03 December 2019

A “Protest of Humanity”: Human Dignity in International Law

In about a century and a half, human dignity has moved from the fringes of the international legal system to its centre. In her recently defended PhD thesis, Ginevra Le Moli offers a theoretical, historical and juridical exegesis of the system from the perspective of human dignity. She concludes that human dignity, first in its religious and then in its secularised conception, was turned into a platform against sovereign dignity that would in time conquer, through a range of legal instruments, vast sways of international law where sovereign dignity had previously ruled unchallenged. Interview.

Why did you chose to study the concept of human dignity in international law?

The reason why I embarked in this research was that as a matter of theory, human dignity appeared universally accepted but enigmatic and uninformative, while as a matter of practice, it was used as an organising and innovative concept, although lacking a uniform application. The main challenge faced by human dignity as normative concept is that it is everywhere and, at the same time, nowhere. Much like Augustin’s dictum about time, we feel we know what it is – as long as no one asks for a definition. For human dignity and, specifically, for its place and function in the international legal system, it is widely thought that it pervades international law but, as soon as we ask more specific questions about it, the obstacles seem insurmountable. Some have therefore called for removing human dignity from international legal discourse; others have expressed scepticism about the very possibility of charting its presence and role; others still have tended to see it everywhere, thereby diluting it and undermining its actual normative power to support, protect and shape the human condition. None of these positions does justice to the fundamental and very practical role performed by human dignity in international law. To borrow the words of the French luminary René Cassin, one of the key architects of the humanisation of international law after 1945, the recognition of human dignity in hard law was the least that could be expected in response to the very “protest of humanity” against the atrocities of the war. I therefore wanted to understand human dignity not just conceptually but legally and determine its specific place in international law.

On a more personal note, the doctoral project leading to this dissertation was not only an intellectual road but also a quest triggered by deeper questions relating to injustice on the ground and to the power of legal concepts. Between 2016 and 2018, I took part in UN investigation teams in Syria and Yemen to gather evidence in the field in an attempt to redress the dignity of the innumerable victims of conflict through a promise of international justice. Much evidence has been gathered, but redress remains at the embryonic stage of a promise. Yet, the prospects of a differed redress are not meaningless. No less importantly, they are certainly prospects to which victims of other conflicts dearly hold on. 

What are your research questions and your methodology to approach them?

My dissertation is a theoretical, historical and juridical exegesis of the international legal system from the perspective of human dignity, exploring how this value moved from the fringes to the centre of the system. In this context, it is an effort to strike a balance between two levels of narrative, one which looks at the very broad historical and philosophical developments over a period of two centuries and the other that fleshes out, in as much technical detail as necessary, the actual geography of human dignity in international law. My thesis therefore provides answers to these two levels of questions, very broad and very detailed, through a study of the corpus of international legal theory and practice in the last two centuries. It ascertains what specific conceptions of dignity historically found expression in international law, when and through which processes they permeated international law, how they were fleshed out in actionable legal instruments and with what implications

In order to provide a coherent overall account of human dignity in international law and clarify what idea was injected in the law, at what time and with what forms, the dissertation (i) examines a comprehensive body of domestic, regional and international legal documents, their travaux préparatoires, the notes of the drafters, their biographies, and the exchanges of letters among colleagues; (ii) considers the views adopted by domestic, regional and international courts, tribunals, quasi-judicial bodies and individual judges; (iii) brings together intellectual voices and strands of the literature, comparing Italian, French and English sources on the same topic; and (iv) compares the different findings and gives access to the underlying – common – patterns of human dignity in international law.

What is the major conclusion of this exegesis?

The road was long and sinuous, but the conclusion can be stated in concise terms: the dignity of the human person emerged and developed as an antidote to the abuse of another form of dignity, which is conceptually and historically older, namely the dignity of rank and power, which has been transferred to the State through the idea of sovereignty. Yet, what is remarkable is the choice of the concept of “dignity”, out of so many other concepts, to assert the normative claim of a value against another. Human dignity, first in its religious and then in its secularised conception, was turned into a platform against sovereign dignity that would in time conquer, through a range of legal instruments, vast sways of international law where sovereign dignity had previously ruled unchallenged. In particular, it prevailed in specific areas, namely those that we associate today with international humanitarian law, human rights law, and criminal law. 

In unveiling the underlying logic at play in such conceptual antagonism, my dissertation discerns a no less important one that may unfold through this century, that between human dignity and the intrinsic value of nature. Due to the rival character of dignity as a concept, the assertion of human dignity against dignitas, or sovereign dignity, carries with it an encroachment on a third circle. The price of preserving human dignity and all the advancements that follow from it may well be, as suggested by White in his seminal essay, to remain entangled in the man–nature attitude deeply grounded in Christian dogma that is, still today, at the roots of our ecological crisis. More fundamentally, the concept of human dignity opens two conceptual battlefronts. These battlefronts are interdependent because the very assertion of human dignity to protect the individual against the powers of the State may also lay the foundations for an overexploitation of nature. From “sovereignty” to “human dignity” to “ecocentrism”, the concept of dignity underlies the normative claims of all these three competing circles.

What are you doing now?

Since September 2019, I am Assistant Professor of Public International Law at the Institute of Public Law and the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies at Leiden University, The Netherlands. 

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Ginevra Le Moli defended her PhD thesis in International Law in October 2019. Professor Andrew Clapham presided the committee, which included Professor Andrea Bianchi, thesis director, and Dr Sarah Nouwen, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge, UK .

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Le Moli, Ginevra. “A ‘Protest of Humanity’: Human Dignity in International Law.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2019.

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Edited by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from a picture by Laura Kneedler/