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PSC-colloquium with Geoff Gorden (Asser Institute) & Jacob Giltaij (PSC)

Detail Summary
Date 7 January 2020
Time 12:00 - 13:00
Location Roeterseilandcampus - building A
Room A3.01
Organised by Paul Scholten Centre (PSC) of Jurisprudence, University of Amsterdam Law School
Roeterseilandcampus - building A
Roeterseilandcampus - building A

Room A3.01

Nieuwe Achtergracht 166
1018 WV Amsterdam

Purpose of the meeting
The meeting is centered around the concept of universality. Geoff Gordon has recently published an article on the concept in a volume dedicated to leading concepts in international law. Jacob Giltaij will publish an article in a special volume concerning the problem of the concept of universality in conjunction with the universality of primarily legal concepts. The article concerns advances made among refugee scholars in the 1930s and 1940s. In the meeting, the two articles of which the abstracts are set out below will be discussed, with the purpose of coming to a better understanding of the problem of universality vis-à-vis the universality of concepts.

Abstract Geoff Gordon:  Universalism
(Concepts for International Law. Contributions to disciplinary thought (ed. Jean  d’Aspremont, Sahib Singh), Cheltenham: Elgar 2019)

Universality has occupied a consistently central but also historically contingent role in conceptions, operations and mobilizations of international law over time. It has taken on a variety of characters as a matter of doctrine, ideology and historical materiality. Universalism has served in international law as a wellspring for both dominant ideologies and modes of resistance: it has underwritten colonial oppression, but has also been adopted for successful resistance to colonialism, and it has reappeared both in imperialist and counterhegemonic projects in postcolonial legal relations today. Universalism can be doctrinally described as an underlying principle, or abstract tenet, classically related in international law to ends of harmony, equality or autonomy. Understood in terms of dominant ideologies, however, universalism at once obscures and legitimizes the particular interests that drive the operation of international law. This has the effect of naturalizing the interests of the few that are made to apply globally. But universalism can be comprehended in still more quotidian ways. This chapter focuses on an ideological meeting point of universalism between doctrine and daily practice. That meeting point has been a site associated with empire, but it might arguably still be reclaimed and repurposed as a site in support of a different sort of political solidarity under law.

Abstract Jacob Giltaij: Refugee scholarship and the universality of legal concepts
(Contributions to the History of Concepts special issue: the legal concept of universality and the universality of legal concepts, to be published 2020/2021)

Often, a more or less universal quality is attributed to certain legal concepts. For refugee scholars working between 1933 and 1945, the universal quality of these concepts was challenged on two fronts: first, the breaking down of the Weimar constitution and the German Rechtsstaat under Nazi rule, which demonstrated the fragility of a constitutional and legal order. The more universal the concept, the less prone it turned out to be enforceable legally, for example in the context of international law or by those seeking legal redress while being stateless, without citizenship or otherwise denied access to legal claims established on a national level. Moreover, the breakdown of the German Rechtsstaat was felt on a deeper conceptual level. The “immutable” legal concepts turned out to be mutated easily to conform to Nazi ideology. The second major challenge to the universality of concepts thus pertains to the universal characteristics of the “concept of a concept” itself. In brief, what German refugee legal scholars attempted to create in the course of the 1930s and 1940s was a “universal” Rechtsstaat centered around concepts and legal scholarship that would avoid the breakdown by placing it into as feasible and balanced system of legal enforcement on an international level. Thus, in their new academic context, rather than dismissing the Rechtsstaatliche function of legal concepts and the role of legal scholars, refugee ventured to enhance it. The contribution argues that the development of the concept of human rights by Hersch Lauterpacht constitutes such an enhancement.

Geoff Gordon is Senior researcher at Asser Institute in The Hague
Jacob Giltaij is Assistant professor Jurisprudence, Amsterdam Law School

For more information please contact Roland Pierik (