Backstage of transnational law

Published 7 June 2019

© International Criminal Court Twitter.

When we speak of transnational law, we usually think of treaties, courts, judicial decisions, and states. But listing these “official practices” often means that we actually stay on the surface of the things we study. How does transnational law come about, and what concrete practices constitute it?

Asser’s researcher Dr Sofia Stolk is a co-editor of the new book “Backstage Practices of Transnational Law” together with Dr Lianne J.M. Boer (VU Amsterdam). The book invites readers to explore the seemingly mundane, yet very crucial parts of being a transnational legal scholar or a lawyer.

Transnational law in the making
“What happens before the curtain rises, or after it falls?” is one of the more fundamental questions behind this book. “What we see at first glance doesn’t tell us how transnational law comes to look the way it does. It doesn’t tell us what happens behind the scenes to make [it] possible in the first place,” write Dr Sofia Stolk with Dr Lianne J.M. Boer.

According to Stolk and Boer, transnational law does not just consist of treaties and other documents filled with legal jargon. Transnational law is also a collective practice, made up of many specific activities that are often taken for granted and are carried out daily by so many working in the field.

Moot court exercises for prospective lawyers. The twitter account of the International Criminal Court (ICC) using hashtags such as #endimputiny or #endslavery. Networking at the ICC’s Assembly of State Parties. Travelling to academic conferences. These are all activities that professionals of the transnational law accept as a given.

“These backstage doings are so engrained in our daily lives, so much part of the everyday, that ‘because of that’ we fail to notice them as worthy of study in their own right,” argue Stolk and Boer. “Yet precisely their obviousness merits close observation.”

Who belongs, who writes, and how?
Reflecting on the practice of transnational law carries significance not only in theoretical terms, as it tries to shed light on the invisible, and provides a different kind of writing on international law.

The book also calls into question how we come to practice law more generally, what law is, which people partake in these activities, and how.

This also means that somewhat paradoxically, only those who already belong to the field can ask questions about “who belongs?”. The authors of different chapters have privileged access to, for example, the workshop toward an edited volume concerning international law, or can take part in an art exhibition exclusively organised for the elites of the international criminal justice field.

“Suddenly, you find yourself being part of what you study, behaving according to certain habits and etiquettes, performing certain roles, speaking a certain language,” note Stolk and Boer.

Yet learning how to speak the language, play the roles, and behave accordingly may not be equally accessible for all. The conditions of participation are implicit but important: and those who refuse or cannot participate are by definition excluded from partaking in the field.

And yet the book abstains from making explicit normative judgments but offers a more general reflection on the backstage of transnational law.

Stolk and Boer: “At heart, this edited volume is a plea for curiosity and wonderment, both at what we (consider worthy of our) research as academics and how we do so. We don’t mean to criticize the backstage conditions and dynamics from the side line, but to explore them at the exact moment that we ourselves are involved.”

Read more about the book on the publisher’s website.

Find out more about Dr Sofia Stolk’s work on her research page.