Envisioning our World Anew: Interview with Kamari Clarke | CrimSL News September 2021

Photo of Kamari ClarkeProfessor Kamari Clarke has been at CrimSL for a little over a year, since May 2020. In that time, she has been named Distinguished Professor of Transnational Justice and Sociolegal Studies, was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and she has also lead several public events including a book launch for her book, Affective Justice, and Wheels of Change, Critical Considerations: Visual and Digital Technologies in Canadian Criminal Courts, part of the Critical Perspectives on Justice and Inequality seminar series.

Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to, now that you are back in Toronto?

All cities have those who love them and make their lives there. I love Toronto. I spent the first seventeen years of my life here, and—until recently—another three or four years during sabbaticals and summers and winter holidays. And now, with my return, I see that it’s a totally different place than the Toronto I left prior to NAFTA in 1989.

I like the idea of returning to a world whose pulse and logic are a part of my past. It’s near and dear to me; the hustle and bustle of Queen Street, the vibrancy of Church and Parliament, the Caribbean legacies of Oakwood and Eglinton, and the Highway 7 and Weston Road suburbs all have their charm; I see my past and present in all of them.

Yet, the things that are difficult to deal with are those that are sometimes cloaked under Toronto’s celebration of being a “multicultural” city. They’re concerned with the enduring forms of inequality that continue to pervade daily life but that parade under the rubric of diversity. From education to health care to criminal justice and housing discrimination, Toronto, like the rest of Canada, is part of a history of settler colonialism that cannot be apologized away through a language of reconciliation that goes nowhere. In this way, Toronto, is like the many other American cities in which I’ve lived. It is in no different in that regard from New York, to Santa Cruz, Beaufort, Berkeley, New Haven, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Toronto’s histories of racism, displacement and white supremacist laws still structure our daily life and we all have a responsibility to actively change that.

What am I looking forward to you ask? I’m looking forward to immersing myself in the city once more but with eyes wide open where I can embrace a city with complex histories and whose work is far from finished.

What first sparked your interest in international law? 

This is an interesting question and sends me right back to my student journey. I began my research career as a graduate student in the early 1990s in political anthropology and Frankfurt school critical theory at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Having turned to anthropology after completing my first degree in political science, I was interested in developing analytic tools for studying the complex forces of change that were transforming Africa and the African diaspora following the end of the Cold War.

Over the past twenty-five years, my research has spanned a number of field areas. From emergent transnational religious movements, to inquiries into the politics of justice in international law movements, to research on black diasporic social thought, my interests have not been specific to international law. They have been focused on answering one or two key questions related to transnational knowledge production—how we know what we know and how that knowledge is authorized and legitimized in relations of power.

Ultimately, I came to law as a knowledge domain after a ten-year period of studying transnational religious formations. These religious spaces were relatively new and dynamic and, therefore, constantly questioned for their legitimacy within older domains of power. As a non-religious scholar, I found that there were limits to deepening my engagement in this area. I moved on to exploring another movement in the making—that of new human rights and rule of law formation. At the time of this realization that I needed to exit the depths of studying religious formations, The Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC) has just been signed by 120 countries. This occasion was both a moment of celebration and a moment of questioning for others. This was shortly after the Rwandan Genocide, the mass atrocity violence of the former Yugoslavia, and the Sierra Leone civil war that led to the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the Special Court for Sierra Leon (SCSL).

Some of the questions about the legitimacy of these tribunals and courts had to do with whether the international treaties or declarations that them were actually “Law”. This question interested me; I began attending the United Nations preparatory commission meetings where the subsequent terms of the ICC statute was being negotiated and civil society organizations mobilized. All of these strands of activities and engagement contributed to the making of the Rome Statute for ICC where the eventual ratification of the treaty by sixty states unfolded within a four year period.

One of my key contributions to these formations has involved understanding the political economy and affective dimensions of these developments. By mapping how particular meaning formations travel, and by highlighting why and how some travel more than others, I have been interested in exploring the ways in which various techniques of power work through de-territorialized institutions.

This interest in law has led me to explore new terms for a research agenda that neither presumes subjectivity as fundamentally territorialized nor that insists, in uniform terms, that concepts such as religion, culture, and law are similarly constructed in different geographies.

What research are you working on now? 

My current research has been inspired by recent developments in transnational justice, the anthropology of globalization, and lately the study of geospatial technologies and the search for the missing. It investigates matters related to evidence and new technologies for tracking human rights abuses.

With funding from The Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the SSHRC, one of the primary projects explores the way that scientists, technology developers, human rights workers, surviving families, and social activists procure, produce, and transfer social meanings of violence through the hopeful use of geospatial data/evidence. This project, undertaken with Professors Jennifer Burrell and Sara Kendall, involves three geographic field sites in Mexico, Nigeria, and at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Netherlands.

Through this project, we track how these geospatial data and knowledge formations are extrapolated on the ground (through alliances among technical experts, civil society advocates, and ordinary citizens), and then how they are transformed into contested bodies of evidence within legal environments. I’m interested in understanding the way that these legal and scientific knowledge technologies are transforming international legal and humanitarian efforts. My hope is that this work will provide opportunities to uncover and theorize complex legal, political, and social interactions with technologies, ultimately contributing new knowledge about how we track bodies of the missing and what that tells us about culture, power and the law.

My second project underway connected to CrimSL is a Village Monitoring Early Response Project in Nigeria funded through the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. This project builds on the first but represents a more engaged form of praxis that aims to prevent and mitigate violence against civilians in at-risk areas of northern Nigeria by strengthening and expanding the early warning and early response capabilities including through access to near real-time alerts of village burning incidents.

Given the limitations of existing early warning mechanisms in the region and the slow responses by state security actors, we are building networks that can mobilize individual and collective civilian engagements to end violent conflict as viable solutions to political problems. We’re involved in training civil society early responders, establishing community-derived warning indicators, and sharing knowledge across early warning networks in order to anticipate, verify, and intervene in violent action by perpetrators. The hope is that by mapping, linking and expanding networks that are trained and able to detect and respond to alerts of village burning incidents and other early warning indicators we will be able to provide at-risk communities with actionable emergency response plans to give advance warning and provide mechanisms for verifying and documenting attacks.

Both research projects aim to advance our grasp of the possibilities and limitations of international criminal justice. My overall goal is to advance the development of a critical approach to international criminal law in CrimSL.

What is your favourite thing to do away from academia? 

I often say that if the university didn’t pay me for the work that I do that I would still do it. I am inspired by the practice of research, writing, and discovery. I love watching students learn and seeing the “lights that go on”. I enjoy witnessing student transformations as they get motivated and excited about their discoveries of a world that they thought they knew. But when I’m not “working,” then tennis is my past-time of choice.

I was once an provincial and national level athlete in a range of sports with the experience of winning various competitions. But now, in my 50s, tennis is my game of choice. I’ve always played but I became more a regular player once I realized that to keep my intellectual passions intact I also needed to reclaim my work-life balance.

These days, with my kids much older, I am able to play three or four times a week again. When I’m not playing, I love to follow women’s and men’s professional tennis. I love to travel to see matches on the tour and to go to the grand slams, analyze matches, and share reflections with kindred souls. When I’m on my own at home and thinking of tennis I might be seen shadow swinging my serve or forehand or backhand or yearning for the sound of contact when the tennis racket makes contact with the ball.

It’s also a game of angles and strategy and I like that. The principles of engagement such as defensiveness and play set up very much map onto various realities of life in the Global North. The concept of holding your baseline is interesting to me. It involves not letting the opponent push you far beyond your comfort level so that you move too far from the baseline and have problems returning balls near the tennis net. Another concept is that in tennis, like in life, there are times when you lose points on your serve or on the opponent’s serve and those lost points don’t really matter. But there are other times when you lose a point you can lose the game or match. That can be hard since tennis’ winner takes all mentality reflects the crude realities of life. It speaks to the point that timing is everything and that it’s not that you won a point but the key has to do with when you won that point.

What’s interesting is that 60-70% of tennis competition is physical ability and technique and the rest is the mental game—do you believe you can win? Do you deserve to win? Can you relax in the midst of extreme pressure? This is one of the things that I think about and love to do when I’m not at my desk writing lectures or articles, teaching or in zoom meetings. One day I’ll write a book about tennis and expertise. But not yet.

Is there anything else you would like to say to the Centre community, especially while we are all working remotely? 

This COVID moment is a challenging and unprecedented period. As we grieve those who we have lost over the past fifteen months and see the global reduction in numbers of COVID-19 infections and the reversal of lockdowns in various places, the real inequalities of access to vaccines are playing out in real time as they expose another set of deep inequities and inadequacies of access—the relationship between the haves and the have nots.

How we deal with these adversities says a lot about who we are and what we value. For some, the feelings of frustration and helplessness may be a challenge. For others, it’s the insecurity about tomorrow that is defining this period. For others, it’s a wonderful time to stay home, to regroup with family and to make important memories. Wherever you are on the spectrum of experience and privilege, fear, and hope, it’s important to know that you’re not alone and that the reality of global contagion being both personally relevant and globally interconnected highlights how much we are actually a part of each other. It raises questions about our moral and political responsibilities to each other and what it means to be neighbours in a world of insecurity.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement and the consequent mobilizations have foregrounded the realities of those inequalities in our world. For those whose social position or job insecurity has led to deep-seated challenges during this period, this experience has the potential to inspire us to imagine different possibilities. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves hesitantly for the vaccine and energetically for envisioning our world a new.

Next story: Police Unions, Democratic Transformation, and Social Justice

Previous story: Critical Perspectives on Justice and Inequality

Return to the CrimSL News September 2021 table of contents