This interview was conducted with President Hisashi Owada who was in Singapore to deliver the 2010 Singapore Academy of Law Annual Lecture on The Problems of Interaction between International and Domestic Legal Orders.
Interview with President Hisashi Owada

His Excellency Hisashi Owada, President of the International Court of Justice, delivered the 17th Singapore Academy of Law Annual Lecture entitled The Problems of Interaction Between International and Domestic Legal Order. His distinguished career in the Japanese foreign service paved the way for his contributions to academia, which put him in good stead for election in 2003 as a judge of the International Court of Justice. Six years later, in 2009, he was elected by his fellow judges as President of the Court.
Having visited us several times, President Owada is no stranger to Singapore. Indeed, he has worked with and developed strong ties with many of our diplomats at the United Nations as well as in Japan. Most recently, he was elected as the founding President of the Asian Society of International Law at its inaugural meeting and conference held here in April 2007. President Owada expressed his admiration for Singapore for being one of the fastest growing countries, not only economically, but also intellectually as he had observed that Singapore has played various important roles in promoting university education and academia. Further, he has very high respect for Singapore, for even though we are a small country, our leaders have played a major role in international affairs and political integration in the region.
As a “product of post-war Japan”, President Owada keenly understood the importance of being a part of the global community. Born in 1932 in Niigata Prefecture, he was a young teenager when the Second World War ended. At that time, he was not old enough to have been affected by pre-war indoctrination, but neither was he a part of the new generation born after the war, nihilistic and eager to forsake all things Japanese. He realised that the key to living in peace lay in constructively creating a better world, and looked forward to the future of a new Japan.
When he was doing his undergraduate studies in Tokyo University, he was always interested in international law and western culture. However, it was not until he went to the University of Cambridge following his graduation from Tokyo University that he actually experienced a different civilisation, which he had hitherto only learned about in books. Humbled by that experience, he began to appreciate the environment around him. He recounted the particularly memorable six years that he spent in the Soviet Union, describing how the totalitarian regime in power then was a revelation as to how human beings can create a totally inhuman and unnatural environment to live in. The Soviet Union then could not be described as a “society”, but rather, a framework within which humans were subject to artificial constraints, a condition which President Owada never thought was possible. That experience made him realise how precious it is to live with human dignity.
This emphasis on living with human dignity shines through as an enduring theme in President Owada’s thinking and philosophy of life. He found that whereas throughout history many have claimed that they were doing things for the good of other human beings, the historical and social context of those claims revealed them to be self-made and false. When leaders seek to constrain individuals in the name of the greater society, to President Owada’s mind, they are making attempts at putting the cart before the horse, since society should be the means through which human happiness can be achieved, not constrained. However, even while describing the past mistakes that human societies have made, President Owada evinced a long-term optimism, believing that so long as human beings are driven by a higher principle, they can improve and succeed in achieving their goals.
Given this view of human society, it came as no surprise that President Owada views states as the entities created for the welfare of the people that comprise them. In his view, the objectives of the international legal order are the same as those of the domestic legal order. In the domestic context, a benevolent society can achieve human happiness. On a broader level, the International Court of Justice operates on a global basis and he believes that it plays an essential role in employing international law to create a better world for human beings everywhere.
President Owada believes that upholding international human rights norms is critical to creating that better world. He does not agree with the view that such norms should be interpreted in the light of the Asian or Western context with different results in like situations. Instead, he believes that differences in Asian and Western societal values are merely superficial manifestations: in truth, there are common universal features and these features are captured in international human rights norms. In this context, he shared his view that Asian values are not subservient to Western values. He explained that when Japan was faced with the need to open up to the wider world, she struggled with what it meant to be a part of the community of nations which used to be made up mostly of European countries. In order to be a part of that community, Japan had to abide by international norms. In studying what those international norms were, the Japanese quickly realised that their traditional Confucian teaching, which found its basis in the “reason of heaven”, resonated strongly with the Grotian theory of natural law that there were certain basic principles inherent in the nature of society. These were universal human rights norms – norms which in any given society all humans had to observe, regardless of religion and race. 
As the World Court, the International Court of Justice is composed of judges who represent the main forms of civilisation and the principal legal systems of the world. Each judge is elected to nine-year terms of office by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council. The election of judges takes place once every three years, and each time only one-third of the Court is elected so as to ensure a measure of continuity. In order to be nominated as a candidate, one must be eminent in knowledge and personality and qualified to occupy the highest judicial office in the domestic context. All state parties to the Statute of the International Court of Justice have the right to propose candidates, which proposals are not made by the Government of the state party but by a group consisting of the members of the Permanent Court of Arbitration designated by that state, ie, by the four jurists who can be called upon to serve as members of an arbitral tribunal under the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. In making their proposals, these four jurists have to consult with the State’s highest Court, bar association and law schools.
Given that they come from various legal cultures schooled in various legal traditions, one may be tempted to assume that there are major differences in the judges’ approaches to the cases heard by the Court. However, President Owada assured us that the judges are all united in the search for objective truth and the differences in the basic ways of thinking are actually small. While there were certainly differences in legal techniques, such as how to establish onus of proof and assess evidence, these differences do not overshadow the common purpose served by every justice system represented by the judges: to seek out the objective truth. Indeed, the system of election and criteria for composition of the Court actually increases and promotes the confidence of the public in the judges. Parties that appear before the Court can be reassured that regardless of their background and domestic situation, they will get a fair hearing.
The many fulfilling years in diplomacy, academia and the Judiciary presented various challenges to President Owada. When he was a legal adviser to the Japanese government, he found it interesting to tackle the various issues but he did not have the luxury of time to delve more deeply into those issues. As an academic, he had the time to go into those issues but he felt somewhat hindered by the lack of experience in different phases. As a judge, his experience in diplomacy helped him gain a grasp of the realities of international relations. In this regard, President Owada remarked that it is important even in the domestic context that judges should be chosen from amongst persons with maturity as practitioners because it is the judge’s function to judge human behaviour. The ability to judge human behaviour is informed by going through various experiences in life and developing maturity in personality and thought. Such maturity in thinking and deep conceptual understanding can be developed by gaining an interest in different fields such as philosophy, sociology and even literature and history.
Having spent a lifetime in international law, President Owada’s advice to budding lawyers who are interested in that field is to get interested in the wider world – get out of one’s own country and gain a wider experience out there, being exposed to different cultures and societies. While international lawyers are not as well paid as their Wall Street corporate counterparts, they get great satisfaction in doing something for society on a global level and perhaps seeking a greater share in equality for the many poor people in the world. This is satisfaction that simply making money and becoming affluent cannot provide.
When asked about the role of his wife in his extraordinary career, President Owada chuckled and said, “You should do an interview with her!” He explained that in Japan, it was a common saying that to be a good diplomat you simply need a good cook and a good wife. He believes that support from one’s family is extremely important to achieving what one sets out to do. In closing, President Owada expressed gratitude for the devotion of his wife and the support of his three daughters.
Kenneth Wong
Justices’ Law Clerk
Supreme Court 
E-mail:  [email protected]

Jordan Tan
Assistant Registrar
Supreme Court 
E-mail: [email protected]