Theme: International law and universality

The 2018 conference will take a hard and unflinching look at the multitude of roles and functions played by universality in international legal discourses as well as its associated narratives of progress and virtues. In doing so, it will provide a critical appraisal of the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion that come with international law and its universalist discursive strategies. This will require that universality is not reduced to the question of the geographical outreach of international law, but instead, is understood in terms of boundaries. This will also entail examining how the idea of universality – which does not lend itself to a translation in all languages – was developed in some of the dominant vernaculars of international law – primarily English and French – before being universalised and imposed upon international lawyers from all traditions. This will simultaneously offer an opportunity to revisit the ideologies that constitute the identity of international lawyers today, as well as the socialisation, reproduction and legal educational processes which they undergo to become international lawyers. Special attention will be paid to the place which Europe has secured for itself by virtue of the progress and historical narratives built around the idea of universality.

In recent decades, however, the virtues and ostensible progress commonly associated with universality have been contested. As is illustrated by the several generations of Third World Approaches to International Law, international lawyers have argued that universality can function as an ideology as well as an instrument of domination and exclusion. They have come to realise that the way in which universality is deployed in international legal discourses constantly creates a periphery and an otherness which suppresses memory and struggle. Just as the use of the idea of humanity fuelled scepticism in the middle of the 20th century (see e.g. Schmitt), the invocation of universality has come to arouse suspicion among international lawyers. For many TWAIL and post-colonialist theorists, “whoever invokes universality wants to cheat”.