The Authority of International Law — Lifting the State Veil

Sydney Law Review, Vol. 31, pp. 343-380, 2009

38 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2010

Date Written: 2009


The legitimate authority of international law, i.e. its ability to generate moral duties of obedience for its subjects whether states, international organisations or individuals, has become a subject of growing interest among international legal scholars and legal theorists over the past fifteen years or so. The initial difficulty most accounts face has to do with the reality of international law itself qua decentralised and non-hierarchical legal order. Stemming from those complexities, a second difficulty pertains to the concept of legal authority itself. This article presents a single concept of legal authority and a set of justifications for the legitimacy of international law that can not only accommodate the complexity of contemporary international law, but also make sense of it in the context of competing claims to legitimacy made over the same people by national, regional and international legal orders. The key to the authority of international law in a pluralist legal order lies, the author argues, in lifting the state veil. This implies focusing on the individual as the ultimate subject of authority in international law. The article’s argument unfolds in three steps. It starts by presenting the conception of legal authority the article is based on, and in particular a revised coordination-based version of Joseph Raz’s service conception of authority. It then argues that this autonomy-based account of authority best explains the legitimacy of international law by focusing on four key features of legal authority in the international context: the multiplicity of international subjects and law-makers and their relationship; the role of co-ordination in the justification of international law’s authority; the piecemeal nature of authority and the role of state consent in that context; and, finally, the protection of state sovereignty and its compatibility with the authority of international law. In the third and final section, the article addresses borderline cases, and in particular relativism-based exclusions of international legal authority and exceptions to that authority based on justified international disobedience.

Keywords: Legitimacy, International Law, Democracy

Suggested Citation

Besson, Samantha, The Authority of International Law — Lifting the State Veil (2009). Sydney Law Review, Vol. 31, pp. 343-380, 2009, Available at SSRN:

Samantha Besson (Contact Author)

University of Fribourg ( email )

Avenue de l'Europe 20
CH-1700 Fribourg

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