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In his recent piece in the American Journal of International Law, B.S. Chimni depicts a doctrine of customary international law that has allowed the First World to impose its domination and promote its version of global capitalist justice. From Chimni's perspective, all the gimmicks and sophisticated dichotomies invented by international lawyers to refine international customary law serve a hegemonic socialization process whereby the center imposes its neoliberal ideals on an admiring periphery. But this diagnosis is certainly not the end of the story. In fact, Chimni's dismal image of the world and the role of custom therein is meant to foreground a more central project—i.e., the reinvention of customary international law around “the progressive ideas, beliefs, and practices of the global civil society” and geared towards the promotion of the “common good.” My view is that Chimni's postmodernization of the doctrine of international customary law does not necessarily remedy the charges he levels against custom, let alone redefine the center and the periphery. As much as I share his diagnosis about custom's complicity in hegemonic socialization and the promotion of a global capitalist ethos, I contend that Chimni's postmodernization is at best unavailing and, at worse, rehabilitative of the First World's centrality in norm-setting. Instead of striving to reinvent the doctrine of custom, we must invest in strategies that draw on the malleability and fluidity of the current doctrine and facilitate the types of argumentation that “decenter” the First World, thereby directly empowering international lawyers elsewhere.
B.S. Chimni's Customary International Law: A Third World Perspective announces a provocative normative approach to customary international law (CIL) designed to develop progressive norms by deemphasizing state practice and promoting deliberative reasoning as the basis for opinio juris rather than the general acceptance of states. Many of his historical concerns are compelling: the unfairness and dubious validity of the persistent objector principle, the lack of access and attention to non-European state practice, and the questionable legitimacy of CIL norms developed without the participation of a majority of states or their consent. While Chimni makes a compelling case for the problematic origins of much of CIL, his approach to reform raises serious legitimacy and practical questions that undermine the viability of his proposed solution. Problems such as extreme poverty, environmental degradation, and nuclear weapons are best resolved through democratic political institutions rather than weak and undemocratic international tribunals. I will analyze Chimni's approach first as a theory of customary law and then as a theory of the role of international tribunals. Finally, I will raise concerns about his normative goals.
B.S. Chimni's stimulating article makes an important contribution to the burgeoning literature on customary international law (CIL) by examining CIL from the perspective of developing states, a perspective underrepresented in this literature. His article articulates well many valid points about the sociohistorical biases of CIL. At the same time, there may be reasons for more optimism than Chimni appears to possess about the ability of CIL to serve global interests, including those of the Third World. Furthermore, some of Chimni's proposals merit further refinement. In this essay I propose to evaluate the strengths and potential shortcomings of Chimni's arguments in light of an approach to CIL that I have developed that is based on fundamental ethical principles recognized in international law. After laying out an alternative theory that still has many resonances with Chimni's proposals, I discuss critically three of the key theses articulated by Chimni: First, that CIL is inherently colonialist and inconsistent with the values of Third World peoples; second, that even contemporary customary international human rights law (IHRL) is a means of furthering global capitalism to the detriment of Third World peoples; and third, that the remedy for CIL's biases lies in the creation of a “postmodern” doctrine of CIL that incorporates reference to the “juridical conscience of humankind.”
B.S. Chimni's thought-provoking article presents a welcome opportunity to reflect on both the value and the shortcomings of custom as a source in contemporary international law. Chimni convincingly identifies points of concern with respect to the representativeness of the relevant state practice and the availability of non-Western practice. His article is part of a stream of recent scholarship that examines the relationship between public international law and the so-called Third World under the label of Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL). The contribution, like much of the TWAIL literature, is helpful in that it reveals the biases of international law in favor of the former colonial powers and identifies the ways in which these inform the identification and interpretation of (customary) international law. Yet we do not agree with some of the premises of Chimni's critique or his suggested remedies. In particular, we would like to offer a different perspective on the importance of power, the distinction between formal and material sources, and the legitimacy of his concept of postmodern custom.
In advancing a Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) analysis of customary international law (CIL) and its dominant doctrinal conceits, B.S. Chimni shows how the jurisprudence of custom has been co-constitutive with colonization and capitalism. He contends that CIL's most fundamental assumption—the “supposed distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘material’ sources of CIL”—privileges Western states while legitimizing CIL as a neutral and universal body of law. In dialogue with Chimni, this essay extends the conversation in two directions. First, I show that there are important resonances between Chimni's deconstruction of the distinction between “formal” and “material” sources of CIL, and a feminist critique of the public/private distinction in international law. Chimni describes his approach as postmodern. I argue that its analysis of the conceptual architecture of the dominant doctrine and its systematic exclusions is also, at its core, a feminist approach to international law. Second, and inspired by Chimni's critique, I explore insurgent jurisprudential traditions that challenge the hierarchies, inequalities, and biases in received doctrine regarding the sources of CIL. Chimni's decolonial approach acknowledges CIL's imperial past, and prepares the ground for democratizing and pluralizing sources by paying attention to a so-called opinio juris communis that incorporates the interests of those critical of, or oppressed by, the dominant world order. Building on this ground, I draw on the Panchsheel principles, first nations’ conceptions of sovereignty and citizenship, and practices of fugitive freedom by maroon communities to begin to supply content and form to a counterrepertoire of custom.
B.S. Chimni's study of customary international law (CIL) is a review of its role both as a supporter of the existing global capitalist order and as a potential instrument to challenge that order in favor of a postmodern deliberative reasoning as the shaper of a new CIL. It has been my view, since the The Decay of International Law? in 1986, that general customary international law is not an intelligible concept and not actually used in practice to demonstrate empirically the existence of any rule of law. I follow Hans Morgenthau, who wrote in 1940 in the American Journal of International Law that the manner in which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) uses this concept is to decide what it likes and call it customary law. I reiterated this view in my review of the ICJ in the first edition of my Philosophy of International Law in 2007. While Chimni quotes my writings on general custom frequently and very positively in his article, this is always to support a progressive customary law and never to do what I would propose, which is to make a complete break with CIL in favor of an independent approach to the problems it is supposed to answer.