| Reimagining Culture in Intl. Legal Theory and Practice

Course Information

  • 2020-21
  • 5-Year B.A., LL.B. (Hons.), LL.M.
  • III, V
  • Mar 2021
  • Elective Course

Introduction: The legal device of culture has been the site of immense political and ideological contestation. After several years of being confined to hallowed public spaces such as monuments, culture has now been embraced as a more all-encompassing concept that embodies communities’ different ways of life. Deeper scrutiny reveals that the legal understanding of culture continues to be rather myopic – atleast on two counts. Firstly, it chases “visible” manifestations of culture. This ignores the profound and systemic ways in which culture shapes human behavior, and particularly legal practice. Secondly, and relatedly, this understanding is often blind to the socio-political realities of the communities involved. This is predominantly reflected in courts using the language, lens, and apparatus of Western States to articulate the scope and content of cultural rights of communities. This course is therefore an attempt to help students understand how culture visibly and invisibly affects international law and appreciate the need for international law to be made more reflexive.

Division of sessions: The course will be divided into three parts. The first part will map the historical challenges to the juridification of culture in international law that resulted in the plurality of definitions of culture. It will then unpack how human rights tribunals and international criminal tribunals have interpreted the concept of culture – the values in which such rights are grounded, the scope of these rights, and the limits placed on right-holders. Attention will be paid to the different normative standards used by international courts located in and dealing primarily with disputes originating in the Global South.

The second part of the course will take students through the Asian argument of cultural relativism, also known as the “Asian values” approach. Using the learnings from our initial seminars, we will study selected Asian laws/judgments/social practices to deconstruct the contemporary meaning of Asian values. This deep dive will allow us to identify the failings in its application.

The final substantive part of the course will offer a reflexive re-reading of international law using the vocabulary of culture. The focus will be on how culture influences international judicial/legal culture, both in international legal theory and practice. We will discuss the cultural implications of procedural rules/institutional design in international courts – such as the choice of official languages at international courts, the facilities for victim participation, and even the architectural design of courts. We will also collectively re-read a decision of the International Criminal Court and one of the International Court of Justice to identify cultural patterns in legal argumentation, judicial reasoning, and legal writing/scholarship.

Pedagogical approach: The course will consist of eight 2-hour sessions. In terms of teaching style, the course will combine the traditional lecture method with seminar style discussion. In every class, we will have a short lecture. Alternatively, one or two students may be asked to present on an essential case or secondary work prescribed for that day. Building on the presentation, each class will hone in on three or four central questions that will be fleshed out through discussions.