I was supposed to read this reflection at the launching of Dean Merlin Magallona’s new book at Malcolm Hall last Wednesday but I missed the affair because of an urgent business that had to be done. His new ‘baby’ is part of the UP Law Centennial Textbook project. (A shorter version also appears in my column for the Manila Standard Today.)
In these days of Google, Wikipedia and that quintessential Steve Jobs legacy, the Ipad, an ink-and-paper Dictionary on Contemporary International Law may sound anachronistic. On a philosophical level, we are reminded by what Derrida said of definitions – the stuff of which the dictionary is made – that all we get is the constant deferral of meaning. On the level of pragmatics, we do have a sense of Derrida’s worry about the temporality of meaning, given that international law, especially over the last two decades, has been on a constant flux.
Dictionaries in general, it seems to me, are really a guide to the tug-of-war between time and infinity, to borrow from Jorge Luis Borges, where ideas, or the key words, of a given epoch are frozen on a page for prosperity’s sake.
Nevertheless, the Argentinian novelist himself also said that:
It is venturesome to think that a coordination of words (philosophies are nothing more than that) can resemble the universe very much. It is also venturesome to think that of all these illustrious coordinations, one of them — at least in an infinitesimal way — does not resemble the universe a bit more than the others.
But here Dean Magallona has ventured to coordinate words to give meaning to words; not only that, his half a century or so of engagement with international law shows his latest work to be a set of illustrious coordination of words that at least gives us some semblance, where it is now, of the known universe of international law, or at least, of what is relevant to us from that known universe.
We can be sure that the erudition that went into this project is a universe better than what we can find in Wikipedia. That, I think is a good measure of the continuing relevance of a Dictionary of Contemporary International Law. In other words, in this age of the democratization of mediocrity, there is still some space for the work of the serious scholar.
Besides, as far as I know, in our part of the world, Dean Magallona’s book is the first of its kind. Ordinarily, the phrase “the first of its kind” does not really tell us much, but string the phrase with the good Dean’s name and you can be sure it means sui generis.
In any dictionary project, the editor or author is torn between two aims: the encyclopaedic and the abbreviated. Students will be familiar with the classic Oxford University Press’s Parry and Grant Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law, which takes the first approach. Now in its third edition, it covers 2,500 entries with references for further research on cases, treaties, journal articles, and websites. As the name implies, the dictionary surveys every known area of international law, and this one-volume red book’s latest edition is the work of two scholars, no doubt aided by an army of research assistants.
Dean Magallona’s aim is more modest, but he covers the essential grounds, with entries dealing only with multi-lateral conventions and decisions of international tribunals.
In a country where scholarship in international law is notoriously uneven, a desktop reference like this will come in handy for lawyers, students and even for the members of our diplomatic corps. We’ve been taking international law for granted that we have not seen the need for it.
In a way, our parochialism could be a function of a societal myopia induced by the kind of problems our citizens face from day to day. International law is a place in heaven and here we are all cooped up in the sorriest corner of Dante’s Inferno. So our law schools continued to subsist in teaching students an international law that is neither here nor there.
But there is hope. We are not so insulated now from the rest of the world as before. Even under repressive conditions, political hegemony can only do so much to plug our porous electronic borders. Twitter, Facebook and Youtube make it possible for our citizens to know of fast-evolving events elsewhere that have big implications on how we ourselves look at our own problems of governance.
There is also what functional sociologists may call the “latent effect” of cheaper travel across states, regions and continents. In the ASEAN itself, budget airlines have made it possible for ordinary Filipinos to spend holidays in neighboring countries.
They are able to see for themselves how the rule of law is upheld or otherwise discounted in other countries. Foreign travel allows them a better assessment of where their own country stands in terms of affording its citizens freedoms and privileges. So, other than experiencing Lawrence Durell’s “spirit of place”, they also see how international law, at least on a regional level, may help promote the same freedoms and privileges across the board.
Moreover, these days, we now have to turn to international law to better understand the way government works out its understanding of our citizen’s constitutional rights.
There is now a keener sense of inevitability than before in the interlacements between the national and the international.
Perhaps, in the future, the Dictionary of Contemporary International Law can be expanded to include other sources of international law. What is important is that Dean Magallona’s dictionary has laid the groundwork – and it is definitely an excellent foundation for any encyclopaedic work. With more resources, the work can be expanded. That is the challenge to the next generation of scholars and students of international law from the premiere law school of the land.
My only warning to the Dean is that, to borrow from the Old Testament philosopher in Ecclesiastes, of the making of dictionaries, there is no end. Just because it is the first shouldn’t mean it’s the last.
In a conversation with the Dean a few weeks ago, I suggested to him that his dictionary should be digitized and made available for sale as a downloadable book through Amazon or the AppleStore. In fact, the UP Press has made Philippine academic publishing history by already making some of its titles available as print and digital book versions. Through a conversion service, these UP Press titles are now sold through Amazon as well.
Because it is much cheaper to produce a digital book, it will also be easier to update a book through its digital version. As far as I know, of a handful of dictionaries on international law extant, only the Parry and Grant Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law is as of yet available as an electronic version through the Oxford University Press website.
I can’t repress a smile imagining students from all over the world downloading the Contemporary Dictionary of International Law on their Ipads, Iphones, Macs, Galaxy Tabs and what have you. That way you make international law sexier and more accessible. That way you also introduce to the world a distinctly Filipino take on international law. That way you also exact revenge on Derrida’s devaluing of the written text!
One hopes public international law students of the UP College of Law, upon consulting Dean Magallona’s dictionary on the meaning of straight base lines in UNCLOS, would intone Neruda’s Ode to the Dictionary (if they know Neruda at all):
a tomb, sepulcher, casket
burial mound, mausoleum,
but a preserver,
the planting of rubies
of the essence,
granary of language.
Perhaps, very few of them have time for poetry; I admit it takes an aficionado like Dean Magallona to see poetics in the structures and systems of his chosen field of study. But I’m sure the same students would come out of a recitation smiling if they survived one on the North Sea Continental Shelf Cases by secretly referring to it. On second thought, I really doubt if they can get away with murder, no, not under Dean Magallona.