Subsidiarity as a Structural Principle of International Human Rights Law

American Journal of International Law, Vol. 97, p. 38, 2003

42 Pages Posted: 8 May 2007


This article argues that the principle of subsidiarity should be recognized as a structural principle of international human rights law primarily because of the way that it mediates between the universalizing aspirations of human rights and the fact of the diversity of human communities in the world. The idea of subsidiarity is deeply consonant with the substantive vision of human dignity and the universal common good that is expressed through human rights norms. Yet, at the same time it promotes respect for pluralism by emphasizing the freedom of more local communities to realize their own ends for themselves.

Looking at the place of subsidiarity in international law generally, the article argues that subsidiarity is a more accurate and powerful way of understanding the relationship of human rights to international law and to the roles of states in the global community. Using the constitutional structure of the European Union as a starting point, the article presents subsidiarity as a conceptual alternative to classic notions of state sovereigny, which relativizes but does not eliminate the roles of nation states. The analysis shows that in many ways, subsidiarity is already immanent in the existing structures and doctrines of international human rights law, and provides a better explanation for a number of otherwise problematic features of international human rights law, such as the "margin of appreciation" and reservations to universal human rights treaties.

Finally, the article defends the idea and use of the principle of subsidiarity against critiques that resist the legal pluralism that subsidiarity fosters and protects. It argues that philosophical, legal and political objections to pluralism in international human rights law are misdirected, and that an international legal system structured in accordance with subsidiarity can best combine the values of universality and diversity that respect for human rights requires.

Keywords: subsidiarity, human rights, pluralism, universality, common good, sovereignty, international law theory

Suggested Citation

Carozza, Paolo G., Subsidiarity as a Structural Principle of International Human Rights Law. American Journal of International Law, Vol. 97, p. 38, 2003, Available at SSRN:

Paolo G. Carozza (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States

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