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Anti-Slavery Courts and the Dawn of International Human Rights Law

Jennifer (Jenny) S. Martinez

Stanford Law School

February 8, 2012

Yale Law Journal, Vol. 117, p. 550, Fall 2007
Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 984077

Between 1817 and 1871, bilateral treaties between Britain and several other countries (eventually including the United States) led to the establishment of international courts for the suppression of the slave trade. Though all but forgotten today, these anti-slavery courts were the first international human rights courts. They were made up of judges from different countries. They sat on a permanent, continuing basis and applied international law. They were explicitly aimed at promoting humanitarian objectives. Over the lifespan of the treaties, the courts heard more than 600 cases and freed almost 80,000 slaves found aboard illegal slave trading vessels. During their peak years of operation, the courts heard cases that may have involved as many as one out of every four or five ships involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

These international anti-slavery courts have been given scant attention by historians, and have been almost completely ignored by legal scholars. Most legal scholars view international courts and international human rights law as largely a post-World War II phenomenon, with the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals as the seminal moment in the turn to international law as a mechanism for protecting individual rights. But in fact, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the nineteenth century slavery abolition movement was the first successful international human rights campaign, and international treaties and courts were its central features.

In addition to being of intrinsic historical interest, the story of the anti-slavery courts has important implications for contemporary issues in international law. The history of the anti-slavery courts reveals a more complex interrelationship between state power, moral ideas, and domestic and international legal institutions than many contemporary theories of international law and relations acknowledge. Moreover, the anti-slavery movement's use of international law and legal institutions as part of a broader social, political and military strategy can help us better understand the potential role of international law today in bringing about improvements in human rights.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 92

Keywords: International Law, International Courts, International Human Rights, Legal History, Slavery

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Date posted: May 4, 2007 ; Last revised: February 9, 2012

Suggested Citation

Martinez, Jennifer (Jenny) S., Anti-Slavery Courts and the Dawn of International Human Rights Law (February 8, 2012). Yale Law Journal, Vol. 117, p. 550, Fall 2007; Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 984077. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=984077

Contact Information

Jennifer (Jenny) S. Martinez (Contact Author)
Stanford Law School ( email )
559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-725-2749 (Phone)

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