NewCo Shift Forum
The Law Is Fiction We Chose to Believe
Y-Vonne Hutchinson on what she learned while creating societies from scratch
A highlight of the NewCo Shift Forum’s program was the Ignite series of talks, short (five minute) presentations from experts across a diverse set of companies and experiences. In this Ignite talk, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder of ReadySet, explains her experiences creating a legal framework in a disputed No Mans Land between Burma and Thailand.
Y-vonne Hutchinson: Before starting my company, I was an international human rights lawyer. I’m here to tell you about one of the most seminal moments in my career. It all started off in law school. (Referring to presentation). That’s me. I don’t know if you can tell, but I was pretty miserable.
This picture perfectly encapsulates why. Everyone is literally judging the person in front of them in this picture, including me. I really want to just drive this point home that law school was pretty hellish for me. I felt unprepared and ill-equipped to handle the course load. I thought that I would never find my passion for the law.
Luckily, I was wrong. Enter Professor David Barron. On the first day of our first class of law school, Professor Barron said something that would resonate with me deeply. The law is only as powerful in so much as people believe in it. This idea would form the basis for my career.
This idea, that the law drew its collective power from the beliefs of those it governed and those who enforced it would be a driving force. That began in Thailand. Just to give you a general idea of which Thailand I’m talking about, it wasn’t the Thailand that we normally think of. It was this Thailand.
I was invited to be a Rule of Law Fellow at a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. This is Mae La camp, where I did most of my research and my work. Mae La camp is the largest camp in Thailand. Actually it’s more like a small city than a camp.
By the time I got there, it was already 25 years old. More than 50,000 people lived there. Since gaining independence from the British in 1948, until recently, Burma had been involved in a civil war. At the time that it was on-going, it was considered to be the longest running conflict in the world.
Starting in 1984, ethnic and religious minorities fled persecution to Thailand. No Man’s Land is defined as disputed territory, an inhospitable place, an uninhabitable region. The refugee camps, which were along the Thai-Burma border, and often fell victim to skirmishes, fulfilled all three of those categories.
They existed in a legal vacuum. Officially they were governed by Thai law, but the Thai government neither had the willingness nor the resources to reinforce it. They were primarily concerned with drug trafficking and everything else was left to be handled by the folks in the camp.
We were left with a very difficult challenge. We had to represent the religious and cultural plurality of the refugees, which is hard. Burma is bordered by China, Thailand and India. It’s one of the most diverse countries in the world. It sits at a crossroads in Asia. So we did what any NGO would do.
We formed a committee. The members of that committee were representatives of those groups and other groups too, women and girls, youth groups, civil society organizations. We spent our day in a hot, crowded hut debating the finer points of the law, negotiating the wording and the content of the code.
When we weren’t doing that, we were training security officers to enforce the rules in line with international law. We also did detention monitoring, wherein we would review detention facilities and make sure they were in line with international law.
After a year, my fellowship was over. To this day, I’m not quite sure if it was success or a failure, but I learned a few key things. They are these. Number one, codifying morality is really hard. Number two, the law is a fiction. Number three, the law can be used as a tool for social control. Number four, knowledge of the law is power.
Professor Barron was right. The law is, at best, a subjective tool. In a vacuum, one person’s right is another person’s moral wrong. That’s why codifying morality is so hard. It’s also why people will often default to using the law to consolidate power or to suppress others.
I’m not sure if you can tell, but this began my journey as a critical legal researcher. I started to question the kind of system that would preach rule of law and human rights to the victims of war while, at the same time, allowing powerful countries to eschew their treaty obligations in providing those victims with refuge.
Today I now think of where and for whom the law is still a fiction. I derive my passion from critically interrogating its foundations and its promise. I no longer take it for granted. If there’s one take-away, it’s this.
Legal order is a very vital but a very fragile thing. The law does not derive its moral authority simply from the fact that it’s a law. People can choose whether to follow it or whether not to follow it. Once everything falls apart, it can be really hard to find our way back. Thank you.