Between History and Values: A Study on the Nature of Interpretation in International Law
240 Pages Posted: 28 Sep 2005
Date Written: September 2005
My thesis discusses the place of evaluative judgements in the interpretation of general international law. It concentrates on two questions. First, whether it is possible to interpret international legal practices without making an evaluative judgement about the point or value that provides the best justification of these practices. Second, whether the use of evaluative judgements in international legal interpretation threatens to undermine the objectivity of international law, the neutrality of international lawyers or the consensual and voluntary basis of the international legal system.
I answer both questions in the negative. As regards the first, I argue that international legal practice has an interpretive structure, which combines appeals to the history of international practice with appeals to the principles and values that these practices are best understood as promoting. This interpretive structure is apparent not only in the claims of international lawyers about particular rules of international law (here I use the rule of estoppel as an example) but also in the most basic intuitions of international theorists about the theory and sources of general international law.
I then argue that some popular concerns to the effect that the exercise of evaluation in the interpretation of international law will undermine the coherence or the usefulness of the discipline are generally unwarranted. The fact that international legal practice has an interpretive structure does not entail that propositions of international law are only subjectively true, that the interpreter enjoys license to manipulate their meaning for self-serving purposes, or that international law will collapse under the weight of irresolvable disagreements, divisions and conflicts about its proper interpretation.
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