February 2, 2016
This is an interesting post from the Toronto Star highlighting what many people, especially in human rights and IL fields, have known or suspected for a long time — that people’s compassion with respect to mass incidents, particularly man-made (or partially man-made) mass attrocities, is limited, and often a single story can be more poignant (and raise more money) than piles of statistics. It is interesting to think about the implications for those seeking international action through their governments, and lends some credence to doubter arguments about how much people in a country are willing to have their governments do elsewhere, especially through international organizations, miitary intervention, or large-scale regulation (a good example is Jack Goldsmith’s regular stance on the limits of IL and its general lack of popular support, at least in the US [Goldsmith’s name is also being talked about in the Comey testimony, which Balkanization is covering well… Goldsmith made a principled, and misunderstood for a long time, especially among the HLS community, stand]). This is not to absolve those who fail to think of consequences outside of their direct experience or who can only relate to “personal” stories along a well-trodden arch and thus ignore unpleasant realities for many people (the follow-up to the “suffering individual” story is usually one of the “rescued individual”… forgetting about everyone else who was not so fortunate). But it does help explain why stopping what any sane person would say is wrong seems so difficut.
Conversely, it is also interesting for ”law” and IL as a tool in general. Do individual cases get more play, and seem more “groundbreaking” because of the stories behind them? Cases (and especially the lawyers associated with them) often take on a self-importance that might outweigh their direct social impact, but the cases may have larger-reaching societal impacts because of their use as stories. In the international arena, this might be an area to explore more, where human rights cases especially, but also rule of law, etc. cases can be framed in more personal ways, to make it about particular cases of injustice and change. This individual’s rights are hurt in this way, this episode of corruption has a direct impact on someone’s business, etc. Ironically, by limiting the scope of such cases, they may have more impact through a story that can be readily understood by others. Just a thought, but perhaps IL needs some more PR about what it can do in individual cases for individual people, not just relying on general terms and the upholding of “norms.” This seems to be working, at least somewhat, in the ECHR context.
Making cases into stories is hard though, when classic IL is “made” most often through cases between states, already distanced from people’s conceptions of daily law. States (and corporations) may get to act like individuals on the world stage, but they are not viewed (and judged) as such in the common mind, thus perhaps giving them more leniency than they would otherwise deserve. Coupled with the distancing effects of mass attrocities/mass victimization, and often because there are no effective ways to bring individual claims, this can make effective action particularly difficult… it becomes just some amorphous entity doing some kind of harm to some people we don’t know.