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Peering Through the Legal Mobilisation Lens to Analyse the Potential of Legal Advocacy

Friday 3 February ILS 2.0 presents: Leiden Socio-Legal Series:“Peering Through the Legal Mobilisation Lens to Analyse the Potential of Legal Advocacy” by Dr. Jeff Handmaker – International Institute for Social Studies, Erasmus University.

As Trubek and Galanter observed already more than forty years ago, law and development scholarship involves much more than a conventional understanding of norms and the implementing institutions structuring development. It is both a process and an outcome. Law is mobilized pragmatically by civic actors in their interactions with states through various national and international legal processes to try and accomplish structural change,  including the advancement of sustainable development. This instrumental use of law, or legal mobilization is a useful analytical and interdisciplinary lens to understand the role of law in reinforcing development goals, both in terms of its normative and its functional dimensions. This lens also helps to evaluate the myriad forms in which a range of social actors legally-reinforce their claims and to distinguish legal mobilisation from other forms of legal instrumentalism (including oppressive measures by a state and/or corporation).

Legal mobilization should be distinguished from other forms of legal instrumentalism. Law can be instrumentalized as a negative and even oppressive instrument, justifying retrogressive policies and reinforcing the hegemonic actions of states and even providing a layer of legitimacy. Furthermore, forms of legal instrumentalism that result in what are widely perceived as negative outcomes are not necessarily deliberate, and may even be well-intentioned, initially at least. Indeed, as critical legal scholars such as Makau Mutua have long argued, human rights can be instrumentalized in a manner that – unwittingly or not – reifies existing inequalities and fails to challenge the problematic values and meanings underpinning law. One example is anti-discrimination provisions in labour legislation that are essentially meaningless in the absence of equal opportunities approaches to actually address differential treatment by employers. Another example is providing support to criminal defendants in military tribunals that lack basic respect for due process. While such support may result in some relief for an individual, mere involvement in the trial could be seen as complicity in a regime where justice remains elusive.

This lecture will introduce legal mobilisation as both an analytical concept and approach, comprising a framework for evaluating the potential of how law can be instrumentalized (mobilized) by civic actors challenge social injustice, as a defence against repressive state measures or to hold individuals, states and corporations accountable for violations of international (human rights) law.

Date, Time, Location

Jeff Handmaker is Senior Lecturer in Law, Human Rights and Development and Co-Director of the International Law and Development Clinic at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague (part of Erasmus University Rotterdam) and a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. He will shortly take up a position as Departmental Guest Researcher in the Department of Sociology of Princeton University from March-June 2017. He was called to the English bar in 1995 and worked as a legal practitioner in different parts of the world, in particular Lawyers for Human Rights in South Africa before obtaining a PhD from Utrecht in the Sociology of Law. His research has addressed the potential for legal mobilisation, including public interest litigation, to lead to progressive structural change. He is also Editor-in-Chief of the South African Journal on Human Rights.

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