University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


The citizen of the world from Varde

Elite Research Prize recipient — Look up. Play the jazz saxophone. The inspiration can come from the strangest places, says UCPH’s international star lawyer, professor and center director Mikael Rask Madsen.

The dust from the Berlin Wall was swirling in the spring sun, the Cold War was over, and the future looked bright when a bright young man from Jutland decided to go to Copenhagen to study law.

Mikael Rask Madsen was ambitious and he had what it takes to become a star lawyer. Halfway through however, in the mid-nineties, his studies took a turn on a backpacking trip to Guatemala. Here, in one of the world’s most criminal dictatorships, he experienced something that shook his world:

“I saw the peace process unfold right outside my door. It was very striking. The United Nations struggled not just to keep the peace, but to create peace. I saw how international law could make a difference. It was both surprising and inspiring. And it made me interested in the power of the courts to create democracy and peace.”

Mikael Rask Madsen, 44

1997: Master’s degree in the sociology of law from the Spanish International Institute for the Sociology of Law.

1998: Master of Law from the University of Copenhagen.

1999: Diplôme d’Etudes Approfondies in Sociology from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes one Sciences Sociales, Paris

2005: Doctorate from the École des Hautes Études one Sciences Sociales, Paris.

2010: Professor at the University of Copenhagen since 2012 as head of basic research centre iCourts.

Over 100 research publications, including eight books. Languages: Danish, English, French, German, Spanish.

Mikael Rask Madsen came back to Denmark and wrote a dissertation on the function of international law in creating peace and democracy. And he has followed this interest in globalization and the role of the courts in the creation of modern society ever since. His interests straddle law and sociology, an interdisciplinary maneuver that was emphasised in the nomination for his EliteForsk prize as one of five outstanding younger researchers in February.

He is proud of the prize. Not because he is unfamiliar with large grants, but because “it is always nice to get recognition from your own ranks,” he told the University Post when we met him at the new Faculty of Law headquarters on South Campus.

Mikael Rask Madsen, who was made professor as a 37 year-old, has led the iCourts – the Danish National Research Foundation’s Center of Excellence for International Courts since 2012. Being supported by the National Research Foundation means that the almost 30 employees of the center (accounting for 15 to 16 nationalities from 4 to 5 continents) have “the tremendous privilege,” he says, of having a basic grant, which gives them the peace to do their work.

Man of the World

“iCourts is ultra global – also in its scientific vision – and this makes it a particular kind of environment,” says Mikael Rask Madsen. He answers the question of why he speaks five languages, ​​and why he has had both short and long-term research at numerous international universities, with reference to his childhood:

“Maybe it’s my family background. I’ve never seen the wider world as a place to stay away from. My grandfather lived in the US for many years. My uncle sailed the seven seas, my aunt is Portuguese. I have always believed that the world is large and small at the same time,” says Mikael Rask Madsen, who met his American wife, with whom he now has two children, in Costa Rica.

“The subject with which I am dealing has played out in practice in a number of languages ​​– where the core languages ​​are French, English, and to some extent Spanish and Portuguese. And when we do field work it is done in the local language. With this I call on my students: Do not think that English is enough if you ever want to understand the wider world beyond Netflix.”

Internationalization has got a bad name

As Mikael Rask Madsen began his study of international institutions and courts, globalization was in constant growth:

“In the nineties we saw a global democratization movement – a progressive process of more and more democracies and the international organizations grew significantly during the same period.”

Since then, the picture has changed, as anyone who reads the news will know. Donald Trump was elected leader of the free world on a slogan of America First, the British are leaving the EU, and in many countries, including Denmark, the resistance against both the common European project and international conventions has grown rapidly. How does the world citizen from the University of Copenhagen University look at these developments?

“In the last 5-10 years we have seen a pushback against internationalization, probably mainly due to the fact that the geopolitical balance of power has changed. The American dominance has been weakened and it has become more difficult to reach agreement on a global scale. This has implications, also for Europe, which has been pulled apart so much that now Britain is heading out completely,” says Mikael Rask Madsen.

But there is an inherent dilemma in international law and governance, which is just as old as the institutions themselves, he says:

“Organizations like the UN and the EU, the Council of Europe and the WTO will always appear as a technocratic superstructure distant from the individual citizen – and this creates emotions that have become stronger lately. Most people think that decisions are best made close to them, and this is intuitively right. But whether this is also rationally right is something completely different when we relate to international affairs.”


I have always believed that the world is large and small at the same time
Mikael Rask Madsen (who speaks five languages)

In Denmark, the EU criticism has become more vocal, and it has become popular among some politicians, for example, to bend international human rights conventions in accordance with narrow Danish interests.

Today, human rights are almost up for negotiation?

“It is true that human rights no longer have the same exalted status as before. Some of the criticism of the European Human Rights Convention and Court that we now see in Danish media would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. There were no serious politicians who would have dreamed of commenting critically on human rights the way we see today.”

International organizations do not respond

There are, according to Mikael Rask Madsen, quick political gains to be had from criticizing international organizations, because they are far away and have difficulty in defending themselves:

“This is especially true of international courts, which traditionally do not respond to criticism – as it is not in their mandate – so this is relatively easy. And this has certainly been done in recent years.”

Although some international tribunals have come under pressure, they are still strong, says Mikael Rask Madsen:

“There has never been as many international courts as there are today; there has never been more international decisions and more case-law. International courts have both broad authority and real power, and in this light, it is not surprising that we see battles unfold around their borders. I think this is quite natural when you see the inherent tension their structure has with nation states.”

A court’s authority is based naturally on people – regardless of the ruling – obeying the court’s decision. It is called a content independent authority, says Mikael Rask Madsen. For citizens in functioning democracies, this is self-evident, but in international law, there is a graduation because the courts lack the common underlying infrastructure that national democracies have.

Twenty years ago, [there were] no serious politicians who would have dreamt of commenting critically on human rights the way we see today.

But it does weaken international courts’ authority when they issue rulings that are not followed by nation states?

“If you look at the last ten years of case law from the European Court of Human Rights, it is true that there is growth in the number of cases that are not followed to the letter. The vast majority of these cases concern a minority of states; Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Romania and also to some extent Italy, where there may be problems getting the decisions implemented,” answers Mikael Rask Madsen, but then adds that for the countries it may be difficult to implement a human rights case ruling:

“It may require reforms of national legislation which require a majority in a given parliament, and it may require significant investment in ressources to change the way prisons operate, and so on.”

Global recovery in sight

After Brexit people will sing a different tune, says Mikael Rask Madsen:

“I think there is a wide, general expectation in Europe that the rhetoric of division must be countered with a renewed commitment to common multilateral projects. The EU project, the Council of Europe and the UN are no more than the countries that have created them, so these are ultimately our own projects. ”

“I can observe right now that a kind of rebalancing is taking place. Every evolutionary system will always find a balance with the surrounding social developments. This is the way the pendulum swings, also for international organizations and courts.”

Mikael Rask Madsen smiles. He does not consider it likely that Marine Le Pen will win the second round of the French presidential election.

He lights up when the University Post asks him to describe the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg:

“Here 47 international judges are working from just as many countries from the wider Europe, together in a hyper-modern international organization that still has the virtues that characterize a supreme court: A college of highly talented people who will ultimately agree on a decision.”

“This is a feature of law – there is always a conclusion. It can be very difficult to reach, but there will always be: Has there been a violation of the law or not?”

Mikael Rask Madsen is going home. He sets an example for his employees by leaving the office in good time. The family is calling. At home he only checks his mails when the kids are fast asleep.

Unless he takes out his tenor sax instead and practices on a jazz variation. You have to look up from the books, he says, addressing law students, as inspiration can emerge from the strangest places.