31 Aug Critical Pedagogy Symposium: “Thus Saith the Euro-America Validation Cathedral”– The Task of Challenging and Changing the Narrative of Eurocentric International Law in Africa
[Babatunde Fagbayibo is a Professor of International Law, University of South Africa.]
In 2017, I wrote an editorial criticising the decision of Third World Quarterly to publish Bruce Gilley’s offensive article on the need to bring colonialism back to Africa. Although the journal eventually withdrew the article due to widespread opposition, the point was made. As I noted in the piece, “Would Third World Quarterly (or any of the Euro-American based journals that presume themselves to be the cathedral of knowledge structures) accept an article of similar standard as Gilley’s from an African scholar? The editor would have informed the African scholar that their work is substandard and unworthy of a peer-review exercise. On the other hand, the likes of Gilley get an easy pass and their works are displayed as an emblem of the might of those that still control the validation structures.” Sufficed to note that Bruce Gilley remains unapologetic about the article, claiming that “the academy remains highly illiberal and intolerant of my viewpoint”.
Gilley’s dismissive response and the TWQ’s decision to publish the article are not unexpected. These are in tune with the ecosystem that sustains scholarship such as his that displays arrogance by centring a Eurocentric worldview as “universal”. The spectre of the “Euro-America Validation Cathedral” obstructs the meaningful realisation of a truly decolonised scholarship. The presence of this cathedral is boosted by a cohort of knowledge gatekeepers; skewed global economy; racist and patronising global North politicians, policymakers and donors; corrupt and anti-reformist African politicians; and international organisations that uphold the interests of countries in the global North. The quest for changing the exclusionary narrative of international legal scholarship is a task that requires deliberate and intentional interventions. This piece aims to show the various activities by African scholars in terms of counteracting Eurocentric scholarship.
The Eurocentric Purview
Africa’s engagement with international law remains anchored to an ideational canvass that consecrates Eurocentrism as the way of being. The Eurocentric conception of international law, according to Konrad Ginther, operates on two levels of analysis: normative (prescribes a ‘Christian natural-law thinking’ logic as the singular source of applying international law) and sociological (which roots international law within the social, political, economic and legal developments in Europe). This ideational framing manifests in theory and praxis, providing the validating template on “who” and “what” qualifies as international law. This also extends to the “how” of international law; that is, how we expect to practise the discipline.
Building on Mohammed Bedjaoui’s 1979 seminal work, “Towards a New International Economic Order”, James Gathii highlights that international law continues to operate on the twin logic of limited geography of places and ideas. He notes: “there is now ample empirical evidence that our textbooks are more likely to be filled with cases and examples from the international law produced in places like Geneva, New York and Washington DC. Our scholarship and practice privileges certain locations while excluding and rendering other locations and their international legal activities invisible”.
The idea that an African, or someone from the global South, cannot occupy certain international positions because they are unable to grasp complex issues, or the rejection of the works of Africans by Euro-American journals because they lack the necessary normative depth, or the non-recognition of principles and processes emerging from regional institutions and social movements in the Third World as part of the corpus of international law are stark examples. Even when incontrovertible evidence is supplied to show the existence of this marginalisation, the response is dismissive and patronising to either show that such claims are based on child-like emotions or that there exist structural and ideational factors preventing African scholars from producing quality research. The latter point often serves as the perfect smokescreen for rejecting contributions from African scholars and the limited citations of their published works.
For example, scholars have shown how the American Journal of Political Science, between 2010 and 2019, published 11 articles (out of the 579 articles published within that period) on Africa, with none authored by African-based political scientists. While there is nothing that forbids a non-African from publishing articles or books on Africa, what is worrying is that it appears that the journal conveniently found no African author, either based within or outside the continent, capable of the requisite intellect needed for writing about their own society. This kind of intellectual gatekeeping further reinforces the need for African scholars to look beyond Eurocentric modes of reasoning and publishing outfits by developing structures that narrate and affirm their realities. The next section looks at the existent activities in this respect.
Challenging and Changing the Narrative
The drive to ensure that international law speaks to pluriversality continues to manifest itself in several ways. Social activism, research and teaching, and the political articulation of a new world order are some of the prisms through which scholars, practitioners and politicians from the global South have, for several decades, pursued this epistemic cause. The contemporary ideational space for changing the exclusionary Eurocentric narrative of international law in Africa is composed of a variety of activities. Some of these activities date back to engagements from the 1960s while others are informed by existent realities and contexts. Although the strategies may differ, the goal remains the same.
An important contemporary mode of engagement is social media. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn serve as both complementary and alternative additions to the corpus of critical approaches to international law. Chisomo Kalinga aptly captures this: “I’d like to talk about the value and innovation of social media use, particularly by black/African scholars, especially women. For me, decolonisation = innovation and I turned to social media because I’m dissatisfied with the rigidity of traditional modes of scholarship” (Emphasis mine).
This observation speaks to a few realities. The rigidity of traditional modes, outside and within the continent, stifles the flow of ideas and development for young scholars. As traditional modes sometimes bend towards conservative and elitist approaches, social media allows for radical and alternative ideas to flourish. In this respect, the democratic nature of social media provides both established and emerging scholars an equal platform to test and critically interrogate ideas in ways that traditional modes do not allow. In addition, the experiential nature of the ideas adds genuine empirical value to them. Second, it allows for a much broader networking platform, with scholars from the global South interacting and exchanging ideas and strategies. It makes the latest developments in the field easily accessible and available.
Scholars and activists are increasingly using social media as a tool to show how systemic and institutionalised racism, sexism and discrimination shape policies in the global North and the practise of international law/relations. In addition, the complicity of Euro-American universities in stifling academic freedom and career advancement of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) are issues that are recurrently discussed and debated on social media platforms. Last, it enhances the understanding that critical approaches to international law are multidisciplinary projects. In this respect, intersectionality of disciplines and processes are brought to the fore. The international law enthusiast begins to realise how ideas in anthropology, feminism, history, international relations, social movements, art, philosophy, sociology, and political science resonate with the ideational pursuit of repurposing the discipline. Social media, thus, plays a meaningful role in conscientising both teachers and learners by serving as a reminder of the importance of critical understanding of nuances and approaches.
Yet another important activity in this space are the works of blogs dedicated to addressing critical approaches. African based scholars, African scholars working in the global North, other global South scholars and individuals who are involved in pushing critical theories and approaches have established important online portals in recent years. This includes, but are not limited to, AfronomicsLAW, Third World Approaches to International Law Review (TWAILR), Critical Legal Thinking, Teaching and Researching International Law in Asia (TRILA), and African Network of Constitutional Lawyers (ANCL). Some of these blogs are part of organisational and network activities and are, therefore, involved in organising seminars, conferences, workshops, symposium, webinars and other collaborative works. These blogs have widened the space for contributions to critical debates and ideas around international law and other multidisciplinary engagements. One innovative perspective is the “TWAILR: Extra”, which allows scholars to compile a mixtape of songs, write short stories, or comment on a piece of art that reflect their understanding of critical approaches to international law.
Conferences, seminars and webinars (due to the ongoing Covid-19 global health pandemic) within and outside the continent are becoming increasingly relevant for advancing decolonisation ideas and strategies. This includes the Forever Africa Conference and Events (FACE), the British Institute of International and Comparative Law (BIICL) Conference on Teaching International Law, the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law (Hamburg) and the University of the Witwatersrand School of Law virtual workshop on decolonial comparative law, and the Kéba Mbaye Conference on African approaches to international law, with a focus on international human rights law. These platforms have or will soon be addressing the challenges of a Eurocentric conception of international law and are crucial for several reasons.
As traditional modes of publications remain conservative and even esoteric in their demands, online blogs help widen the scope of scholarship, affording students and scholars the opportunity to present their ideas in real time. On account of their wide reach, blogs provide authors with the confidence that their works will be closely read and elicit attention from peers and other interested parties. As research has shown, these blog articles enjoy more readership than journal articles and book chapters. Constructive feedback could also assist the writer in developing the blog article into a full-length paper where traditional modes of scholarship (articles and books) remain an integral part of challenging the status quo.
Established and emerging global South scholars are producing important critical works that highlight the inherent problems of international law and systems. James Gathii has done some extensive bibliographic works aimed at showcasing these developments. The implication of this endeavour cannot be understated. It not only showcases subaltern discourses but also boosts the morale and citation index of emerging scholars from the global South. These activities are at different stages of development and engagement, but they show some traction on the part of African and other global South actors in rethinking existing Eurocentric ideas and positions on international law. The intensification of these is imperative and must be encouraged. Cumulatively, these actions challenge the status quo and can help repurpose international legal scholarship. As Tshepo Madlingozi rightly remarked: “there is no decolonisation without disruption”.