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Towards more-than-human rights? From the “living constitution” to the “constitution of the living”

16 November @ 2:00 pm

Speaker: Dr Marie-Catherine Petersmann (Tilburg Law School)

Among the many legacies left by Rudolf Bernhardt, the significance he attached to the doctrine of the ‘living instrument’ is crucial. Accordingly, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) must be interpreted as evolving and dynamic – as a ‘living’ organism. In this lecture, I reflect on what it would mean to move from a ‘living constitution’ to a ‘constitution of the living’. To answer this question, I consider what constitutes ‘life’ itself which forms of ‘life’ currently merit legal consideration and care. The argument unfolds in three steps, each tracing a different way in which the protection of ‘life’ is being (re)configured against the backdrop of ecological and climate change. The first part of the lecture is devoted to the ‘liberal response’, which calls for a recognition of a self-standing ‘human right to a healthy environment’ to safeguard human life. The second part of the lecture focuses on the ‘critical liberal response’, which advocates granting ‘rights to nature’ to better protect nonhuman life. Finally, I explore how the protection of ‘life’ might appear in feminist posthumanist, new materialist, and symbiotic understandings of liveability. My objective here is not to propose a legal reform of the institutional functioning of the European Court of Human Rights, but to speculate about how this ‘living constitution’ could ‘constitute the living’ differently. If the metaphor of ‘life’ acts as a ruling device in the interpretation of the ECHR, only particular life-forms get protected, while others are eclipsed. I think with Bernhardt’s invitation to consider the ‘living’ nature of the ECHR instrument to reconceptualize the notion of ‘life’ that animates human rights theory and practice today.

Dr Marie-Catherine Petersmann
Dr Marie-Catherine Petersmann

Bio: Marie Petersmann is a Senior Researcher at Tilburg Law School (Netherlands), where she works as part of a project on ‘Constitutionalizing in the Anthropocene’. She is specialised in environmental law, human rights and climate change. Her current research focuses on non-anthropocentric normativities and more-than-human legalities. In 2022, she was awarded a 3-year ‘Veni’ grant by the Dutch NWO to develop a project on ‘Anthropocene Legalities: Reconfiguring Legal Relations with/in More-than-human Worlds’. The project rethinks key co-ordinates of modern environmental law – such as agency, autonomy, subjecthood, territory, and sovereignty – to make sense of entangled human-nonhuman relationalities. Her project draws on work from legal theory, ecological philosophy, feminist posthumanism and critical Black studies to revisit these categories, and explore different forms of socialities beyond them. In 2022, she was selected to be a Resident Fellow at the Istituto Svizzero in Rome (2022-2023) to work with artists and ecological activists on practices of ‘more-than-human commoning’. Her book – When Environmental Protection and Human Rights Collide: The Politics of Conflict Management by Regional Courts – was published with Cambridge University Press in October 2022. Marie earned a PhD and LLM in International Law from the European University Institute (Florence) and an MA in International Law from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (Geneva).

This seminar is organised by the Public International Law Research Hub.


16 November
2:00 pm
Event Category:


Stephen Humphreys
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MAR 2.05
Marshall Building, 44 Lincoln's Inn Fields,LSE WC2A 2ES United Kingdom + Google Map