The choices we have

A  few weeks ago (I’m a slow blogger, and intend to remain so) I happened to be given almost carte blanche to organise the Closing Plenary of the International Law Association (ILA) British Branch Spring Conference we were hosting at King’s College London. (My colleagues are either extreme risk seekers or were totally desperate.)

What we ended up doing was this: Philippa Webb and I invited to the stage Thomas Pogge (the rockstar philosopher at Yale, and one of the leaders of the Global Justice movement), Paul Stephen (at Virginia, and the reporter for the American Law Institute’s Restatement of the Foreign Relations Law of the US) and Diane Marie Amann (at Georgia, and an adviser to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court). Thomas and Paul knew what was expecting them, but not Diane. Our hope was to provoke a freewheeling, improvised, but introspective discussion. We asked them this:

“Do we not, as international scholars and practitioners, have a distinct social responsibility, or can we indeed simply be content to ‘clarify’ international law, to improve its internal consistency, or to advocate a certain norm? Isn’t there something more to what we do?”

The question of course rests on the immodest assumption that we are contributing to shaping the future of international law. That what we do can be meaningful. But is it an assumption we should reject? Then why the heck are we here in the first place?

We do have a certain freedom in doing the things we do – clearly in academia, even though many people act as if they don’t know this, but also in practice. And with that freedom comes responsibility (yes, just as Spiderman said…).

If the point is obvious, and obviously important, which I hope it is, then shouldn’t we, from time to time, just a bit, talk about it, and stop pretending there is nothing more to our job than craftsmanship?

Back to our room in London. The audience (and Diane) were told the question. Almost immediately a complete silence fell over the room. What a bizarre yet intriguing question: we are free!? Thomas Pogge went first. He came up with a detailed list of ways in which we can think of ourselves, and accordingly orient our writing, as participants in the project to end poverty in the world (this is, brutally simplified, one of the basic projects of the Global Justice movement). No, he essentially said, it is not too good to be true. No, it is not too lofty an ideal to be pursued. Yes, if we can, and we can indeed, we should. (He later promised me to write an editorial for one of the next issues of the Journal of International Dispute Settlement – an unlikely venue for such thoughts, but this precisely is why it matters.)

Paul Stephan spoke of our need to understand other cultures than our own usual Western habitat when we try to make (or restate) foreign relations law, and thus international law. We tend to project, he said, understandings, concepts, values on other peoples, which simply don’t exist there quite in the same way. Just as the German word “Kultur” emerged in defensive reaction to the French idea of “civilisation” (these are my words now, trying to explain differently what Paul said), where Kultur was trying to pull towards particularism when civilisation was trying to pull towards universalisation, we should understand that even values like democracy and human rights are cultural values. All very obvious, you might say, but when this is said by the rapporteur of the US Restatement? And the difficulties this creates for his daily work? If you think this is but normal, you probably just don’t know by what sort of people even large and important projects like this one are often conducted.

Diane Marie Amann told us a personal story. When she heard she was awarded a doctorate honoris causa by the University of Utrecht,  she wondered what was up.  Her academic craftsmanship is impeccable, but a doctorate honoris causa at this young age? She got the answer along with the award when she arrived in Utrecht: it was in recognition of the fact that she was the first US academic who had said, in an article she had difficulties to publish, that Guantanamo was not ok. A doctorate for courage, in other words. An award for something that makes the life of an academic worthwhile. A prize for a valuable way in which to exercise the choices we have.

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