Like Seamus Heaney’s republic of conscience international human rights law is wrought from ‘tears’ we wept when it became clear what we were capable of and what was at stake. Not solitude, as Hannah Arendt explains, but loneliness or ‘not belonging to the world at all‘.
Though its root source resonates in our bones, the law’s words do not yield their intent easily. Like art, it seems to be:
For in my experience, seemingly everywhere, in the global north and south, its meaning, is not merely screened by its legal bearings, but coloured by suggestion. It is susceptible to being revered as a referent of Justice herself or immutable law. Or conversely dismissed as a philosophic or legal abstraction. To being narrowed in scope and reduced in complexity. To being disregarded as law, parried as an import and censured as unnecessary or ineffective. So its meaning becomes blurred, leaving space for more threatening suggestions to gather affective and effective power.
These hover, as we know, dislimning our volition and in extremity our existence, until sometimes we disappear altogether. For the law continues to be proved in darkness; it has a counter-narrative that is a persistent and disturbing presence, Ghosts linger, Ghosts walk-again. Sometimes their presence is vestigial, the surviving traces of abrogated injustices, subtly attenuating our standing as persons before the law. Other times their presence is super-powered, past injustices walking-again, brutally denying the phenomenal: our claim to belong to humanity. In the hands of some within presumptively democratic as well as authoritarian states, the threat of not belonging or not being fully claimed, is fleshed and fleshed out, given affective and effective power, until it holds in a miasma we cannot always see.
a millennia-old story
Yet it seems to me (as it seemed to Hersch Lauterpacht here) this law is sourced in ‘the silences in which are our beginnings / in which we have origin like water’. In its sinews it holds the bones of a story that has been retold again and again over millennia. Like Cinderella, the details vary but its fabula remains the same. In its words it bares our grace and beauty: our intrinsic worth as persons and ends in ourselves. In its bones our susceptibility and sensibility to ‘suffered injustice’ — unnecessary pain, distress, privation and harm. And in its pulse the music of what happens when we claim Justice and take ‘flight on the empty skies’. Even now, as so many attest, it is possible to suffer the same fate as Sophocles’ Antigone:
the assumed obligation
In its story, like the republic of conscience, fog is ‘a dreaded omen’ and ‘lightning spells universal good’. For immanent in states’ assumed human rights obligations is an obligation to bring light to the law. To make its inventory of rights-claims known. To bare (like its humanitarian complement) its radical meaning; its material source and generative force. And to make this effective: which (in my seeing) is to recreate its meaning so its significance in our lives is refined and deepened, awakening what we intuit, even know, but sometimes cannot see. Though states may (dis)remember this obligation, like that other republic, this body of international law’s embassies are everywhere.
to star the dark*
Elsewhere, I experiment; I try to do this with a little help from the imaginings of poets and storytellers. Because Percy Bysshe Shelley may be right: they are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world‘. Not the proposers or makers of international human rights law but the sometimes bearers of its fabula and imaginings that awaken, enlarge and linger. Why else ‘when Leningrad was dangling from its jails’ did ‘a woman with blue lips’ ask Anna Akhmatova:
So this is an iterated-call to outdo those with threatening suggestions about us and this law’s material source at storytelling, so its radical (or root) meaning lingers in our imaginations, supporting everyone to weigh in.
* from Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s To Star the Dark