Ruti Teitel’s ‘Humanity’s Law’

by Ralph Wilde

This excellent book is remarkable for its wide and deep use of work from international relations literature, bridging the disciplines of international law and international relations as few have done previously.  There is a significant body of writing in international law where the ideas from particular theoretical traditions in broader scholarship, sometimes the ideas of individual scholars, are brought to bear on international law generally or, more usually, one particular area of law.  What remains unusual is the relatively ambitious, full-spectrum approach offered here, which references ideas across a diverse range of thinkers in the context of the ‘international’, effectively engaging in debate within the field of international relations scholarship generally—rather than simply cherry-picking certain ideas from it, and leaving the field as such as it was—and doing so with a deftness and clear authority.

Teitel’s book comes at a significant stage in the history of ideas about the role of the individual in international law.  There has been, of course, a long tradition in international legal scholarship of making a case for the centrality of the individual as the normative core of the international legal system.  For many years, with a system concerned predominantly (if not exclusively) with the rights and duties of states, such an argument had to be made largely on the basis of liberal notions (whether or not acknowledged as such) of the state’s legitimacy being rooted in its
protection of individuals.   As international law became directly applicable to individuals, with the advent of international human rights law, international criminal law, and those areas of the law of armed conflict/international humanitarian law also concerned partly with the rights and duties of individuals, there was no longer any doubt about the important place that the individual occupied in the international legal system.  At the same time, as the substantive content of international law increased, in terms of both the range of subject-matter the law purports to regulate, and the specificity and complexity of the regulatory framework deployed in each case, work emerged seeking to understand how international law might ‘fragment’, what might bring ‘unity’, and what underlying principles might guide attempts to mediate the interplay between mutually contradictory, overlapping normative systems.  Considerations of normative ideas concerned with the individual usually figured prominently in such work, whether as examples of fragmentation—human rights law is sometimes represented as the paradigmatic case-study of a ‘siloed’ area of international law—or as examples of meta-norms that might unify and/or ‘trump’ in areas of conflict.

So far, so familiar.   What marks out Teitel’s work in this context is her successful effort to engage in a comparative treatment of the key areas of international law directly applicable to individuals, of an unrivalled theoretical and empirical depth.  That such a study has the potential to offer insights as rich as those presented here is possible, in part, because of the moment at which it has been produced.  International human rights law is now a dense field that has been subject to significant contested treatment across a wide range of interpretative fora, from national, regional and international courts and tribunals to the work of international organizations, NGO activism and scholarship.  In the period since the end of the cold war, international criminal law and the other obligations of and protections for individuals in the law of armed conflict have moved beyond the Nuremberg and Tokyo legacy and ‘grave breaches’ provisions to the range of international and ‘hybrid’ criminal tribunals and developments in the use of universal jurisdiction nationally.  Certainly, students of the international system, in international relations and international law, need an account of these developments if they are to understand a key component of the present system, and Teitel offers the best account currently available, in terms of authority, breadth and comprehensiveness.

But the book is much more important than that, because Teitel draws on her survey of the key areas of international law concerned with individuals to theorize about the nature of the international legal system more generally.  Here, the work is significant because it is able to draw on an acutely insightful, detailed, authoritative and up to date treatment of the workings of key areas of law—an ability that is increasingly rare in much theoretical work written about the law by both international lawyers and international relations scholars—when theorizing about the law.  In this sense, a focus on a sub-set of international law renders the project manageable: a treatment of the nature of the international legal system rooted in as detailed and comprehensive treatment of the substantive law as is offered here would have been impossible (does that mean the end of international legal theory as it was once written, when the quantum of international law was of a size that rendered
it cognizable in its entirety?).  But Teitel’s observations about the structural features of international law discerned from her study of a sub-set of the substantive law may well be transferable.  In consequence, this book deserves to be read by those who work in other fields of international law, since for them it offers not only an important refresher in areas of law they may well feel they should stay on top of, but also significant and valuable insights into the nature of the legal system which have the potential to inform understandings of the dynamics in their areas of law.

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