The Promise of International Law: A Third World View

Grotius Lecture Presented at the 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law

68 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2020 Last revised: 31 Aug 2020

See all articles by James Thuo Gathii

James Thuo Gathii

Loyola University Chicago School of Law

Date Written: June 25, 2020


This is a moment of repudiation of international law and of reckoning with racial injustice and committing to anti-racism. Some of the leading States that have shaped international law are not only exiting treaties, but also openly declaring and operating outside its rules. This lecture argues that one important way to trace the promise of international law at this moment of difficulty is to go outside the beltway of our discipline to places often unfamiliar in our textbooks and the locations where we practice and teach international law. To do that, this lecture will take you to places like Arusha, Tanzania, the seat of three international courts.

In doing so, the lecture will bring into our conversation the voices of international lawyers from the Third World and the everyday issues that drive their practice and scholarship often under very difficult political circumstances. To appreciate fully the promise of international law, it is important to go beyond the usual debates, places and canons of our discipline in two ways.

First, this lecture challenges the limited geography of places and ideas that dominate the beltway of our discipline. This limited geography and set of ideas is characterized by the law of Geneva, the law of Strasbourg, the law of New York and that of Washington DC. These are the places that our discipline celebrates as producers of the type of international law which in turn becomes the benchmark for the efficacy of international law produced elsewhere. These are also the locations where the bulk of international legal practice is produced and which influences and reinforces our understandings not only of international practice but also of international law more generally.

My second major point in this lecture, which proceeds from a Third Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) perspective, is that TWAIL speaks from a subaltern epistemic location. This means that TWAIL questions international law’s presumed universality. TWAIL contests the idea that international law is applicable everywhere and that we should therefore regard it as a view from nowhere. Third World States and TWAIL scholars have contested this non−situated, universal status of international law in a variety of ways. Ultimately, this lecture defends the claim that the Third World is an epistemic site of production and not merely a site of reception of international legal knowledge. Recognizing and grounding the Third World as a site knowledge production and of the practice of international law disrupts the assumptions that international legal knowledge is exclusively produced in the West for consumption and governance of the Third World. This lecture therefore argues that what is at stake is not an issue of inclusion or exclusion of non-western peoples, states within Western international law. Rather, it involves considerations of the very terms of the constitutional order of 'post-Enlightenment social knowledge, its structures of thought, and related constructions of political subjectivity'.

A bibliography of TWAIL scholarship from 1996 to 2019 is appended to this lecture.

Suggested Citation

Gathii, James Thuo, The Promise of International Law: A Third World View (June 25, 2020). Grotius Lecture Presented at the 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law, Available at SSRN:

James Thuo Gathii (Contact Author)

Loyola University Chicago School of Law ( email )

25 East Pearson
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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