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The Individual in International Law – History and Theory

Head of Section:

Anne Peters

About the Project:

The interrelationship between international law and the interests and needs of individuals (also relative to other actors) has been the subject of growing interest by scholars in recent years. Moreover, a myriad of shifts across the corpus of international law show that the international legal system is now more closely aligned to the interests and even rights of the individual than at any time in the last century. These changes have been described as a humanisation of international law.

So far, scholarly analysis of the individual’s position has mainly examined the positive law. There remains a gap regarding questions from the perspectives of history and theory. The lack of an adequate historical and theoretical grounding for this area of law impedes the understanding of positive law more widely, both in scholarship and in the practice of law.

Absent a longitudinal view of the historical legal development, it is more difficult to assess the scale and significance of the positive law changes that have been identified. It is an open question whether these represent a “next step” in the development of an international legal system that remains grounded in a set of premises stable through time, or whether this is a moment of decisive break with international law as it has been practiced and interpreted in the past. Similarly, it is unclear whether the shift towards human and human community interests is novel, or rather a return to an earlier system logic which applied prior to the positivist turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Theoretical inquiry into the relationship between individuals, States and international law promises insights into the adequacy of the theoretical paradigms ranging from iusnaturalism through feminism to neomarxism. Exploration of the boundaries of legally sound arguments as constructed in the paradigm can be used to “test” or confirm the insights that have been generated by the positive law analysis. Inversely, asking which theoretical paradigms can explain and accomodate the changes in positive law (for example as a manifestation of an anthropolgical constante, or of a gendered society, or as a capitalist plot) offers an opportunity to assess the coherence and continued relevance of the theoretical positions.

The project is likely to touch upon a number of the most pressing current problems of international law: Human rights, international humanitarian law, environmental law, international criminal law, international jurisdiction, questions of sovereignty, and the appropriate status to be given to non-State and non-human actors (such as corporations, terror groups, and independence movements). Secondly, the insights of the project will enable an assessment of the extent, scale, and significance of the positive law changes that have to date been identified in the academic literature.

In the first phase of the project, we are organising a workshop that will bring together leading academics from the various fields concerned. That workshop will take place in June 2021. Thereafter, the contributions from the workshop will be published as a collected volume, edited by the project team.



Mo’s Footprints in the Sand

The banner image features the painting Mo’s Footprints in the Sand - Portuairk, Ardnamurchan by the Scottish artist John Lowrie Morrison. The painting depicts the beaches at Portuairk, one of the most westerly towns on the mainland of Scotland. It is located on the Ardnamurchan peninsular, renowned for its remoteness and un-spoilt beauty. The focal point of the painting is the image of the lone walker, reflecting the theme of our project and volume, while the emphasis on blues in the colour pallet, together with the serenity and dynamism of the use of the oils in the landscape and the sky, invokes a hopeful future. We are deeply grateful to John Lowrie Morrison for kind permission to use the image.

Permission Copyright: John Lowrie Morrison OBE.

Staff Member(s):

Tom Sparks

Workshops and Events

International Authors' Workshop, 17-18 June 2021

Anne Peters and Tom Sparks convened an online workshop in order to discuss the draft contributions to our edited volume, The Individual in International Law - History and Theory. The workshop took place on the 17th and 18th June, 2021 via Zoom. Logistical information was sent to the authors and invited engaged listeners.



International Authors' Workshop

We are grateful to the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft for their generous support of our international authors workshop.

Further Link

Of possible further interest the project: Individual Rights and Needs under International Law