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Research within this project revolves around two questions that are deceptive in their simplicity: How might international law have been otherwise? And why did it turn out the way it did?

The overarching aim is to expose the contingencies and determining factors of international law’s development by inquiring into its past as a repository of possibilities.

Such inquiries may be of systematic purport, asking, for example, how a different conceptions of the sources of international law could have emerged. Or they may focus on specific areas of the law, asking questions such as whether the idea of state crimes could have taken hold or whether the NIEO could have achieved greater success. International law’s past is almost certainly ripe with possibilities that we have forgotten. The project will seek to reveal and remember them.

The project will focus on trying to tell compelling stories about international law’s contingency. To be sure, those attempts may fail and claims to contingency may well turn out to be false. Either way, though, we question the present state of international law by challenging its pretense to necessity and by better understanding the forces that have shaped it. Put simply by Robert Musil: ‘If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense for possibility’.

Researchers focus on:

  • the development of the law of state responsibility (Kathryn Greenman)
  • the Vietnam War and the transformation of international law (Kevin Jon Heller and Samuel Moyn)
  • the international legal thought of Hugo Grotius (Janne Nijman), and
  • international economic law (Ingo Venzke).

The research of Heather Bray and Vladislav Djanic on the development of international investment law (part of the project Lex Mercatoria Publica), also has connections with this  project.


Since 2016


  • Kathryn Greenman
  • Kevin Heller
  • Janne Nijman
  • Ingo Venzke
  • Heather Bray
  • Vladislav Djanic


Samuel Moyn (Yale)

Selected Events

  • Conference: ‘Contingency in the Course of International Law’, Amsterdam, 14-16 June 2018

Select Research Output

Greenman, K.

  • The Secret History of Successful Rebellions in the Law of State Responsibility, 6(9) ESIL Reflection (2017).

Heller, K.

Venzke, I.

Prof. dr. mr. J.E. (Janne) Nijman

Faculty of Law

Public International Law

Prof. I. (Ingo) Venzke

Professor of International Law and Social Justice