Black Lives Matter and International Law

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We are today launching a symposium which will run over the next few weeks, with the aim of bringing together legal experts on various intersecting issues relating to the Black Lives Matter movement, police violence in America, and the historic racism and inequality that is demonstrated by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and many other Black Americans at the hands of the American police force. Our aim is to discuss a variety of global and international law issues related to these events, and to consider how international law could play a part in the movement for social justice.

This symposium emerges out of lengthy debates among the EJIL:Talk! editors. As individuals, many international lawyers were horrified by the scenes in the United States, and further horrified as details emerged of the number of racialised attacks and deaths in Europe, including at the hands of law enforcement in European states. We wanted to understand what EJIL:Talk! as a blog could meaningfully contribute. In the present authors’ view, there is a responsibility on international lawyers to contribute legal commentary and scholarly debate on these matters for two key reasons. Firstly, this systemic racism and inequality has a strong link with the history of international law and of our discipline. European colonialism, slavery, and imperialism continue to inform these events. And secondly, we are in privileged positions and institutions with an associated duty to speak.

Whilst recent events in the US have naturally dominated the news, we know that discrimination and systemic racism exist in Europe and across the globe. As Christof Heyns, a former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, will highlight in his post, not enough is known about the violent deaths that happen across the world, that are gendered or racially motivated. The conclusion was therefore that our purpose should be to promote serious academic commentary and scholarship on the different issues that arise across the globe.

We will feature some fantastic posts in this symposium from a host of excellent writers, including current and former UN Special Rapporteurs. They will come from a variety of perspectives; and include discussions on issues of human rights, race and international law, treatment of minorities, and self-determination. For example, are human rights treaties enough to drive change? How can monitoring bodies secure better compliance? How can BAME individuals and groups in America and Europe realise these human rights, equally? Is unconscious bias the same as outright discrimination and does this fit into the current rights paradigm? How do economic circumstances contribute to social inequalities and does the international economic and trade order create or reproduce racialised inequalities?

We also want to ensure that we can help to keep this issue alive, even if it may begin to fade from the mainstream news networks. Therefore, this symposium will run over a number of weeks, rather than the usual approach of symposia which is to concentrate posts over a series of days. This has also given us the opportunity to be respectful of the competing calls on the time of our contributors, who may have been personally affected by what is happening in the US or by COVID-19 – that other deeply racialised issue that is currently at the forefront of many agendas.

What has been to interesting to observe is the vast number of COVID-19 posts the blog has received in recent months, compared to the smaller number of posts received relating to international law arising from Black Lives Matter. Of course this lack of discourse might simply be because it is felt that international law already addresses these issues through human rights treaties. Clearly, however, there is much to be done to achieve full equality across the world. Is international law, or law generally, the vehicle to achieve this? This raises further questions about whether law, as an allegedly neutral system, in fact contributes to the inequality, racism and discrimination that persists across the world. We would be very interested to receive legal analysis and the perspectives of international lawyers on this, and invite further submissions to the symposium. Running this symposium over the next few weeks will therefore hopefully also provide time for others to submit posts.

And so in the coming weeks, we hope you will engage in the academic debates that will be forthcoming. All posts in this symposium will be available, once published, to read here.

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