Critical Pedagogy Symposium: A Classroom Without Borders–Globally Integrating Legal Education

Critical Pedagogy Symposium: A Classroom Without Borders–Globally Integrating Legal Education

[Noha Aboueldahab is a Fellow at the Brookings Institution and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University in Qatar.]

In the fall of 2019, I taught public international law to upper-level undergraduate students in the International Politics program at Georgetown University’s satellite campus in Qatar (GU-Q). I will teach it again in the upcoming semester. However, this time, I will deliver it entirely online.

GU-Q offers an American college curriculum – and a Georgetown degree – to students based 11,000 miles from the campus in Washington, D.C. This draws a dynamic, diverse cohort including students from Qatar, the wider Arab region, and Asia. As an American institution of higher education, GU-Q offers a mix of pedagogies that lie between Eurocentric, American-centric, and critical approaches. This context of a Western university located in the Arabian Peninsula permeates the physical classroom in a way that will be difficult to recreate in a virtual environment.

Nevertheless, online learning provides an opportunity for students in radically different contexts to converse with each other as part of their learning experience. Virtual teaching allows students of international law to challenge and be challenged by peers in different parts of the world. An online transnational classroom enhances intellectual exchanges by expanding the learning space within which such conversations take place. It facilitates dialogue between students who otherwise could not have interacted. Both critical and doctrinal perspectives could, then, be developed in new and innovative ways. Before I explain how I will undertake this, I describe the trajectory of GU-Q students’ critical thinking in the physical classroom.

My students began last year’s course critically disposed, in the sense that many walked into the classroom skeptical of international law. They were more convinced of international law’s weakness than of its power. Eurocentricity was already ‘in check’ and they came equipped with examples of how international law failed to protect oppressed populations, such as Iraqis and Palestinians. They also pointed to the abuse of international law by powerful states. The starting point for these students, presumably because of their lived experiences in the Global South, was of caution and critique.

At GU-Q, encounters between students and faculty contend with contradictions born of  “liberal piety”. Neha Vora, author of Teach for Arabia, explains the liberal piety of certain Western (white) instructors who teach in non-Western contexts. It entails a belief in the sanctity of liberal values and ideals, setting them up outside the realm of critique and as the basis for what is moral and right. A “moral geography” is foisted on American branch campuses in non-Western spaces, where notions of liberal and illiberal, as Vora notes, are “either culturally or geographically pre-ordained categories.” It is often scholars based in the U.S. who are skeptical that academic freedom can be upheld in branch campuses, when situated in non-liberal states. Vora argues that there is also a tendency for Western media to “orientalize authoritarianism” in their reporting on American higher education in the Arabian peninsula. Authoritarianism, they infer, is “something foreign to U.S. soil.”

Many GU-Q students are conscious of these assumptions and readily challenge them. Despite their diversity, the students share an important history: their lived experiences in the Global South juxtaposed alongside their education in international (Western) schools. As a result, students rejected binary notions of liberal/illiberal or West/East.

Developing the critical thinking skills of these students is thus complicated. In the classroom, “critical thinking” manifested as skepticism of the power of international law to enforce universal values. I encouraged students to use their critical disposition to (gingerly) turn their attention toward the potentials of international law. We discussed Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL), and the use of international law as a form of resistance and a tool for change. This resonated with them. TWAIL and other critical traditions offer them a language and framework through which they can articulate what they really thought about the limits and potentials of international law.    

This was the first time public international law was offered as a course at GU-Q. I designed it in a way I assume other professors of critical international law would.  We began with the origins, concepts, and principles such as sovereignty, state responsibility, and enforcement and continued with sub-fields such as humanitarian law, human rights law, and criminal law. Next, we delved into critical perspectives where I asked students to reflect on contemporary examples of international law as an instrument of power and politics as well as a critique of power and politics. We used contemporary examples, including news events, to explore concepts and principles. Indeed, a core learning objective of the course is to equip students with the language, techniques and analytical tools to assess public international law ‘in action’ in the global order. Class discussions about the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) Chagos Advisory Opinion and about pending ICJ and WTO cases concerning the Gulf crisis centered around the use of international law both as an instrument of and resistance to power politics.

Throughout the face-to-face interactions, including general class discussions and moot court exercises, the students engaged in heated debates about international law as and oppression and resistance. Five weeks into the course, it became evident that skepticism remained their baseline:

“International law is nice and all, but it is merely theory and a cluster of words.”

“There is no enforcement of international law whatsoever.”

“These laws mean nothing. They are just words”

“International law is an enabler for big players and an enforcer against smaller ones.”

“We need to talk,” I said, before launching into something I didn’t predict for a critical international legal scholar: a pep-talk about the potential of the international legal system. To go beyond rhetoric, I had them participate in several mini moot court exercises, the aim of which was to reflect on the different sides of a debate and the value of international law in unearthing the subtleties.

During the moot court exercises, they deftly employed both doctrine and critique to advocate for and against the prosecution of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad at the International Criminal Court (ICC), for and against the ICC’s pending decision on the Afghanistan investigation, and for and against the ICC’s jurisdiction over Saudi nationals in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. I designed these cases in a half-fictional manner, so that students could access sufficient material, while also relying on their thinking to develop convincing legal arguments. The exercise also prompted students to employ the critical perspectives they had just learned – particularly TWAIL – highlighting both the limits and potentials of international law.

In all three cases, among other issues, the appellants and respondents argued over whether the ICC was the appropriate venue to seek justice in the Syrian, Afghani, and Saudi contexts. Following squabbles over whether international justice (in the form of the ICC) adversely trumps domestic and indigenous justice systems, one team responded: “This is not a TWAIL court! This is a universal court!” Tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but the students understood all too well the limits of universality claims.

During another class exercise, students were grouped together and instructed to discuss examples of TWAIL in practice. One group immediately offered the 1973 oil crisis, when Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) retaliated against states that supported Israel by imposing a crippling oil embargo. This and other examples resonated with students from the region.

Ten weeks into the course, and the tide had changed. We tackled a controversial question about Israel’s actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and whether they should be scrutinized under the Law of Armed Conflict or under the Law of Occupation. One student, Al Anoud Al Kuwari, described the exercise as futile because “Palestine will bleed regardless,” echoing the skeptical impressions students had voiced earlier on regarding the power of international law. Another student, Al Hareth Ali, responded by arguing in favour of legal interpretation as a form of resistance:

“[E]stablishing the invalidity of [Israel’s] legal argument is [the] surest way towards making open support of their actions costly to their allies. [H]istory will always cast those who disregard the ‘spirit of the law’ as villains. This is a loaded statement but I stand behind it. By refusing to play the same game as Israel, we effectively forfeit the moral high ground. If we all give up, we will allow them to be the sole authors of the legal history of this conflict. History will read that one side used force legally, and that the other side did not believe in any law but their ideology.”

The context within which a course is taught is often more important than academics realise. While international law courses at the D.C. campus are taught at the graduate level, several are comparable to my undergraduate one in that they offer an introduction to the field. In contrast, they are heavily doctrinal. They mainly focus on the law by examining legal sources, treaties, concepts and principles of international law. Critical international law seems absent from these courses. It is different at GU-Q. The students’ lived experiences, including their direct experiences with international law, add nuance to classroom discussions. This presents an opportunity: with the move to online teaching, the differences between the courses on various campuses can produce deeper learning and awareness of the diverse viewpoints toward international law.

When teaching in-person, class discussions at different campuses occur in isolation from each other. Virtual courses could change this. For instance, an online discussion board involving two cohorts from the D.C. and Doha campuses offers a low-cost and effective way of promoting transnational dialogue. Students learning about public international law in Washington D.C. and Doha could exchange ideas and opinions about aspects of the field. These transnational online discussions would enhance student engagement and understanding by making them aware that their perspectives are informed by the different contexts within which they live and learn. This is a powerful way to demonstrate the subjectivity of international law. Our accommodations for COVID-19 have created possibilities for collaborative learning in international law and the further deconstruction of East/West, illiberal/ liberal binaries.

A transnational student discussion could occur synchronously through an interface such as Canvas. Professors could pose questions to both groups to generate insights about international law’s contingency. An open-ended question such as “Is international law effective?” would encourage students to consider examples and to comment on each other’s responses. They would also push students to reflect on the role of politics in international law and the role of international law in politics, all while employing the critical thinking skills they develop throughout the course.

Even after in-person teaching resumes, critical international legal pedagogy should make good use of the opportunities that the online sphere provides. If proven to be enriching, transnational conversations as described, should not end alongside the pandemic. They could serve as an effective strategy to expand classroom discussions that are not confined to one geographical space. As instructors, this would only enhance our ability to equip students with the language, techniques and analytical tools needed to assess international law in action in an increasingly fraught global order.

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Featured, General, Public International Law, Symposia, Themes
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