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IGLP Workshop core faculty member Martii Koskenniemi, who is currently Professor of International Law at the University of Helsinki and Director of the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights, spoke on International Legal History during IGLP: The Workshop in June 2012.

Rose Parfitt, IGLP Workshop 2012 Docent and Assistant Professor of International Law at the American University in Cairo, attended the lecture and offers her summary below.

Professor Koskenneimi discussed some of the paradoxes that inevitably seem to accompany the writing of international legal history. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Francois Laurent was forced to admit that his 18 volumes constituted as much a history of humanity as they did a history of international law, while Ernst Nys and Eduard Deschamps both produced explicitly teleological histories, with “progress,” as much as “freedom” and “humanity” proving the central organizing principles of their accounts. In the twentieth century, “realist” histories (such as Grewe’s) and “idealist” histories (such as Redslob’s) vied with each other — attempts to reconcile these two approaches encountering “the eternal problem”:  that of the relationship between individual and community, and between constraint and liberty.

Martti Koskenniemi

Even those accounts, such as those of T. O. Elias and R. P. Anand, that have sought to break free of this trap by arguing that the Eurocentricity of previous histories of international law renders them unacceptable have encountered the trap that the very language (that of international law itself) and the standards (those of historical inquiry) they made use of were themselves European products and arguably reproduced the European bias that Elias and Arnand sought to challenge. This, Professor Kosekenniemi argued, has lead Marxist historians such as China Mieville to assert that there is no way to use the vocabulary of international law without becoming an imperial apologist. Antony Anghie, too, has admitted the intractability of this central paradox: “is it possible to escape the European trap?”

Several strategies exist to tackle this problem. Firstly, one could, as Jörgfish has done, simply focus on the colonial encounter itself, thereby attempting to shock the reader into an anticolonial position, and drawing attention to the complicity of international legal arguments in helping to bring about and justify the horrors of colonialism. Second, one could concentrate, as Anghie has done, on the colonial origins of international law — that is, on the way in which the discipline and its central doctrines were born in and through the colonial encounter. However, such an approach risks simply reversing the Schmittian celebration of imperial rule as international law’s centre of gravity. Thirdly, one could zoom in on practices of hybridization and reappropriation, as scholars such as Nathaniel Berman, Liliana Obregón and Arnulf Becker Lorca have done, bringing to light the reciprocal encounter between “centre” and “periphery” on the terrain of international law. Fourthly, the strategy of “provincializing Europe” presents itself as a way in which to demonstrate that the history of international law is no more and no less than a history of “men with projects.”

Ultimately, all of these four strategies, and particularly the last two of them, suggest that to view international legal history simply as a history of exclusion (or inclusion) and to condemn it on those grounds is wrong: the discipline, wherever produced and encountered, is and has always been both exclusionary and inclusionary at the same time. “What can then come out of it?” Professor Koskenniemi asked. Not “history” in the positivist or teleological sense, for this is no longer an option. Instead, since international law can no longer be thought of possessed of a separate, distinctive identity, all we can do is to try to find out how people have attempted to make sense of the world in the past, and to think carefully about how we organize the “bricolage” that inevitably results from such a hybridized, fragmented approach and about how it will affect the experience of the reader.