What men, what monsters, what inhuman race,
What laws, what barbarous customs of the place,
Shut up a desert shore to drowning men,
And drive us to the cruel seas again.
The above verse, recounting the plea of the Trojan refugee Aeneas to queen Dido when washed ashore in present-day Libya, repeatedly comes to mind when reading Itamar Mann’s new book, Humanity at Sea. Like Mann’s volume, this part of Vergil’s Aeneid (Dryden’s translation, I, 760-63) zooms in on the basic norms governing the encounter between the powerful and the dispossessed. An encounter that, if with a somewhat reversal of cast, is played out thousands and thousands of times these years as refugees and migrants try to cross the very same waters.
Mann’s inductive approach is not shy of ambition, however. A proper understanding of the encounter between the ‘universal boat person’ and the naval authorities, we are told, holds the keys to an entire theory of human rights. His core argument, that at the heart of human right lies a dyadic encounter quite distinct from both the constitutional and intergovernmental approaches forwarded by positive international law, is both simple and compelling. Read the rest of this entry…