Skip to main content

Professor Sir Adam Roberts: oration

Read Professor Bernie Morley's oration on Professor Sir Adam Roberts for the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in June 2014.


Professor Sir Adam Roberts is a distinguished scholar in the field of international relations and a leading expert on international security, international organisations and international law, including the laws of war. He currently holds the post of Senior Research Fellow of the Centre for International Studies at Oxford University. Among his many prominent positions was his Presidency of the British Academy from 2009-2013 during which time he successfully oversaw the expansion of its premises, raised its public profile and initiated efforts to feed more academic opinion into governmental policy-making. He was knighted in 2002 in recognition of his ‘services to the study and practice of international relations’.

Edward Adam Roberts was born in Penrith, Cumbria, the third of four children of Michael Roberts, an accomplished poet, writer and teacher, and Janet Adam Smith, also a highly regarded writer and editor. Both his parents shared a deep love of mountains and mountaineering, a love which they passed on to their son and which remains a passion to this day. Professor Roberts attended Westminster School and it was under the tutelage of an eccentric history teacher here that he developed the interest in international history and international affairs that would form the basis of his future career and his deep-seated belief that it is imperative to have an in-depth understanding of history if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He went on to study Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford and, after a spell working as assistant editor on the weekly newspaper Peace News, he returned to graduate studies at the London School of Economics and pursued an academic career from then on. From 1986-2007 he was the Montague Burton Professor of International Relations, University of Oxford. Among his former graduate students at Oxford are the US National Security Advisor, Dr Susan Rice, and the Vice-President of the European Commission, Dr Olli Rehn.

Professor Roberts’ contribution to international relations over the years cannot be underestimated. The extent of his influence is nicely illustrated in an accusation levelled at him at a conference in Poland when an East German was overheard telling a Russian that Adam Roberts was responsible for organising the Prague Spring and was a highly dangerous individual! Professor Roberts acknowledges this claim was greatly exaggerated, but he remains rather proud of it nevertheless. Among his most significant publications are his ‘Documents on the Laws of War’ which has been very widely used, including as a reference guide by officers serving on active operations. He has also published extensively in professional journals and has produced reports and evidence to many governmental and international bodies, for example, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiries into Global Security: Afghanistan in 2009, and into Foreign Policy Aspects of the War Against Terrorism in 2004. In a recent interview, he cites his major contribution to his field as being an understanding of the different perspectives on international issues. In an effort to understand what it is like ‘at the rough end’, Professor Roberts has travelled to many of the world’s conflict zones over the years.

Throughout his career, Professor Roberts has had an uncanny knack of being ‘ahead of the game’ in identifying important issues, and this is what he says he is most proud of. For example, he wrote a book about non-violent forms of resistance against foreign occupation regimes one year before the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia and the popular, non-violent resistance against it. His book, ‘Documents on the Laws of War’ was published just before an increase in public interest in such issues as the treatment of detainees, protection of civilians and respect for human rights in occupied territories, which of course still have such currency today. This sixth sense for key issues that are looming on the horizon of international affairs does indeed make Professor Roberts an extraordinary and unique scholar in his field.

Chancellor, I present to you Professor Sir Adam Roberts, who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Professor Bernie Morley

On this page