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International Law, Cultural Diversity, and Democratic Rule: Beyond the Divide Between Universalism and Relativism

  • Niels PETERSEN (a1)

Abstract

The conflict between ethical universalism and cultural diversity remains a pre-eminent problem of the present international legal system. International law is in a dilemma. It cannot abstain from adopting some material values as the international community cannot be indifferent to the suppressions of citizens or certain minorities by totalitarian regimes. Yet the international legal system must not become an instrument of Western cultural imperialism by negating any cultural differences. This contribution argues that international law is a framework concept prescribing certain basic values. However, these values are not absolute and must be balanced against competing interests. In this balancing process, states have considerable political discretion. This concept will be exemplified by an analysis of the debate on the existence of a right to democratic governance in international law. It will be shown that even though international law does not require states to be democratic, it nevertheless imposes certain standards of legitimacy.

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Senior Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, Bonn, Germany. This contribution is based on a presentation given by the author at the Second Biennial General Conference of the Asian Society of International Law, Tokyo, Japan, 1–2 August 2009. I am very grateful to Christoph Engel, Stefan Kadelbach, and Monia Manaa, as well as to two anonymous reviewers, for comments and critiques, and to Brian Cooper for his excellent linguistic revision of the text.

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References

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1. Seminally, see FRIEDMANN, Wolfgang Gaston, The Changing Structure of International Law (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).

2. KADELBACH, Stefan, “Ethik des Völkerrechts unter Bedingungen der Globalisierung” (2004) 64 Heidelberg Journal of International Law 1.

3. Notably, some strands of the constitutionalist school try to conceptualize international law from a universal ethical foundation. See GOWLLAND-DEBBAS, Vera, “Judicial Insights into Fundamental Values and Interests of the International Community” in A. Sam MULLER, David RAIČ, and J.M. THURÁNSZKY, eds., The International Court of Justice: Its Future Role After Fifty Years (The Hague; Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1997), 327; TOMUSCHAT, Christian, “International Law: Ensuring the Survival of Mankind on the Eve of a New Century” (1999) 281 Recueil des Cours 10 at 13; PETERS, Anne, “Compensatory Constitutionalism: The Function and Potential of Fundamental International Norms and Structures” (2006) 19 Leiden Journal of International Law 579; DE WET, Erika, “The International Constitutional Order” (2006) 55 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 51. The school of liberal legal thinking and the New Haven school also build their conceptions of international law on a universal understanding of certain values. For the former, see SLAUGHTER, Anne-Marie, “International Law and International Relations Theory: A Dual Agenda” (1993) 87 American Journal of International Law 205. For the latter, see McDOUGAL, Myres S. and LASSWELL, Harold D., “The Identification and Appraisal of Diverse Systems of Public Order” (1959) 53 American Journal of International Law 1.

4. See SEN, Amartya, The Idea of Justice (London; New York: Allen Lane, 2009), who stresses the impossibility of identifying one global just institutional order. See also D’ASPREMONT, Jean, “The Foundations of the International Legal Order” (2007) 18 Finnish Yearbook of International Law 219, who emphasizes the contingency of ethical values and thus proposes focusing on common interests instead.

5. POLLIS, Adamantia and SCHWAB, Peter, “Human Rights: A Western Construct with Limited Applicability” in Adamantia POLLIS and Peter SCHWAB, eds., Human Rights: Cultural and Ideological Perspectives (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1979), 1 at 24.

6. See the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association, “Statement on Human Rights” (1947) 49 American Anthropologist 539.

7. See SORNARAJAH, M., “The Asian Perspective to International Law in the Age of Globalization” (2001) 5 Singapore Journal of International and Comparative Law 284.

8. OPPENHEIM, Lassa Francis Lawrence, edited by Hersch LAUTERPACHT, International Law: A Treatise, 8th ed. (London; New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1955) at 737.

9. Some scholars argue that the mere fact that rights are created for the individual already establishes the need for a universal conception of human rights. See e.g., TESÓN, Fernando R., “International Human Rights and Cultural Relativism” (1985) 25 Virginia Journal of International Law 869.

10. KOSKENNIEMI, Martti, “The Pull of the Mainstream” (1990) 88 Michigan Law Review 1946 at 19491950.

11. See ONUMA, Yasuaki, “Towards an Intercivilizational Approach to Human Rights” (1997) 7 Asian Yearbook of International Law 21 at 25 (noting that authoritarian governments may possess a certain legitimacy despite not fully complying with Western human rights concepts).

12. RAWLS, John, “The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus” (1987) 7 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 1.

13. See also OWADA, Hisashi, “Some Reflections on Justice in a Globalizing World” (2003) 97 ASIL Proceedings 181 at 191 (making a similar proposal by promoting the establishment of a common framework of public order); Onuma, supra note 11 at 37 (proposing an intercivilizational approach to human rights).

14. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, GA Res. 217A (III), UN Doc. A/810 (1948) [UDHR].

15. GHAI, Yash, “Universalism and Relativism: Human Rights as a Framework for Negotiating Interethnic Claims” (2000) 21 Cardozo Law Review 1095 at 1099.

16. See KUMM, Mattias, “Liberale Gerechtigkeitstheorien und die Struktur der Grundrechte” in Robert ALEXY, ed., Juristische Grundlagenforschung (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2005), 218 at 220.

17. The concept of individual rights as principles has been elaborated on in ALEXY, Robert, A Theory of Constitutional Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) at 4469.

18. See KADELBACH, Stefan and KLEINLEIN, Thomas, “International Law—a Constitution of Mankind? Attempt at a Re-appraisal with an Analysis of Constitutional Principles” (2007) 50 German Yearbook of International Law 303 at 337338; PETERSEN, Niels, “Customary Law Without Custom? Rules, Principles, and the Role of State Practice in International Norm Creation” (2008) 23 American University International Law Review 275 at 287288.

19. See Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, World Conference on Human Rights, UN Doc. A/CONF.157/23 (1993).

20. See in particular, ONUMA, Yasuaki, “In Quest of Intercivilizational Human Rights: ‘Universal’ vs. ‘Relative’: Human Rights Viewed from an Asian Perspective” (2000) 1 Asia-Pacific Journal on Human Rights and the Law 53.

21. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 19 December 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171 (entered into force 23 March 1976) [ICCPR]; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 19 December 1966, 993 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force 3 January 1976) [ICESCR].

22. ICCPR, supra note 21, art. 19(3).

23. Ibid., art. 6(1). On the notion of arbitrary deprivation, see PETERSEN, Niels, “Life, Right to International Protection” in Rüdiger WOLFRUM, ed., Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (MPEPIL) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), online: MPEPIL 〈www.mpepil.com〉, para. 15.

24. See BUERGENTHAL, Thomas, “To Respect and to Ensure: State Obligations and Permissible Derogations” in Louis HENKIN, ed., The International Bill of Rights: The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 72 at 7778; NOWAK, Manfred, UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: CCPR Commentary (Kehl, Germany; Arlington, Virginia: N.P. Engel, 1993) at 45, para. 20.

25. Seminally, in Handyside v. United Kingdom, Judgment of 12 December 1976, (1976) 1 E.H.R.R. 737 at paras. 48–50.

26. See SHANY, Yuval, “Toward a General Margin of Appreciation Doctrine in International Law?” (2005) 16 European Journal of International Law 907.

27. For an attempt to transfer the margin of appreciation doctrine to the universal level in order to cope with the problem with cultural relativism, see BREMS, Eva, “The Margin of Appreciation Doctrine in the Case-Law of the European Court of Human Rights” (1996) 56 Heidelberg Journal of International Law 240 at 310312; DONOHO, Douglas Lee, “Autonomy, Self-Governance, and the Margin of Appreciation: Developing a Jurisprudence of Diversity within Universal Human Rights” (2001) 15 Emory International Law Review 391.

28. See MAHONEY, Paul, “Marvellous Richness of Diversity or Invidious Cultural Relativism?” (1998) 19 Human Rights Law Journal 1 at 5 (stressing the importance of the legitimacy of the aim when controlling the borders of the margin of appreciation).

29. See BENVENISTI, Eyal, “Margin of Appreciation, Consensus, and Universal Standards” (1999) 31 New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 843 at 847.

30. Compare with WIATER, Patricia, Kulturpluralismus als Herausforderung für Rechtstheorie und Rechtspraxis (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2009) at 346347 (noting that the main instrument of the ECtHR for controlling the margin of appreciation of the Member States of the Convention is a deconstruction of the argumentation of the state authorities).

31. HUTCHINSON, Michael R., “The Margin of Appreciation Doctrine in the European Court of Human Rights” (1999) 48 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 638 at 641; BRAUCH, Jeffrey A., “The Margin of Appreciation and the Jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights: Threat to the Rule of Law” (2005) 11 Columbia Journal of European Law 113.

32. KOSKENNIEMI, Martti, From Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005 reprint) at 591.

33. Seminally, FRANCK, Thomas M., “The Emerging Right to Democratic Governance” (1992) 86 American Journal of International Law 46; FOX, Gregory H., “The Right to Political Participation in International Law” (1992) 17 Yale Journal of International Law 539.

34. See e.g., Mahathir bin MOHAMAD, “Agenda for a New Asia” (Keynote Address, Hong Kong, 28 October 2000), online: ASEAN 〈www.aseansec.org/2805.htm〉.

35. IGNATIEFF, Michael, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001) at 68; MERKEL, Wolfgang, Demokratie in Asien: Ein Kontinent zwischen Diktatur und Demokratie (Bonn: J.H.W. Dietz, 2003) at 91.

36. KERSTING, Wolfgang, Die politische Philosophie des Gesellschaftsvertrags (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1994) at 11.

37. See Immanuel KANT, translated and edited by GREGOR, Mary, The Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996) at 91, para. 46:

The legislative power can belong only to the united will of the people. For since all right is supposed to emanate from this power, the laws it gives must be absolutely incapable of doing anyone an injustice. Now, if someone makes dispositions for another person, it is always possible that he may thereby do him an injustice, although this is never possible in the case of decisions he makes for himself (for volenti non fit injuria).

38. Seminally, Alexis DE TOCQUEVILLE, translated and edited by MANSFIELD, Harvey C. and WINTHROP, Delba, Democracy in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); BROMWICH, David and KATEB, George, eds., John Stuart MILL, On Liberty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

39. ESTLUND, David, “Making Truth Safe for Democracy” in David COPP, Jean HAMPTON, and John E. ROEMER, eds., The Idea of Democracy (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 71.

40. Certainly, performance is not related only to economic development, but may also refer to other fields such as quality of life in general or the rule of law.

41. The argument in this section relies on PRZEWORSKI, Adam et al. , Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950–1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) at 142186, which is probably the most sophisticated study in this field. See also SHAPIRO, Ian, The State of Democratic Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003) at 86.

42. Przeworski et al., supra note 41 at 166–76.

43. Ibid., at 176–7.

44. Ibid.

45. PRZEWORSKI, Adam and LIMONGI, Fernando, “Political Regimes and Economic Growth” (1993) 7 Journal of Economic Perspectives 51 at 55; OBINGER, Herbert, “Demokratie und Wirtschaftswachstum” (2001) 8 Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen 321 at 323; CAROTHERS, Thomas, “The ‘Sequencing’ Fallacy” (2007) 18 Journal of Democracy 12 at 14.

46. RAWLS, John, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknapp Press, 1999) at 1015.

47. See LIPSET, Seymour Martin, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy” (1959) 53 American Political Science Review 69; DIAMOND, Larry, “Economic Development and Democracy Reconsidered” in Gary MARKS and Larry DIAMOND, eds., Reexamining Democracy: Essays in Honor of Seymour Martin Lipset (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992) at 93; PRZEWORSKI, Adam and LIMONGI, Fernando, “Modernization: Theories and Facts” (1997) 49 World Politics 155 at 177.

48. Cf. KARATNYCKY, Adrian, “The Decline of Illiberal Democracy” (1999) 10 Journal of Democracy 112; REYNOLDS, Andrew, “Constitutional Medicine” (2005) 16 Journal of Democracy 54.

49. HABERMAS, Jürgen, “Zur Legitimation durch Menschenrechte” in Jürgen HABERMAS, Die postnationale Konstellation, 5th ed. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1998), 170 at 186.

50. See e.g., Franck, supra note 33; Fox, supra note 33; CERNA, Christine, “Universal Democracy: An International Legal Right or the Pipe Dream of the West?” (1995) 27 New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 289; WIPPMAN, David, “Defending Democracy Through Foreign Intervention” (1997) 19 Houston Journal of International Law 659 at 665668; RICH, Roland, “Bringing Democracy into International Law” (2001) 12 Journal of Democracy 20 at 21; WOUTERS, Jan, DE MEESTER, Bart, and RYNGAERT, Cedric, “Democracy and International Law” (2003) 34 Netherlands Yearbook of International Law 137; IBEGBU, Jude, Right to Democracy in International Law (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003) at 141205; KOKOROKO, Dodzi, “Souveraineté étatique et principe de légitimité démocratique” (2003) 16 Revue québécoise de droit international 37 at 40; FARER, Tom J., “The Promotion of Democracy: International Law and Norms” in Edward NEWMAN and Roland RICH, eds., The UN Role in Promoting Democracy: Between Ideals and Reality (Tokyo; New York: United Nations University Press, 2004), 32 at 32; KOKOTT, Juliane, “Souveräne Gleichheit und Demokratie im Völkerrecht” (2004) 64 Heidelberg Journal of International Law 517 at 526527; TANZI, Attila, “Remarks on Democracy in Contemporary International Law” 61 La Comunità internazionale (2006) 289; PIPPAN, Christian, “Gibt es ein Recht auf Demokratie im Völkerrecht?” in Erwin RIEFLER, ed., Sir Karl Popper und die Menschenrechte (Frankfurt: Lang, 2007), 119 at 137160.

51. Case Concerning the Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America), Judgment of 27 June 1986, [1986] I.C.J. Rep. 14 at 133, para. 263.

52. It has to be noted, however, that there are also more nuanced analyses that try to find solutions beyond the classic democracy-autocracy-dichotomy. See MARKS, Susan, The Riddle of All Constitutions: International Law, Democracy, and the Critique of Ideology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) (proposing a concept of democratic inclusion, which is supposed to guide the creation of new norms and the interpretation of existing norms of international law); Jean D’ASPREMONT, L’Etat Non Démocratique en Droit International: Étude Critique du Droit International Positif et de la Pratique Contemporaine (Paris: Pedone, 2008) (arguing that international law contains a minimum principle of electoral democracy while allowing for a number of persistent objectors and proposing a differentiated system of legal consequences with regard to illegitimate regimes); PETERSEN, Niels, “The Principle of Democratic Teleology in International Law” (2008) 34 Brooklyn Journal of International Law 33 (arguing that international law contains a teleological principle, according to which there is no immediate right to democratic governance, but an obligation to develop towards democracy).

53. ICCPR, supra note 21, and ICESCR, supra note 21.

54. CASSESE, Antonio, “The Self-Determination of Peoples” in Henkin, supra note 24, 92 at 97; GUSY, Christoph, “Selbstbestimmung im Wandel: Von der Selbstbestimmung durch den Staat zur Selbstbestimmung im Staat” (1992) 30 Archiv des Völkerrechts 385 at 405.

55. CASSESE, Antonio, Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Reappraisal (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995) at 311; ESPINOSA, Juan Francisco Escudero, “Hacia una intervención armada en favor de la democracia?: El ‘precedente’ de Haití” (1996) 12 Anuario de derecho internacional 297 at 344356; ROSAS, Allan, “Internal Self-Determination” in Christian TOMUSCHAT, ed., Modern Law of Self-Determination (Dordrecht; Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1993), 225 at 241246; THORNBERRY, Patrick, “The Democratic or Internal Aspect of Self-Determination with Some Remarks on Federalism” in Tomuschat, 101 at 134–137; SICILIANOS, Linos-Alexander, “Les Nations unies et la démocratisation de l'Etat: nouvelles tendances” in Rostane MEHDI, ed., La contribution des Nations unies à la démocratisation de l'Etat (Paris: Pedone, 2002), 13 at 24; THÜRER, Daniel, “Self-Determination” in Rudolf BERNHARDT, ed., Encyclopedia of Public International Law, Vol IV (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 2000), 364 at 372.

56. Rosas, supra note 55 at 229; Sicilianos, supra note 55 at 24.

57. Compare with MILLER, Russell A., “Self-Determination in International Law and the Demise of Democracy?” (2003) 41 Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 601 (critiquing the argument on the necessary relationship between democracy and self-determination from a historical perspective).

58. See also D’ASPREMONT, Jean, “Legitimacy of Governments in the Age of Democracy” (2006) 38 New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 877 (critiquing the monolithic conception of legitimacy often found in international law scholarship and arguing that there should be a distinction between a legitimacy of origin and a legitimacy of exercise).

59. See GEBHARDT, Jürgen, “Das Demokratische Prinzip und die moderne politische Ordnung” in André KAISER and Wolfgang LEIDHOLD, eds., Demokratie—Chancen und Herausforderungen im 21 Jahrhundert (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2005), 19 at 28 (highlighting that there are several historical examples where citizens opted for an authoritarian rule).

60. DOEHRING, Karl, “Demokratie und Völkerrecht” in Hans-Joachim CREMER, Thomas GIEGRICH, and Dagmar RICHTER, eds., Tradition und Weltoffenheit des Rechts: Festschrift für Helmut Steinberger (Berlin: Springer, 2002), 127 at 129.

61. FOX, Gregory H. and NOLTE, Georg, “Intolerant Democracies” (1995) 36 Harvard International Law Journal 1.

62. See KOSKENNIEMI, Martti, “ ‘Intolerant Democracies’: A Reaction” (1996) 37 Harvard International Law Journal 231 at 232233.

63. See supra notes 47 and 48.

64. CRAWFORD, James, “The Rights of Peoples: ‘Peoples’ or ‘Governments’?” in James CRAWFORD, ed., The Rights of Peoples (Oxford: Clarendon Press; 1988), 55 at 56.

65. Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, GA Res. 2625 (XXV)(1970).

66. See supra note 50.

67. UDHR, supra note 14, art. 21.

68. ICCPR, supra note 21, art. 25.

69. There are even some scholars who argue that the UDHR as such has become part of customary international law. See WALDOCK, Humphrey, “Human Rights in Contemporary International Law and the Significance of the European Convention” (1965) 11 International and Comparative Law Quarterly Supplement 1 at 15; SOHN, Louis B., “The Human Rights Law of the Charter” (1977) 12 Texas International Law Journal 129 at 133.

70. See PARTSCH, Karl Josef, “Freedom of Conscience and Expression, and Political Freedoms” in Henkin, supra note 24, 209 at 240; FOX, Gregory H., “The Right to Political Participation in International Law” in Gregory H. FOX and Brad R. ROTH, eds., Democratic Governance and International Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 48 at 5759; Nowak, supra note 24 at art. 25, para. 20. But see also VIDMAR, Jure, “Multiparty Democracy: International and European Human Rights Law Perspectives” (2010) 23 Leiden Journal of International Law 209 at 216218 (critiquing this position).

71. On interests that potentially run counter to a right to democracy, see section III.

72. See section II(B).

73. See SCHMITTER, Philippe C. and SANTISO, Javier, “Three Temporal Dimensions to the Consolidation of Democracy” (1998) 19 International Political Science Review 69.

74. Owada, supra note 13 at 188.

75. See Rawls, supra note 12.

* Senior Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, Bonn, Germany. This contribution is based on a presentation given by the author at the Second Biennial General Conference of the Asian Society of International Law, Tokyo, Japan, 1–2 August 2009. I am very grateful to Christoph Engel, Stefan Kadelbach, and Monia Manaa, as well as to two anonymous reviewers, for comments and critiques, and to Brian Cooper for his excellent linguistic revision of the text.

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