Petitioning the Mandates: Anticolonial and Antiracist Publics in International Law
Drawing on an interdisciplinary training in law and history, Burra’ s dissertation, “Petitioning the Mandates: Anticolonial and Antiracist Publics in International Law,” was the first systematic legal-historical study of how transnational anti-colonial and anti-racist solidarity movements shaped the international law of individual protection and colonial rule in the mid-20th century. In particular, this dissertation examined how anti-colonial activists, colonial officials, and members of the newly-formed international bureaucracy in the League of Nations and the United Nations negotiated a language of grassroots international protest, one based around the practice of individuals petitioning international organizations about colonial abuse. African American activists were particularly active in this field, framing their involvement in the mandates as a protest against racial discrimination, turning a mirror on the United States’ own racial politics. Petitioning in the interwar and immediate post-war years thus shows us how inter-continental forms of protest could be deployed in fighting what states saw as primarily local battles. These battles spanned the period from 1920 until at least 1956, when the International Court of Justice engaged with the history and jurisprudence of the individual right to petition in international law. As such, Burra’s work engaged historiographical debates in global history, histories of international institutions and human rights, histories of transnational social movements and decolonization, and histories of the United States in the world. By focusing on the role of non-state actors in international institutions, Burra’s dissertation also questioned the consensus on the minor role played by non-white actors in international law-making before and immediately after the Second World War.