Critical International Legal Theory

Jason Beckett

in International Law

ISBN: 9780199796953
Published online March 2012 | | DOI:
Critical International Legal Theory

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  • International Law
  • International Courts and Tribunals
  • Private International Law and Conflict of Laws
  • Public International Law


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Although most writings on public international law (PIL) possess an esprit critique, what distinguishes critical international legal theory (CILT) is a sense that the failings in the project are not marginal or exceptional, but endemic, consistent, and structural. Known as CLS (critical legal studies), NAIL (new approaches to international law), Newstream, or simply “the crits,” this school of thought uses a broad array of techniques to address separate, but interrelated, failings perceived in the international legal project: gender biases; racialized exclusions and differentiations; class, poverty, and exploitation; cultural imperialisms; and hidden violence. The critical project is primarily an ethical one, often conducted analytically and (in a loose sense) deconstructively. Revealing and destabilizing common assumptions and “false” empirical claims, CLS aims to show the cruelty of the current systems of law, and its reign over a world where 50,000 human beings lose their lives, needlessly and avoidably, every single day. From a critical perspective, mainstream PIL appears solipsistic and blind to the plain facts of reality. Thus, CILT tries to focus on empirical occurrences, historical continuities (and ruptures), on a world outside of legal texts and conference proceedings. In this sense, it can very aptly be understood as a successor to the legal realist projects of the early 20th century, focusing on the effects of law—and not merely postulating absences to be filled—but also on the lack of effectiveness in law; for example, the poor need food, not simply a “right to food.” Likewise, in a quasi-Marxist vein, the substantive inequalities disguised and perpetuated by formal equality garner critical concern and attention. CILT is perhaps best understood as a discourse, or movement, about responsibility; about taking responsibility for our actions—and our profession— and refusing to hide behind claims of neutrality, impartiality, expertise, objectivity, optimality, or any other technicalization. The mainstream claims of objectivity, neutrality, and determinacy are not targeted for fun or mischief making, but because they function to disguise or evade responsibility—to focus attention on technical expertise rather than moral accountability. Above all, then, CILT is a progressive discourse, attempting to make real and positive changes in the world of distributions and outcomes, or, at the very least, to highlight and delegitimize the mechanisms that preclude these changes. As a result, CILT lacks any obsessive respect for disciplinary boundaries and the narrowly focused research that they produce and promote.

Article.  13055 words. 

Subjects: International Law ; International Courts and Tribunals ; Private International Law and Conflict of Laws ; Public International Law

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