Free Seas and Captive Histories: International Law’s Colonial Imaginaries

Arjîn Elgersma | MSc Engaging Public Issues

International (maritime) law and its many institutions, contrary to popular belief, have done little to mitigate the precarious and violent consequences of the shipping industry. Made up of supposedly neutral rules, it functions through removing itself from the realm of the political; international disputes, evident in dominant perspectives of international law, can only be settled through objective means. The history of international law tells us otherwise. After all, the history of jurisprudence (legal theory) and practices of international law were constitutive of justifications for colonialism. Though its rhetoric has changed significantly over the years, its role in protecting the accumulation of capital has remained. Moreover, its role in consolidating international waters as a global commons – accessible to all while in reality only to some – cannot be understated. For some theories of capitalism, what happened on land necessarily entails researching what happened on water.  

Rotterdam is no exception to port cities whose on-land activities are intimately related with those overseas. On a daily basis the Rotterdam District Court oversees cases of which some, increasingly, are international maritime dispute cases. Judges deal with vague complex, congested and overlapping laws dictating what rules ought to apply where. From the 60s to 80s a series of cases were brought forward in varying European and North-American courts by the International Transport Federation. In order to provide seafarers, most of which are from the global south, with long-due wages and decent working conditions, the ITF and ship workers used strikes to make demands. Most of these strikes were considered unlawful by their respective courts (only one case in Sweden being the exception). Primarily because ship companies ensured that their seafarers were contracted for unfavorable labor laws or had clauses that explicitly denied them the right to strike. 

Seemingly a thing of the past, such cases still take place today in even worse conditions. for example, amongst which Erasmus School of Law is a partner, depicts a pleasing, reputable, and honorable narrative of the competence of Dutch legislation. “FOR EXPERT, SPEEDY, AND AFFORDABLE DISPUTE RESOLUTION GO DUTCH”. Hugo Grotius, who was asked by the Dutch East India Company to expand and write on free navigation and sea trade in order to consolidate Dutch trade routes in Asia and America, is described as a ‘Dutch hero taming the unruly seas’. It is rather telling how the figure of a jurist whose theories justified non-European peoples as enslaveable and (dis)possessable is invoked as a proud figure of Dutch history. Much like how Dutch education is riddled with imaginaries of Dutch history and its benevolent Golden Age, international law is not merely practiced through technical means, rather than imaginaries that delineate across racial lines who is worthy of legal protection and who is not. 

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