08 November 2023

Prof Anne Saab’s New Research Project “Emotions and International Law”

In her latest research project, Prof Anne Saab will explore the relationship between emotions and international law. As of now, international law – firmly based on rationalist assumptions – does not deal with emotions in any sustained manner. Prof Saab, Aliki Semertzi (Postdoctoral Researcher in International Law) and Portia Karegeya (PhD Candidate in International Law) will acknowledge and explore the influence of emotions, arguing that lawyers must take it into account when addressing world issues.

Click here to learn more about the research project itself!

Could you tell us about the genesis of this research project? What prompted you to look at emotions and international law? Does your own experience with international law play a role?

My PhD research focused on the role of international law in framing the issue of hunger and food insecurity in the context of climate change. While doing my PhD research at the London School of Economics from 2011–15, I noticed the pervasiveness of fearful language in climate change debates, including in international law. I developed an immense curiosity for the role of such emotive language in shaping law and policy.

I commenced my position in the International Law Department of the Graduate Institute in 2015 and my primary post-PhD interest was in exploring the role of fear in international climate change law. After ‘harvesting’ my PhD research in the form of a monograph and several articles, I started spending more time engaging with the role of emotions in international law more broadly.

I entered a fascinating world of emotions research, which is extraordinarily rich and diverse. I have recently published an article in the European Journal of International Law entitled ‘Discourses of Fear on Climate Change in International Human Rights Law’, and I am currently working on an article exploring the role of anger and hope in youth climate litigation.

My interest has expanded beyond fear and other emotions in the context of climate change, to the role of emotions in international law more generally. I successfully obtained an SNF project grant on ‘Emotions and International Law’ which runs from September 2023 to August 2027. I am moreover working on a monograph on the topic of emotions and international law.

For me, the most interesting research projects come from curiosities, interests, and concerns. As you can see, the process of arriving at this research project was simply a matter of being curious and following that curiosity. Of course, within the security of a faculty position and with a healthy dose of determination and hard work: it took me seven years to find an international law journal willing to publish my article on fear and climate change, and three attempts before obtaining the SNF grant. It was well worth the effort and the wait!


Why is there a gap between law – including international law – and emotions? Are there any examples or real-life cases that further cement this idea?

Law, including international law, is based on rationalist assumptions. Even though emotions research from disciplines such as neuroscience and social psychology have authoritatively dispelled the myths of a separation between reason and emotion, this dichotomy remains powerful in the legal sphere. The prevailing idea in (international) law is that the law can and should keep emotions at bay in legal work.

The main objective in emerging scholarship on law and emotions in domestic legal settings, most prominently in the US, is to challenge this rationalist assumption and to demonstrate that emotions influence all areas of the law. Emotions research from other disciplines is then invoked in order to learn what emotions are and how they function in particular settings. Beyond descriptive accounts, an important normative argument is that failing to acknowledge and to seek to understand the influence of emotions in (international) law risks giving excessive force to emotions.

An argument that I am developing in my forthcoming research is that there is no ‘gap’ between international law and emotions. Emotions are all over international law work, but important debates within international law that clearly engage with emotions do not recognize emotions explicitly. What I want to do with this book is to bridge existing scholarships in international law with relevant emotions literature, to show how emotions literature can shed new light on some of the big issues discussed in the field of international law. It is not about bringing in emotions where they are not – in the sense of filling gaps – but rather clarifying emotions where they are – in the sense of building bridges.

Let me give an example from international criminal law that I use also in my book. There is excellent scholarship within international law on the performativity of international criminal procedures, including works that engage the framing of ‘ideal victims’ and ‘ideal perpetrators’. Emotions play an important role in this process, even though these are not discussed expressly in these works. For instance, there is an expectation that perpetrators show remorse for their crime. Emotions research in other disciplines question the purpose of seeking expressions of remorse, one which might be gaining forgiveness from victims.

Criminal law is a particularly emotive field, but we can find examples of emotional dynamics in every single area of international law. My point is that emotions already heavily influence international law and, as international lawyers and scholars, we must seek to understand what emotions are doing and how we are engaging with them, and with what effects.


How do you think emotions do, in fact, affect the making, interpretation and application of law? Are there any examples that come to your mind?

I have already mentioned one example in my previous response. In the research project, the project team will develop research on three particular case studies within the broad field of emotions and international law.

As the project’s principal investigator, I will continue to work on the role of emotions in international climate change law, and I will also explore the role of emotions in food safety regulations, for instance looking into how anxiety and disgust might influence acceptance of genetically modified foods.

The postdoctoral researcher is studying the role of emotions – for instance, dignity and compassion – in using artificial intelligence in warfare. A driving question is what role emotions play in the move towards using lethal autonomous weapons systems, and how international laws of war grapple with these technologies.

The doctoral researcher is looking into the role of emotions – especially shame and stigma – in global health law. A broad question is how shame and stigma influence law and policy on fighting infectious diseases at the global level and, conversely, how global health law may also feed such emotions and with what effects.

I cannot yet tell you how emotions affect international law in these areas; this will have to wait until the research project is completed. But I can confidently say that emotions matter in all these cases, and in international law more generally.

Stay tuned to the project to learn more!


Other than drawing from the scholarship on international law, are you planning on receiving interdisciplinary inputs from academics who focus on the psychological aspect of emotions?

Yes, absolutely. I draw on various non-international law scholarships, including law and emotions in domestic law, sociolegal research, psychology, and international relations scholarship engaging with emotions. As I indicated in response to the previous question, I use various strands of scholarship on emotions to learn what emotions are, how emotions might be studied, and methods of engaging with emotions in international law.

One of the reasons why it has been a challenge to work on emotions in international law is that most of my sources are from outside the field of international law. The responses I had been receiving to my early work on the topic were enthusiastic, but also very hesitant from colleagues in the discipline. I would often be told: this is really interesting research, but it’s not really (or really not) international law! I should say that the field of international law has changed enormously in recent years and there is so much more space and acceptance of scholarship that until recently was considered to fall beyond the boundaries of the discipline. That has, at least, been my experience, which is why I am now gratefully embarking on this research project and proudly so as an international lawyer.