‘Doing and knowing’ IEL through the lens of Caribbean Rastafarian philosophy (IEL Collective Symposium II)

By Yentyl Williams, PhD Candidate (Bristol University Law School)

Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) scholarship over the past 21 years has innovated how we know and do international law. Yet, I argue that TWAIL scholarship can better connect to the Caribbean in general, and the Rastafari, maroon and indigenous knowledges/epistemologies and being/ontologies. Indeed, despite the growth in TWAIL scholarship, neither Westlaw nor HeinOnline contain any entries that refer to Rastafari philosophy. This, I argue, is a missed opportunity or a shortcoming, given the intellectual convergences of TWAIL and Rastafari philosophy. There are epistemological and ontological convergences of TWAIL and Rastafari scholars and activists across, at least, six concepts of Rastafari philosophy: Babylon, ‘poly-tricks’, ‘fire’, ‘livity’, ‘know thyself’ and ‘I-an-I’.

Firstly, both TWAIL & Rastafari share a similar critical outlook on Euro-centric approaches to international and economic developments entrenched through law. Leading TWAIL scholar, Mutua  explains this critical  standpoint by calling out international law as an ‘illegitimate’ regime, which merely perpetuates and legitimises the subordination of the so-called ‘Third World’ by countries of the ‘West.’ Equally, Chimni has underlined that the rejection of a ‘politics of Empire’ is precisely what unites TWAIL scholars. Similarly, Rastafari is opposed to poly-tricks of Babylon which can be synonymous to TWAIL scholars’ references to politics of Empire. In Rastafarian philosophy, this is the struggle against Babylon, the Western system of ‘downpression’ and injustice, and its politics/ poly-tricks.

This must be considered in the context of what Anthony Anghie called the ‘dynamic of difference’, namely how international law through the process of colonialism used cultural difference as a means to facilitate the mental, moral and physical domination of Europeans over non-European cultures. Additionally, it should also be considered alongside the issue of knowledge/ epistemic violence, wherein the displacement of knowledge is central to the ongoing and continued epistemic violence. Both TWAIL and Rastafari are cognisant of this and similarly attempt to challenge this. Among the former, Pooja has linked the importance of producing critical theory with the revival of ‘subjugated knowledges’. Among the latter, Chevannes has recalled Lamming’s advice, which stems from Gramsci, to amass the ‘infinity of traces’ that we can in order to build our very own ‘inventory’. In this regard, the concept of ‘fire’ and the act of burning, or ‘bunning’ (such as ‘bun Babylon’) are informative/heuristic concepts which, contrary to their literal sense, promote moral, legal and economic reparations for the on-going oppressions in Babylon.

Secondly, the ‘practitioners’ on both sides embody the existence of counter-hegemonic alternatives. In the first instance, TWAIL ontology is linked with the will to infuse international law with Third World experiences, or rather, as Pooja puts it, to ensure their resistance is written into the law. In the same vein, Rastafari scholar Niah has underlined how Rastafari philosophy presents a body of ‘resistance praxis’, which is fundamentally geared towards eradicating hegemony and domination. Importantly, Rastafari philosophy negates this ‘dynamic of difference’ and this is evidenced in the language developed. Here, the two concepts of livity and know thyself are important references. The term ‘livity’ expresses the purpose of a moral Rastafarian lifestyle as a counter-hegemonic ontology. Prominent Rastafari scholar Barry Chevannes has explained that Dreadlocks Rastafari have built up the above-mentioned inventory in response to the central philosophical issue, to ‘know thyself’/gnothi seauton.  Know thyself is thus central to the praxis of resistance. Chevannes further explained how the rejection and negation were key acts of appropriating and reaffirming the integrity of self, in the face of downpression and social injustice, wherein spiritual power could therefore triumph over social power at this critical point in history.

Thirdly, both live by an alliance to an intellectual sovereignty, which exists in a pluriverse (as opposed to a universe). TWAIL scholars, Eslava and Pahuja, offer a critical suggestion aimed at developing a ‘praxis of universality’. They suggest that our efforts should be geared towards understanding what kind of universality we wish to strive for and what type of universality we should resist. In other words, we should be cautious of one dominant set of values being projected as universal, since this is precisely what creates the above-mentioned ‘dynamic of difference.’ As such, that which is considered universal would be no more than a hegemonic or dominant tool.

In Rastafari history, there are many references to the Universal, from Marcus Garvey’s establishment of the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association in 1914, to the universal ethic and rationality of ‘equal rights and justice’, and the universal philosophy of Love. Most prominently, Rastafari universality is based on ‘unity not uniformity’ and thus, similarly to TWAIL, both share the quasi-transcendental promise of the normative conception of international law and its universal promise. This is evident in the Rastafari concept of I-an-I, which is universal, transcendental and rhetorically serves not just to emancipate the individual but society as a whole. The ‘I-an-I’ is linked to the African philosophy of ubuntu, ‘I am because we are’, and this underlines its inclusive, transcendental and universal nature.


‘Doing and knowing’ IEL by tracing the convergences of TWAIL and Caribbean Rastafarian philosophy through the six concepts of Babylon, poly-tricks, fire, livity, know thyself and I-an-I offers an alternative vision or emancipation. There is a place for Rastafari philosophy within IEL precisely because of its transformative nature, grappling with imperialism’s past, its informal present, and the post-imperial possibilities.

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