The Book about Bangladesh
When everything surrounding is so grey and gloomy due to the pandemic, publication of the book, 'Bangladesh and International Law' (Routledge 2021) edited by Professor Mohammad Shahabuddin, brought some colors of joy, pride and excitement among the Bangladeshi law scholars who takes some sort of interest in international law. At least, for sure it was a moment to celebrate for those who have contributed to the project. The book also came at the time when Bangladesh is celebrating its 50th anniversary of its independence, the very birth of which in 1971 had challenged, disrupted and reshaped many conventional doctrines of international law in a Cold War era; making the publication of this book with what we call 'a perfect timing'! It gives me pleasure to write few words about the book, about which the editor passionately tweeted, "A collection of international law stories of suffering, solidarity, resilience, resistance, and success from the Global South"—— fascinating enough to for a reader to grab the book to know more about those stories!
The book is a comprehensive analysis of international law from Global South perspectives, wherein 29 Bangladeshi legal scholars from home and abroad representing four generations have contributed to this grand project focusing solely on different issues of Bangladesh and their relation with international law, making it as the editor claims the 'first ever of such kind'. Professor Shahabuddin in the introduction to the book, titled captivatingly as "Introduction or a prelude to the stories of an ambivalent relationship," describes how the dominance of "eurocentrism" in mainstream international law narrative is problematic and in reaction to such Westphalian legal scholarship the rise of Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) tracing the heterogeneity of the development of international law. He highlights the fact that, the international law scholars from the Global South despite their colonial past and ongoing imperialism have come up with some innovative ways to interpret international law from the lenses of the Global South. In tune with that intellectual tradition the book project aimed to offer 'stories of an ambivalent relationship between international law and post-colonial states, seen through the optic of Bangladesh'. With that pledge this intellectual tapestry is divided into seven parts comprising of nicely weaved 27 chapters encompassing from classical international law concepts such as statehood, citizenship, self-determination to contemporary concerns like sustainable development, climate change, Rohingya refugees, garment workers and crimes against humanity.
Part I of the book comprising four chapters starts with general issues involving Bangladesh's unique relationship with international law such as international law discourse (ch1) framework of engagement with international law (ch2), judicial invocation of international law (ch3) and involvements in international courts and tribunals (ch4) and thereby setting the background of contextual understanding for rest of the book. Part II is allocated for sources of international law in two chapters focusing on two main sources namely customary international law (ch5) and the law of treaties and reservations (ch6) by critically analyzing how these two major sources operate in the domestic context of a post-colonial state like Bangladesh. As the book advances, it goes on to address more complicated issue of international law, namely statehood in international law in Part III comprising of five chapters keeping in mind the peculiarities of post-colonial statehood and the unique challenges faced by these states. Accordingly, the chapters in Part III addresses complex and controversial issues of elements of statehood such as territory, people and self-determination (ch7), citizenship and statelessness (ch8), sovereignty over natural resources (ch9), international watercourse law (ch 10) and recent issue like marine resources and the blue economy (ch 11). Part IV of the book focuses on common concern of humankind, the international environment law, in three chapters addressing the principles of international environmental law and their domestic application in Bangladesh (ch 12), climate change and human mobility (ch 13) and must discussed sustainable development and its implication for the country (ch 14). Part V touches upon another very important issue, international economic law. In three chapters this part focuses on three major concerns of international economic law and their implications for Bangladesh——intellectual property rights and other trade and development challenges (ch15), LDC graduation and the WTO challenges for Bangladesh (ch 16) and international investment agreements from Bangladesh's perspectives (ch 17). Part VI focuses on a very important aspect of international law where Bangladesh has significantly contributed in recent times —— the international criminal law. Three chapters under this part engages with historical perspective of international criminal law and Bangladesh's engagement with it (ch 18), substantive law of the international crimes tribunal of Bangladesh (ICTBD) (ch 19) and the crimes against humanity and the principle of legality particularly focusing on International Crimes Tribunal Act, 1973 (ch 20). Part VII, the final segment of the book, focuses on 'the State and Its Others', comprising of seven chapters addressing the 'others' in post-colonial states, namely the 'women question' and national imaginary (ch 21), Rohingya refugees and Bangladesh's approach to the problem (ch 22), religious minorities (ch 23), hegemonic framework of Bangalee nation and its implication over indigenous people and ethnic minorities (ch 24), the readymade garment workers and inchoate compensation rights (ch 25), slum dwellers and forced evictions and analyzing the weak constitutional protection of right to housing (ch 26) and voices of dissent highlighting the deviation from international law on right to freedom of expression (ch 27). Collectively these well-crafted 27 chapters of the book offers the readers the reminder of the duality of international law's relationship with post-colonial states like that of Bangladesh, as Professor Shahabuddin as put, "as a problem-solving tool and also as a part of the problem".
Though it is practically not possible cover each and every issue from the vast ocean of international law discourse in one single book, but one is bound to admit that, the editor and the contributors have done a remarkable job by covering wide range of issues which is quite evident from the number of chapters on divergent issues making it a comprehensive legal scholarship on Bangladesh's engagement with international law. Having said so, one can very reasonably expect that, the book should have allocated at least one chapter on law of the sea, especially considering Bangladesh's two significant wins over the disputes with India and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal in International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Well, we all know, there is always a next time!
However, here I did not intend to write an 'academic review' of the book, not just because I am too lazy to carry out such a tedious task, but also for the reason that, it is beyond the scope of this short piece; and I am pretty sure there will be many competent enthusiastic international law scholars who can take up the charge of proper 'intellectual grilling' of the book. Rather as a Bangladeshi academician who takes an interest in teaching and researching international law, I would like to point out some academic/ 'non-academic' as one likes to put it (or some may even like to put it as 'not strictly academic'), significance of the book for the legal academia of this country.
Firstly, as the editor has claimed the book is 'first ever of such kind", a comprehensive study of international law issues with specific reference to Bangladesh——well certainly it is not meant to say that, no Bangladeshi legal scholar published any scholarly manuscript on international law before. There are good number of Bangladeshi law scholars who have pursued their higher studies on international law and have published books on different issues of international (some focusing on Bangladesh and developing countries perspectives), majority of which came as an outcome of their doctoral research (including myself). Some Bangladeshi scholars also have engaged in researching on different topics of international law (not always focusing exclusively on Bangladesh) and have published scholastic journal articles in internationally reputed law journals or have contributed chapters to edited books. Very few have gone beyond the doctoral research and conducted comprehensive study on Bangladesh's perspective with a focus on international law, of course with a notable exception of Professor M Rafiqul Islam's authoritative book 'National Trials of International Crimes in Bangladesh' (UPL 2019). But all these ventures were done on individual account. Therefore, when a book project has brought together 29 Bangladeshi law scholars representing four generations of scholars teaching and researching international law at home and abroad under one umbrella collectively to investigate as widely as possible different issues of international law through the lenses of stories solely from Bangladesh and produced such a colossal compendium—— that is truly 'the first ever of such kind'! A special note of applaud must go to the editor for successfully accomplishing such a gigantic editorial task.
Secondly, I see that, six female scholars have contributed to the book. Certainly, the number is not good enough to claim 'equal representation' of half of the population. But what I find significant here is that, they are now making intellectual contribution to different fields of international law, going beyond the stereotyped 'research fields' (women's rights, violence against women, family law) supposedly reserved for the female scholars in this country. However, to avoid any misunderstandings, I do strongly recognize the need for female legal scholars in this country to take the lead when it comes to the foregoing issues. But at the same time, I also feel the need that, they must also take a different rout, venture other avenues of law, and claim their authority with their male counterparts, particularly in different segments of international law given the importance of the discourse for Bangladesh and the world. The female scholars in this country still need to go a long way to claim an authority in international law discourse, but surely the book is a good step in that right direction.
Thirdly, I see that, the majority of the contributors represent the fourth generation of Bangladeshi law scholars, whom we fondly call the 'millennials.' For many this might be their very first international publication. In Bangladesh, we all know the pain and challenges of teaching and researching in a resource constrained academic environment and the lack of state-of-the-art databases. Getting a proper guidance and a platform to conduct a quality research and sharing it with an international audience is crucial for a researcher's intellectual growth. Again, a note of appreciation must go to Professor Shahabuddin for his mentorship and for giving this platform and the opportunity to this dynamic young cohort, integrating them as a group into the global intellectual system and presenting their work before an international audience. Surely the experience that this bunch of young scholars have gathered from this book project at their early stage of career, will encourage and inspire them and give them the much-needed confidence to conduct quality research on international law in future. The previous three generations of Bangladeshi legal scholars did not get such opportunities in their early days of career and I think it is fair if they envy the 'millennial scholars' for that!
Fourthly, the significance of publication of this book, which in my opinion the most important one is ——I see it as 'branding of Bangladesh' in international law discourse at global intellectual system. The book has added a new voice (the Bangladeshi voice) to the TWAIL and Global South discourse, an area of international law which in this part of the region for a long time is dominated by scholars from our next-door neighbor. By doing so it also pushes that idea of 'soft power' in international law discourse of the Bangladeshi legal scholarship at global intellectual system. An enthusiast might even call it a 'defining moment' for Bangladeshi legal academia. I hope and believe this book might be the 'first ever of such kind' but it will certainly not be the last one.
The foreword of the book is written by another eminent Bangladeshi international law scholar now teaching at University of Portsmouth, Professor A.F.M Maniruzzaman. Therefore, I think do not wrongly profess when I call it "The Book about Bangladesh".
Before I conclude something must be said for the protagonist of this project —— Professor Shahabuddin, an internationally acclaimed international law scholar from Bangladesh and a foremost TWAIL-er in his own right. There is nothing more to say about his intellectual accomplishments, we all know about that. It must also be acknowledged that, he is not the only one, there are few other Bangladeshi scholars who have attained such accomplishments in different disciplines at international level. But I would like to point out something else here. Those of us who have lived abroad at some point of our life either for our higher studies or as part of our profession, we have interacted with the Bangladeshi community living there and have witnessed their multiple belongings and their profound love and care for the motherland. It is quite visible how the Bangladeshi émigré somehow always carries 'Bangladesh' —— either in their accents, food habits, social conventions, cultural norms; or their tensions over a political crisis in the country; their excitement when our cricket team wins or their frustration when they lose; or their desperation to inject the 'deshi' values into their next generations —— 'Bangladesh' always matters for them. Professor Shahabuddin is one of those rare Bangladeshi émigré scholars who went the extra mile to make sure that 'he' matters for Bangladesh.
In this short piece I have not gone into intellectual investigation of the stories that the book promises in its pamphlet nor did I mention any names of the contributors. To know more about those stories of 'suffering, solidarity, resilience, resistance, and success' and about the storytellers —— my dear readers, please read the book.
The writer is Professor of Law, University of Dhaka.