Grotius Lecture

The Art of International Law

24th AUWCL Sponsored Grotius Lecture to Mark Start of ASIL Annual Meeting

On April 6, 2022, the 24th Grotius Lecture, sponsored by the American University Washington College of Law, marked the opening of the 116th Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law. 

Following an introduction by ASIL President Catherine Amirfar, AUWCL Dean Roger A. Fairfax Jr. welcomed the audience and reminded them that over the course of the twenty-four years, this lecture has been an essential public forum to promote international law. He also highlighted that this lecture coincides with the 40th Anniversary of the AUWCL LL.M. program in International Legal Studies. 

He presented the Grotius Lecturer, Judge Hilary Charlesworth, who has just been appointed to serve on the International Court of Justice. In her lecture, Judge Charlesworth addressed the interaction between art and international law. She explained that the visual dimension occupies a far greater place in the determination of our reality than most would admit, including that international law that binds nations,. Usually, the study of international law focuses on treaties, judgments, and other relevant documents of state practice and scholarly work. However, Judge Charlesworth claimed that the visual dimension can shape and transform the way these documents are made and applied. She identified six forms in which the interaction between art and international law may take place. 

First, art serves to symbolize international law’s authority. She mentioned the ICJ’s large, red wax seal that is put at the end of a judgment as a powerful symbol of the judgment’s authority. Another example is the portraiture of famous authorities, such as the relief portrait of Hugo Grotius in the U.S. Capitol building. This art was installed in 1950 and serves as a prominent emblem of the authority of international law in that country’s legislature. 

Second, art illuminates the limits of international law, as so characteristically shown in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica from 1937, which he painted in reaction to the brutal bombing of that village by Nazi air forces during the Spanish Civil War. This image purports the rejection against atrocity so clearly that it is a favorite on contemporary textbooks on human rights and international criminal law. 

Third, art and international law may conflict with each other. This is sometimes noticeable in architecture, as for instance by the ILO and the Palais des Nations buildings in Geneva. These structures are reflective of the Westphalian model of state sovereignty, while at the same time embodying the emerging internationalism that inspired the creation of the United Nations and other international organizations. The UN building in New York is described as endorsing European universalism, while hosting the world community of nations.

Fourth, art can justify the recourse to international law. Art can be a persuasive way to express the need for rules of international law as a way to tackle certain challenges. Judge Charlesworth pointed to the artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibition “The Law of the Journey” (2017), a giant inflatable boat full of refugees, to illustrate the role art plays in underlining the need for an international legal regime for the protection of refugees. 

Fifth, art can serve as propaganda for particular views of international law. During colonial times, art was used to praise the civilizing mandate of the European powers abroad. An example of this is illustrated by a 17th century painting of a treaty between the British and indigenous Jamaican inhabitants. 

As a sixth and final example, Judge Charlesworth showed a piece of art from her home country of Australia that is used to express and constitute the law. This piece, the Ngarra law, represents the law and constitution of that indigenous society. 

Following this review of the role of art in international law, Judge Charlesworth analyzed two situations that demonstrate the interactions and complexities of art in various ways in more detail. 

Her first comment was about the architecture of the Peace Palace in The Hague. That building was built following a call for bids published by the Carnegie Foundation in 1905. Against the expectations of many observers at the time, including Carnegie himself, the selection committee opted for a design by Louis-Marie Cordonnier following the style of the Flemish Gothic, which was characteristic of Grotius’ times. Many would have preferred an architecture that reflected other, more contemporary trends, including those that would not only focus on a Eurocentric perspective, nor one that contrasts the “civilized” with the “uncivilized” worlds. 

Her second comment was devoted to the use of images in international litigation. She mentioned the case of Nauru before the ICJ, that ended in a settlement between the parties in 1993. The photos of the devastation caused by the phosphate mining on the entire island and the lack of remedial actions by the three-country consortium that had exploited the island were instrumental in obtaining that settlement. Judge Charlesworth explained how breathtaking photos illustrated the impact of the mining on the island. The exhibitions of those photos had gone around the world and move public opinion. The power of these images made the respondent state’s objections in this case untenable. 

In conclusion, Judge Charlesworth summarized and stated the extensive power of art, images, and other visual formations in shaping our understanding of international law. 

Her lecture was answered and commented by Karima Bennoune, Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan Law School. She provided a cultural rights perspective to the role of art in international law, and asked what international law can do for art. The challenge in this is that culture and art are often seen as “luxuries,” referring to the considerations in the context of international criminal law that primarily focuses on human victims. While acknowledging that criminal law is indeed about human victims, she argued that culture plays an important role in situations of mass human rights violations. She also indicated that art can be misused to celebrate a history of human rights violations and incite discrimination and violence. 

Prof. Bennoune further highlighted the role of international law in protecting those that create and make art. Examples abound of situations where states tolerate the persecution, extrajudicial killing, and torture of artists for political and other reasons. She mentioned the case of The Art Lords in Afghanistan who were forced to flee the country after denouncing human rights abuses through murals painted on buildings destroyed by war. She also mentioned the 76-year old Russian artist Elena Osipova, whose paintings on the street have been violently confiscated in St. Petersburg. 

She concluded by agreeing with Judge Charlesworth about the transformative power of art, and its potential to shape our perception and application of international law. 

Judge Hilary Charlesworth was elected to serve as a Judge on the International Court of Justice in 2022 to complete the term of the late Australian judge James R. Crawford. She is the fifth woman to serve on the ICJ in the 75 years since its founding. Judge Charlesworth is an Australian barrister and solicitor, law professor, and renowned scholar of international law. She taught law for more than 30 years, at the University of Adelaide, Australian National University, and the University of Melbourne, and as a visiting professor at numerous universities around the world. Before her election to the court, she previously served as an ad hoc judge on two matters that came before it: the first a dispute between Japan and Australia regarding whaling in the Antarctic, and another between Guyana and Venezuela involving an arbitral award.

Professor Karima Bennoune currently is a Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan Law School. She holds the Homer G. Angelo and Ann Berryhill Endowed Chair in International Law and is Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law at the UC Davis School of Law. She specializes in public international law and international human rights law, including issues related to culture, extremism and terrorism, and women’s human rights. Professor Bennoune served as the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights from 2015-2021. She was appointed as an expert for the International Criminal Court in 2017 during the reparations phase of the groundbreaking case The Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, concerning intentional destruction of cultural heritage sites in Mali. Since 2018, she has been a member of the Board of Editors of the American Journal of International Law. A former legal advisor for Amnesty International, she has carried out human rights missions in most regions of the world. Professor Bennoune's book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, was the winner of the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for nonfiction. 

For the entire lecture, please click here.