International law is dead. I am not the first person to say it.
Yet, I say it with inspiration from Nas, my favorite rap/hip-hop artist growing up. Palestinians have always had a special place in their hearts for rap/hip-hop. It was one of the few mediums that spoke for, and to, people like us. It spoke about themes that we related to and grew up with – conflict, oppression, poverty, violence, etc – chaotically structured, structurally chaotic, and everything in between.
In 2006, Nas released his title track “Hip Hop is Dead.” In his final verse, he recited the following bars: “[e]verybody sound the same/ commercialize the game/ reminiscin’ when it wasn’t all business/ if it got where it started/ So we all gather here for the dearly departed.” For Nas, the shift “went from turntables to mp3s/ from “Beat Street” to commercials on Mickey D’s/ from gold cables to Jacobs/ from plain facials to Botox and face lifts.” Its purpose and meaning had shifted into something else. An endless void, perhaps. An industry lost of its character and soul. Take it as you may. If you, as a rap/hip-hop artist felt attacked, then it was probably a you problem. You needed clarification. What do you mean? Were you talking about me? Many artists took it as an attack. Before continuing, I will note that within this short piece, there will be “subliminals.” No names. No institutions. Don’t take them personally. If you feel attacked, then it is probably a you problem.
International law, like hip-hop, is all business. There might be subtle differences, but everybody sound the same, more or less. The labels and venues all have set criteria. The sound needs to sell. Of course, unlike rap/hip-hop, international law was a force of, and for, colonialism and imperialism. Yet, at some point, things were changing – a bit too much, maybe. It was progressively developing and evolving. It began speaking for the streets. It started talking about: principles like sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence; aggression; peremptory norms; national liberation movements; etc. New, fresh sounds. The art form was going too far. The new artists had to be co-opted. If they could be co-opted, then maybe their albums could be sold. Then, artists could be silenced vis-à-vis their contracts.
They began to commercialize the game. Over time, the “game” became brand names and lame, money and fame restrained quatrains. International law was commercialized, plastered with brand names that sold to the yielding consumer classes. Even its critical inquiries (approaches, methods, and theories) have become brands. Some brands loved, some acceptable, and some even “hated.” The last cannot be co-opted. The big labels can’t sign them. Of course, no rap/hip-hop head loves all its brands. Consumer tastes are defined by different decades, geographic locations (e.g. East, West, North, South; New York, Los Angeles; etc…), sub-genre (old-school, alternative, gangsta, etc…), and the list goes on. Some things can sell, while others cannot. International law is similar. Some things still cannot sell (not quite yet, at least). Issues of race, racism, and racialization can find outright hostility. For the most radical scholars (looking at you, critical peoples), no verses about Palestine and the Palestinians. Not too different from the radical emcees (or “MCs”). There are limits. You can talk about the streets, but not too much. It will hurt your record sales. You’ll hurt the label. It has to be molded into something for the market. Let’s be honest, would you rather have your concert in New York City or Amman?
Everybody sound the same. Or at least, that’s what the industry wants. This doesn’t mean that you brand and rebrand. We share, discuss, debate, etc. But really, it requires some of the same. It has to sell. Perhaps, we reminiscin’ about a time when it wasn’t all business. It was a culture. A way of life. It became a force for decolonization, shedding itself from its colonial and imperial origins (arguable, of course). Yet, within our “critical” circles, we could not lose our sponsorships. Even Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) has its sponsors and, God forbid, we lose our place at the American Society of International Law or the European Society of International Law’s lineups because well – we said something that the sponsors do not like. We are “pseudo-critical.” Wannabemceez.
As many have said in variations, decolonization is “cool” until theory becomes practice. It depends on who is talking about it and how they are talking about it. Some practitioners and scholars are on their own level and answer to no one. Some can state things without losing sponsorship – Palestinians, like others, can resist/rebel and, through that choice, are subject to the laws of war – however unequal or prejudiced the rules may be. They, somehow, have that privilege. Others, not so much. Between 2,000 words, one is chosen – void of legal meaning – really, to discredit the substantive entirety. International law was at its last breaths and we gladly obliged.
Some joined the mob early. Some called it “whatabout TWAIL whataboutism” (even amongst TWAIL indifference). Weak bars. Some attacked and discredited the oppressed, demanding they toe the line because, at some point, they gave charity. They were owed something. Some used their platforms for good; some for evil; and some not at all. Some created their careers off Palestine and the Palestinians. Some had censored themselves and others – including Palestinians – because it was “strategic” or because it was “politically sensitive” (you know who you are). Some opened their platforms for persons and institutions with questionable affiliations, dealings, and practices.
As international law was taking its last breaths, friends in the industry became enemies. Others, who weren’t so sure of their friendships, were relieved to finally see how their peers actually saw them. Lesser. Dehumanized. Some even disappeared. Those emcees never wrote their lyrics – really they just recycled some old stuff and hired a couple ghostwriters. The jus ad bellum and the jus in bello became distant memories, to remind us about a time when international law was better, supposedly.
We wonder about if it got where it started. At least from one point in its history. For some, like myself, who grew up in the rougher parts of the world, rap/hip-hop was a way out. It was a voice for the voiceless. It spoke about the past – about themes like conflict, oppression, poverty, and violence – but the main tracks did not; not really. The singles needed to sell, at least. The rest were fillers. As we grew, in places where violations were commonplace, international law became a way out. It spoke for the streets. It, too, was a voice for the voiceless. At least that is what we thought. A form of art where we can share our struggles with the rest of the world. We found a medium where we can share our rhymes and our stories. For hip-hop, that too was fine – to an extent. The consumer was fascinated, almost obsessed, with a world that they were unfamiliar with. It was, in some ways, not too different from what we call “orientalism.” But there were boundaries – red lines. The artists could not cross those lines. They could not say “f*** the police” when they needed to speak on police brutality and racial profiling. There were issues, both domestic and international, where they needed to tread carefully. Free speech has its limits. For certain people, there really are no bounds, and no repercussions. For certain others, know your place and tone it down.
International law is dead. So, we gather here for the dearly departed.
It should not be controversial. We saw it happening and we were in denial. International law has been dying. What? Did we forget how more and more commonplace these violations have become? Did we forget that we actively fought for justice and accountability for some, and denied it for others (e.g. “Palestine will ruin the International Criminal Court!”)? We entertained the biggest stadiums. We entertained the exceptions to the absolute prohibition of torture. We entertained the pre-emptive use of force. We entertained extrajudicial killings. We entertained over the dead. We booked the entertainers for our venues and we sold tickets. When we started to question certain bookings, the organizers doubled down. We listened, nodded our heads, and even moved to the flow. Maybe some just wanted the experience. A selfie. Maybe even a record deal. But we took it too far. We denied serious breaches of peremptory norms, grave breaches and other serious violations of the Geneva Conventions, and the commission of international crimes. We even went so far as to limit, or outright silence, free speech altogether, including the soundest discussions on justice and accountability vis-à-vis international law. Hardly controversial tracks or albums. Some were not so bad, just silent. They didn’t want to give an opinion on any track or album for fear that they might be judged too harshly (even Nas had his limits).
We were told to be professional. We weren’t on the streets anymore. Do not shout and curse at the government officials who also happen to be complicit in the commission of international crimes. It is rude to throw shoes at war criminals. Don’t interrupt their dinners to tell them about the dead children. Be kind. Be courteous. And for those you don’t like or don’t look like you, they are guilty until proven innocent. For those you do like or who look like you, the opposite – assume the best, and remember to “ask for more.” Sentence the “uncivilized.” Give the “civilized” another standard. Is there something higher than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Hell, create thresholds even when the rules don’t demand it.
F*** it. International law is dead. You killed it; yes you.