[OpinioJuris] Interview with Fleur Johns on rethinking community in international law

Published 22 April 2024

Photo: @ICJ - International law leans on "community" for legitimacy, but this concept can be exclusionary, glossing over differences and past wrongs, thinks Fleur Johns

In an interview for OpinioJuris conducted by researcher Klaudia Klonowska, international law scholar Fleur Johns explores how the concept of ‘community’ shapes international law. Professor Johns, who will speak at the 9th Annual T.M.C. Asser Lecture in The Hague on Thursday, argues that traditional notions of community often reinforce power imbalances and justify violence. She proposes a new approach – "attenuated community" – that focuses on specific struggles and fosters cross-cutting alliances.

International law frequently invokes "community" for legitimacy and framing legal issues. However, the concept of "community" can also be problematic by creating a sense of universality that overlooks differences and historical grievances. Historical formulations of community have also been assimilationist and racist, excluding groups deemed "other." Johns: “Many instantiations of community or efforts to secure community depend on identifying figures or elements that do not belong, and scapegoating, expelling, or suppressing these figures or elements. There is, for instance, a lot of literature on this phenomenon in the context of the war on terror.”

Shared opposition
Instead, Fleur Johns proposes a new approach: "attenuated community." This focuses on shared opposition to specific forms of violence and oppression. According to Johns, this concept avoids romanticised notions of unity, acknowledging the inherent tensions and exclusions of community formation. Johns: “I talk about this in terms of an attenuated notion of community, drawing an analogy to an attenuated vaccine. In a vaccine that is made from the pathogens that it is designed to protect against, you attenuate the pathogens. You try to make them less pathogenic and less likely to cause disease. But they still need to remain potent or active for the vaccine to work.”

New legal relationships
Johns highlights recent International Court of Justice (ICJ) proceedings as examples of this notion. Cases like Gambia v. Myanmar on the Rohingya genocide, for instance, utilise "erga omnes" claims. These claims assert obligations owed by all states to uphold fundamental norms, regardless of specific treaties. This strategy creates new legal relationships around existing conflicts, fostering alliances across traditional boundaries. (…) Johns: “(…) these claims really have a diagonal, cross-cutting impetus. They cut through what could otherwise be a bilateral dispute and hook other states into it, highlighting other states’ stakes in that conflict, at least for the time being.”

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Prof Fleur Johns

About Klaudia Klonowska
Klaudia Klonowska is a PhD candidate in international law at the Asser Institute and the University of Amsterdam. She studies the interactions of humans and AI-enabled decision-support systems in the military decision-making process and the consequences thereof to the exercise of (human) judgment under international humanitarian and human rights law. She is a member of the research project Designing International Law and Ethics into Military Artificial Intelligence (DILEMA).