There is a tension in the very association of cannibalism and law, which speaks to our conception of law as much as it reflects the common reaction to the practice of cannibalism. There are three ways of interrogating that tension, three cannibal laws that each highlights a distinct facet of our understanding of law as a social practice. All three can be read into the jurisprudence of the Sierra Leone Special Court, in both the occurrences and the absences of cannibalism in the proceedings.
The first cannibal law is the law that seeks to repress the practice of cannibalism. In this relation, law constructs the practice as an object to be regulated. Despite its extreme rarity, a number of domestic criminal codes define cannibalism as a crime. In several SCSL trials, witnesses testified of several occasions of cannibalistic acts of the accused, but no one was specifically convicted or even charged with this act. This reflects a general silence in international criminal law regarding cannibalism, despite the documented occurrence of the practice in several conflicts over the last century. The recent emergence of a much broader concept of war crimes that covers many ‘other violations of the laws and customs of war’ that could arguably cover cannibalism raises new questions about international law’s silence. I argue that the transcultural nature of international criminal law sets one of the limits of formal law in this context. That limit reflects a combination of post-colonial malaise before the law’s civilizing aspiration as well as the law’s inability to construct a rationalized version of cannibalism that permits its reduction to legal fact.
The second cannibal law is the law that the cannibals make. In this relation, law offers a normative framework for understanding the practice of cannibalism not merely as an irrational or depraved act, but as a part of a system of norms that fulfills a specific function in the context of an internal armed conflict such as Sierra Leone. Anthropologists have shown that the practice of cannibalism is very often linked to magic, as the provider of the most potent ingredients to make ‘medicine’ to make a person bullet-proof, able to fly, all-powerful, and many more wondrous things. Those who engage in this practice claim not only the language of science (witch-doctors speaking of ‘research and development’ to make medicine more effective) but also of law (witch-doctors ‘give the law’ to fighters to explain prohibitions the breach of which will break the magic spell). Cannibalism can be understood as not necessarily the acts of drug-crazed primitive bush fighters, but as a system of norms that communicates meaning, constitutes communities, and regulates certain relationships. This is a provocative expansion of a legal pluralist understanding of law, which tests the limits of social practices which we are willing to construct as law.
The third cannibal law is the way in which legal discourse relates to other forms of social discourse. In this relation, cannibalism stands as a metaphor for the manner in which legal discourse consumes all other ways of understanding, which are digested and transformed to aliment legal analysis. That which the law cannot digest and transform is simply rejected as irrelevant. There is a degree of circularity to legal reasoning in that law claims an interpretive monopoly over what constitutes legal discourse. There is a need to step out of law’s all-encompassing culture in order to consider it as an artifact of modernity, marked in the field of international criminal law by its nearly exclusively western origins. As a classical trope of savagism, cannibalism stands as international law’s anti-modern other. While some have argued that we must distance ourselves from the law to suspend unquestioned belief in its necessity and centrality, it may be that cannibalism’s radical anti-modernity stands as altogether distant for that purpose. As a concept, cannibalism would be too dyspeptic for law, marking again a limitation of the concept of law as embodied in an international criminal tribunal like the SCSL