Advancing women's rights internationally.

Position:International Law in a Time of Change - Proceedings of the 104th Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law - Discussion

This panel was convened at 10:45 a.m., Saturday, March 27, by its moderator, Kamari Clarke of Yale University, who introduced the panelists: Cathy Albisa of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative; Rebecca Cook of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law; Fionnuala D. Ni Aolain of the University of Minnesota Law School; and Lisa Crooms of Howard University School of Law. *

* Cathy Albisa and Lisa Crooms did not submit remarks for the Proceedings.


The theme of the 2010 meeting--"International Law in a Time of Change"--is central to the core theme around which the "Advancing Women's Rights Internationally" panel is centered. The presentations during this session are concerned with advancing women's rights internationally by focusing on the realities of change in the new world order--a world of global circulations and new institutional norms set alongside complex cultural practices. In this regard, the presentations explore the receptivity of international mechanisms to the claims of women, as well as the extent to which these mechanisms can be used to improve the status of women. In reflecting on how, in improving the status of women, new and emergent international law mechanisms may help constitute notions of justice--if at all--we also know that law has not always served as the key source of change for women. But what better time to reflect on significant changes in the world of international law than now, and to consider the presence and absence of women not only from the processes of international law and its enforcement, but also within substantive legal logic.

In this moment following 15-year review of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration ("Beijing +15"), these presentations also attempt to explore the way that feminism has influenced the contours of international law in practice. With the expansion of the significance of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the rise in various gender regulations of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the work of committed advocates, jurists, nongovernmental organizations, and diplomats, gender violence has been included as a prosecutable offence against the physical and mental integrity of the victim. The Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court and the jurisprudence from the ad hoc criminal tribunals have produced the mechanisms for the prosecution of gender crimes as war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, and the predicate acts of genocide. These shifts in transnational practices have been made possible by the work of women who have pushed for these developments. But obstacles remain in not only ensuring a robust system of gender justice in the face of continued violence, but also in the ways that scholars articulate what justice is, how it can be achieved among culturally different populations, and the limits of law as the basis for procuring justice.

Thinking through these questions pushes us to explore the ways in which feminist projects have been called into question, vernacularized, and at times incorporated into new justice-making institutions. The presentations during this panel examine economic rights, gender stereotyping, women and war, and the intersection of race and gender; all provide a prism into understanding both the dynamism of global change, as well as new forms and challenges in these spheres.

Over the past ten years, one of the leading questions to preoccupy studies of the rise in international justice institutions has been how to make sense of their different approaches to legal systems and their changing forms in many areas around the world. As I have written elsewhere in the quest to come up with solutions to violence, including violence against women, phrases such as "the spread of human rights" and "the globalization of the rule of law" have become central explanatory categories to describe the movement of international law and human rights in quite unrestricted ways. These terms suggest the existence of a morally superior domain, especially in relation to other cultural and religious practices that may be seen as running parallel to it. But if we are going to produce the possibility of receptivity of international mechanisms, we must deal with those presumptions about the superiority of particular "justice" models and recognize that they are not only empirically misleading, but are also not analytically useful as a starting place.

With the increasing analytical and scholarly work on the multiple domains of human rights and justice principles, today there are three popular models used to explain the deployment of various human rights universals in a range of geographies. One model, norm internalization, emerged in the late 1990s and early twenty-first century to explain the ways in which the emergence of human rights principles could be universalized through both voluntary and involuntary means. This norm internalization model, popularized by Harold Koh, Richard Rorty, Margaret Keck, and Kathryn Sikkink, adopted horizontal and vertical forms of circulation to address a mechanism to improve the universality--and thus enforcement--of human rights. According to their model, the circulation of human rights must work with the "top-down" dissemination of human rights norms through the horizontal importation of treaty norms from one state to the other. This is followed by the vertical incorporation of treaty norms through a "trickle-down" mechanism by which citizens would eventually internalize the human rights aspirations codified into international treaties. Carrying with it a presumed moral imperative through which the globalization of human rights represents a necessary intervention to rid the world of violence, discrimination, and other harms, this model requires the internalization of dominant norms by citizens along with various levels of mobilization. As outlined by Koh, who was at the time preoccupied with providing a mechanism for the widespread circulation of new liberatory norms, this model assumes that people will internalize human rights norms once states legislate their commitments to these principles.

In response to this top-down approach, the second model--the process of vernacularization, which was prominently articulated by Sally Merry and further clarified by Goodale and Merry--highlights the export of human rights norms globally and examines their interaction with local conceptions, what Merry refers to as "the vernacular." (1) By interrogating the reshaping of a set of "core" meanings within "culturally resonant packaging," (2) Merry and others engaged in this approach (e.g., Annelise Riles, Mark Goodale) are committed to exploring, through the intersections of connection, the ways in which international legal and human rights institutions are structured through fundamental dilemmas that lead to gaps between "global visions of justice and specific visions in local contexts." (3) Through the vernacularization of dominant renditions of law, the encounter between international and more circumscribed discourses reflects the movement of ideas beyond the contexts from which they originally emerged.

The third model--the encounter model--is best articulated by Anna Tsing, using the concept of "friction," a metaphor of globalization that presumes globality through connection: "the grip of worldly encounter." (4) It is further articulated through the conceptualization of cultural "encounters" in the work of Lieba Faier. In such frictional encounters, ideas embodying multiple conceptual approaches come together, and, through difference, misunderstanding, and negotiation, otherwise disparate formulations are reworked and, at times, clarified.

These three...

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