Critical Pedagogy Symposium: Teaching Critical International Law in the Time of COVID-19—A View from Nepal

Critical Pedagogy Symposium: Teaching Critical International Law in the Time of COVID-19—A View from Nepal

[Amritha V. Shenoy is an Assistant Professor at the Kathmandu School of Law.]

As 1.37 billion students around the world are confined to their homes, schools and universities are exploring virtual teaching strategies. My own institution, Kathmandu School of Law, has opted for Zoom as the mode of delivery. While many of us initially thought that we would deliver the lectures we use for our physical classrooms virtually, we quickly learned that online classes are not at all the same. We have since begun exploring different pedagogical tools to enhance digital pedagogy. The lack of training in virtual teaching is a barrier that we are improvising around, every day.

Virtual classes, despite their limits, can also prove advantageous, especially by improving access to multimedia tools for better learning. Online platforms allow better sharing clips, videos, and even memes (the new age form of humor) about international law and international relations. Animated videos are accessible and provide simple explanations to doctrines of international law as short and interesting narratives. YouTube channels such as that of the United Nations, ICRC and others, share videos covering various topics of international law. While useful, these materials are also limiting and infuriating as they usually reiterate Eurocentric representations of international law without calling it such. Due to lack of skills to create such videos, we end up showing these ones in an effort to generate more engagement. We are woefully aware of their Eurocentric implications even as we understand the pedagogical value of such content.

Videos on the history of international law often begin with the Treaty of Westphalia and Europe’s civilising mission, presented in prosaic, sometimes benevolent tones. Some of the historical discussions consider alternative frameworks of international law, but these are conspicuous because of their infrequency. They also rarely invite scholars from those traditions on camera. Instead, we are continuously subjected to a Eurocentric viewpoint. Visual content on doctrines, different sub-systems of international law, contemporary developments, international organizations largely neglect critical international law.

To balance the pros and cons of these materials, I developed an exercise for my students, a little like issue spotting. We review the videos and identify instances of Eurocentrism which we then use to raise critical questions about international law. For instance, the contributions of Third World states, including Nepal, are usually erased altogether. In a video about the First World War, the narrator describes the sacrifices of Britain and other European powers with emphasis on the casualties of trench warfare. Missing from the discussion are the non-Europeans who died, again, in service of Europe. My students and I discuss the fate of the Nepali Gurkhas who served during the two World Wars and suffered in the trenches with thousands succumbing to death. Accounts of their contributions are glaringly absent, teaching us something about the prototypical ‘human’ that Eurocentric international law applies to. We consider this through the lens of Makau Mutua’s Savage-Victim-Saviour model, to demonstrate how the Global South is either erased from history or ascribed pejorative identities in the study of International Law. Questioning ‘where is Nepal and where are Nepalese people in international law is itself a critical query of the highest order.

Due to the geopolitics of Nepal and the implications of its location between China and India, students are quite receptive to TWAIL. The absence of in-depth explorations of international law in these videos, as practiced by both these states seems peculiar to the students. Does Asia not represent a majority of the world population? How then, are such narratives absent from the discipline or assimilated homogeneously into the corpus of International law? Nepalese people also believe they have a role to play in maintaining balance between these two behemoths in the region. In an effort to reclaim space, we explore the Non-Aligned Movement and its Nepalese roots which rarely finds mention, even in the Asian context. While the videos ignore our contribution to international law, the students come forth eagerly to uncover them.

A major challenge when teaching international law is that students view law instrumentally and pragmatically, preferring to study more domestic law on account of their seemingly tangible impact. The hesitance of students towards the study of international law that Professor Antony Anghie speaks of is pervasive in Nepal as well. To show how international law takes the shape of internal laws, I present to them the World Bank Inspection Panel. The first complaint brought before the body was a hydroelectric project from Nepal: Arun III. These examples help students appreciate the significance of international law for their daily lives; critical approaches help them understand that the law is often applied to their disadvantage.

Being trapped at home means that students have more time at their disposal, even if not ideal in quality. Movies on colonisation, international trials, and armed conflicts provide a macabre escape from the monotony while also helping them think critically. We use our virtual learning platform to exchange views about the films. While this may seem juvenile, maybe even counter-pedagogical, the challenge for academics in the coming year is maintaining student interest when forced to learn in uninteresting circumstances.

Sources like Netflix have interesting series and movies we can make use of. For example, Tokyo Trial is one such series of four episodes that briefly describes the viewpoint of different judges and the dissenting points put forward by Judge Radha Binod Pal. The series also questions the rationale behind the formation of the International Criminal Tribunal of the Far East, sparing the Japanese Emperor from trial and other aspects. The series has a few drawbacks, such as placing little emphasis on the judgment of the Court and the opinions of judges. However, it raises some critical questions of international law and arouses interest in the topic. Students enjoy the visuals and they have a lasting impact.

Sharing and discussing videos is one of the advantages of virtual classes, though it is not without its challenges. The key impediment for our students is internet disruption. World leaders and international organisations have also seen their meetings disrupted so it is no surprise that it affects academic institutions, especially those in the Third World far more often. Internet disruption hinders the Socratic method as we fall back onto straight lecturing to avoid the uncomfortable and inevitable lags. Imbuing critical ideas under these circumstances is thus problematic. It is dialogue between students and a teacher that arouses critical thinking, and slow connectivity inhibits this two-way learning process.

I should also mention the elephant in the room: many students, especially in rural areas, lack internet access altogether. Teaching virtually can thus violate the right to education itself. In the context of Nepal, not everyone has access to high-speed broadband and those who rely on mobile data cannot get steady internet connection because of signal fluctuations. Realising such limitations, one needs to explore other tools of pedagogy that can help students learn critical approaches.

For this, I turn to literature. Edward Said’s writings have influenced me in further delving into Third World Approaches to International Law. Inspired by Culture and Imperialism, I began exploring the literature of the Third World. For instance, due to my deep interest in the history of international law, I read Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace. The book is a nuanced observation of the effects of colonisation on Myanmar, India and Malaysia. Set in a historical background, the book sheds light on the plight of the people of Burma, India and Malaysia during the colonial rule. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is another interesting novel that narrates pre-colonial practices and colonial transitions in a Nigerian community.

Students can understand the seriousness of colonisation and other historical and contemporary events through literature as well. When the Internet fails, I encourage them to read a book, away from their screens perhaps. I will not say whether I encourage them to read a pirated version of it. We are in the Third World after all!

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Featured, General, Public International Law, Symposia, Themes
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