What Images Can Tell Us About International Law

What Images Can Tell Us About International Law

[Tania Ixchel Atilano, born in Mexico City, has a Juris Doctor from the Humboldt University of Berlin. Her research interests lie in the fields of history of international humanitarian law, international criminal law and criminal law. The author kindly thanks Professor Vivianne Weng for her invaluable feedback and comments.]

Due to copyright issues, the images discussed have not been reproduced here. A link to view them has been provided within the text.

Following the spirit and enthusiasm of starting a new year, I take as inspiration the text by Daniel Ricardo Quiroga Villamarín Beyond texts? Towards a Material Turn the Theory and History of International Law, as well as the thoughtful international conference on Art, Power, and Law convened by the University of Verona in November last year. Following the text of Quiroga Villamarín, international legal scholars should engage more in the materiality of the field. In this case, art is a good place to start. Kate Miles has already pointed out how paintings about treaty making and of great international legal scholars had as an objective to depict international law as something successful. As such, art was used as an instrument of empire and as a form of propaganda. I would also add that not only is the instrumentalization of art of interest, but also of images per se. It is not trivial to say that an image says more than 1000 words. It might be debatable how an image was construed and how it might also or only represent the subjectivity of the artist or the purposes of the commissioner. However, here my aim is to show that images are valuable resources toward a better understanding of concepts and ideas embedded in international law. Images can also be used by scholars as a medium or as a source, to highlight, amplify or nuance a finding, idea or concept. In the case of legal history, we could just ask ourselves why an image came to be. Or we could gain knowledge related to our research inquiry, by simply looking at an image carefully. In the following I will draw a few examples.

International law constructs concepts and categorizes nations, territories, objects and subjects. It categorizes subjects in numerous ways, such as: citizens/non-citizens; asylum seekers/asylants; migrants/citizens; state actors/non-state actors, civilians/combatants, combatants/non-combatants; men/women/children. International law also categorizes objects and natural resources. Sometimes, even during colonial times, nature and subjects coalesced; such was the case of the indigenous also categorized as ‘the naturals’, or ‘the savages’ which had to be nurtured and civilized. Those who were outside of European territories were not the only targets to be disciplined and ‘civilized’ through ‘education’ as for example the following cartoon shows:  

(1) Scuola di civilita [school of civilization] (Il Fischietto magazine, 26 January 1886, Italy)

The above cartoon is a satire of colonial imperialism, and we can see it is a ridiculed version of what was conceived as the ‘civilizing mission’ – being Italy persuaded by Britain to enter this task. The ‘uncivilized’ are depicted smaller in size, like children, and “brutish, and short” resembling how Hobbes described life outside society. Even Greece is depicted there as the second figure from the right, alongside with Bulgaria. The satire could also be criticizing the idea that by joining Britain in colonial expansionism, Italy was considering herself superior from Mediterranean neighbors like Greece. The cartoon is then exposing the north-south divide within Europe that Boaventura de Souza Santos would later argue. 

In the theme of international law classifying subjects, scholar Hellen Kisella points out how women were considered as a distinct category within the laws of war, as they were thought of ‘non-harmful’, like the old and the injured or as a minor category of the civilian men and children. Kinsella also draws our attention to the fact that the category of ‘civilian’ was actually construed with preconceptions about gender, based on the sexual differences between women and men. The following images highlight Kinsella’s points with regards to the “artifice” of the principle of distinction:

(2) Y son fieras [And they are like wild beasts] (Francisco José Goya y Lucientes, 1810-1814)

(3) Soldaderas en posición para disparar contra las gavillas de José Inés Chávez García [Soldaderas in position to fire at the sheaves of José Inés Chávez García] (Colección Archivo Casasola – Fototeca Nacional, 1917, Michoacán, México)

(4) Soldadera armada y sus tres hijos sentados en un campamento [Armed soldier and her three children sitting in a camp] (Colección Archivo Casasola – Fototeca Nacional, 1917, Ciudad de México)

Y son fieras, a print by Francisco de Goya, makes the point that women equally defend themselves – in this case, from the Napoleonic invasion in Spain. This print belongs to Goyas’s series The Disasters of War, which was a non-commissioned work in which Goya wanted to bear witness to how civilians suffered during war. Images (3) and (4) are from the Mexican Revolution, where women that engaged were known as Soldaderas

In images (2) and (4), we also see how motherhood and taking part in hostilities do not exclude one another. In Y son fieras, the mother is even holding her baby while fighting. While we can discuss how truthful these images are, they nonetheless destabilize deeply rooted conceptions of how hostilities take place, or should take place.

Again in the field of the laws of war, Goya couldn’t better illustrate the tensions between civilians and regular armies in the following image that was commissioned by the provisional government of Spain, at Goya’s suggestion:

(5) El 3 de mayo en Madrid o “Los fusilamientos” [On May 3 in Madrid or “The executions”] (Francisco José Goya y Lucientes, 1814)

In image (5), the firing squad is facing a civilian dressed in a white shirt (here the association is made with the white flag, being the symbol of surrender). He is surrendering, as his arms are raised; nonetheless he is at gun point. The image is shocking but at the time it was legal for civilians who resisted an occupation to be the subject of reprisals. The rebel is not innocent, being neither passive nor obedient, and therefore he is being targeted by the firing squad. In this regard, Goya’s painting is an open critique to the ‘arch occupier’ doctrine that expected absolute docility from the occupied population. The rebel is also symbolized as a victim, as in his right hand he has an injury like that of Christ after being nailed to the cross. Goya’s painting makes perfectly clear how the legality of executing ‘rebel’ civilians contrasts with its blunt immorality. This also relates to Adil Haque‘s argument that law should  “prohibit the unnecessary killing of opposing combatants”. 

As mentioned above, international law also categorizes objects and nations. Scholar Sigrid Boysen argues that the distribution of planet earth is a primary form of organizing international law. Her argument is enriched when looking at:

(6) Plan officiel de l’Exposition Universelle de 1867 [Official plan of the International Exposition of 1867] (French National Archives)

Napoleon III, who organized the world’s fair, was to build an empire from Asia to America. The circulation of goods would take place along the Atlantic and the Pacific with the help of technology, through building a canal in Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, Mexico. The resources from the south were to serve the ‘civilized’. The elliptical form of the exhibition grounds could also be seen as a progression from the margins to the center. At the margins of the ellipse, raw materials and heavy machinery were exhibited. Towards progressing to the ‘core’ of the fair, the visitor would witness higher expressions of civilization such as art and science. Finally, in the last ellipse, in its center the main pavilion was dedicated to the ultimate representation of civilization, namely: money (as the unit of weights and measures).

The classification of nations and territories was also in place, with an outcasting of those not invited. Image (6) shows that the only two Latin-American countries invited were Brazil and Mexico, who were monarchies at the time; Brazil under the rule of Pedro II and Mexico under Maximilian of Habsburg. Here again we see how according to the logics and political ideologies of the empire of Napoleon III, those that could aspire to the progress of modernity were. at least for Latin-America, monarchies. Here monarchies are equal to ‘civilization’, whereas republicanism would equal ‘barbarism’. This is actually opposite to the view that Latin-American republics had of themselves. The organization and design of the world fair cemented the view that the exploitation of natural resources would be achieved through science and technology – and with the exhibition of the Krupp canon, also through military power:

(7) Bilder von der Internationalen Ausstellung in Paris: Die Krupp’sche Riesenkanone [Pictures from the International Exhibition in Paris: The Giant Krupp Cannon] (1867)

The project of civilization entangled with the project of humanizing war, as both were conceived as progression. According to Kinsella, the humanization of warfare was seen as a further state of civilization. The world fair of 1867 intersects with the history of international humanitarian law. Brazil and Mexico were also the only Latin American countries invited to the Geneva Diplomatic Conference   of 1864, which gave birth to the Geneva Convention of the same year. Further, the Red Cross had a pavilion at the world fair, and Dr. Louis Appia won a prize in the category “Appliances and instruments of medical art, civil ambulances and military”. In light of this entanglement, including Henry Dunant’s ties to Napoleon III, and the design and structure of the world fair, it is not far-fetched to conclude that the ‘higher order of civilization’ manifested through the laws of war was thought, at least for Latin-America, to those who were more apt, namely monarchies.

The above are just examples of how images and art can help us highlight, deepen, nuance or explicit, legal arguments, concepts, thoughts and entanglements that otherwise would be difficult to grasp.

While historians make broad use of visual resources, legal historians and legal scholars in general would profit from visual resources as well, and of other material resources that are at hand, such as objects, artifacts and infrastructures. It is worth considering including images in scholarly articles in order to enhance or highlight its contents, particularly in the field of the history of international law (although this is not an easy task due to copyright matters). Finally, the digital humanities and the numerous online catalogues made available by museums and national visual repositories provide resources that would otherwise be difficult to access. In imagining alternative ways of doing research, we could think of relating visual images to legal concepts and ideas in order to enrich our arguments or discover new meanings related to our object of inquiry.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Featured, Legal education
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.