New Symposium: The Ahistoricism of Legal Pluralism in International Criminal Justice

I am very pleased to host a new mini-symposium on a long article I co-authored with Asad Kiyani, entitled the Ahistoricism of Legal Pluralism in International Criminal Justice. Because of length constraints, the American Journal of Comparative Law could only publish a shorter version of the piece, so with their blessing, Asad and I have decided to publish the longer version online and invite a series of excellent scholars to debate this longer version as part of this blog’s commitment to curating respectful critique of new scholarship. The longer version we discuss here contains a fourth part focused on criminal law procedure in Argentina and post WWI trials in Europe. In this additional part, we use these two illustrations, first as a counterexample that acts as a null hypothesis for the remainder of our piece, then as a qualification of this initial counterexample. We are thrilled to have an eclectic group of scholars who work on these issues from different disciplinary backgrounds criticize the piece, and hope that the dialogue spawns further debate within legal pluralism as well as international criminal justice. The article’s abstract follows: 

International criminal law (“ICL”) is legally plural, not a single unified body of norms. As a whole, trials for international crimes involve a complex dance between international and domestic criminal law, the specificities of which vary markedly from one forum to the next. To date, many excellent scholars have suggested that the resulting doctrinal diversity in ICL should be tolerated and managed under the banner of Legal Pluralism. To our minds, these scholars omit a piece of the puzzle that has major implications for their theory – the law’s history. Neglecting the historical context of the international and national criminal laws that inform ICL leads to (a) the uncritical adoption of criminal law doctrine as a proxy for diverse social, cultural and political values; and (b) in the limited instances where criminal law doctrine does reflect underlying societal values, an overly general assumption that respecting the various embodiments of this law is best for ICLThese oversights result in important normative distortions, with major implications for the field’s self-image, function and legitimacy. In particular, scholars and courts overlook that much criminal law doctrine globally is the result of either a colonial imposition or an “unsuccessful” legal transplant, as well as historical examples where respecting pre-existing doctrinal arrangements undermined the value of postwar trials on any semi-defensible measure. In this Article, we revisit a cross-section of this missing history to contribute to both Legal Pluralism and ICL. For the former, we demonstrate that there is nothing inherently good about Legal Pluralism, and that in some instances, a shift from its descriptive origins into a more prescriptive form risks condoning illegitimate or dysfunctional law. For ICL, our historiography shows how partiality is embedded in the very substance of ICL doctrine, beyond just the politics of its enforcement. At one level, this realization opens up the possibility of renegotiating a universal ICL that, at least in certain circumstances, is actually more plural in terms of values and interests than doctrinal pluralism (although the dangers of power masquerading as universalism are also profound). At another, it suggests that institutions capable of trying international crimes need to do far more to step away from the ugly legal histories they have inherited. 

Before we begin the mini-symposium, a word from behind the scenes. First, this piece resulted from an excellent collaboration between Asad and I. As the article attests, Asad and I were very equally involved in all facets of its production, including design, research, (re)writing, editing and workshopping. The collaboration was a great pleasure, from which I learned a lot. In terms of process, this project consumed a tremendous amount of energy. On more than one occasion, we concluded that we had to rewrite large sections. The history of the criminal law in entire regions of the world was excised with the stroke of a pen, entire subject-areas were calved off after more than one person said we had two papers here not one, and several times, we concluded that despite already having spent years on it, we had to begin new research on different periods and legal systems. I think I speak for Asad as well when I say that we learned a great deal through this project and are very pleased to see it completed and debated by so many outstanding scholars whose work we admire.