Teaching Foreign Customary Law: Tips and Tricks

By Susan Gualtier

Researching foreign customary law can be a difficult process, so it is no surprise that many FCIL librarians struggle with how to teach this topic to law students.  Nonetheless, in my experience, it is a topic that students enjoy and that most have not previously encountered.  I was fortunate enough to experience the customary law research process as a student in the Georgetown University Law Center’s Women’s Human Rights Clinic in 2002, which included a fact-finding mission to Tanzania funded by a USAID grant.  My participation in the clinic was a life-changing experience that I was happy to revisit when I entered the law library profession in 2011.  However, teaching customary law in a classroom setting, without the opportunity to work with and speak to people who are subject to these laws, presents some challenges.  Having now taught this topic at both Louisiana State University, as part of my own FCIL research course, and at the University of Pennsylvania, as a guest lecturer, I offer the following thoughts on how to approach teaching this difficult topic.

  1. It is difficult for students to visualize customary law systems. Because most students will not have traveled to countries with customary law systems, and almost certainly will not have done legal work there even if they have visited, it can be difficult for them to visualize the customary law process, or even the people to whom customary law applies.  The wide variety of countries and regions practicing customary law, as well as the variability of customary law itself and of those who apply and enforce it, can also make it difficult to imagine and to explain.  I believe that it is important not to make customary law sound too “primitive” or to stereotype those to whom it applies.  I have found that photos (of courthouses, villages, or local attorneys, for example) can help illustrate the larger context in which customary law is applied.  If the course schedule provides enough time, a well-places documentary like Invoking Justice can help students to visualize customary and other unfamiliar legal systems.
  2. Some students will struggle to recognize customary law as a legitimate legal system. While the topic of customary law has generally been well-received by my students, I can remember two or three who struggled to accept that customary law is a fully formed type of legal system on par with common law, civil law, and religious law systems.  I believe that this stems from either the tendency to view customary law as primitive or outdated, or the objection to customary laws as necessarily discriminatory.  Both can be discussed in the classroom while at the same time emphasizing customary law’s depth and complexity as a legal system.  While customary laws can indeed be discriminatory, I have found that a thoughtful discussion of how they can be discriminatory and of why specific laws developed the way they did refocuses the students’ attention on the complexity of customary law systems and of the customary law research process.  It also helps to point out the history of customary law in Europe and how it affected and grew into the common law and the earliest civil codes.
  3. It helps to offer a case study. When I taught customary law at LSU, I had the luxury of giving the topic an entire class session, which allowed for a more in-depth discussion of customary law in practice in addition to an overview of the research process and resources.  As background reading, I asked my students to read a law review article, Tamar Erez, Inheritance Law in Tanzania: The Impoverishment of Widows and Daughters, 7 J. Gender & L. 599 (2006), describing the work of my women’s human rights clinic at Georgetown.  Articles offering case studies on customary law research are in abundance in databases like HeinOnline.  Though I have in the past assigned an article relating directly to my own experience, I did so because I could speak to it with first-hand knowledge.  More recent articles, and articles on a variety of different countries and regions, are certainly available.  Even without class time to discuss a case study in detail, offering one as background reading can help the students to approach the lecture with the beginning of an understanding of how customary law is practiced in real life.  As an alternative, a case study can be offered as suggested reading for any students who find the topic of customary law interesting or who wish to explore it in their final projects or in their writing seminars or clinics.

    GoT Meme

  4. It can help to include a pop culture reference. I like to use the Dothraki in Game of Thrones.  While we do not see a tremendous amount of their legal system in the books, and even less in the tv series, we do repeatedly hear reference to rules and laws of Dothraki life, followed by characters stating that “it is known.”  A simple meme has been enough to offer a visual for those of my students who have read the books or watched the show.
  5. The students will have to use their imaginations. Realistically, most research students will never encounter customary law in their doctrinal classes or in practice.  This does not mean that it is not worth teaching.  However, some allowance will need to be made for the fact that they are not going to have the experience of interviewing people about how the law is applied on the ground.  Nonetheless, I try not to limit my research problems or examples to the narrow topics that they might encounter as practitioners here in the United States, or that they can research in their entirely using secondary sources.  Asking them to imagine the questions they would ask or the obstacles that they anticipate in the research process can be as instructive as having them locate concrete sources.
  6. A solid in-class or take-home assignment can make or break the class. A good research assignment in customary law will encourage the students to imagine on-the-ground research, as well as to find useful sources from their own location, which helps them to see that customary law topics are approachable and able to be researched.  I generally revert to a human rights question, because I have the most experience there, and because it is generally interesting to most of my students.  For my first customary law lecture at Penn, I used the following problem as a post-class assignment, which combined elements of both customary and Islamic law:

Imagine that you are part of a small group of human rights attorneys and are just beginning a project involving intestate succession in Kenya.  Your project will focus primarily on the inheritance rights of women and of children deemed to be “illegitimate.”  You will eventually be traveling to Kenya on a grant-funded fact-finding mission, but for now, you must gather as much information as possible on the country’s legal system, the laws in force, and the application and enforcement of those laws.

Create a research plan that will allow you to begin drafting a report on which to base your fact-finding mission.  Which sources will you consult?  Which issues do you think will need to be fleshed out through interviews or other research when you arrive in Kenya?

If you have time, look at some of the websites that we have discussed and try to find some preliminary information on both the religious and customary laws in Kenya and how they treat questions of inheritance.  Identify, if possible, any issues that you think may arise from Kenya’s mixed legal system.

This problem allowed the students to explore all of the potential sources that I had covered in class, as well as to imagine real-life factors that might complicate the laws’ application, identify possible research difficulties, and begin brainstorming questions for interviews or for additional research based on what they found during their preliminary searches.  When putting together research problems, I often start with the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Reports, which frequently identify human rights issues arising out of customary law.  I then build my problem from there to incorporate other resources, as well as any complicating real-life factors or relevant statutes or international issues, if I am going to include them in the problem.

  1. Much of your teaching can take place while giving feedback. The feedback phase is a chance to see what the students have absorbed and the sources to which they have gravitated, and to offer additional insight into the complex area of customary law, particularly when it comes to possible next steps beyond secondary source and internet research.  When I assigned the above research problem, I let the students know that it was complicated and asked them not to spend more than approximately one hour on it.  The students all did very well, and all identified a majority of the sources that I expected them to find.  However, the feedback phase was a valuable opportunity not only to highlight the easy-to-find sources that we covered in class, but to talk about some sources that were more difficult to find.  I also discussed how these sources could help the researcher to identify potential problems with application, enforcement, and choice of law, and to anticipate questions that would need to be explored during future stages of the research process.  (For a copy of my written feedback on this assignment, please feel free to contact me directly.)

Customary law may be a difficult topic to approach as a research instructor, but I believe that students enjoy it and that it should be included in any class that purports to cover foreign legal research.  I have had a surprising number of students choose customary law topics for their final projects in my research courses, always with great success.  I hope that this post will build upon recent AALL programming and existing guides on customary law research, and help my colleagues to approach this topic not only as researchers, but as instructors, as well.

If you are interested in customary law, please join the Customary and Religious Law Interest Group (CARLIG) on My Communities.  We look forward to hearing your thoughts and questions!

Book Review: The Philosophy of Customary Law

By Susan Gualtier

philsophyofcustomarylawJames Bernard Murphy, The Philosophy of Customary Law (Oxford University Press, 2014). 160 p. Hardcover $83.00.

As someone with more than a passing interest in customary law, I looked forward to reading The Philosophy of Customary Law, by James Bernard Murphy, Professor of Government at Dartmouth College.[i]  In this book, Murphy posits that custom must be analyzed in terms of “two more basic logical concepts: convention and habit.”[ii]  He then offers a historical overview of four philosophers who have examined the concept of custom (Aristotle, Suárez, Bentham, and James C. Carter), highlighting how each built upon or reacted to his predecessors’ work.  Murphy includes a brief epilogue at the end of the book, in which he offers a few of his own thoughts on customary law.  Unfortunately, although the premise of the book seemed promising, I was disappointed in the execution.  Murphy largely ignores the legal framework for understanding customary law, and is more interested in the theory of human behavior more generally. He reaches no useful conclusions regarding customary law, at least from a practical standpoint, and it is unclear what this book can contribute to the discussion of customary law.

Despite its title, The Philosophy of Customary Law deals relatively little with customary law as we know it.  Most of the discussion of contemporary customary law occurs in the book’s introduction, where Murphy entirely ignores tribal, indigenous, and other customary law systems, instead minimizing the importance of customary law to that of a “gap-filler” only occasional referenced by Western common law courts in situations where no written law applies.  International custom merits a single paragraph in the introduction.  Murphy waves away the need to describe or differentiate for the reader the specific ways in which custom can comprise or inform the law.[iii]  Similarly, he dismisses what most of us will recognize as a critical element of establishing customary law, whether international or domestic: the subjective requirement that states or individuals observe a custom because they believe or intend it to have the force of law (“Instead of distinguishing the objective usage from the subjective attitudes of participants, I propose to distinguish the habitual (individual) dimension of custom from the conventional (social) dimension of custom.”[iv]).

It is unclear whether, by so openly dismissing the basic framework of customary law analysis, Murphy intends to create a groundbreaking new way of thinking about customary law, or if he simply cares more about philosophizing than about the practicalities of legal analysis and application.  I hoped that the four main chapters of the book, each of which deal with a different philosopher and/or school of philosophical thought, might shed more light on his purpose and provoke me to think differently about customary law.  The first chapter focuses on Aristotle and his distinction between ethos, which might be characterized loosely as habit or second nature, and nomos, which might be characterized as either convention or law–and more specifically, according to Murphy’s etymological analysis, “convention stemm(ing) from an act of deliberate stipulation.”[v] Noting Aristotle’s identification of nomos with logos (reason), Murphy states, “As applied to custom, Aristotle’s close identification of nomos and logos seems odd. … Customs seem to arise from human conduct but not from any deliberate design.”[vi]  But is that the case?  Murphy seems to see “deliberate design” as a process limited in time – a transaction rather than an evolution.  It is arguably not very difficult to see the connection between ethos and logos if you consider the subjective requirement that participants in a customary law system believe that a custom constitutes a legal requirement or intend for it to do so.  It is Murphy who has severed the connection between reason and custom, and who then seems to take issue with Aristotle’s use of nomos to describe both social convention and law.  Murphy cites enough commentators that I (not being a student of philosophy myself) believe him when he states that Aristotle’s language is often unclear.  However, I was struck by what seemed to be a resistance to the idea that the development of custom could be intentional or rational, which seems to indicate a limited perception of, or perhaps a limited respect for, the richness and potential efficacy of customary law.

This resistance carries into the second chapter, which begins with the statement that “customs are not in general deliberately made.”[vii]  This chapter describes the work of Francisco Suárez, particularly in relation to that of his predecessor, Thomas Aquinas, and seems primarily to take issue with Suárez’s belief that law “expresses the will of the lawgiver.”[viii]  Again, however, much of the argument seems to originate with a limited view of customary law.  Murphy cannot reconcile Suárez’s definition of “law” with his understanding of custom, because he cannot see the individual participants as the lawmakers (“Only an author can form an intention to communicate and customs usually have no author”[ix]), and because he rejects the idea that the participants, either individually or as a group, can exercise reason, intent, or will (“Because customs are not designed or made by any one person, what kind of will or intention do they signify?  No one wills custom into being as a legislator might will a statute into being.  Customs simply arise will-nilly.”[x]).

The final two chapters offer more of the same, although Murphy seems to settle into a more traditional definition of customary law, including its subjective element, during his critique of Bentham.  Nonetheless, he returns to the ideas of “habit” and “convention” toward the end of the chapter in order to conclude that Bentham failed to adequately grasp the concept of custom (“What is largely missing in Bentham’s account is a description of how conventions become habitualized and how habits become conventionalized: the essential nature of custom never comes into focus … customs rest upon a real relation between individual habits and social conventions.  Hence, customs escape the net of Bentham’s logic.”[xi]).  The book ends with a brief epilogue, in which Murphy offers a few of his own reflections on the relationship between custom and law.  However, his primary argument here has little to do with customary law.  Instead, he concludes with the notion that written law should become a matter of custom (or, more specifically, “habit” – or second nature – if we are to use Murphy’s framework.)  In Murphy’s view, “it is better to conform to good laws by customary habit, than by constant recourse to lawyers.”[xii]  This is a fine statement, indeed, but one that, as a conclusion to a book on the topic of customary law, contributes little, if anything, to the field.

It is probable that I simply disagree with Murphy that custom can or should be analyzed through the concepts of habit and convention – or perhaps the book just does not explain how doing so adds to the discussion.  Rather than clarifying or broadening our understanding of customary law, the attempt to boil custom down to these two concepts would seem to limit our ability to work with custom as a legal concept or to form any useful framework for its analysis – an irony, since Murphy states in his epilogue that “[o]ur philosophers of law rightly understand that the puzzles about customary law arise mainly because of inadequate conceptions of custom.”[xiii] Murphy’s purpose appears to be disagreement with previous thinkers for the sake of disagreement (an approach which, incidentally, leads to most of my frustration with the field of philosophy in general).  It is also possible that this book was an academic exercise rather than a sincere attempt to contribute to the study or practice of customary law.

What has always interested me about customary law is how it operates “on the ground” – how it changes and evolves, how it differs based on geography and culture, and how external factors can assist with or complicate its application.  Given that my interest is practical rather than philosophical, I am clearly not the intended audience for Murphy’s book.  Those with a background in legal philosophy might find this book interesting, but it has little relevance to the practicalities of researching or practicing customary law.

[i] James Bernard Murphy, The Philosophy of Customary Law (2014).

[ii] Id. at xiii.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id. at 9.

[vi] Id. at 10.

[vii] Id. at 23.

[viii] Id. at 28.

[ix] Id. at 25.

[x] Id. at 41.

[xi] Id. at 87.

[xii] Id. at 124.

[xiii] Id. at 117.

Recap: Jurisdictions Interest Groups Joint Meeting

By Alyson Drake

This year’s Jurisdictions Interest Groups Joint Meeting was a fantastic opportunity to hear from our FCIL-SIS colleagues on interesting topics and interest group projects.


jenJennifer Allison from the European Law Interest Group kicked off the meeting with an informative discussion of recent changes to German asylum law.  First, Jennifer explained that asylum for the politically persecuted is a constitutional right in Germany, under Grundgesetz article 16a.  She highlighted three 2016 laws related to German asylum law:

  • The Data Exchange Improvement Act, aimed at improving procedures for the exchange of data between government groups and other entities dealing with refugees;
  • The Act Introducing an Accelerated Asylum Procedure, which explains how accelerated asylum procedure will work for those cases where a fraudulent application for asylum is expected or where there’s a potential risk to the safety of the country by an applicant; and
  • The Act Simplifying Expulsion of Foreign Criminals and the Broadened Suspension of Refugee Recognition for Criminal Asylum Applicant, which amends earlier asylum laws.

She also discussed the Integration Act, the latest asylum legislation, which has yet to come into force and encourages asylum seekers and grantees to participate in training programs to help integrate them into German culture.

german law guideJennifer also provided a handout with various German law sources and other helpful sources, which can be found on her German Law Research Guide; it includes a section on German asylum law.  She also highly recommended following Jenny Gesley, who is the German Law Specialist at the Library of Congress, on Twitter for updates relating to German law.  One other resource she highly recommended is the Linguee German-English Dictionary, which gives good examples of legal terminology in context.


Next up were Juice Lee and Steven Alexander de Costa, speaking on behalf of the Latin America Interest Group.  They presented the IG’s progress on the “Guide to Legal Research on Cuba.”  The guide will include information on Cuba’s history and Cuban law.  It will also include both Spanish and English language resources. The expected completion date of the guide is September 1st, 2016, and the group is still deciding on where to publish the guide after completion.

Steven discussed a little about his experiences working on the legal history portion of the guide.  He explained that the project was unique because materials relating to Cuba’s legal history weren’t widely available, particularly in English.  He noted that he learned some interesting facts about Cuba’s legal history, including that the modern history of Cuba began with the 1959 revolution, and that the legal system entwines both civil and socialist law, as well as some common law.  Interestingly, Cuban law still owes a lot to Spanish civil codes.

cuban lawIn the discussion that followed the update, it was noted that LLMC is currently working on digitizing approximately 200 Cuban materials, and that the National Library of Cuba has joined to cause and is helping find rare titles and more materials.  Teresa Miguel-Stearns also briefly discussed her recent trip to Cuba.


The third speaker was Yemisi Dina from the Africa Interest Group, updating the group on completing phase one of her the South Western Nigeria digitization project.  One recent development is that she’s created a blog, digesting cases before customary courts in two cities in South Western Nigeria.

Yemisi shared several observations with the group:

  • yemisiCustomary law has a future in the legal system of Nigeria and other African countries. Customary courts are disorganized, but the government is interested. Yemisi noted that the government put a structure together for her to visit.
  • The resolution process is open to everyone, not just certain demographic groups. Yemisi observed that educated people are using the customary courts to resolve their disputes.
  • The majority of issues before the customary courts are divorce; rent; and child custody. Yemisi mentioned that land disputes used to be before the courts a great deal, but that those disputes have died down.
  • The courts face several challenges, including financial issues, as they are not funded by the government; limited resources, such as courts having only one staff person working at the court; and a lack of technology.

Yemisi welcomes comments about and suggestions for her project.


perkinsFinally, Steven Perkins from the Indigenous Peoples Interest Group gave an interesting talk on some of the issues regarding DNA testing of Indigenous Peoples.

First, Steven discussed some of the different types of DNA testing that can take place, including the testing that can be done to determine the ethnic groups from which a person gets their DNA.  Next, Steven provided a brief history of the relationship between scientists and Native American tribes, namely that scientists have been analyzing tribe blood over the last 50 years, but that some challenges arose in how scientists were using their samples.  Scientists conducted research beyond the scope of what they told the tribes would be done, gave samples out to other scientists, and moved around the blood samples to different schools.  As such, the tribe had to set some boundaries and recollect the blood that had been passed around.  As such, tribes have created a guide to decide how to approach these situations.  The guide is found on the National Congress of American Indians website.  Most notably, the tribes keep the data and keep custody of the samples, and have procedures for determining whether a person is part of a particular tribe.

Thank you to all the speakers for presenting such a robust Jurisdictions IG meeting!

FCIL-SIS Jurisdictions Interest Groups To Meet On Sunday

FCIL-SIS invites all AALL conference attendees to join us for our Jurisdictions Interest Groups Joint Meeting this Sunday, from 12:30pm to 2:00pm, in the Hyatt-Water Tower Room.  The program will include substantive presentations from several of our interest groups, as well as 15 minutes at the end of the meeting for each group to discuss their plans for the coming year.

The agenda for the meeting is as follows:

SUNDAY July 17, 2016

12:30 PM – 2:00 PM

FCIL-SIS Jurisdictions IG Joint Meeting (Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, Indigenous Peoples, Customary & Religious Law, Roman Law) (Hyatt-Water Tower)

Meeting Topics:

  • Welcome and Intro (Susan Gualtier, Louisiana State University School of Law Library) – 5 minutes
  • European Law: Recent Developments in German Law Related to Asylum and Refugees: A Brief Overview for Law Librarians (Jennifer Alison, Harvard Law School Library) – 20 minutes
  • Latin America: Cuban Legal Research Guide (Julienne Grant, Loyola University Chicago Law Library, et al.) – 10 minutes
  • Africa: Updates of the Digitization Case Law Project from South Western Nigeria (Yemisi Dina, Osgood Hall Law School Library) – 20 minutes
  • Indigenous Peoples: Indigenous Peoples and DNA Testing: Friend or Foe? (Steven Perkins, Greenberg Traurig, LLP) – 20 minutes
  • Individual Interest Groups business meetings – 15 minutes

Everyone is welcome to attend the presentations and to check out our interest groups, so please spread the word to anyone interested in these areas of foreign law.  FCIL-SIS looks forward to seeing you there!


AALL 2015 Recap: Customary and Religious Law Interest Group Meeting

By Susan Gualtier

Front page of CARLIG flyer distributed at FCIL-SIS Exhibit Hall table.

Front page of informational flyer distributed at the FCIL-SIS Exhibit Hall table.

The Customary and Religious Law Interest Group (CARLIG) met on July 19 at 11:30 as part of the FCIL-SIS Jurisdictions Interest Groups Joint Meeting. The group briefly discussed the year’s progress, which included acquiring approximately 35 members in My Communities, developing several programming proposals for the 2015 conference, and publishing an article in AALL Spectrum describing the group’s formation, purpose, and goals. The majority of the discussion then focused on 1) improving communication with the group’s membership in order to generate better response to the My Communities posts; 2) increasing the number of blogging and book review opportunities on customary and religious law topics and soliciting participation by the group’s members; and 3) developing and prioritizing additional projects for the coming year.

CARLIG intends to continue proposing conference programming, and brainstormed a few ideas for the 2016 conference. The group discussed the possibility of putting together a panel of librarians and researchers who are currently working on comprehensive online portals or printed bibliographies of religious law resources. Kelly Buchanan, of the Library of Congress, also shared some preliminary information relating to an Islamic law program to be held at the Library of Congress in December. The group discussed potential opportunities for collaboration between CARLIG and the Library of Congress staff, which has been working on increasing the number of available customary law and religious law resources.

In addition to planning substantive programming, the group decided that CARLIG’s primary focus over the upcoming year should be to create teaching/research toolkits for customary law and for each of the major religious law systems. The purpose of these toolkits will be to encourage more librarians to incorporate customary and religious law research into their FCIL research classes or their presentations in substantive law classes. CARLIG will also work on some of the ideas proposed at the 2014 conference, including creating bibliographies of core resources for use in collection development, and identifying the major library collections in customary law and in each of the major religious law systems.

Schedule of FCIL Events in Philadelphia

Blog Postcards 2015Hello FCIL-SIS!  Are you ready for Philly?  We at the publicity committee certainly are!  We have swag for the exhibit hall ready to go, and we’re looking forward to seeing all of our SIS friends again next week!

As we approach the 2015 AALL Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, we encourage you to keep an eye on the blog and to follow us on Twitter for coverage of FCIL-SIS programming both during and after the conferenceIf you are interested in covering any of the events listed below, please contact blog administrators Susan Gualtier (susan.gualtier@law.lsu.edu) or Loren Turner (lturner@law.ufl.edu).  Finally, remember to send us your original photos from the Philadelphia conference so that we can share them with our readers who were unable to attend!



Saturday, July 18

9:30am – 4:45 pm

Researching the European Union (University of Pennsylvania Law School)

5:00 pm – 6:30 pm

Exhibit Hall Ribbon-Cutting/Opening Reception. Stop by the FCIL-SIS table!

Sunday, July 19

11:30 am – 12:45 pm

AALL/LexisNexis Call for Papers: Researching International Agreements other than Article II

Treaties (PCC-Room 104A)

FCIL-SIS Jurisdictions Interest Groups Joint Meeting (Marriott-Grand Ballroom Salon C)

1:00 pm – 2:00 pm

Cross-Border Disputes: Dissecting the International Investment Arbitration (PCC-Room


4:00 pm – 5:00 pm

Designers’ Workshop: Subject Guides that Create the Effect You Want (PCC-Room 103BC)

5:15 pm – 6:00 pm

FCIL-SIS Foreign Selectors Interest Group (Marriott-Room 306)

6:00 pm – 7:00 pm

FCIL-SIS Internships and International Exchanges Committee (Marriott-Room 310)

FCIL-SIS Publicity Committee (Marriott-Room 308)

Monday, July 20

7:15 am – 8:30 am

FCIL-SIS Business Meeting and Breakfast (PCC-Room 110AB)

3:15 pm – 4:25 pm

FCIL-SIS Teaching Foreign and International Legal Research Interest Group (PCC-Room


4:00 pm – 4:30 pm

FCIL-SIS Schaffer Grant for Foreign Law Librarians Fundraising Committee (Marriott-

Conference Suite 2)

4:30 pm – 5:30 pm

FCIL-SIS Schaffer Grant for Foreign Law Librarians Recipient Presentation (Marriott-Grand

Ballroom Salon D)

5:45 pm – 6:45 pm

International Attendees Joint Reception (AALL/FCIL/IALL) (Marriott-Grand Ballroom Salon


Tuesday, July 21

8:30 am – 9:30 am

Mighty MT: Enhancing the Value of Machine Translation Tools for FCIL Reference and

Collection Services (PCC-Room 103BC)

12:30 pm – 2:00 pm

LHRB/FCIL-SIS Roman Law Interest Group: Researching the Corpus Juris Civilis (PCC-Room


1:00 pm – 2:00 pm

FCIL-SIS Education Committee (Marriott-Grand Ballroom Salon B)

FCIL-SIS Electronic Research Interest Group (PCC-Room 104B)


Book Review: Indigenous Peoples, Customary Law and Human Rights – Why Living Law Matters

By: Xiaomeng (“Alex”) ZhangIndigenous Peoples

Brendan Tobin. Indigenous Peoples, Customary Law and Human Rights – Why Living Law Matters (Routledge, 2014). 302 p. Hardcover $145.00.

Brendan Tobin, a research fellow at Griffith University Law School with significant experience in the areas of environmental law, customary law, and global human rights law, makes a highly valuable contribution to the area of customary law and the rights of Indigenous Peoples through this well-written and thoroughly researched monograph.  The book not only provides insights to theoretical research but also offers practical guidance to both legal and non-legal professionals working in the area of human rights, environmental justice, and indigenous peoples’ rights.

Tobin’s principal purpose, through this book, is to “demonstrate the importance, legitimacy and durability of Indigenous Peoples’ legal regimes, their rights to regulate their internal affairs in accordance with their own laws, customs, and traditions, and the central role that customary law has to play in securing the realization of their human rights.”  Tobin starts with the premise that Indigenous Peoples’ rights of self-determination and autonomy are important and that customary legal regimes exist to protect those rights.  He also draws a large amount of empirical evidence showing the dire consequences of not recognizing “customary law and indigenous jurisdiction.”

Despite being recognized by many binding international legal instruments and some domestic legal tools, Indigenous Peoples’ rights are not effectively protected.  Tobin argues that neither the States nor legal professionals (such as Judges) fully appreciate the importance of customary law, a core component of most (if not all) Indigenous legal systems. As a result, many of customary legal principles are not given equal consideration as positive law during the dispute settlement and/or litigation process.

The problem that Tobin tries to resolve is a long-standing issue. There are many discussions on the (in)effectiveness of Indigenous Peoples’ rights protection.[1] There are many barriers that prevent effective protection of rights politically, economically, culturally, psychologically and judicially. Effective protection not only depends on recognizing the rights protected by legal instruments such as ratified international agreements, constitutions, statutes and case law, but also relies on implementation and enforcement of these legal instruments. Two major barriers to effective enforcement of customary law are due to the nature of custom and the nature of indigenous rights. The author is able to focus on both areas and make a thorough examination on both issues.

To sum up, there are three major contributions of this book. First, Tobin provides thorough analyses of the issues of ineffective protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and of ineffective implementation of customary law in indigenous legal regimes, drawing on a large amount of empirical data and major well-established theories in the area. Second, Tobin, in the second half of the book, closely examines the current (in)effective implementation of customary law in many practical areas, such as rights to land, right to culture, natural resources and traditional knowledge. Finally, Tobin also provides extensive footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography that would benefit other researchers in this area. Therefore, I would highly recommend this book to academic researchers and practitioners interested or working in the relevant fields. I also recommend this book to libraries of academic institutions, organizations and government agencies working closely with indigenous peoples.

[1] For example, see Jeremie Gilbert, Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights under International Law: From Victims to Actors (Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers, 2006).