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Law School Hosts International Legal History Day

By Lena R. Episalla, Contributing Writer

Current and post-graduate students in the Law School’s S.J.D. program heard presentations on topics ranging from the promotion of religious freedom abroad, to the limits of territorial jurisdiction at the annual International Legal History Day on Thursday.

The Harvard S.J.D. Association, a group that provides support for students studying for the Law School’s “most advanced law degree,” established International Legal History Day in 2011 as a way of enabling students to discuss research with peers and share their studies.

“International Legal History Day was started to promote the work both of current S.J.D. candidates and of graduates of the S.J.D. program, and to contribute broadly to the intellectual life of the Harvard community,” said S.J.D. candidate Priyasha Saksena, one of the event’s organizers.

In previous years, the day mainly consisted of forums and research workshops, but this year the lineup featured a collection of book talks, paper presentations, and panels held throughout the day.

The slate of events kicked off with a book talk on the mindset of U.S. foreign policy-makers as they promoted religious freedom abroad. Recent S.J.D. graduate Anna Su, who presented at the book talk and co-led the subsequent discussion, argued that America’s promotion of religious freedom was integral in the U.S.’s ascent to global power.

Péter Szigeti, another graduate of the S.J.D. program, presented his own dissertation on the tenuousness of territorial jurisdiction.

“Rather than pretend that physical boundaries can set limits to power, we should acknowledge the already existing reality that states do assert jurisdiction wherever they have interests and have the power,” Szigeti said after his presentation.

Saksena said there was also a book talk on the dual roles international law has played in history; as both a tool of hegemony imposed by the West on the non-West, and as a tool of resistance for non-Western lawyers.

On the whole, participants said the day presented a rare opportunity for scholars in a niche field to gather and discuss contemporary issues, and that they were pleased with the outcome.

“The benefit is to bring together so many committed and thoughtful practitioners working at the intersection of law and history in the same room,” said Faculty of Arts and Sciences History Chair David Armitage, who led a panel on international history methodology. “These conversations give great hope for this field.”

Szigeti emphasized that, while the topics were widespread, they shared one key feature.

“Even though the books and papers presented are on very different issues,” Szigeti said, “how people approach the writing of international legal history is one common thing we would like to emphasize.”

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