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Reimagining Justice for a Transnational World

A sense of insecurity pervades the international stage. Western states are separating out into an axis defined by those who are taking power through populism and fomenting fears of the “Islamic terror”; whilst other struggle to remain grounded in international consensus around principles and values that emerged following the second world war and the setting up of international institutions like the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Meanwhile, as the media keeps international attention on these political events, our collective CO2 emissions pump out with paltry legal restraint, heating the oceans and atmosphere and leading to a crises coming to meet future generations at a perilous pace.

Are the writings of political theorist Hannah Arendt worth revisiting for our times, writing as she did in the lead up to and aftermath of the second world war, a time of global uncertainty that has parallels with our own? Professor Peer Zumbansen believes so, convening the inaugural “Transnational” Law Summit 2018 at Kings College in London with a theme inspired by Arendt’s writings – “The New Human Condition: Creating Justice for Our Future”.

This article explores two themes that felt important to me from this conference: what is meant by “transnational” and what can Hannah Arendt’s writing illuminate about the needs of current times?

Arendt and “The Human Condition”

In her book “The Human Condition”, political theorist Hannah Arendt set out her thoughts on the human activities of labour, work and action shaping our world and proposed “a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears ... what I propose therefore is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing” (my italics).

Can we think about “thinking” from a contemporary systems perspective of our human functioning and capacities for experiencing and learning? Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology, offers one approach into this systems perspective, explaining how humans and “our minds and cultures are linked by an invisible thread to the ways and means of ancient unicellular existence ... that cultural activity began and remains deeply embedded in feeling”. Perhaps this provides a contemporary interpretation to Hannah Arendt’s proposal, to “feel-think" into what we are doing?

"Institutions of the International" or “Sites of Engagement & Agency” for the Transnational?

What is meant by “transnational” rather than international, in the context of law? No single definition or understanding applies, but applying “trans” rather than “inter” to the concept of the nation opens up interesting prospects for developing a jurisprudence that can respond to the interlinked social, political and ecological crises.

“International law” is that body of customary rules and treaties regulating the conduct as between nation states. The boundary is drawn around “the nation” as the unit of identity, with “inter” denoting the relation of “between”. “Trans” on the other hand means across or beyond, thus denoting the open ended territory that lies beyond the idea of the nation, emerging across such identities. “Transnational law" can thus interrogate “the Nation State” as an institution of power, exploring what is emerging in the actual territory of people pushing and resisting and growing out of traditional notions of the State as purveyor of the “public interest”.

What many of the speakers seemed to be making a call for at the Transnational Law Summit, from 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, to German Federal Constitutional Court judge Susanne Baer, was for civil society to come together beyond the State, as new “Sites of Engagement and Agency” (SEAs) for re-shaping power in a fracturing landscape of traditional institutions. This need for a new language for politics that can embrace networked civic action as a site of power is being recognized in organisations and platforms such as Civil Society Futures.

A short video summary of the Transnational Law Summit ends with this apt quote - ”the political realm arises directly out of acting together, the sharing of words and deeds”. In this way, through sharing our words and deeds beyond nation identities and through our platforms and networks, perhaps we can surface our civic responsibilities for addressing deficiencies in democratic politics, the injustice of economic inequality, and the erosion of our planet’s very life systems? Ultimately, perhaps, to break down the outdated (scientifically but not politically or legally) Cartesian divide between knowledge and emotion and shift humanity out from “institutional abstracted thinking”, towards a more reverential "feeling-thinking” that can open itself to a sense of a living Earth?

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