Annual T.M.C. Asser Lecture

'Connection in a divided world: Rethinking ‘community’ in international law' by Fleur Johns

We are delighted that professor Fleur Johns, a recognised expert on international law and on the role of automation and digital technology in global legal relations, will deliver the 9th Annual T.M.C. Asser Lecture on Thursday 25 April 2024 in the Peace Palace in The Hague. 

Professor Johns’ lecture will explore the concept of ‘community’ in today's international law, especially in the context of humanitarianism. As technology has radically changed the ways in which we connect, communicate, share values with each other, exercise power, and engage in conflict, the concept of ‘community’ in international law is once more in contention. Seats are limited, so register now! Read the full programme

'Ideas of ‘community’ have long played a role in making insiders and outsiders in international law, and continue to do so. Yet techniques of community-making in international law may nevertheless present egalitarian possibilities—or so this lecture will show.'

Abstract: 'Connection in a divided world: Rethinking ‘community’ in international law' 

The concept of ‘community’ (as in the ‘international community’ or the ‘community of nations’) has been a cornerstone of international law, sometimes aiding the articulation and promotion of public interests. For example, recent attempts to forge international agreement on pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response have been spurred by governments acknowledging ‘the catastrophic failure of the international community’ to ensure solidarity and equity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

And lately, international legal litigants have invoked ‘community interest’ in seeking to hold states accountable for alleged violations of international law. Such claims have been central to recent proceedings brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) alleging genocide or torture: by The Gambia against Myanmar; by Canada and the Netherlands against the Syrian Republic; and by South Africa against Israel.

Nonetheless, international legal notions of ‘community’ have also served racist, exclusionary purposes. The 19th century international lawyer James Lorimer famously argued that some religious and racialised peoples could never be full members of a community of nations under international law. Current international legal vocabularies, such as the ICJ Statute’s reference to the ‘law recognized by civilized nations’ for example, remain redolent of this racist idea of community-as-privilege.

In view of their ambivalence, claims about ‘international community’ should be made with caution. They often imply commonality of experience and shared value on a global scale when the experiences and values at issue may, in fact, be partial or contested, perhaps increasingly so. Digital technologies have changed how nations and peoples are brought together or connect, creating new disparities between those made more vulnerable to violence and injustice by digital connectivity, and those who benefit from the uneven global spread of computation.

This lecture will examine the concept of ‘community’ in today's international law, especially in the context of humanitarianism and the growing use of technology. We will revisit key texts such as Georges Abi-Saab's 1998 article, 'Whither the International Community?'. Ideas of ‘community’ have long played a role in making insiders and outsiders in international law, and continue to do so. Yet techniques of community-making in international law may nevertheless present egalitarian possibilities—or so this lecture will show.

Fleur Johns, 2024

About Fleur Johns
Fleur Johns is professor in the Faculty of Law & Justice at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney (Australia). Fleur Johns works in international law, legal theory, law and development, and law and technology. Her latest research has focused on the implications of digital technology for international law and politics, and on the international law of diplomacy.

She has published five books, the most recent of which is #Help: Digital Humanitarianism and the Remaking of International Order (Oxford University Press, 2023) on the transformation of humanitarian aid by the influx of digital technologies, and why this matters for law and politics on a global scale.

From the book: “Digital humanitarian interfaces are occasioning new ways of gathering, dividing, distributing, and relating on the global plane. This book shows something of how this is taking place. The digitization of humanitarian knowledge and practice is not a matter of improved operational efficiency, heightened granularity, precision, or inclusion across the board. It is, in this book’s rendering, a matter of intensely contested political reordering and legal reconfiguration, very much still underway.” 

Fleur Johns is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow (2021-2025) and a Visiting Professor at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden (2021-2024), and has held visiting appointments in Canada, Europe, the UK, and the US.

She currently serves on the editorial boards of the American Journal of International Law and the journals Technology and Regulation, the Journal of Cross-disciplinary Research in Computational Law, and Science, Technology & Human Values, as well as being an Advisory Editor for the London Review of International Law, the Australian Feminist Law Journal and several scholarly book series.

Fleur Johns is a graduate of Melbourne University (BA, LLB(Hons)) and Harvard University (LLM, SJD; Menzies Scholar; Laylin Prize). Prior to entering academia, she practised law in New York. Fleur Johns was elected to Fellowship of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 2020 and currently serves on its Executive Committee as International Secretary. Within UNSW, she is affiliated with the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and the Australian Human Rights Institute. Fleur was Associate Dean (Research) for the Faculty of Law at UNSW Sydney between 2016 and 2019 and currently serves on UNSW's Academic Board.

Reviews of #Help: Digital Humanitarianism and the Remaking of International Order by Fleur Johns 
"What happens when the objectives, beneficiaries, and participants of humanitarian activism are framed by digital technologies? When the door to humanitarian relief is opened or closed by algorithms? #Help lays out the distributive effects of recourse to digital interfaces by humanitarian actors: the re-ordering of powers and vulnerabilities between human groups, the routinization of emergencies, and the redirection of political action. This is a hugely interesting, politically relevant, and altogether new analysis of the transformations of the humanitarian imaginary resulting from its integration in the global digital revolution." Martti Koskenniemi, Emeritus Professor of International Law at the University of Helsinki and Director of the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights

"How does the diffusion of digital interfaces transform the practice, philosophy, and politics of humanitarian work? This essential and richly documented book discusses the normalization of binary thinking and datafication, the rise of new actionable objects and relations, and shifting temporalities and governance models. #Help offers an invaluable perspective that challenges what we thought we knew about how people today ask for help, and how others respond." Marion Fourcade, Professor of Sociology and Director of Social Science Matrix at the University of California, Berkeley

"Philosophically grounded, historically rich, and analytically sharp, this book brings much needed clarity to the complex field of digital humanitarianism. Johns shows how humanitarianism is changing in relation to computational practices, and why this matters for law and politics on a global scale." Kate Crawford, Research Professor at USC Annenberg and Senior Principal Researcher at MSR New York

"As humanitarianism has become a global language meant to represent and alleviate the suffering of the world, Fleur Johns critically explores its latest avatar: digital humanitarianism. Through fascinating case studies of recent tools claiming to characterize populations, map needs, and organize responses, #Help offers an original, rigorous and much-needed analysis of the ambiguous promise of this technological turn in the politics of compassion." Didier Fassin, Professor at the Collège de France and the Institute for Advanced Study

Register now to secure your seat! Read the full programme. Please share this page.