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Block Center Hosts Scholar and Loyola Professor James Thuo Gathii for Annual Brooklyn Lecture on International Business Law


On March 28, the Dennis J. Block Center for the Study of International Business Law hosted Professor James Thuo Gathii, Loyola University’s Wing-Tat Lee Chair in International Law and Professor of Law, for the annual Brooklyn Lecture on International Business Law, “The World Bank’s Minimalist Race Agenda”. Introducing Professor Gathii, Professor Julian Arato, co-director of the Block Center, who moderated the discussion, called Gathii “one of the greatest lights in our field.” His extensive scholarship and involvement in international law includes his latest book, The Performance of Africa’s International Courts: Using Litigation for Political, Legal and Social Change (Oxford University Press, 2020), serving on the board of editors for the American Journal of International Law and the Journal of African Law, sitting as an arbitrator in two international commercial arbitrations hosted by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague; and consulting for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, (OHCHR), and the Economic Commission for Africa, (ECA), among others.


In his lecture, Professor Gathii explored how the World Bank is addressing issues of race in its development work, saying that despite its establishment of an Anti-Racism Task Force and its goal to examine community engagements, the Bank must go back “to unearth the histories” of its racist legacy. Among such histories is the World Bank’s justification of lending to the South African government in the 1960s, during apartheid, in noncompliance with international law and United Nations resolutions. That the World Bank justified its actions by claiming that its business in South Africa was not concerned with colonialism or politics, but solely with economics, Gathii said, “made us all into accomplices to apartheid and its damaging consequences. In my view, for the Bank to be legitimately and to be honestly engaging on questions of race, it must engage in this ugly history.”


He highlighted through many examples how racism is “self-enforcing across generations and embedded in national and global institutions and structures that continue to reinforce and to generate new forms of racial inequality.”


After the lecture, a panel discussion was held with Afton Titus, Associate Professor of Commercial Law at the University of Cape Town (South Africa), and Block Center co-directors Steven Dean and Arato.


In closing, Gathii called for greater transparency at the World Bank and other institutions, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and for greater awareness and action. “We, as international lawyers,” he said, “must continually help move the ball forward by demonstrating contingency of our current rules of international economic law. We should not be helping institutions naturalize them as inevitable arrangements. We have to pay attention to how rules of law are deeply implicated in producing, constructing, and defending material relations of exploitation constructed on the basis of race, and by taking seriously the relationship between power, race, and oppression. Then we can begin making progress in understanding what we can do to address racism.”