The Concept of Legitimacy and International Law

33 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2013

See all articles by Chris Thomas

Chris Thomas

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE)

Date Written: May 15, 2013


In recent decades the term ‘legitimacy’ has featured heavily in debates about international law and international institutions. Yet the concept of legitimacy, mercurial as it is, has remained under-scrutinised, leading to confusion and misuse. Rather than seeking to advance a particular conception of what may make international law legitimate, this paper seeks to clarify and complicate how international lawyers understand and use legitimacy as a concept. To begin, the paper distinguishes between legal, moral and social legitimacy. It highlights the different ways in which these three approaches to legitimacy have been used in international law scholarship, while drawing attention to some of their more problematic tendencies. From there, it breaks the concept of legitimacy down into three major components: its object, subject and basis. It argues that the tendency to blur these elements has led to much of the uncertainty and obfuscation in legitimacy debates. Finally, the paper considers how legitimacy may be distinguished from coercion, self-interest and habit. Ultimately, it argues that if treated with sufficient rigour, legitimacy provides a useful analytical concept for international lawyers. In doing so, it aims to encourage and facilitate the participation of international lawyers in broader inter-disciplinary debates about legitimacy.

Suggested Citation

Thomas, Chris, The Concept of Legitimacy and International Law (May 15, 2013). LSE Legal Studies Working Paper No. 12/2013, Available at SSRN: or

Chris Thomas (Contact Author)

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) ( email )

Houghton Street
London, WC2A 2AE
United Kingdom

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics