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.
Obviously, CILT did not emerge from nowhere. Its lineage can be traced in several directions: from American legal realism (and to a lesser degree from Scandinavian legal realism and German Freirechtsjurisprudenz) through critical legal studies; from European critical philosophy (especially French post-structuralism and the Frankfurt School’s critical theory) and Marxism; and from post colonial studies, micro history, and the independence struggles of the formerly colonized states. Thus, the critical project draws from an eclectic disciplinary genealogy, legal realism and the analytic traditions of legal theory, postmodern and post-structuralist theories, postcolonial studies, history, geography, political economy, sociology, feminism and gender studies, and Marxism; critical theory and many other sources inform the CILT canon. Consequently, not all of the works—or even key texts—that one might ascribe to CILT would even be recognized as law or legal theory (let alone as important) by some fellow travelers, and several would almost certainly be dismissed as “beyond the discourse” by many mainstream scholars. This section isolates key texts primarily from the period immediately preceding its emergence as an independent discourse: Lenin 2010 contextualizes and critiques colonialism, and Fanon 2001 essentially founds the concept of postcolonial thinking, which is developed and refined in Said’s seminal book (see Said 2003 for the most recent edition). Kennedy 1976 and Kennedy 1979 offer early engagements with the indeterminacy and structured oppression of law, respectively, and Unger 1976 and Unger 2004 show how these have been disguised and perpetuated but can be undermined. Schmitt 2003 offers an exceptionally lucid early critique of the liberal project of world law/governance. Finally, Hoffmann and Vismann 2005 examines the relevance of Derridian thought in international legal theory.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin, 2001.
The “Bible” of postcolonial studies. The first truly international Third World scholar’s dialectical (and tragically posthumous) masterpiece. An analysis of the systemic, structural, economic, and psychological violence of colonialism. The introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre and the opening chapter on the nature of violence are each classics in their own right. Originally published in 1961(Paris: Maspero).
Hoffmann, Florian, and Cornelia Vismann, eds. Special Issue: A Dedication to Jacques Derrida. German Law Journal 6.1 (2005).
An issue that contains fifteen stimulating essays, each contributing to an understanding of Derrida’s complex thinking (and avoiding his often-obtuse written style), but more important, highlighting the relevance of Derridian thought to the understanding of justice, universality (e.g., human rights discourse), and (international) law.
Kennedy, Duncan. “Form and Substance in Private Law Adjudication.” Harvard Law Review 89.8 (1976): 1685–1778.
The original critical legal studies (CLS) identification and explanation of radical indeterminacy. An analysis of “the opposed rhetorical modes lawyers use, [which] reflect a deeper level of contradiction,” demonstrating that “we are divided, among ourselves and also within ourselves, between irreconcilable visions of humanity and society, and between radically different aspirations for our common future” (p. 1685).
Kennedy, Duncan. “The Structure of Blackstone’s Commentaries.” Buffalo Law Review 28 (1979): 211–382.
Seminal CLS attempt to grapple with the agency-structure debate, and law’s implication therein. Introduces the idea of the “fundamental contradiction” of modern (liberal) thought: relations with others are both necessary to, and incompatible with, our freedom. This basic contradiction lies at the heart of legal indeterminacy and the use of law to legitimate oppression.
Lenin, V. I. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. New York: Penguin, 2010.
The foundational text in Marxist analysis of the European imperial and colonial projects. Draws the links among exploitation, profit seeking, internal industrial appeasement, and the economic necessity of colonial expansion, with accuracy and power. Originally published in 1916.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 2003.
Said’s thesis, that perceptions of the Orient “created” by European “specialists” and exported to the Orient itself have become more important (in Europe by dint of prestige and the politics of knowledge; outside Europe by dint of European force) than any empirical reality, provides the foundation for modern postcolonial thinking. A vitally important expansion of Fanon’s dynamics of difference.
Schmitt, Carl. The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum. New York: Telos, 2003.
Schmitt’s final book—his magnum opus—is large and sometimes dense. However, its insights into the structure, politics, motivation, and function of the International Legal Project—the impossibility of neutrality or procedural solution, its hegemonic structures and effects, the falsity of the law/violence dichotomy—augmented by a lucid, angry writing style, render it an exceptional critique of the liberal project of world law/governance.
Unger, Roberto M. Knowledge and Politics. Rev. ed. New York: Free Press, 1976.
Introduces and develops the key notions of “deep structure” and “total critique,” which will ultimately separate CLS/CILT from the reformist-critical strands of mainstream legal thinking and theorizing.
Unger, Roberto M. False Necessity. Rev. ed. London: Verso, 2004.
Attacks the basic maneuver of mainstream legal and political theory/methodology: the claim that “there is no alternative,” that a particular interpretation of a particular law is made necessary by extra-interpretative exigencies. This book demonstrates the techniques by which contingent “political” choices are transformed into (passed off as) impersonal necessities. Thus, it demonstrates that all law identification, interpretation, and application are products not of necessity or expertise, but of choice.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and the Af...
- Agreements, Bilateral and Regional Trade
- Agreements, Multilateral Environmental
- Arctic Region
- Armed Opposition Groups
- Aut Dedere Aut Judicare
- Bandung Conference, The
- Children's Rights
- Civil Service, International
- Collective Security
- Command Responsibility
- Common Heritage of Mankind
- Complementarity Principle
- Conspiracy/Joint Criminal Enterprise
- Constitutional Law, International
- Consular Relations
- Contemporary Catholic Approaches
- Cooperation in Criminal Matters, Cross-Border
- Courts, International
- Crimes against Humanity
- Criminal Law, International
- Cultural Rights
- Cyber Warfare
- Development Law, International
- Dispute Settlement
- Disputes, Peaceful Settlement of
- Drugs, International Regulation, and Criminal Liability
- Early 19th Century, 1789-1870
- Economic Law, International
- Enforcement of Human Rights
- Environmental Compliance Mechanisms
- Environmental Institutions, International
- Environmental Law, International
- European Arrest Warrant
- Extraterritorial Application of Human Rights Treaties
- Feminist Approaches to International Law
- Financial Law, International
- Foreign Investment
- Freedom of Expression
- French Revolution
- General Customary Law
- General Principles of Law
- Grotius, Hugo
- Habeas Corpus
- History of International Law, 1550-1700
- Hostilities, Direct Participation in
- Human Rights
- Human Rights and Regional Protection, Relativism and Unive...
- Human Rights, European Court of
- Human Rights, Foundations of
- Human Trafficking
- Hybrid International Criminal Tribunals
- Immunity, Sovereign
- Indigenous Peoples
- Institutional Law
- International and Non-International Armed Conflict, Detent...
- International Court of Justice
- International Criminal Court, The
- International Criminal Law, Complicity in
- International Humanitarian Law
- International Humanitarian Law, Targeting in
- International Investment Arbitration
- International Law, Aggression in
- International Law, Climate Change and
- International Law, Hegemony in
- International Law, Military Intervention in
- International Law, Peacekeeping in
- International Law, Proportionality in
- International Law, Reasonableness in
- International Law, Self-Determination in
- International Law, State Responsibility in
- International Law, the State in
- International Law, the Turn to History in
- International Law, Unequal Treaties in
- International Law, Use of Force in
- International Trade and Human Rights
- Intervention, Humanitarian
- Investment Protection Treaties
- Islamic Law and Human Rights
- Jurisprudence (Judicial Law-Making)
- Jus Cogens
- Law of Treaties, The
- League of Nations, The
- Lebanon, Special Tribunal for
- Liability for International Environmental Harm
- Maritime Delimitation
- Martens Clause
- Medieval International Law
- Mens Rea, International Crimes
- Military Necessity
- Military Occupation
- Modes of Participation
- Most-Favored-Nation Clauses
- Multinational Corporations in International Law
- Nationality and Statelessness
- Natural Law
- New Approaches to International Law
- Non liquet
- Nonstate Actors
- Nuclear Proliferation
- Nuremberg Trials
- Organizations, International
- Palestine (and the Israel Question)
- Peace Treaties
- Political Science, International Law and
- Protection, Diplomatic
- Rational Choice Theory
- Russian Approaches to International Law
- Sanctions, International
- Soft Law
- Space Law
- Spanish School of International Law (c. 16th and 17th Cent...
- Sports Law, International
- State of Necessity
- State Succession
- Superior Orders
- Territorial Title
- Theory, Critical International Legal
- Transnational Corruption
- Treaty Interpretation
- Ukrainian Approaches
- Underwater Cultural Heritage
- Unilateral Acts
- Universal Jurisdiction
- Uti Possidetis Iuris
- Vatican and the Holy See
- Victims' Rights, International Criminal Law, and Proceedin...
- Watercourses, International
- Western Sahara