[Out now] Video by Fleur Johns on ‘Rethinking community in international law’

Published 13 May 2024

@ Hilko Visser - Fleur Johns during the 9th Annual T.M.C. Asser Lecture in the Peace Palace.

On April 25, in a packed Peace Palace in The Hague, Annual T.M.C. Asser Lecture speaker prof. Fleur Johns explored new techniques of community-making in her lecture 'Connection in a divided world: Rethinking ‘community’ in international law'. Johns introduced the concept of an “attenuated community", a more cautious and limited form of community - moving away from a unified ideal towards temporary alliances based on shared interests. Watch the video now.

In her lecture, professor Johns discussed the concept of ‘community’, a cornerstone of international law, which serves a multitude of purposes. Sometimes the concept of community is used as a legitimising tool, fostering the perception of international law as having a global constituency. At other times it serves as a technique for transcending bilateral legal frameworks, detaching issues from solely national interpretations.

The concept of community, however, has also been used as assimilationist, racist, or excluding. In the Peace Palace, Johns pointed towards early racist accounts of a community of nations comprised of the ‘civilised’, for instance, in the work of the 19th century Scottish international lawyer James Lorimer, one of the founders of the Institut de Droit International. He wrote that international law must admit “inferior races” into its political community on the basis of “perpetual pupilarity and guardianship”, so long as “the preponderance of proximate power remains with the superior race”.

According to Johns, even today’s international law tends to prioritise the views and experiences of ‘developed’ nations over those imagined to be at an earlier developmental stage. Johns: “Whether expressed in racial terms or developmentally, the unity of international community often depends on the scapegoating, subordination, and expulsion of forces and peoples identified with disunity and decline.”

New, temporary alliances
Professor Johns then zoomed in on recent international legal cases before the International Court of Justice in which international legal litigants invoked ‘community interest’. They did so while seeking to hold states accountable for alleged violations of international law such as genocide or torture. Examples were the cases brought by The Gambia against Myanmar; by Canada and the Netherlands against the Syrian Republic; and by South Africa against Israel.

In these cases, Johns detected new, temporary alliances being formed to address a specific problem, which focus on shared interests and avoid the pitfalls of claiming a strong, unified international community. Johns: “The claims are not so much concerned with universalising legal questions or concerns, but rather with cutting across and wedging open specific struggles, and offering other states and peoples a point of entry to them – an opportunity to articulate what is at stake for them in those struggles.”

“Attenuated community”
Drawing an analogy to an attenuated vaccine - where scientists try and make the pathogens of a disease less dangerous but potent enough for the vaccine to work - professor Johns introduced the concept of an “attenuated community”, as a new way of thinking about shared interests and responsibilities in international law.

Whereas traditional community concepts can and have been misused to justify violence against outsiders, the concept of an “attenuated community” avoids this by forming temporary and non-exclusive alliances - alliances that build on the idea of shared interest among nations to address specific issues while being aware of the current challenges of international cooperation.

Birth of the legal capital
Prior to professor Johns’ lecture, Rob Schuurmans, Deputy director of international affairs at the Municipality of The Hague, the co-host of the T.M.C. Asser Annual Lecture, sketched the historical context of the birth of The Hague as the legal capital of the world, exactly 125 years ago this year.

Schuurmans stressed the importance of the global peace movement of 1899, and the role of individuals therein - such as Nobel Peace Prize recipient Tobias Asser - which applied pressure for decisive action, leading to the formation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the world’s first international court.

Remarking that communities can also exclude and divide people, and that new technologies are increasing that risk, Schuurmans reminded us about the power of community. “It is through communities, after all, that cities have been able to thrive throughout history. From current community building initiatives in our neighbourhood, to the global peace movement of yesteryear, humanity needs community now more than ever.”         

Watch the full lecture now.

Read more
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 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. Read more.