from the mechanisms that we have developed. Institutions and mechanisms like the United Nations, European Union and treaty regimes that have served us relatively well since the Second World War.
There is a very ‘us first’ mentality in recent years, and a much more competitive international regime as opposed to a cooperative one. We need international cooperation, but people don’t see how working together with other countries can give them more control and influence over their own affairs than independence.
Brexit is just one symptom of a bigger problem. From the USA, to Latin America and African countries, there is an increasing retreat from a range of international institutions. For example, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, to the International Criminal Court, and the impending demise of the World Trading System and World Trade Organisation. Leaders’ around the world are moving us back to the things that led to the Second World War, like the rise of nationalism and populism.
Don’t get me wrong, all of these institutions are flawed and imperfect, but the underlying motivation is the idea that we want more control of our own affairs.
If you could change one thing about the state of the world what would it be?
I would actually change two things that go together. We need to better explain the importance of international institutions like the European Union and World Trade Organisation, and help people to see better why they are important — why in and of itself international cooperation is a good thing?
We also need to reform these institutions, because the complaints and grievances that people have are not irrational — we can’t be complacent and assume people do not understand.
We need international cooperation, but people don’t see how working together with other countries can give them more control and influence over their own affairs than independence.
What do you enjoy most in your job?
I love teaching, communicating with and mentoring students. For me that is one of the best bits of academia.
I was in Australia recently for two days for a conference, and spent the whole of the second day with former students. It was so fulfilling to see what they are doing now. I have a section of my bookshelf reserved just for their publications. It is the most special part of my bookshelf.
Have any mentors played a key part in your career?
I am lucky to call Dame Rosalyn C. Higgins, Baroness Higgins, GBE, QC and Sir Daniel Lincoln Bethlehem KCMG QC my mentors and now friends for more than 25 years. They were my lecturers at London School of Economics when I did my Master’s degree.
Dame Higgins gave me my first opportunity to work in International Law, and we recently wrote a book together, for which we won an award from the American Society of International Law.
Both have been hugely supportive and inspirational in how they combined academic success with work advising government, while still being incredibly caring.
What has your career highlight been so far?
I was the founding editor of EJIL:Talk!, the widely read scholarly blog of the European Journal of International Law.
It started out as a passion project, and has really blossomed to allow serious analysis of international law across very different spheres of academia, policy, and NGOs.
I don’t think of myself as very entrepreneurial, but that was something that I started that has taken off beyond anything I would have imagined. Thousands of people now read it every day.
What is next for you?
I have a project funded by the Japanese Government, which looks at cyber security in international law. For the last six years I have also been looking at starvation and humanitarian access in armed conflict with the United Nations and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
When we think about suffering in armed conflict, very often we think of people being killed by targeting e.g. bombs dropped on them either intentionally or through collateral damage. But actually most people die because of lack of access to food, water and medicine. We are looking at what international law says about the use of tactics that would lead to starvation and deprivation of access to food and drink. How can international law help to promote humanitarian access, and the delivery of humanitarian relief?
What makes you proud?
The things that I am most proud of academically are not the same things that I am most proud of as a human being. I am most proud when I make a contribution to someone else’s life.
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