Photo by Dylan Hunter on Unsplash, Routledge book cover.

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Exclusionary Humanism and Anthropocentrism: A Valid Tandem?


International law is all-too-human, argues Emily Jones in Chapter 1 of her penetrating and deeply insightful Posthuman Feminism. International law might well gravitate around nonhuman entities – the state, international organizations, and so forth – yet it is geared, both structurally and operationally, towards human beings and human interests.

Under Jones’ posthuman feminist framework, this implies two main forms of exclusion. First, international law is marked by a deep form of exclusionary humanism. Central concepts of international law like the sovereign state, or frameworks like capitalism and colonialism, consistently privilege particular, elite interests, thus creating hierarchies among humans.  Secondly, international law is profoundly anthropocentric, meaning that it allocates worth to the nonhuman only in function of human interests – creating a hierarchy between humans and everything else. A clear example is the idea of sustainable development, with which the human restates its sovereignty over nature, radically excluding the worth of other forms of existence.

The Complex Realities of International Law

Jones is right. The current paradigm of international is for the most part unfit for accommodating the nonhuman, except strictly as an object of regulation. This arguably makes for dysfunctional governance on several global issues – not least that of nature. Jones also touches a raw nerve when she highlights the exclusionary humanism implicit in the paradigm of statehood and sovereignty under international law. The fiction of the state as an almighty, all-encompassing, consolidated entity justifies legally and politically overrunning the communities, groups, and individuals that live within them. Moreover, the paradigm of sovereign equality presents itself as politically neutral but covers up for a liberal systemic bias based on gendered, racialised, and economic privilege.

These are issues that urgently need to be discussed. Jones’ contribution is in this sense more than timely and eye-opening, especially for audiences not familiar with posthumanism or feminist approaches to international law.

Systemic Corruption or Choice?

I wonder,  however, if Jones is right in putting exclusionary humanism and anthropocentrism in the same analytical basket. Both indeed speak of international law’s all-too-human character. Yet both have different ethical implications.

Exclusionary humanism is disloyal and hypocritical: it is the effect of a system’s foulness – a system that claims to be neutral and that justifies itself with the banner of equality but, as Jones explains, tends to privilege some at the expense of many. Anthropocentrism, on the other hand, is an acknowledged trait of the system that goes, not only to the core of international law but of Western and also several non-Western worldviews. I would argue that exclusionary humanism is, in this sense, a form of systemic corruption, whereas anthropocentrism is a philosophical and political choice that one can contest, but whose merits are plausible and based on good-faith arguments – several of which I subscribe.

International Human Rights Law as a Counterexample

The issue with joining exclusionary humanism and anthropocentrism when discussing international law becomes apparent when one thinks of international human rights law (IHRL). Jones mentions IHRL briefly, mostly in the context of the right to a healthy environment, which she acknowledges as “promising” though tainted by its ultimate promotion of “human interests” and “deep anthropocentrism”. But discarding human rights on the grounds of anthropocentrism while discussing exclusionary humanism ignores the fact that IHRL, with all its faults and perks, has done more than any other legal framework in the last seven decades to pound the fortress of liberal, Westfalian, sovereigntist and exclusionary international law.

IHRL might be anthropocentric, no doubt, but not exclusionary – at least not of human beings. Human rights are based on the universalist premise, enshrined in article 1 of the UDHR, that whatever human dignity might mean in substance, every human person shares it. That has the implication, to follow Ferrajoli, that our differences in terms of identity are equally worth and therefore should be protected, while our differences in material opportunities are foul and should be legally countered. This attests to the crucial emancipatory role that human rights have played in at least two struggles that, while far from over, have already reshaped many human societies and the discourse of international law: the fights against gender and racial discrimination.

On both fronts, human rights have provided a vocabulary and a framework to name, challenge, and transform embedded systems of exclusion, mainly through the rhetorical bulwarks of non-discrimination and individual entitlement. It suffices to see the extent to which feminism and anti-racist activism have resorted to IHRL arguments in their struggles to realise the transformative, anti-exclusionary potential of human rights.

Thus, in assessing the exclusionary nature of international law, the irruption of IHRL should be taken into account. To be sure, human rights have not debunked the classic paradigm of international law and its exclusionary nature, but they have certainly provided an avenue for inclusion that has changed both international law and politics, and that still has an enormous transformative potential to offer. The count of anthropocentrism, in this logic, even if founded, seems to do little justice to IHRL – and international law more broadly – when formulated in tandem with exclusionary humanism. To that one would have to add the plasticity of human rights arguments: despite their anthropocentric logic, protecting the nonhuman through IHRL is not implausible.

A Precious Tool

IHRL, I would conclude, is an already built-in, universalist avenue helpful in the task of transforming international law’s exclusionary structures. Its anthropocentrism notwithstanding, it could prove a precious tool in Jones’ remarkable exercise of “re-think[ing] international law, allowing for a reworlding for an international law otherwise”.

Pedro Martínez Esponda

Pedro Martínez Esponda is a lecturer in Public International Law and Human Rights at Universidad Iberoamericana, in Mexico City. Until December 2022, he was a Post-Doc Researcher at the Geneva Graduate Institute in Switzerland.

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