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The Comfort of International Criminal Law


This paper examines the changing relationship between the disciplines of international criminal law (ICL) and international human rights law; I particularly focus on the associations of the former with comfort and the latter with discomfort. It appears that a shift may be taking place in that ICL is being refashioned from a field enforcing human rights law to one which has assumed an entirely independent status. Indeed, ICL appears to be crowding out international human rights law. The inquiry begins with the question whether ICL is becoming the preferred discursive framework for practitioners, academics, and politicians. A contemporary desire for certainty over contention, action over discourse, and simplicity over complexity is revealed; in short, a preference for comfort over discomfort. The second half of the paper is dedicated to highlighting some of the concerns attached to this preference and suggesting possible techniques for addressing these concerns. Employing the idea of ‘discomfort’, I refer to the relevance of (1) Michel Foucault’s Ethics of Discomfort, (2) Judith Butler’s idea of the Language of Discomfort, and (3) draw on Franz Kafka’s literary exploration of the Comfort in Discomfort. The ideas culminate in a call for relearning the comfort in discomfort of contention, discourse and complexity in international law.

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  1. 1.

    There is a separate debate on the relationship between ICL and international humanitarian law. See Anderson (2009) for this debate.

  2. 2.

    Humanitarianism here refers to the natural meaning of humanitarianism (as opposed to its interpretation in international humanitarian law), as social actions or movements of kindness, empathy, and sympathy.

  3. 3.

    Ruti Teitel goes even further than this, stating that the parameters of ICL extend to a now emergent ‘global rule of law’ Teitel (2002).

  4. 4.

    Admittedly, it is difficult to distinguish between influences which are causing the prioritisation of ICL (agents of change) and influences which are symptomatic of it (products of change). This applies to all three examples above.

  5. 5.

    See back issues of the International Journal of Criminal Law and Criminal Law Forum.

  6. 6.

    E.g. The Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies; Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway

  7. 7.; the T.M.C Asser Institute states on its website that their ‘customized programmes’ are ‘demand driven’


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Earlier drafts were presented at workshops at Birkbeck, University of London, May 2012, and at the University of Melbourne, September 2012. Many thanks to the conveners of these workshops and the participants who provided valuable comments. Thanks in particular to Tor Krever and Sarah Nouwen for excellent comments on earlier drafts. The anonymous reviewer’s careful reading and helpful suggestions vastly improved the argument. All errors are mine.

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Correspondence to Christine E. J. Schwöbel.

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Schwöbel, C.E.J. The Comfort of International Criminal Law. Law Critique 24, 169–191 (2013).

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  • Comfort
  • Critical legal scholarship
  • Discomfort
  • International criminal law
  • International human rights law