Ethnicity and International Law: Histories, Politics and Practices

By Hamzic, Vanja | Melbourne Journal of International Law, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Ethnicity and International Law: Histories, Politics and Practices


Hamzic, Vanja, Melbourne Journal of International Law


Ethnicity and International Law: Histories, Politics and Practices by Mohammad Shahabuddin (Cambridge University Press, 2016) 278 pages. Price USD110.00 (Hardcover) ISBN 9781107096790.

Mohammad Shahabuddin's book is a comprehensive and much-needed historical study of the role of ethnicity in the making of international law. It calls for a heightened attention to a pair of opposites: the nineteenth-century Romantic idea of the nation-state as a living organism and the liberal tradition that rejected it in favour of a peculiar project of post-ethnic universalism, albeit with Europe as its omphalos. The book attends to the idea of ethnicity as it travels through the following historical incarnations: the nineteenth-century Romantic and liberal discourses on the 'self and the 'other': German and French colonialism: the inter-war minority protection regime; Cold War and post-Cold War international law; and, finally, contemporary international legal responses to so-called 'ethnic conflicts'. Walking along the thus-charted historical trajectory, this brief review interrogates the salience of the proposed analytical dichotomy between the Romantic and liberal traditions for our understanding of international law's consistently troubled relationship with ethnicity. At a certain point, an apparition joins the walk.

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'As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations'. (1) So solemnly promised the biblical God to Abram, who thus became the Prophet Abraham for his wife and progeny, and the progeny of their progeny, and those many generations thereafter who would consider this discursive genealogy to be the very foundation of their collective sense of self. And yet, as Mohammad Shahabuddin carefully reminds us in Ethnicity and International Law, (2) the Abrahamic promise contained both a path to radical inclusion, leading to the commonwealth 'of many nations' bound by a single monotheistic covenant, and one to radical exclusion, where the unbound rest of the humankind would be left to its own devices, and by that same token, often deemed worth little more than the non-human animal. This great divide implicit in the concept of 'chosen people(s)', or perhaps even the concept of 'people' itself, could also be described, in Shahabuddin's words, as 'the ethnic dichotomy of "self' and "other"'. (3) Although this thesis is hardly new or, for that matter, radical, it is extraordinarily revealing when applied to the disciplinary terroir of international law. Thus, Ethnicity and International Law is an important book of international legal theory, in that it summons the assorted histories of international law and their philosophical, social and political underpinnings to stand the judgment of a critique that is so carefully crafted that it is both subtle and deeply piercing. For Shahabuddin's is the art of storytelling that greatly exceeds the boundaries of the doctrinal in international legal scholarship while stopping short of explicitly disavowing it and the wisdom of recounting the historical dichotomy of what he terms as 'conservative' and 'liberal' traditions of ethnicity 'without siding with any particular school of thought'. (4) As a result, the book makes for a syncopated reading it surprises, unnerves, comforts, saddens and cheers the reader in a highly unusual rhythm for a self-avowed legal study.

The entire edifice of Ethnicity and International Law rests on the idea that international law's present-day hesitancy to engage with 'all things ethnic'--whether the management of 'ethnic conflict' or the protection of 'ethnic minorities'--has its cause in 'the way international law developed along the lines of the nineteenth century's liberal and conservative traditions of understanding the salience of ethnicity in political-identity formation'. (5) The author locates these mutually competing traditions squarely into (Western) Europe, and describes them as Romanticism and the liberal response to it. …

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