By Emily Jones (SOAS, London)
On Friday 9th September, the Feminism and International Law Interest Group of the European Society of International Law (ESIL) held an agora entitled ‘The Gendered Imaginaries of Crisis in International Law.’ The agora session was initially inspired by Hilary Charlesworth’s provocative statement that ‘international lawyers revel in a good crisis. A crisis provides a focus for the development of the discipline and it also allows international lawyers the sense that their work is of immediate, intense relevance.’ In this vein, the agora aimed to disrupt mainstream interpretations and perspectives on crisis as well as remind attendees of the various ways in which gender is implicated in the narratives of crisis.
The agora was bilingual (in both French and English). This bilingualism not only helped to disrupt the increasing dominance of the English language at ESIL but also allowed for a wider array of feminist perspectives to be considered.
The panel began with an intervention by Bérénice K. Schramm, the Agora Chair. Bérénice began with a reminder of the many ways in which crisis is utilised globally, not only by international lawyers to revel in but also as a moment for change and resistance, thus disrupting mainstream international legal views of crisis. She also highlighted the many elements of crisis which go unseen, including the sounds and images of crisis, showing pictures of women in Rojava engaging in radical democratic work and drawing on the work of German art collective Maiden Monsters to highlight both the existence of counter images to crises and sounds of crisis and the corollary fact that neoliberalism, from a feminist perspective, is, itself, a crisis.
Bérénice, in her introduction, also read an important statement regarding the situation of academics in Turkey. One of the panellists, Zeynep Kivilcim, sadly, was unable to attend the agora in person and was forced to intervene via Skype. This was due to the current political situation in her country and the crack down by the government on academics and academic freedom. As a signatory to the ‘Academics for Peace’ petition, Zeynep risks being interrogated daily. Bérénice reminded the agora participants of the ongoing situation in Turkey and the need to remember the ways in which crises affect academic work and freedom.
The first paper presented was by Dianne Otto and was entitled ‘Feminist Aspirations and Crisis Law: Navigating Uncomfortable Convergences and New Opportunities.’ Dianne noted the normalisation of crisis in international discourse and the ways in which this spreading atmosphere of crisis has allowed for the expansion of emergency laws and rule by experts and technocrats who often favour neoliberal ends. Her paper went on to highlight the ways in which ‘gender panics’ are also caught up in international discourses on crisis, noting, for example, how the trafficking movement and the panic over preventing sex trafficking has been used, not only to deny women agency and the right to make their own sexual and economic decisions, but also to ignore the wider, structural issues which surround trafficking, including poverty and exploitative labour conditions (noting how the focus on trafficking also works to ignore other migrants).
However, Dianne’s paper ended through the consideration of crisis as a possible moment for progress; crisis as resistance. She noted that crises can be used to highlight other causes, discussing the potential in the sex trafficking crisis to allow for other issues about migration and labour to be highlighted. Dianne further noted that one way to resist would be to resist the idea of crisis itself, highlighting the many ways in which HIV-AIDS activists were successful in doing this, leading to the WHO taking a human rights approach to the HIV-AIDS pandemic which allowed for the structural problems around HIV-AIDS, such as inequality, to be considered.
The second speaker was Marion Blondel, who presented in French, drawing greatly on contemporary feminist debates within France. Her paper, entitled ‘La vulnérabilité comme vertu: Recherche d’une transposition du care en droit international,’ which can roughly be translated as ‘Vulnerability as a Virtue: Looking for a Transposition of Care into International Law’ discussed the ways in which an ethics of care and theories of vulnerability have been, and can be, used in international law. Marion showed the ways in which an ethics of care may be applied to international law to create a system of interdependence and interrelation, as a way to re-think the idea of autonomy in international law. She further used conceptions of vulnerability to suggest new ways for international law to re-think its subjects. Her paper highlighted a number of instances where this has been applied in international law, showing possible models for the future, including in bioethics law.
The third paper was given by Jaya Ramji-Nogales. The paper was entitled ‘International Law and the Construction of Crisis: Feminist Approaches.’ Jaya’s paper explored the ways in which international law is implicated in the creation of crises, particularly focusing on migration and highlighting the many ways in which international law lacks sufficient connection with the lived experience of many of its subjects. She spoke of international migration law’s privileging of cisgender elite males, noting, for example, how the principle of non-refoulement operates to exclude many subjects, including women and LGBTQ individuals, from its central structures.
Like Dianne, Jaya also noted that international law’s gendered imaginaries often depict women as passive victims. She showed how migration law, in its efforts to include women, has been complicit in this victim narrative, offering legal protections to women who have suffered domestic violence, female genital mutilation or as victims of sex trafficking while failing to recognize women’s agency by adequately protecting, for example, migrant domestic workers. She critiqued the carceral approach of anti-trafficking laws as grounded in unsavoury gendered imaginaries of brown males from the Global South and insufficiently attentive to the vulnerability of all migrants. In short, Jaya argued that international law’s response to the needs of migrants with agency who move for a complex range of reasons – particularly the need for safe and lawful transit between states – is deeply inadequate, and that failing is a recipe for crisis.
The final paper of the agora was given by Zeynep Kivilcim who, as discussed above, was obliged to present through Skype due to the ongoing political situation in Turkey. Zeynep’s paper, also presented in French, was entitled ‘La démocratie radicale dans les discours légaux contemporains au Rojava au cœur de la « crise » Syrienne : Une analyse genrée’ which translates roughly as ‘Radical Democracy in Contemporary Legal Discourses in the Heart of the Syrian “Crisis” in Rojava: a gendered analysis.’ Zeynep’s paper noted that the focus on Syria as a crisis in international law has worked to ignore the radical democracy building which is ongoing in the Kurdish region of Rojava in Northern Syria. Rojava’s radical democracy is also based around gender equality, which has been declared as one of the foundational pillars of the new society the people are trying to build. Zeynep highlighted the many ways in which the people of Rojava are trying to ensure a gender equal society, including the making of sexism into a crime and the explicit inclusion of female politicians at all levels.
Noting that self-determination movements have often excluded women and feminist issues from their agendas, often choosing, instead, to prioritise other causes, Zeynep showed how Rojava may provide an alternative example of self-determination, a plural model which is working to explicitly include women and feminist causes from the offset. This movement provides a resistance to international law in the heart of crisis and provides a key example, going back to Dianne’s paper, of the ways in which moments of crisis may also become moments of resistance.