The Power-Conferring Dimension of the Rule of Law at the United Nations

22 Pages Posted: 30 Dec 2019

Date Written: December 20, 2019


Within the United Nations, debates on the rule of law currently take place at two levels. First, it is the subject of a political debate: state representatives have annually discussed the “rule of law at the national and international levels” since 2006. Second, the rule of law is an operational issue: multidimensional peacekeeping operations today standardly include a rule of law mandate and in most countries with a UN presence, UN country offices offer rule of law assistance. This contribution explores the relationship between the rule of law as an operational challenge and the rule of law as a subject of political debate within the UN system and suggests that the rule of law was an operational issue first, before it became politically contentious. The rule of law at the United Nations serves as a normative foundation for grounding UN executive action, but in such a way that it works partly ex post facto. This is a surprising insight: the rule of law, traditionally thought to be concerned with containing the exercise of arbitrary power, has played a power-conferring role within the UN system: enabling the UN to promote the rule of law domestically has led to expanding forms of UN executive authority.

Keywords: United Nations; rule of law; law of international organizations; international institutional law; human rights; peace and security

Suggested Citation

Birkenkötter, Hannah, The Power-Conferring Dimension of the Rule of Law at the United Nations (December 20, 2019). 2019 ESIL Annual Research Forum, Goettingen, 4-5 April 2019 , Available at SSRN: or

Hannah Birkenkötter (Contact Author)

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin ( email )

Unter den Linden 6
Berlin, Berlin 10099

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