On Community, Courage, and Change in the Classroom: A Response to Mohsen al Attar

On Community, Courage, and Change in the Classroom: A Response to Mohsen al Attar

[Dr Vivek Bhatt is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Public International Law at the University of Aberdeen and a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM), Utrecht University.]  

“The struggle is inner: Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian–our psyches resemble the bordertowns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains.”

– Gloria Anzaldúa

Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) explores Latino and Chicano experiences on the border of Mexico and the United States. The book is a poetic depiction of the legal geography of the borderlands and a sociological, ethnographic exploration of life in a region where la mezcla or “hybridity” is a way of life. In Anzaldúa’s image of the borderlands, people are neither fully Mexican nor fully American. Rather, they have internalised their hybridity, and they have learned to behave in conformity with expectations of both their Americanness and Mexicanity. Yet Borderlands/La Frontera is not only about life on the US-Mexico border. It is, instead, an exploration of the socially constructed borders between man and woman, heterosexual and homosexual, local and foreigner, Latinx and non-Latinx — and an ode to people who live across them.

Mohsen al Attar’s recent Opinio Juris piece on white ignorance in international law is a devastating commentary on the state of the discipline. The piece is a reminder of international lawyers’ role in obfuscating, and the discipline’s role in perpetuating, racial injustice. And it highlights, for me, the many borders within our own discipline: mainstream and critical; doctrinal and non-doctrinal; positivist and non-positivist. These might seem mundane labels, but as Dr al Attar shows, they are the dividing lines along which the politics of the discipline are enacted. Teaching curricula, leading journals, and illustrious academic conferences have long favoured mainstream, doctrinal, and positivist approaches as the right way of “doing” international law, and, by extension, they have situated the work of all who challenge international law’s claims to apoliticism and objectivity at the discipline’s (non-European) margins.

I was, therefore, particularly sympathetic towards Dr al Attar’s view that we must fold race into our day-to-day pedagogy. “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world,” Anzaldúa writes, “Unless it first happens in the images in our heads”; likewise, the practice and study of international law can only change if we instil in our students’ minds a new image of international law. I agree with Dr al Attar’s argument that time constraints are no excuse for the ongoing omission of racial injustice from most international law curricula. Yet how one teaches is rarely an individual choice. Such decisions are subject to the preferences of teaching team members, a school’s approach to legal education, and (often complex) processes of introducing new course offerings. And so, teachers of the racial injustice of (and in) international law also work in various borderlands. We navigate a range of socially constructed divides: legal and political; objective and subjective; scientific and conceptual; professional and “personal.” Those working from critical perspectives will recognise the latter words in each of these binaries – political, subjective, conceptual, personal – as pejoratives often used to describe their work. And they might know that in navigating such borderlands, we often internalise the expectation that we will, despite our critical desires, adopt a strictly legal, objective, scientific, and professional approach to education.

I do not write this piece in disagreement with Dr al Attar but in solidarity. And while I do not profess to have Dr al Attar’s expertise in critical pedagogy, I do share his commitment to open conversation about how we create change. Thus, in the spirit of open conversation, and to navigate some of these borderlands, this piece sets out my personal reflections on two broad aspects of teaching racial injustice in international law: the timing of such teaching; and addressing one’s own identity in the classroom.


As Dr al Attar notes, including racial injustice in the international law curriculum is a worthwhile exercise regardless of whether such material is offered in a standalone module or stranded into existing courses. Yet neither approach is perfect. In the 2021-2 academic year, I piloted a postgraduate taught course titled “Critical Approaches to International Law” at the Utrecht University Law School. More than 25 students enrolled in the elective module, which included eight hours of classes offered intensively across three weeks. Timetabled in the last teaching block of the academic year, the course functioned, albeit by chance, as a capstone unit for postgraduate students enrolled in the LLM in Public International Law.

The module covered a range of critical perspectives on international law: Critical Race Theory (CRT), Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL), postcolonialism, feminism, queer theory, constructivism. Students tackled, with immense enthusiasm and impressive precision, a range of works in these areas: Achiume and Carbado on CRT; Mutua on the origins and aims of TWAIL;  Chinkin, Charlesworth, and Wright on feminist international law scholarship; Otto on queering international law; Eslava on international legal ethnography; and, of course, Dr al Attar on critical pedagogy. They also interpreted and discussed a range of visual sources. These included a photograph of Paul Robeson’s submission to the UN of “We Charge Genocide”, a petition accusing the US government of violating the UN Convention Against Torture for failing to prevent and punish lynching, and The Mauritanian, a 2021 film exploring lawyers’ role in documenting torture techniques used at Guantanamo Bay, which has been used as a concentration camp for Muslim men since 9/11. The course was, therefore, a whistle-stop tour of many areas of work that fall under the broad umbrella of “critical” or “new” approaches to international law. Its goal was not to hand students a comprehensive knowledge base, but to provide them with conversations and provocations that would allow them to begin developing their own critique of international law. Those conversations were, at least for the lecturer, thrilling.

Yet the module’s timing and structure were far from perfect. I designed and delivered the course keenly aware of the optics of a few weeks on “critical thinking” at the end of a year-long program of study. By offering the course in such a way, I was perpetuating a politics in which critical perspectives are presented as anomalies and afterthoughts. I was also highlighting the fact that doing critique in the setting of a prestigious law school is itself an enactment of privilege. Our class discussions covered a range of confronting topics: international law’s ignorance of indigenous peoples and their relationship with land; its dismissal of women’s concerns as “private” matters; and its Europeanisation of local spaces in the Global South through various UN projects. Yet our ability to choose and adopt a critical approach to international law for a three-week period highlighted our distance, our removal, from the objects of our critique: the everyday experiences of millions around the world. So, perhaps, our critique ultimately symbolised the othering violence unleashed by, and tolerated within, the discipline. 

The students themselves expressed a sense of relief taking the course. They told me they had long been encouraged to think critically about the law, but they had never been equipped with the tools to do so. When students conducted a workshop in which they rewrote the international law curriculum, they presented a range of inspiring models for the integration of issues like racial injustice into the core of international legal education. Their proposals conveyed one clear message: consistency and continuity are key.

I was, therefore, thrilled when asked to introduce new lectures on TWAIL, race, and feminism in the second week of an existing undergraduate Public International Law course for the 2022-3 academic year. I would only have an hour on each of these topics, but this was an hour more than on many core PIL modules. And crucially, it was an opportunity to introduce these perspectives as part of students’ first foray into the discipline of international law. Yet even here, timing was a troublesome issue. During course planning, I found myself indulging, and even asking, questions I find perturbing in the abstract. Is the second week of a core module too early to expose students to such perspectives? Should they not learn the foundations first? Is this content too political for inclusion in a core law module?

In asking these questions, I placed myself along the borders between legal and political, scientific and conceptual, entertaining the image of myself as a blackletter legal educator. I knew all the questions above could be answered in the negative. I knew that if the principle of sovereignty is one of the foundations of international law, so is the way that the principle has been interpreted, for centuries, as a justification for violent oppression of non-European peoples. And I knew that if it is fundamental for students to understand the criteria for statehood, it is equally fundamental for them to be aware that these criteria operate to the disadvantage of peoples who do not permanently occupy a fixed territory or organise around conventional modes of governance. Despite this, I feared that my inclusion of such materials in the curriculum would attract criticism from someone, somewhere that I was politicising course content or betraying the legal discipline’s academic rigour. Yet through this fear, I found an awareness of the borderlands in which I’d found myself. I concluded that the decision to teach international law in isolation from its context would also be political. It would be a decision to perpetuate the law’s false claims to objectivity and universality, and one that forecloses opportunities for students to think about the law’s many sinister sides.

Identity and Community in the Classroom

As Anzaldúa writes, the inner struggles of life in the borderlands are “played out in outer terrains.” Teaching issues like racial injustice in the classroom, I am acutely aware of my identity as a junior scholar and faculty of colour. I anxiously search students’ body language for signs – eyerolls, sighs, sniggers – that they see their lecturer as an angry coloured man with a personal agenda. This is not because any student has ever behaved this way in my classroom, but because I have been conditioned – by life experience, literature, and society – to expect such responses to my work. And so, in my lectures on race and TWAIL and gender, I instinctively apologise for my work where no apologies are due. I joke that I “get too worked up” about such topics, dismiss my own writing as “bonkers”, and concede that this area of scholarship is too convoluted or complex.

Despite this, I have found two things in my mission to incorporate issues of injustice and inequality into my teaching: community and courage. In the classroom, I have consistently found communities of exceptional students who urge one another to develop more sophisticated critique of international law, make me rethink my understanding of the law, and even challenge my tendency to apologise for my critical intuitions. In colleagues, I have found courage. It is deeply regrettable that Dr al Attar found himself hatching a plan for the quickest possible escape from the city of Utrecht, and I certainly recognise the irony of an invitation to speak about decolonisation at a conference hosted in a country that, much like the UK, has an uneasy relationship with its colonial past. Yet in my time at Utrecht University, where I first taught this subject matter, I found colleagues who had the courage to do away with the rulebook and depart from conventional, doctrinal approaches to teaching. I found colleagues who created and held space for my work, elevating it despite my own misgivings. The city of Utrecht symbolises very different things to Dr al Attar and me even though we share, I suspect, a common sense of purpose. And this, ultimately, shows the importance of discussing and teaching critical thought, including racial injustice: each individual’s lived experience of international law is shaped by history, context, and sense of place, and each experience deserves to be known.  

“I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue – my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.”

– Gloria Anzaldúa  

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