Debate on the “Courts of Mixed Commission for the Abolition of the Slave Trade” and International Human Rights Law

Jenny S. Martinez, Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and former associate legal officer at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, has published in 2012 her compelling law study The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law, Oxford University Press 2012.

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In her very readable book she argues that international human rights law derives its origins from the “Courts of Mixed Commission for the Abolition of the Slave Trade”, which were located around the Atlantic in West Africa, South Africa, South America as well as the Caribbean and were established to judge captured slave ships in the period from 1819 to 1871. Thus Martinez draws a direct line to the development of the International Criminal Justice system of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Though this is without doubt an important study on a so far neglected chapter of international law, I do not agree with her main argument that the Mixed Commissions represent the first “international human rights courts”. From my perspective the Mixed Commissions were the first system of international jurisdiction not regarding codified human rights, but concerning maritime prize law. The Mixed Commission did not have any authority to judge the slave traders as perpetrators of “human rights violations”, but only to decide on the captured ships and the “human cargo”, the African slaves on board. You will find my complete review of Martinez’ book in the journal Das Historisch-Politische Buch, Vol. 61, No. 2, 2013, p. 196-197.

Lauren Benton, Professor of History at New York University, offers another interpretation. In her intriguing article Abolition and Imperial Law 1790-1820 in: The JICH, Vol. 39, No. 3, September 2011, p. 355-374 she argues that this development must be seen first and foremost in the light of a “project of consolidating the legal authority of empires”.

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You will find my interpretation of the Mixed Commissions as the first system of international jurisdiction and its entanglement to the idea of humanitarian intervention in my  article Humanitäre Intervention und internationale Gerichtsbarkeit – Verflechtung militärischer und juristischer Implementierungsmaßnahmen zu Beginn des 19. Jahrhunderts (Humanitarian Intervention and International Jurisdiction. The Entanglement of Military and Juridical Enforcement in the 19th Century) forthcoming in Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift (MGZ) 72 (2013) 1.


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