Public international law and the pursuit of universality

Carl Lewis*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Summary – C.E. Lewis – ‘Public International Law and the Pursuit of Universality’

Despite a myriad of contributions from within the discipline of public international law that have sought to reveal how the concept of the universal can and arguably has been employed for imperialistic ends, there remain norms, such as international human rights norms, which are still defended as embodying universal values. In fact, such claims form part of a persistent and seemingly irresolvable doctrinal debate over the universality of international law, the resolution of which carries both practical and theoretical implications for our understanding of the discipline as a whole. This thesis argues that the doctrinal stalemate over the universality of international law can be reconciled, however, by addressing the conceptual confusion that surrounds several key concepts that lie at its core. Specifically, it argues that public international lawyers have a lot to gain from exploring what philosophers and sociologists have uncovered in respect to both the concept of the universal and values, and offers a defense for the pursuit of universality that can stand up to the critique of imperialism.

To do so, the thesis takes an alternative, interdisciplinary approach to the existing literature, applying the results gained from philosophical analyses of core concepts at the heart of the doctrinal debate, to the realm of international law. Its primary focus, in this respect, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), an international legal document that openly claims universality, and which is identified as the ideal specimen for applying the results of the thesis’ conceptual analyses. Its conclusions nevertheless apply beyond the international human rights regime, and aim to provide a solid basis for testing the universality of any norm of international law.

The thesis reveals how philosophers subscribe to one strict sense of the universal, which ought not to be confused with either the uniform or the common. And by exploring the context and contingencies surrounding the drafting of the UDHR, shows that one cannot defend the universality of the norms held therein, at least not in a monological sense. Yet, by turning to Jürgen Habermas’ universal pragmatics and dialogical reformulation of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, the thesis argues that Article 1 of the UDHR does embody the practical normative content of the universal, which all must accept on pain of performative contradiction. It does not, however, support the claim that Article 1 of the UDHR therefore grounds the universality of the rest of the norms of the Declaration, nor international human rights in general. Nor does the thesis support a claim that the UDHR embodies universal values. Yet, contrary to what critics from within the doctrine of international law and philosophy have argued, the thesis contends that this is not due to values being akin to irreconcilable preferences. Rather, by enquiring into sociology and the works of Hans Joas, the thesis reveals how value commitments not only bind their addressees, much like norms, but that a synthesis can be reached between cultures with competing value commitments, as demonstrated through Joas’ interpretation of the process of value generalisation. Thus, whilst a further analysis of the UDHR shows that it cannot be considered a successful product of such value generalisation, nor a document of values, it is nevertheless maintained that value talk need not be avoided altogether within international law.

The thesis concludes by defending the argument that much like how Article 1 UDHR operates as the touchstone for international human rights – a goal to aim for, even if it may never be truly achieved in practice – so too can it be defended as the regulative ideal for international law in general. Thus, the pursuit of universality in the context of international law ought not to be abandoned, for it is in light of this pursuit, and the open recognition of its perpetuity, that one may demand the improvement of the international legal order.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Tilburg University
  • Lindahl, Hans, Promotor
  • Rajkovic, Nikolas, Promotor
  • Christodoulidis, E., Promotor, External person
Award date12 May 2020
Print ISBNs978-94-6380-789-0
Publication statusPublished - 12 May 2020


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