The Annual Kirby Lecture on International Law

Presented by ANU College of Law

Human rights with a vengeance: one hundred years of retributive humanitarianism

On 12 October 1915, an English nurse, Edith Cavell was executed by the Germans in Brussels and partly as a result, there emerged an almost entirely novel way of thinking about international law. Defeated enemies became ‘war criminals’, atrocities became ‘crimes against humanity’ and (a certain sort of) war became ‘aggression’. The first half of the 20th century, then saw the appearance of a whole idiom and, then, architecture (Nuremberg, Tokyo) of what became known as international criminal law. This field (sometimes referred to also as ‘war crimes law’) began as tentative foothold (Versailles, Leipzig) but has now thoroughly colonised our thinking about war and peace (Rome, The Hague). And when it comes to human rights abuses, it is de rigueur to call for war crimes trials for the perpetrators, and justice for the victims.

In this lecture I propose to engage in a critical stocktaking of this century of retributive humanitarianism.