A lawyer with a career built on the past

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Professor Martti Koskenniemi’s research focuses on the creation and development of capitalism from a legal perspective. This summer, he was elected Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.

Academy Professor Martti Koskenniemi studies the intellectual history of international justice in a project funded by the Academy of Finland. His current work covers a timespan from the late medieval period to the 19th century.

“Historical research into international justice has traditionally focused on wars, the justifications for war, kings, and the actions of sovereign states. But that’s just one side of the story. My intention is to bring in the other side too: the right to property and private operators, international trade and banking,” Koskenniemi explains.

A world run by money

What has his research shown so far?

“The most exciting discovery is that private and public power were in constant interaction. If you scratch the surface of the seemingly state-operated world of international relations, you’ll soon come to regard it as a world run by money. This has always been the case,” the professor emphasises.

The key actors on the international stage, as described by Professor Koskenniemi, are the crown and the merchant. The crown needs funding to maintain its operations, and the merchant needs the protection and order provided by the state.

Clarifying the contemporary

Koskenniemi underlines that there is a great need for intellectual history. He believes international justice is now a more important aspect of international life than ever before.

Legal issues are widely prominent in the media all over the world.

“At the same time, international justice is an incredibly messy and nebulous, ideologically influenced field. I hope that studying the past will help us understand the contemporary world and this mess.”

The significance of Professor Koskenniemi’s research has been widely recognised internationally. He was recently elected a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, which has more than 1,200 acclaimed researchers in the humanities and social sciences from around the world among its ranks.

Professor Koskenniemi himself believes he is on the right path. “Writing these texts and reading – I feel that I could not have a more exciting or interesting job anywhere else in the world.”

Martti Koskenniemi is the director of the Erik Castrén Institute at the University of Helsinki.

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