Dr. Srinivas Burra
(Assistant Professor, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University, New Delhi, India.)
Fourth biennial conference of the Asian Society of International Law (ASIL) is scheduled to be held from 14-16 November 2013 in New Delhi. The theme of the conference is, as the brochure of the conference says, ‘Asia and International Law in the Twenty First Century: New Horizons’ (http://www.isil-aca.org/download/2013/4th_biennial_conference-14-16-november-2013.pdf). A cursory look at the proposed topics to be discussed at the conference reveals that all the topics are of significance to the Asian region having their relevance in some form or the other, if not to every Asian country but, certainly to every region of Asia. However, despite their relevance, the proposed topics do not reflect Asia and international law in the twenty first century in comprehensive way. It is a fact that no conference with a broad theme like this can cover every possible issue that falls under the theme. Therefore, it becomes necessary to select a few important topics from the many important ones. That is what seems to have been done by the organizers of the conference in selecting the proposed topics. Thus, a careful look at the topics that were chosen for discussion at the conference demonstrate their importance to Asia, but at the same time make us curious to think as to why only they were chosen at the exclusion of many other topics which are of equal importance to Asia.
Selectivity in Topics
There are twenty topics on which papers are invited from participants. It wouldamount to reductionism to classify topics into standalone issues because any topic can be approached from multitude ofstandpoints. However, one cannot ignore the formulation of topics which drive the focus of the organizers of the conference. Of the twenty, nine topics-anti dumping; competition law; intellectual property rights; international commercial law/enforcement of foreign judgments; international investment law (including resolution of international investment disputes); key elements of sustainable development for Asia; law of the sea, piracy, maritime security and safety in the Asian region; national implementation of the WTO’s and RTA’s commitments in Asian countries; peaceful resolution of international disputes in Asia (including resolution of trade and business disputes in Asian countries)- specifically deal with investment, trade and commercial aspects of international law. It is also emphasized that peaceful resolution of international disputes in Asia would include resolution of trade and business disputes in Asian countries. Excessive emphasis on investment, trade and commerce related issues cannot be taken as an accident. It could possibly be at the initiative of those who are key actors among the organizers or it could be to attract more financial resources from law firms and business houses. Both these reasons do not augur well for any dispassionate academic engagement with issues that trouble the Asian continent. It can be argued that formulation of these topics can also be taken as an objective engagement with these issues without any specific objectives. It could have been taken that way had these topics been formulated in such way to invite papers also on issues like investment and displacement, investment and the rights of indigenous/aboriginal people, permanent sovereignty over natural resources, trade and human rights. Token inclusion of ‘emergent issues in international human rights law’ would not capture the complexity of issues involved. In fact the whole agenda of the conference grossly excludes the human aspect of international law in literal sense despite the broad theme of the conference is ‘Asia and international law in the twenty first century’. Are there no issues like refugees, economic migration (there is large scale movement of people within Asia and from Asian countries to other parts of the world), conflict induced human tragedies in countries like Sri Lanka, possible displacement of people in environment induced tragedies in countries like Maldives and other island states, targeted killing of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan and legality of drone attacks. In fact these issues are being vigorously debated within the framework of international law at other fora in mainstream debates and it is unfortunate that the AsianSIL does not reflect them in its biennial conference agenda.
Asia Hardly Represented
Having observed the agenda of the conference, one would be forced to look at the composition of the AsianSIL and would be surprised to see that entire West Asia (looking from the location of the author i.e., India) is hardly represented. One could explain this poor representation as lack of interest of the international law scholars from this part of Asia (though that may not be the case and there might be deeper reasons for that). However, that cannot be the reason for exclusion of international law issues that are of extreme importance to that part of Asia. Some of these issues are: unending war on terror, weapons of mass destruction, nuclear issues, sanctions on Iran, Arab uprising,violations of international law by Israel in Palestine etc. The selection of topics seems to reflect only the priorities of East Asia (again looking from the location of the author i.e., India).
Why only ASEAN? Why not Other Regional Organizations?
One of the agenda items of the conference is ‘ASEAN-related special issues of international law’. It is inexplicable as to why this topic is included but not other regional organizations which are of equal importance in other regions of Asia.It may sound parochial to raise this issue but becomes inevitable unless its inclusion and others’ exclusion is explained. Would not it have been ideal to include a broad theme of regional organizations in Asia? Or would not it have been ideal to include South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) related international law issues as one of the topics because the conference is taking place in the SAARC region.
The conference brochure claims that ‘Asia’s leading powers are no longer ‘emerging’ but have emerged’. This statement needs a closer interrogation as to how far this rhetoric reflects the reality. Yes, a few individuals have newly emerged as billionaires from Asia but not Asian peoples in collective sense. However, this statement explains to some extent the choice of topics as they seem to emanate from this understanding.
It is a reality that in many situations, academic agenda is set by certain dominant/key players. However, it is important that one has to negotiate, if not confront, with that reality to capture the possible spaces. Otherwise the purpose of having a body like AsianSIL would be defeated, though it is debatable whether associations formed purely based on geographical location without much stated objectives in terms of international relations, politics and economy can be able to provide a robust parallel/alternative to mainstream thinking.