|Antislavery Courts and the Dawn of International Human Rights Law|
|Jenny S. Martinez [View as PDF]|
117 Yale L.J. 550 (2008).
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 antislavery courts were the first international human rights courts. 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 five or six ships involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Historians have given these international antislavery courts scant attention, and legal scholars have almost completely ignored the courts. 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. The history of the antislavery courts also 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 antislavery 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.