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By Lesley Dingle and Daniel Bates

  • Whewell Professor of International Law, Cambridge University 1981-91
  • Born 20th April 1927
  • William Hulme’s School, Manchester 1941-45
  • Royal Navy service in Far East, 1945-48
  • Downing College, Cambridge 1948-51, LLB
  • Whewell Scholar in International Law 1951
  • Lecturer in Law, University of Manchester 1951-59
  • PhD Manchester 1956
  • Lecturer in Law, Cambridge University 1960-76
  • Reader in International Law, Cambridge University 1976-81
  • LLD Cantab 1976
  • Fellow of Queens' College 1969-69, Professorial Fellow 1982-91, Honorary Fellow 1991-
  • President of Queens' College 1969-82
  • Called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1953
  • Honorary Bencher 1975
  • Queen’s Counsel 1978
  • Visiting Professor, Virginia Law School 1978
  • Visiting Professor, Institute des Hautes Etudes, Geneva 1988
  • United Nations Legal Officer, New York 1957-59
  • General Counsel for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Beirut 1966-68
  • Fellow British Academy 1983
  • Member Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1973-77
  • Member International Law Commission 1991-96
  • Commander, Order of Dannebrog (Denmark) 1993
  • Grand Cross, Civil Order, Jose Cecilio del Valle (Honduras) 1993
  • White Dual Cross 2005
  • CBE 1983
  • Knighted 1998

Additional Material

"Conversations with Professor Sir Derek William Bowett: A Contribution to the Squire Law Library Eminent Scholars Archive" (2007) 7 (4) Legal Information Management 277 - 283 

Derek William Bowett was born in Manchester on 20th April 1927, and started his academic life at The Choir School, Manchester in 1938. Selected as one of only three from over 200 applicants, Derek fell briefly under the wing of the legendary organist Dr A. W. Wilson and his assistant (later the Cathedral Organist) Mr Norman Cocker.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 the boys were temporarily moved to safety to Little Thornton (near Poulton-le-Fylde), but later, when the precaution was deemed unnecessary because of enemy inaction, they returned to their homes. However, in December 1940 Manchester suffered the “Christmas Blitz” and bombs badly damaged the Cathedral of St Anne’s, making the school untenable.

Derek was given a list of alternative schools to attend, and as a consequence, spent his youth, and remainder of the War (1941-45), at the gothic, red-brick pile of William Hulme’s Grammar School on Spring Bridge Road in south Manchester, although he continued to sing in the cathedral choir.

Derek volunteered for the Royal Navy while he was still at the Hulme’s school, and he emerged in 1945 into a world still at war and in relative disarray. Although the War in Europe had already ended, he expected to see service in the Far East. However, before his training even started, Japan surrendered and he was then given the option by the Navy of signing up for three years. He declined, and was trained as a radar operator (for which he admits he had no aptitude!), eventually seeing service in home waters, the Mediterranean and lastly in what was then, still, the Dutch East Indies. In the Far East, Derek served on HMS Norfolk, where she was the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief East Indies Station.

And so to Law. His application to enter Downing College was made while still in the services and he entered the college in 1948, where two Faculty members were fellows: Whalley-Tooker and Clive Parry (who had been so supportive of Kurt Lipstein when he needed succour before the War as an émigré and recently-graduated law student at Trinity College).

Derek Bowett was an industrious and strongly principled student, and his views on his contemporaries and seniors, as he expresses them in retrospect in our interviews, are forthright and honest. Many of the people he remembers from his time at Downing had been in the Faculty since before the War. He won a Whewell Scholarship in 1951, (he says that his closest rival was Stephen Schwebel, Judge and later President of the International Court of Justice). Despite his academic success, Derek Bowett’s ambition was, originally, to enter legal practice. Luckily, he was influenced by Sir Hersch Lauterpacht who was then the Whewell Professor of International Law at Cambridge. It is clear that Lauterpacht was a man Derek Bowett much admired, and it was he who deflected the new graduate from this goal by suggesting that he apply for a vacant lectureship at Manchester.

Consequently, Derek Bowett returned to his native city in 1951 as a lecturer in law, and immersed himself in an ocean of commitment: registered for a PhD, studied for his bar exams, taught undergraduates, and married Betty Northall. Significantly, although Sir Hersch Lauterpacht may have deflected him away from a career solely based on legal practice, he did not abandon this avenue, merely incorporated it into his plans, and was called to the Bar (Middle Temple) in 1953.

In retrospect, and to an outside observer, the first years at Manchester can be seen as pivotal for his illustrious career. The world into which Derek was entering, armed with his LLB, was one where international legal regimes and priorities were in a state of flux. In this respect, three crucial factors influenced him: the United Nations (founded in 1945) was breaking new ground in the formulation of international law; the establishment of the State of Israel (1948) had led to a political/social crisis in the Middle East; and the political/military Cold War between the USSR and the West was beginning to dominate international relations. Each of these developments proved fertile ground for Derek Bowett’s legal talents, and during much of the last half century he made major contributions in all three.

Having seen the effects of war at first hand, and with international military instability appearing to have become endemic on a global scale, Bowett’s PhD topic clearly reflected the world as he saw it, and was an inspired choice: “Self Defence in International Law” (1958). (Even more so, since it was, more or less, self-supervised). His grounding in international affairs was gained at the coal face by an arduous stint in 1957-9 at the United Nations in New York, where he worked on legal preparations for the first Law of the Sea conference, and he was present in Geneva when the original four treaties were signed in April 1958. Derek was secretary of the Fourth Committee, and we have a splendid photograph of him at the signing ceremony along with Marjorie Whiteman, who was the US Department of State representative[1].

On his return to Manchester he had expected to be appointed to a readership, but when this failed to materialise he was head-hunted by Cambridge and his academic career burgeoned. He was given a fellowship at Queens’ College, and a university Lectureship in Law in 1960, and for the next twenty years he established a formidable reputation as a teacher, scholar, international lawyer and authority on global institutions. His efforts were rewarded in the Faculty by a Readership (1976) and, when he replaced his colleague Robbie Jennings who had resigned to become a judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, by being made the Whewell Professor of International Law in 1981. By the country, for his services to international law, he was made CBE in 1983 and knighted in 1998, while he received honours from Denmark (Order of Dannebrog 1993), Honduras (Grand Cross, Civil Order, Jose Cecilio del Valle 1993), and Slovakia (Order of the 3rd Class White Double Cross 2000). During my conversations with him, Sir Derek recounted many of his thoughts on the strengths and shortcomings of his colleagues, and I have presented a version of his forthright views in the transcript to be found on another page of this site.

Throughout his career at Cambridge Sir Derek vigorously pursued the themes in international law that he had taken up as a young man at Manchester. His early exposure to the workings of the United Nations resulted in two major books (1963, 1964) on the legal aspects of the historical and modern development of international institutions, and also accounts of the successes and shortcomings of international (i.e. UN) intervention in global trouble spots. His legal activities in connection with the initial “Law of the Sea” conference were followed by a 1967 book of the same name, and it was a theme he returned to in 1978 (“Legal Regime of Islands”), and one with which he was professionally involved as Counsel in several cases that were the subject of international arbitration or litigation before the International Court of Justice (see the list of important cases).

A seminal experience  that affected Derek Bowett’s views on the role international law can play in mitigating disputes was a period of two years that he spent in charge of a team of legal and political advisors to the General Council of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).  In fact, Beirut had not been his original posting, having been asked to return to New York, but because Betty hated the city so much, the UN agreed to shift him back to headquarters, and the Bowetts ended up in the Middle East! This was a time of great tension, and Betty and the children had the traumatic experience of temporary evacuation back to the UK when the Six Day War sent the region into turmoil in 1967. As she recounts it, Betty undertook this with fortitude and resilience. Four years after he returned from the Middle East he wrote his short, non-legal book aimed at the lay public in which he emphasised the importance of dispute resolution by non-military means (“The Search for Peace”, 1972).

The background to his books, and comments on various aspects related to them within can be read in the transcript of our interviews.

While still a lecturer, Derek Bowett’s interest in the legal implications of environmental issues led to his being invited to become a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (1973 – 77), and  he recounted to me his enjoyment at visiting coal mines and oil rigs during the course of the on site investigations the commissioners were obliged to carry out!

Such work epitomised his legal scholarship, which was a combination of esoteric legal issues  traditionally associated with academia (for example his publications on states’ responsibilities, crimes and relations with private entities), and the application of legal principles to solving the practical problems thrown up by international affairs.  Good examples of the latter were his engagement in solving boundary disputes, international use of force, and the whole issue of how to best gain access to the mineral resources on the deep-sea floor of the world’s oceans: his legal mind was thus often applied to foreseeing international problems and attempting to pre-empt them.       

As a result of three decades of such international activities, J. P. Gardner (Director of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law) could write, in the introduction to Derek Bowett’s book International Court of Justice (1997), that his “….experience of international litigation is unrivalled…”.

Sir Derek’s association with Queens’ College has been long and eventful, and he has documented many of his memories in a series of six amusing and elegantly written articles in the “Queens’ College Record” (2004[2], 2005[3], 2006[4], 2007-9[5]). In 1970 he was elected to succeed Arthur Armitage as President of Queens’, and he had to deal with much of the 60s and 70s student unrest, which he appeared to tackle in his straightforward, but compassionate, manner. We have some excellent photographs on this site of Derek while he was President of Queens’ (1970-82).

All my interviews with Sir Derek Bowett were undertaken at his home in Hills Road, and we have some warm images taken during our encounters. Despite being in poor health, which meant that the physical effort from his side was considerable, this did not dim his spirit or enthusiasm for this project, while Betty in her gracious way added her own valuable comments and encouragement. For me it was an honour and a humbling experience, and I thank them both for allowing me to gain a first-hand account of the career of a remarkably vigorous and prescient legal scholar who has made major contributions to international law both in the UK and worldwide.

Further details of Sir Derek's career and life have been included in an article based upon the interviews; Conversations with Professor Sir Derek William Bowett: a contribution to the Squire Law Library's Eminent Scholars Archive, 2008 (3) Legal Information Management, 214 - 222.

Lesley Dingle - Acquisition and Creation of Content

Daniel Bates -  Visual Presentation, Technical Enhancement and Audio Editing


[1] Marjorie Millace Whiteman (1898-1986). Compiler of the Digest of International Law (1963-72: 15 volumes known as “Whiteman’s Digest”),  helped draft the UN Charter 1945, and legal advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt who chaired the UN committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948.


[5] Not yet available on-line