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The undefinable ‘threat to the peace’

What constitutes a threat to peace? In her new book, DLS lecturer Dr Tamsin Paige explores the UN Security Council’s approaches to this concept.

Dr Tamsin Page, Deakin Law School

While the journey to – and through – academia can take many paths and start from many beginnings it’s almost always a no short-cuts, long-haul challenge.

But Deakin Law School (DLS) lecturer Dr Tamsin Paige also describes it as a journey with deep rewards and one that’s taken her from high-school drop-out to French-trained pâtissier and now an accomplished academic who is about to launch her first book.

Dr Paige’s book Petulant and Contrary: Approaches by the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council to the Concept of ‘threat to the peace’ under Article 39 of the UN Charter is a refined representation of her PhD research that contains a number of world research-firsts.

Research inspiration

The inspiration for Dr Paige’s PhD stemmed from a Master of Philosophy degree where she began exploring the application of law, its impact on counter-piracy operations in Somalia, and the role of the UN Security Council.

‘This gave rise to my PhD where I sought to understand how the Permanent Five members of the Security Council individually defined “threat to the peace” which is a phrase of great importance in Article 39 of the UN Charter,’ she explains.

(Article 39 authorises the UN to respond to any “threat to peace” to ensure international peace and security.)

According to Dr Paige, it’s the first time that the analysis tool meta-synthesis has been employed in legal sociological research.

‘It’s also the first time that working or functional definitions the phrase “threat to the peace” have ever been successfully suggested in the 70 years of the Security Council’s history,’ she adds.

From PhD to book

Dr Paige was motivated to turn her PhD research into a book came after being dissatisfied by the attempts of other academics to use a doctrinal legal analysis to define the phrase “threat to peace”.

‘I was dissatisfied by their conclusions that the phrase was undefinable in nature. It was this that led me to approach the question through the lens of legal sociology, namely critical discourse analysis and meta-synthesis, to examine the past practice of the permanent five members of Security Council in order to see if there was any pattern or consistency, and thus working definition, in their approach to what constituted a “threat to the peace”’, she explains.

Dr Paige’s book now allows for greater predictability around what the Security Council may do in any given situation.

‘And that matters because the UN Security Council is the most powerful organisation in the world. They are the only authority that can legally authorise the use of military force,’ she says.

With her research already presented to the Australian diplomatic mission to the UN, Dr Paige says it will allow diplomats to better tailor their negotiations to veto nations, whether they’re lobbying for, or against, a possible intervention.

‘It will help make diplomats’ life easier, especially those in non-permanent nations like Australia who are only on the Security Council for two years, and really need to hit the ground running.’

The path to academia

Dr Paige’s path to academia began while she was working as a head pastry chef in a career that spanned numerous fine-dining restaurants in Sydney. 

Jaded by the years and monotony of working in commercial kitchens, she began a part-time arts degree and completed a double major in sociology and English literature before transferring to a law degree.

‘During my law degree I worked as a paralegal in private practice and then later in the Federal Court, both of which made me realise that the practice of law was not the right career path for me. What I felt drawn to, and what I love, was the study of how law played out in society when it was applied, and the impact that that application had. This led me to pursue an MPhil at the ANU before my PhD and University of Adelaide,’ she says.

After a year as a visiting scholar at the Columbia Law School in New York (funded by an Endeavour Scholarship) Dr Paige completed her PhD and moved to UNSW Canberra as a postdoctoral fellow where she continued her research on the role and impact on application of law in society.

‘This shifted my focus from UN Security Council operations and counter piracy to the prevention of sexual violence in armed conflict, and understanding social conceptions of law and justice based upon how they are portrayed in popular literature,’ she says.

After a year at UNSW Canberra, Dr Paige was offered her current role with DLS where she’s teaching human rights law and policy within the masters’ and Juris Doctor programs, and legal ethics in the undergraduate program.

The research and teaching match

Dr Paige says teaching human rights law and policy ‘dovetails neatly’ with her research focus as it interacts heavily with her work in transnational organised crime, UN Security Council operations, and the laws of armed conflict.

‘Legal ethics also fits neatly with my research as ethics is a fundamental intermediary between the law as written and the law as applied – something is at the core of all of my research,’ she adds.

Alongside her responsibilities with DLS, Dr Paige is also a consultant on issues of maritime crime for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and is currently in discussions for more involvement in the work being done by the International Committee of the Red Cross in relation to international humanitarian law.

Qualitative sociological research

Using qualitative research methods, Dr Paige says the majority of her research is ‘empirical in nature’ –  which generally means interviewing  or spending time observing those who practise law – and says she often  describes herself as a sociologist who happens to have a law degree rather than a legal academic.

‘In terms of transnational organised crime, UN Security Council operations, and international humanitarian law, my research particularly looks at how the actors involved on the ground, and in these sorts of operations, are using law in their problem-solving toolbox and whether that law is beneficial or are actually proving to be an ineffective hindrance to the work that they’re doing.’

Around the broader questions around law in society, Dr Paige says she uses popular urban fantasy and science fiction literature as a sociological text to understand the various ways in which society understands the concepts of law and justice.

‘This is as opposed to how lawyers understand these concepts, in an effort to make it easier for the legal profession to communicate and demystify issues of law when communicating with the general public.’

A fortunate career

Dr Paige acknowledges that being an academic is a wonderful privilege.

‘I enjoy the ability to dig deeply into issues that I find both fascinating and socially compelling in an effort to not only understand them better but hopefully suggests ways in which we as a society can go forward that will improve things for everyone. The empirical nature of my work helps in bridging the gap between what legal academics and legal practitioners do, making one relevant to the other and I find that extremely rewarding.’

*Details of Dr Tamsin Paige’s book launch can be found here.