Anarchism and International Law

Dr Michael Kearney (Sussex Law School, University of Sussex)

Irish Centre for Human Rights Seminar Room 13:00 :: 8th April 2014

Abstract: The presentation will aim to consider in general terms, how the notion of anarchy is utilised in the language and imagination of international law. The goal is to ask whether and how an anarchist theory might be useful in reviewing critical issues such as environment, exploitation, and violence, which to a large extent remain outside the purview of international law. The term anarchy is regularly found in international legal jurisprudence and scholarship, and is doubly significant in that it provides the very basis of the assumption as to what international law is supposed to be defined in opposition to, and to what it seeks to regulate. That is – anarchy is used to describe the general chaos that would exist were all pretences to an international order premised on some rule of law abandoned – yet in the same breath is used to denote the actually existing international order where international law harmonises relations between equals lacking an overall authority: thus international law, by seeking to regulate the behaviour of states in an anarchical system, thereby prevents a descent into anarchy.

By reference to basic anarchist principles and aims (liberty and self-determination), the paper will attempt to unravel the imagination of international law, by demonstrating how even its ‘radical’ adherents and critics depart from the premise that liberty and anarchy are unthinkably impossible. Eleanor Roosevelt illustrated the limits to the vision of international law in stating that: ‘Just as the concept of individual human liberty carried to its logical extreme would mean anarchy, so the principle of self-determination given unrestricted application could result in chaos.’ I will propose that the ‘realistic utopia’ (Schabas) within which contemporary liberal commentators on international law box their legal and political imagination and scholarship (Ignatieff: ‘The best human rights activists can ever hope for is to keep democratic regimes honest and to shame undemocratic ones into being less brutal’), is unsustainable in a world facing imminent crisis and chaos from environmental and capitalist exploitation, and that international law scholarship and activism might be well served by the development of a form of anarchist critique and challenge.

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