Michael van Walt van Praag

Michael van Walt van Praag joins the Institute for Social Sciences as a Senior Research Fellow in January 2016.

Michael van Walt comes to us from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he was on the faculty of the School of Historical Studies for four years as its Visiting Professor of International Relations and International Law.  He has held visiting, teaching and research positions at Stanford, UCLA, Indiana, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Golden Gate University School of Law and the Università degli Studi di Roma Sapienza.

A specialist in intra-state conflict resolution, he has served as mediator in peace talks and as advisor to negotiating parties in many parts of the world, but mostly in the Caucasus, Asia, the South Pacific and Africa. He is currently Executive President of Kreddha, an international, non-governmental organization for the prevention and resolution of violent intra-state conflicts, which he co-founded in 1999. For the preceding eight years, he was the General Secretary of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), in the Hague.

Michael van Walt holds a law degree from the University of Utrecht, an LLM from Wayne State University in Detroit, and a doctorate in international law (SJD) also from the University of Utrecht.

He has practiced law in Washington, D.C., London and San Francisco working on matters involving public international law, corporate law and international arbitration. He has served as International Legal Advisor to the Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama since 1985 and was UN Senior Legal Advisor to the Foreign Minister of Timor-Leste during the country’s transition to independence.

Michael van Walt has written a seminal book on the status of Tibet and numerous articles and chapters on intrastate conflict resolution. He is a frequent lecturer and speaker at universities and other institutions around the world.  

Current research

For a number of years I have been involved in initiatives to understand and address recurring obstacles to peace processes, especially intrastate ones.

Conflicting perceptions of history are a major obstacle in peace processes aimed at resolving identity based intrastate conflicts, but very little has been written on this. The need to address this issue motivated the research project I worked on in the past five years and which I am currently completing. This project looks at the nature of polities and of relations among them in Inner and East Asia from the 13th to the early 20th century with a view to understanding how today’s diverse perceptions of history in this region developed. The work involved some 80 leading Asian and Western scholars (historians, social anthropologists, international jurists, political scientists) and its outcome is an edited volume, which I am in the process of completing.

My new research project builds on this work and looks specifically at the sources of legitimacy of rule and how securing legitimacy informed rulers’ governance and ‘foreign relations’ policies in historical Inner and East Asia. It also looks at the practice and consequences of creating ‘national’ histories projecting today’s political and geographic realities or aspirations into the past. Today’s notions of legitimacy are mostly very different, and although present day conflicts must be resolved using current understandings, the positions, claims and aspirations of conflicting parties continue to be informed by their understandings of historical ones.

Taking the Sino-Tibetan conflict and the complex historical relations between the rulers and polities of Inner and East Asia as the case study, I explore how the legitimacy constructs that were deployed in the distinct civilizational worlds that made up this region informed the perceptions, intentions and actions of its rulers and elites and how this, in turn, affects perceptions of the past today in ways that exacerbate tensions and conflicts.

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