AUSTIN, Texas — Human rights discourse can be improved by attention to the rhetorical devices used to frame policy choices, University of Cambridge law professor Susan Marks told an audience of 50 students, faculty and community members in the Sheffield Room at UT Law on September 26.
Marks was the first speaker in this year's "Human Rights Happy Hour" Speaker Series, organized by the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice. The series is intended to provide an informal setting for dialogue about pressing issues in international human rights law. Four more presentations are scheduled this semester.
Marks delivered a lecture titled "The Ticking Bomb and Other Modern Myths." To illustrate her argument about the role of rhetoric in human rights discourse, Marks noted that the starting point for the torture debate is often the hypothetical of the "ticking bomb"–the scenario in which a prisoner has information about the location of a bomb which, if not found, is certain to explode and cause large numbers of deaths. The hypothetical assumes that torture, and only torture, can elicit the location of the bomb.
Marks argued that the ticking bomb hypothetical should not be taken at face value, but should be recognized as a myth intended to relax opposition to torture. "Are we to take [the ticking bomb] literally, as a question about what to do in the situation described?" she asked. "To demystify…is to urge that, no, we need to see this as an instance of rhetoric, a device for mobilizing support for a particular policy." Similar myths pervade other areas of human rights discourse and should also be "demystified" in order to make debate more authentic, she said.
Many of the audience members were students in Professor Karen Engle's human rights seminar. In preparation for the event, students in the class read two of Marks' papers related to the theme of the lecture and submitted their written reactions. At the end of her lecture, Marks opened group discussion by identifying student comments she found especially thought-provoking. Marks later commented on how much she enjoyed her visit to UT. "I was particularly struck and impressed by the high level of intellectual engagement displayed by the students I encountered and by their openness and sophistication," she said.
Engle, who is also director of the Rapoport Center, will continue to integrate her seminar with presentations by Happy Hour speakers. The next speaker will be Laurel Fletcher, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Fletcher will give a lecture on October 10 at 4:30 p.m. titled "Bystanders: The Limits of International Criminal Trials and Jurisprudence." A full schedule for the speaker series can be found at www.rapoportcenter.org.
Susan Marks is a University Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge, and Director of Studies and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. She teaches courses in international law and international human rights. She has written numerous articles and is the author of a highly acclaimed book on democratic governance, entitled The Riddle of All Constitutions: International Law, Democracy, and the Critique of Ideology (Oxford University Press). She is also co-author of a recently published book entitled International Human Rights Lexicon (Oxford University Press).