obituary

[OPINION] Magic in Dean Merlin’s classroom

Tony La Viña
[OPINION] Magic in Dean Merlin’s classroom
To paraphrase the good Ambassador, Dean Merlin may 'have confused us all in class, but as we learned later as we practiced our professions, all he did was sharpen our minds'

Dean Merlin Magallona, who died on New Year’s Day at 87 years of age, spoke in a monotone, a voice that was flat and boring and with a strong Visayan accent that was jarring to some of our classmates in the University of the Philippines College of Law (UP Law), although not to me being a certified Bisdak (Bisayang dako or big Visayan) myself. His ideas were radical, applying a Marxist-Leninist framework to legal history and public international law. As a Christian Marxist existentialist, I welcomed this approach.

By necessity, because of the ideas and the framework, Magallona’s language was dense and not easy to understand. It is not rare for his students to comment, even years later, that they did not understand 90%, one said 97%, of the articles and books he made us read or the lectures he delivered. 

When we recited in his class, we really were not sure we understood what we were mouthing. And in his poker face, which was as calm as his voice, he did not give us a hint whether our answers were correct. His grades were uniformly low, except for the select few he considered the best of his students. But he was unfailingly fair, exacting yes, but kind and supportive.

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PH international law legend Merlin Magallona dies

PH international law legend Merlin Magallona dies
The master teacher

As Ambassador Ed de Vega, my contemporary in UP Law and currently the Philippine envoy to the European Union and Belgium, recall: “You couldn’t say you took up public and private international law at the UP College of Law if it wasn’t under him. His ideas were so profound that no one could understand them!” But Ambassador Ed then acknowledged his debt to Dean Merlin: “When I took the Foreign Service Exam (while still a senior law student) in 1990, his words in class were ringing in my head when I was answering the international law-related questions. And so I owe him a whole lot for passing that exam, leading to where I am now.” 

To paraphrase the good Ambassador, Dean Merlin may “have confused us all in class, but as we learned later as we practiced our professions, all he did was sharpen our minds.”

Unaware of it, in that third floor classroom in Malcolm, the magic of learning was happening. This was where we learned the concept of auto-limitation as the basis of public international law, where I understood what a multi-polar versus bipolar world was, where the terms “Third World” and North versus South made sense, where we read and discussed the classic cases of Corfu Channel and especially US vs Nicaragua, where we became familiar with jus cogens, ergo omnes, clausula rebus sic stantibus, and opinio juris, where we became aware of the potential and limitation for the country’s territorial disputes of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, where we were convinced of the absolute necessity of human rights, and closer to home where we mastered the unassailable logic as to why the United States Military Bases Agreement was unconstitutional. 

Dean Merlin also anticipated the creation of the International Criminal Court and had been following with interest the Duterte case as it unfolds in The Hague.

I now teach all of these topics as a public international law professor in many law schools in Manila and Mindanao. I am also a practicing public international law lawyer, specializing on international environmental law, human rights, and international accountability mechanisms. 

For my academic and professional success in the field, I credit Dean Merlin for teaching me first to look beyond black letter law and understand the role of power in the evolution of global rules, paving the way for me to appreciate the perspective of Professor Michael Reisman, my mentor in Yale Law School who guided me in writing my dissertation on the then emerging international legal regime governing the global response to climate change.

As an international negotiator, I have to face some of the world’s top international lawyers, especially from developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. Because of Dean Merlin’s magical classroom, I have never felt insecure in that setting: more positively, I knew that my knowledge of international law was as comprehensive and good, sometimes even better, than my negotiating partners. Because of Dean Merlin, legal imagination and strategic thinking are my assets in international negotiations.

A long collaboration

After my graduation from UP Law in 1989, Dean Merlin and I became colleagues in the UP Law faculty. And when he was appointed UP Law Dean in 1995, he asked me to head the Institute of International Legal Studies (IILS), which was the successor entity of the International Studies of the Philippines (ISIP) which Dean Merlin founded and led in the 1980s. I was a big fan of ISIP and was thrilled to head IILS, replacing another mentor Professor Raphael Perpetuo Lotilla. However, I eventually declined the offer because I was appointed Environmental Undersecretary by President Fidel V. Ramos.

Nonetheless, my leaving UP Law did not stop my collaboration with Dean Merlin in the next two decades. Among others, he became my go-to adviser on public international law issues I had to grapple with when I was in the government and later on when I was based in the United States as an international environmental lawyer. 

We also collaborated on some projects like when we were asked by Professor Lotilla to be the brain trust for the creation of a regional international organization – the Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA). For months, the three of us brainstormed on how to get this done, with Dean Merlin taking the lead in imagining what was needed to make that happen. Later, I would chair the Partnership Council of PEMSEA, an organization that is thriving – thanks to the brilliance of Dean Merlin.

The best lesson from Dean Merlin

Merlin Magallona accomplished many things. He was master teacher and mentor, academic leader, renowned scholar, and passionate advocate. 

The 2011 Magallona vs Ermita, where he was lead petitioner, is a classic case on UNCLOS and its application to the Philippines. Certainly, his work fighting the US bases was pivotal in finally getting them out in 1992.

Dean Merlin was also Foreign Affairs Undersecretary in 2000-2001, serving with another nationalist, then Vice-President Tito Guingona.

Dean Merlin was also a good friend to many of us. For sure, in my case, he was always supportive of my professional and personal pursuits. 

I learned a thousand things and more from Dean Merlin, but the most important of these lessons was witnessing the love he had for his wife Miriam, who died two years ago. 

In the last decade, until the cruel pandemic put an end to it in March 2020, I would have lunch with the Magallonas in San Beda University twice a month as we were both teaching in its Graduate School of Law, headed by its visionary Dean Fr. Ranhilio Aquino. I would purposely sit down with the Magallonas because it was such an enjoyable conversation with my old teacher and the equally smart and witty Mrs. Magallona. 

Dean Merlin and I usually shared the same views, which Ma’am Miriam constantly and always in a good natured way challenged, bringing us down to earth – ironically, two dialectical materialist intellectuals challenged by her to be more grounded.

I am glad that Dean Merlin and Mrs. Magallona are now in heaven together. I will miss them for the rest of my life. – Rappler.com

Tony La Viña teaches law and is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.

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