A Moving Conference: Rights, Justice and Memories of the City

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Conferences rarely get reviewed (but see a recent such review here), but given the amount of time, money and carbon emissions that goes into them, we may wish to evaluate them. Moreover, in reviewing a conference, we can try to capture and share an experience that, unlike a book, cannot be picked up again.

The conference Rights, Justice, and Memories of the City that took place in Lviv, Ukraine, from 9 to 12 November, is worth an attempt at capturing. If allowed to pick only one adjective, I would choose ‘moving’. Unlike most academic conferences, the conference involved a lot of physical moving around: the opening lecture took place at the Ukrainian Catholic University; the workshop next day, Placeless/Placeness: Ideas of Rights and Justice in Eastern Europe, was at the Center for Urban History and in the city hall on the city’s beautiful main square; the Saturday included a discussion at the Mayor’s office, a three-hour city walk and an art performance in the Lviv Philarmonic; while the Sunday offered a visit to the nearby town of Zhovkva. These were not mere ‘excursions’, agenda items peripheral to the core business of seated discussion. Rather, they were key to what was being discussed throughout the conference, including during the walks: the role of a place in the development of ideas on rights and justice.

Inspired by Philippe Sands’s celebrated East West Street: On the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity (Weidenfeld&Nicholson 2016, published in Ukrainian in September 2017), this event connected Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin and their legal work to the socio-political context within which they developed. Historians provided brilliant insights into the need for members of minorities to think and act in a cosmopolitan way. Reut Paz outspokenly illustrated the significance of Lemberg/Lwów/Lviv/Lvov with an excerpt from the Eichmann trial, where Eichmann mentions that it was here that he saw something he had not seen before: ‘Blutfontänen’, fountains of blood springing up from the soil due to the extent of killing of Jews that had taken place. Sean Murphy explained how the International Law Commission was working on a draft convention on the prevention and suppression of crimes against humanity, a concept inserted in the Nuremberg Charter at Lauterpacht’s recommendation. And the Ukrainian Judge on the European Court of Human Rights, Judge Ganna Yudkivska, pleaded civil society to continue its fight for human rights in an environment of backlash.

Through their unique networks, convenors Sofia Dyak, Franziska Exeler and Philippe Sands had managed to bring together a group of lawyers, historians, political scientists, journalists, film makers, publishers, and relatives of the key protagonists, most of whom have some kind of connection to this region in the world. A remarkable number of people brought along relatives, whether children, spouses, or parents, in light of their connection to this place. It was thus that on the Saturday morning this motley crowd walked through the streets of Lviv, from the city centre to what once was the Jewish ghetto, and witnessed the unveiling of three memorial plaques, at the houses once occupied by Hersch Lauterpacht, Raphael Lemkin and Louis B. Sohn (not mentioned in Sands’s book, but honoured at Peter Trooboff’s initiative). It was very special to stand in front of the Lauterpacht house with one of his grandchildren and two of his great-grandchildren. It was equally special to see the plaque at Lemkin’s house unveiled by one of his relatives, accompanied by words of Judge Erik Møse, once president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, to which Lemkin’s concept of genocide was so essential.

The conference was thus also moving in the emotional sense of the word. This was very evident during the performance of East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil on Saturday evening, during which Ukrainians and foreign guests alike were in tears. The music may have provoked some of this: J.S. Bach’s Erbarme dich can guarantee tears almost irrespective of context. But bass-baritone Laurent Naouri and pianist Guillaume Chassy also enthralled the audience with Rachmaninov’s Melodiya and a line from Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Anthem’, ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. The story, narrated by the actress Katja Riemann and international lawyer Philippe Sands, equally captivated the audience. While the performance may have had these effects, too, in the many other places where it has been staged, they are likely to have been intensified by the fact that this performance took place in the city where its story originated. This uniqueness was accentuated by the guest performance of world renowned pianist Emanuel Ax who returned to the city in which he was born in 1949 for the first time since he had left in 1956. Katja Riemann spoke her part of the script with characteristic strength, but seemed to be shedding tears when not in action. As colleague Cindy Wittke observed afterwards, to be uttering lines once spoken by Nazi Hans Frank in the shared German language, in this city, must be very confronting.

But now, what is next? How to channel all these emotions that have been powerfully evoked into something productive? The answer will vary from person to person. Some Ukrainian family friends told me that the conference, city walk and performance facilitated a discussion about the place’s history that has hitherto been difficult to have. Many Ukrainians, including the city’s mayor, acknowledge that that history is ‘complicated’, but at times that observation ends rather than opens a discussion. The city has experienced the extremes of twentieth-century European history: Soviet occupation in 1939-41; Nazi occupation in 1941-44, followed by Soviet reconquest in 1944. Each period came with its own violence, in each of which specific nationalities suffered even more than others. Whereas some Ukrainians saw Stalin as the ultimate evil, and Hitler as a ‘mere enemy’, for the city’s at the time large Jewish population, the German occupation was fatal – in some part due to Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis. The Poles of the region in turn suffered from the forced ‘repatriation’ after the Soviet reconquest. The discussion about the region’s multinational history seems even more important now that the war in the country’s east spurs a nationalism that presses people to self-identify as Ukrainian at the expense of other identities, and thus again threatens diversity.

For many international lawyers, Sands’s book and the performance trigger an even stronger commitment to, and belief in, international criminal justice, a project to which both Lemkin and Lauterpacht made significant contributions. Mine is a different response. Neither the book nor the performance evaluated international criminal justice’s success or failure in resolving the fundamental injustices that Lauterpacht and Lemkin sought to address (see, more elaborately, my review here). One cannot know how they would have assessed today’s situation and what they would have advocated, but they might have expressed disillusionment (just as, remarkably, another founding father of international criminal justice, the late Cherif Bassiouni, did, just before his death, during an ESIL-sponsored conference in Kiev earlier this year). Therefore, rather than pursuing the remedies that these men advocated in their days, this conference encourages us to see those remedies in their context, and in turn, openly to address, with these same energy as these men, the injustices of our own times.

To me, the most moving element of this event was that it demonstrated, in discussions, during walks and through art, the strength of human connections and the pain of these connections being ruptured. In doing so, it showed signs of a shared humanity, as well as its painful limitations. The confrontation with these limitations can be productive: Michael Barnett has argued that moments of doubts in a shared humanity are the strongest triggers for humanitarianism, for caring of seemingly distant people. A personal visit to a psychiatric hospital just outside Lviv in the margins of the conference illustrated to me just one present-day limitation to the realisation of a shared humanity: patients spend months, years or decades inside an institution without ever getting a breath of fresh air, sedated on beds with ten in a room, or wandering through the corridors like living ghosts, waiting for the decades to go by, depending for nourishment on the purchasing power of 30 eurocents a day in a globalized economy. Is there a way in which international law could be a field that not just stands above people, assigns them rights and duties and judges them, but also fosters a true human connection with those on society’s periphery?  

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