Acceptance Speech – Rome, 18.11.2021 (Video + Text)


Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade

2020 Balzan Prize for Human Rights

For his fundamental theoretical and jurisprudential contributions to the definition and creation of a global juridical order based on the principle that all of humanity must constitute the subject of an international legal system open to individual appeals to justice and that may also be imposed upon nation-states.

Mr President,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am deeply honoured to have been awarded with the Balzan Prize in Human Rights. The very history of the Balzan Foundation is a testimony that human aspiration for fundamental rights knows no boundaries, that the human pursuit of peace is an intergenerational endeavour. These two elements of the human condition – the aspiration for rights and the pursuit of peace – lie at the basis of my writings about a new approach to the international legal theory.

The approach I have been applying, both in my academic and in my professional life, is one that challenges current state-centric assumptions in this discipline. Drawing from Western philosophy, literature and the teachings of the Founding Fathers of international law, I have put individuals, communities and humanity as a whole above state-centric concepts which still hinders the realization of justice.

Allow me to give a few examples.

Rules on jurisdiction of international tribunals are often crafted, or interpreted, in a restrictive way. As a judge of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights some time ago, I prompted changes in its rules of procedure to allow individuals access to all stages of a contentious case – not just States or international organisations, as previously determined. As a judge at The Hague, I have advocated for the interpretation of jurisdiction provisions that truly takes into account the object and nature of human rights treaties – not just a grammatical reading that disregards the individual rights at stake.

Legal interpretation should also effectively address the concerns of humankind as a whole. This is what I have asserted at the International Court of Justice when dealing with matters such as nuclear weapons. In a series of cases, I have argued that admissibility rules that emerge from novel interpretations of treaties should not take precedence over a number of multilateral decisions and treaties that have revealed for decades an opinion juris communis about the imperative of nuclear disarmament.

Another example of this new approach of international law can be found in the domain of state responsibility. I have always supported, both at the Inter-American and at the International Court, the notion of aggravated State responsibility in cases of serious violations of human rights. This means that responsibility should take precedence over rules such as State immunity or statutes of limitations. I have also upheld the view that reparations in cases involving grave breaches of international law should be decided by international courts within a reasonable time, bearing in mind not State susceptibilities, but rather the need to alleviate human suffering.

Last but not least, an international law for humankind requires a reappraisal of the very sources of law. Conventional theories give too much weight to treaty law and tend to neglect general principles. I ascribe considerable importance to principles, without which there is no international legal order. The principle of humanity is a case in point: it is the basis for what we call peremptory norms, or jus cogens – no State can revoke them through new treaties. In my individual opinions at The Hague I have championed the recognition of these norms in cases of serious violations of human rights.

These are but a few practical implications of what I have called an international law for humankind. This is a legal order we are all entitled to – one that upholds the raison d’humanité over the raison d’État.

I am conscious this is an intergenerational endeavour – perhaps a never ending one. It is up to each and every one of us to search for answers to the challenges of our times. Today, I am confident this Balzan Prize will further encourage younger generations of legal scholars to be part of this endeavour.

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