Tag Archives book launch

Globalisation, international law and the elusive concept of ‘global justice’ by Jeff Handmaker and Karin Arts

We all talk about the search for ‘global justice’, but what does it really mean, and how can international law help achieve it? The elusive concept of ‘global justice’ is discussed in a new book launched tomorrow at the ISS and edited by ISS scholars Jeff Handmaker and Karin Arts. This blog post shortly introduces the book, which seeks to show how legal vocabularies have framed the possibilities for mobilising international law as an instrument for attaining global justice.


Just as is the case with the term globalisation, notions of justice, and even more so global justice, have been elusive and difficult concepts to define. While questions on the rule of law still reveal a liberal leaning, broader questions have also come up, asking: how can law serve as an instrument of global justice?  Such questions explore among others the politics of state (non-)compliance with these norms and the strategic challenges involved in accomplishing global justice.[1]


Similar to conceptualisations of justice, the function of law as an instrument for global justice is ambiguous, too. Law and legal institutions articulate bold promises, yet contain very definite limits to what they can deliver, let alone explain in relation to complex social phenomena.

Legal perspectives have a very different starting point than other scholarly perspectives, particularly within the social sciences. While there are numerous viewpoints among legal scholars about the content of law, its origins, interpretations, and the institutions created to enforce it, legal scholarship has generally resisted multi- or inter-disciplinary study.

On the other side of the scholarly plain, social scientists often misunderstand law. Law has been regarded as irrelevant, particularly by scholars studying culture in relation to identity, race, lifestyle, ritual, and other factors, conceptualising law and culture as ‘distinct realms of action and only marginally related to one another’. [2]

In our understanding, in so many respects law fulfils a central function in society, in political discourse and in social relations. But its resistance to other scholarly perspectives, and the way in which some legal scholars fail to critically address the normative, liberal bias embedded in law has limited our understanding of the complex interactions between politics and law, not to mention its potential as a vehicle for reaching global justice.


Martti Koskenniemi, whose work is a major intellectual reference point for the book, has argued that there is a ‘structural bias’ embedded within global governance institutions, itself a consequence of the fragmentation of international law.[3] According to this concept, international law is not the homogenous system it once was, but has evolved into ‘a wide variety of specialist vocabularies and institutions’.[4] However, the rhetoric of rights has lost its ‘transformative effect’ through over-legalistic explanations and is ‘not as powerful as it claims to be’.[5] Koskenniemi argues that one should look beyond the normative liberal tendency that underpins the world view of many lawyers, that is, to look beyond the content of law.

On the one hand, Koskenniemi argued that international law has been criticised as ‘too apologetic to be taken seriously’ because of its dependence on the political power, and thus the power politics of states.[6] On the other hand, international law has been considered to be too far removed from power politics and thus ‘too utopian’ (or speculative) to meet the challenges of a complex globalised world.[7]

Rather than forming an objective system of ‘concrete and normative’ and therefore ‘valid’ and ‘binding’ rules, as many lawyers claim them to be, Koskenniemi observed that international legal rules were, in fact, highly malleable.

From a different vantage point, in her chapter in our book, Barbara Oomen argues that realising human rights at the municipal level holds tremendous potential for fostering a culture of constitutionalism. Oomen suggests that Koskenniemi’s distinction between talking either ‘rabbitese’ or ‘duckalese’, respectively the language of politics or that of the law, might not be that simple in local practice.

This book as a whole shows in various ways how legal vocabularies have framed the possibilities for mobilising international law for global justice. In addition to showing how this legal mobilisation can potentially hold states, corporations or individuals accountable for violations of international law, numerous inconsistencies within the global liberal legal order are revealed.

[1] David Barnhizer, Effective Strategies for Protecting Human Rights (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001) and Christopher Lamont, International Criminal Justice and the Politics of Non-Compliance (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010).
[2] Naomi Mezey, ‘Law as Culture’ (2001) 13 Yale Law Journal, 35-67 at 35.
[3] Martti Koskennimi ‘The politics of international law – 20 years later’ (2009) 20(1) European Journal of International Law, 7-19: at p. 9.
[4] Ibid., p. 12.
[5] Koskenniemi (2011), at p. 133.
[6] Ibid., p. 9.
[7] Ibid.

This blogpost is an adaptation of the introduction to our edited book Mobilising International Law for ‘Global Justice’ (2019, Cambridge University Press, https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108586665), that is first launched at the International Institute of Social Studies on 30 November 2018.

About the authors:



Jeff Handmaker is Senior Lecturer in Law, Human Rights and Development and csm_4fe244a1a72e59e9c42dc150abedd9c6-karin-arts_78559ee7d1 Karin Arts is Professor of International Law and Development, both at the ISS.