Image of Eyal Benvenisti

How to find the law for all

Professor Eyal Benvenisti is Jesus College’s C.C. Ng Fellow in Law and the University’s Whewell Professor of International Law. He speaks of his concerns about global bodies and regulations, and recalls studying water in his homeland.

In a globalised age law does not necessarily recognise borders. Since the late 1980s, Eyal Benvenisti has moved from the Middle East to the Atlantic West, arriving in Cambridge 18 months ago. Today, he is Director of the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, a position occupied (twice) by another Jesuan, James Crawford. Based off Grange Road, the centre, now 32 years old, keeps Eyal busy with conferences and lectures promoting international law in Cambridge.

New to Jesus College since October, he has also become a Director of Studies and, with Michael Waibel on leave, is leading Supervisions and supporting students taking the one year Masters of Law programme. “Though I had no connection with Cambridge before, coming here has given me an opportunity to do something challenging, to engage in really new and interesting topics. At the Lauterpacht Centre I am also with a wonderful group of colleagues.”

His main area of research is international law’s response to global challenges and crises. Eyal explains that many decisions are taken not by domestic parliaments but by global bodies. The space for democratic deliberation in traditional legislatures is becoming narrower as a result of the transfer of decision-making to these bodies. They range from formal, international ones, such as the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations, to European Union institutions, to increasingly informal, privatised bodies that, Eyal says, “we don’t even stop to think about. What is their role in shaping our life opportunities?” He points to the example of the food we buy in the supermarket. How was it harvested and produced? Was child labour involved? Was there an unsustainable use of resources?

“These questions are now determined by private associations designed to monitor production—they set the standards and make the decisions. Issues of sustainability, for instance, are more and more subject to regulation. Such regulation affects us but we don’t know it exists. So my interest here is in the role of international law in imposing accountability requirements on those decision-makers. And there’s a growing realisation among international lawyers that we should stop idolising these global institutions.”

Eyal was born in 1959 in Jerusalem, a city about which he feels strongly. His paternal and maternal grandparents were from Ottoman Thessaloniki and eastern Europe respectively; his parents were born in Palestine. He did his military service in the late 1970s, at the time of Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt, and was in the army when Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1980. “I was in fact moved from one place to another. It was a time of great hope.”

Law school followed. In the mid-1980s he worked as a clerk in Israel’s Supreme Court. He then practised law and in 1987 went to the United States for graduate studies. In 1990 he became a lecturer at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and in 2002 moved to Tel Aviv, where his two sons now live. His wife, who commutes between Jerusalem and Cambridge, is a gynaecologist. Since 2003 Eyal has remained Global Professor at the New York University School of Law, and maintains warm contacts as Visiting Professor with a number of other North American universities, including Yale, Harvard and Toronto.

Hailing from a part of the world where issues of international law are frequently in the spotlight, has he, in that context, been involved?

“My interest in international law came out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and from questions as to how it could be ended. In the 1990s I thought persistently about it, and especially the issue of fresh-water management and allocation. I worked on the occupation and the resolution of the conflict, and especially on the refugee crisis of 1948, when Israel was created. But I also studied hydrology and political economy, and began to write about shared water and addressed the question in a general way. This ended up with a book on international law and water resources.”

His conclusions there?

“The most efficient and sustainable way to address water scarcity is to manage resources in a collective way. What should joint-management institutions look like? What are the rules for decision-making? In the case of Israel-Palestine, solutions have been short term. But it was and is clear to me that you don’t assign ownership over parts of a lake, or a river that traverses boundaries. It makes no sense to say: if the rain falls on my territory I own the water. We share it. In law, allocation should be made on the basis of need, or on how much we can pay for it, or on who gets the most benefit out of it. On these matters, we should all agree.”

Eyal Benvenisti is Whewell Professor of International Law and a Director of Studies in Law at Jesus College. The Ng Law Fellowship is generously funded by Kay Ian Ng (1986) in memory of his father. You can read more articles in the Spring 2017 Jesuan News