ILA Conference 2018 – Day 2: Past, Future, and Ceremonial Dance

Day 2 of the ILA Conference commenced with an invigorating opening ceremony, plunging us back in time to the to the very germination of international law, and the conditions that promoted its growth and proliferation.

Australia’s Chief Justice, The Hon Susan Kiefel AC, cast a lens away from our 21stCentury and to the contextual landscapes that led to international law’s evolution – from the treaties of near eastern rulers 4 millennia ago, the treaties establishing Sumerian city boundaries in the third millennium BC, the emergence of just war amongst the Ancient Romans and the inception of scholarship on just war such as that of Cicero, later to be revived by Thomas Kleinus and then further developed by Grotius and Pufendorf.  She journeyed through the Peace of Westphalia and Jeremy Bentham, who transformed thought from law of nations to law between nations, incepting the concept of ‘international law.’ Her journey back in time sought to urge us to continue our work like those that have gone before us, she ruminated;

Concepts of law as of politics and other disciplines are firmly rooted in the world of reality and reflect contemporary preoccupations – no theory develops in a vacuum but is conceived and brought to fruition in a definite, social, cultural environment.”

While Chief Justice took us back time, the ILA Director of Studies, Professor Marcel Brus, fast forward to the challenges rapidly entering our purview today, including the blatant disregard for established international legal principles by powerful global leaders, increasing mobility of persons and migration, energy transition, changing power structures, sustainability, economic inequality and the use of tax havens.

A video message from the eminent Australian, international legal jurist and Judge of the International Court of Justice, Judge James Crawford AC, SC, FBA, delivered an encouraging message of solidarity and perseverance;

The ILA has two strengths.  Firstly, it is accessible to many – including students and non-international lawyers as well as those that are.  Secondly, its involvement of people in committee work and in the day to day work is notable for an organisation of its kind.”

Following these addresses, the audience had the honour of a performance by an indigenous cultural dance group. Following the performance, members of the audience were invited to join the group in learning a ceremonial dance that mimics an emu. Several delegates took up the invitation, either enthusiastically or in trepidation, while the onlooking delegates got more entertainment than they bargained for.  However, there was something quite inspiriting in seeing a bunch of delegates from different parts of the world, surmount difference, embrace humility and manifest what we had just been talking about – common humanity.

Following the opening ceremony, the delegates split into their respective sessions.  In the Outer Space in Contemporary and Future International Law Session, the panelists discussed several issues, including the difficulties in defining space, the limitations of current space law treaties, how intellectual property can be protected whilst also protecting the space law principles of freedom and cooperation, and how military and space technological advancements are entwined.

In the Ongoing Challenges for Indigenous Peoples in International Law Session, the panel discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the UNDRIP and exemplified states and regions that are making exciting steps towards absorbing indigenous rights into the broader legal apparatus of regions and states, with a particular concentration on Latin America. All panelists agreed that an anthropological perspective, that understands culture from an Aboriginal or indigenous perspective, must inform how our legal systems and laws facilitate indigeneity and the UNDRIP.

A standout presentation of the day for me, was the that of Mick Gooda, the Royal Commissioner into the Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.  Mick delivered a heartfelt and honest account of how Aboriginal Australians’ have been impacted by the law.  In contrast to the picture of the rule of law in Australia as robust and interminable that is often painted by non-Aboriginal Australians, Mick shed light on how the rule of law appears to be to non -Aboriginal Australians; fallible and lacking integrity. He highlighted several circumstances in which the rule of law fell from the under feet of Aboriginal people, including the attenuation of the Racial Discrimination Act to avoid paying compensation following the Hindmarsh Island Case, and in 2007 the complete abolition of the act in 73 communities to implement the Northern Territory intervention. Mick stressed that Aboriginal people feel the ripples of a violent colonial history and the hurt of other aboriginal people who are disenfranchised and disempowered of their rights.  He shared his sobering, but important feelings of cynicism and tiredness having heard for decades the circular promises and attempts to reset the relationship with Aboriginal people with the introduction of each new government, and Aboriginal Affairs ministers.  He sees the UNDRIP as an important impetus for change and to guide our assessment of the rights that Aboriginal Australians should expect.

Summary prepared by Madeleine Miller. Madeleine is a policy lawyer and freelance journalist based in Canberra.  Her endeavour into journalism is driven by an avid desire to promote international law in mainstream media.