Keeping it human means working very closely with abuse survivors and listening carefully to transform their problems into solutions, says Professor Jill Marshall.

As part of his leading contribution to this issue of Talking Humanities, David Sugarman (The humanities and law: more intertwined than you might think) explains that the humanities and law ‘question received perspectives, contextualise knowledge and encourage people to think for themselves.’ In this short piece, I focus on the transformative power of hearing, listening to, and enabling full participation of survivors of human rights abuses to inform international human rights law (IHRL) and international criminal law (ICL).

IHRL’s purpose is to recognise the inherent dignity, equality and rights of everyone based on the ideal of free human beings. However, to put this into practice requires adding real particular characteristics, flesh, and blood, to this abstract human. Feminist perspectives in IHRL and ICL, particularly emerging from the 1990s onwards, critique how the human of human rights is gendered, how violence and conflict construct patriarchy, masculinity and the military, and how it is futile to use force as a means of resolving disputes.

Scholars explore the continuity between every day systemic sexist discrimination and sexual violence in times of peace and war. This work has been integral to the development of ICL, in resistance and in compliance perspectives. Gender-based violence in times of peace and conflict has been exposed as a widespread global phenomenon. ICL developments have attributed individual, command and state criminal responsibility to conflict-related sexual violence.

Changing the structural inequality that creates conditions for gross human rights abuses and violations dealt with by IHRL and ICL involves feminist – and other – visions of the future and utopian aims of transformation to more just societies. Hilary Charlesworth has recently distinguished between feminist messages and feminist methods in international law. She notes that the former has been influential in rhetorical terms, but the latter are ignored: to be productive and to support feminist political projects, we need to devise practical and responsive feminist methods.

This starts by being explicit about the complexities of all women’s lives, historical and cultural backgrounds. Linking more explicitly our feminist methods and aims, law, the humanities and story-telling methods, can help find resistance to oppressing narratives: to discover ways to write new narratives about the self and the concept of self, to allow new narratives to take shape. Particularly when people are socially powerless, in need of human rights realisation, their freedom, starting with their own imagination, can lead to empowerment, creating new ways of thinking and knowledge production.

Law plays a role in how these imaginations develop and become one’s own. Recent United Nations Security Council Resolutions state that a survivor-centred ICL is essential. The use of feminist, arts-based methods could enable needs and experiences to be expressed, to hear the voices of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, so that their experiences emerge in ways they choose. To intermingle Georges Perec and Catharine MacKinnon, this will give those survivors a space to express a meaning, a tongue, to let them speak of what is, and of what they are. Here we have a method for participatory forms of knowledge to emerge. This process can be used not just to imagine, but to transform the world, to make it other, better, than it is: surely crucial to IHRL and ICL?

Jill Marshall is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Royal Holloway, University of London researching the role law plays in creating, allowing, representing and protecting certain aspects of our human identity and personal freedom with emphasis on the connections between law and humanity, care and belonging. Her work particularly focuses on women’s human rights, privacy, expression, and sexual violence in conflict and includes analysis of international law, global justice and human rights in their complexities of real-life situations.