What is Radical in 'Radical International Law'?

FIinnish Yearbook of International Law, Forthcoming

23 Pages Posted: 10 Jan 2012 Last revised: 29 Aug 2012

See all articles by Bill Bowring

Bill Bowring

Birkbeck College, University of London - School of Law

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Date Written: June 29, 2012


This article started life as a response to the call for papers for the international Workshop 'Towards a Radical International Law', held at the London School of Economics in April 2011. The call for papers started with a bold declaration:

International law is a prominent site for the investiture of hope in the face of global insecurities. Yet, as inequality deepens, violence remains rampant, and the earth’s resources become exhausted, the idioms in which that hope is typically expressed – human rights, development, international crime, and so on – are revealing their complicities and limitations. Some radical rethinking of international law seems urgently needed.

In this article I explore some answers to the question whether there could or ought to be a radical international law, or even, more modestly, a radical approach to international law. Paavo Kotiaho has referred to 'the left wing international law project'. It should be noted at once that the literature generated by this project is almost entirely in the English language, and the object of my analysis in this article is that which is to be found in Britain and the USA.

My own answer to the question is that almost all ‘critical’ or ‘radical’ international law is firmly located in the academy, or the ‘discipline’ or the ‘field’ as it is often called. It is often marked by eclecticism and the closely related pragmatism which traditionally emanates from the United States, just as British mainstream thinking is often termed ‘empiricism’.

So what we have is the latest in a series of attempts to shake up or to re-frame the theory of international law. However, there is a plain disjuncture between on the one hand those with a professional and career interest in renewing the scholarly community, and on the other those who wish to apply their legal skills to the service of progressive causes. In this article I criticise the part of this large corpus of scholarly work which I have selected in some detail, on its own terms.

There is a striking, for me, absence in almost all of this work. That is, the ‘radical international law’ pursued by organised engaged political lawyers, especially since World War II in the form of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), on the basis of the organisation of politically active lawyers in a large number of states – for example, the National Lawyers Guild in the USA and the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers in England.

Suggested Citation

Bowring, Bill, What is Radical in 'Radical International Law'? (June 29, 2012). FIinnish Yearbook of International Law, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1982159 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1982159

Bill Bowring (Contact Author)

Birkbeck College, University of London - School of Law ( email )

Malet Street
London, WC1E 7HX
United Kingdom
0207 631 6022 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/law/our-staff/ft-academic/bowring

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