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Comparative International Law: Framing the Field

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Anthea Roberts
Columbia Law School and London School of Economics
Paul B. Stephan
University of Virginia
Pierre-Hugues Verdier
University of Virginia
Mila Versteeg
University of Virginia


At first blush, “comparative international law” might sound like an oxymoron. In principle, international law—at least when it arises from multilateral treaties or general custom—applies equally to all parties or states. As a result, international lawyers often resist emphasizing local, national, or regional approaches due to the field’s aspirations to universality and uniformity. Comparativists, meanwhile, frequently overlook the potential to apply comparative law insights to international law on the basis that “rules which are avowedly universal in character do not lend themselves to comparison.”

Exploring Comparative International Law
Copyright © American Society of International Law 2015

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1 See, e.g., Janis, Mark W. & Brownlie, Ian, Comparative Approaches to the Theory of International Law, 80 Asil Proc. 152, 154–57 (1986)Google Scholar; Lauterpacht, Hersch, The So-Called Anglo-American and Continental Schools of Thought in International Law, 12 Brit. Y.B. Int’l L. 31 (1931)Google Scholar.

2 Gutteridge, H. C., Comparative Law and the Law of Nations, in International Law in Comparative Perspective 13 (Butler, W. E. ed., 1980)Google Scholar; see also Reimann, Mathias, Comparative Law and Neighboring Disciplines, in The Cambridge Companion to Comparative Law 13, 18 (Bussani, Mauro & Mattei, Ugo eds., 2012 CrossRefGoogle Scholar) (“[C]omparative lawyers normally do not study classic international law.... because the traditional law of nations is perceived as a fairly uniform (international) system that provides little, if any, opportunity to compare any thing....”).

3 See, e.g., Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (2005); Lucie Delabie, Approches Américaines du Droit International: Entre Unité et Diversité [American Approaches to International Law: Between Unity and Diversity] (2011); Xue Hanqin, Chinese Contemporary Perspectives on International Law: History, Culture and International Law (2012); Lauri MÄlskoo, Russian Approaches to International Law (2015); Fabri, Hélène Ruiz, Reflections on the Necessity of Regional Approaches to International Law Through the Prism of the European Example: Neither Yes nor No, Neither Black nor White, 1 Asian J. Int’l L. 83, 86 (2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jouannet, Emmanuelle, French and American Perspectives on International Law: Legal Cultures and International Law, 58 Me. L. Rev. 292 (2006)Google Scholar; Lorca, Arnulf Becker, International Law in Latin America or Latin American International Law? Rise, Fall, and Retrieval of a Tradition of Legal Thinking and Political Imagination, 47 Harv. Int’l L.J. 283 (2006)Google Scholar; Lorca, Arnulf Becker, Universal International Law: Nineteenth-Century Histories of Imposition and Appropriation, 51 Harv. Int’l L.J. 475 (2010)Google Scholar; Messineo, Francesco, Is There an Italian Conception of International Law? 2 Cambridge J. Int’l & Comp. L. 879 (2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Obregón, Liliana, Completing Civilization: Creole Consciousness and International Law in Nineteenth-Century Latin America, in International Law and Its Others 247 (Orford, Anne ed., 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Symposium: French and American Perspectives Towards International Law and International Institutions, 58 Me. L. Rev. 281 (2006)Google Scholar; Yasuaki, Onuma, A Transcivilizational Perspective on International Law, 342 Recueil Des Cours 77 (2009)Google Scholar; Yusuf, Abdulqawi, Diversity of Legal Traditions and International Law: Keynote Address, 24 Cambridge J. Int’l & Comp. L. 681 (2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 See, e.g., International Law and Domestic Human Rights Litigation in Africa (Magnus Killander ed., 2010); International Law and Domestic Legal Systems: Incorporation, Transformation, and Persuasion (Dinah Shelton ed., 2011); New Perspectives on the Divide Between National and International Law (Janne Nijman & André Nollkaemper eds., 2007); The Role of Domestic Courts in Treaty Enforcement: A Comparative Study (David Sloss ed., 2009); Interpretation of International Law by Domestic Courts (Helmut Philip Aust & Georg Nolte eds., forthcoming 2016); Benvenisti, Eyal, Judicial Misgivings Regarding the Application of International Law: An Analysis of Attitudes of National Courts, 4 Eur. J. Int’l L. 159 (1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Benvenisti, Eyal, Reclaiming Democracy: The Strategic Uses of Foreign and International Law by National Courts, 102 Ajil 241 (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Roberts, Anthea, Comparative International Law? The Role of National Courts in Creating and Enforcing International Law, 60 Int’l & Comp. L.Q. 57, 61–64 (2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 See, e.g., Anthea Roberts, Is International Law International? (forthcoming 2016); Carty, Anthony, A Colloquium on International Law Textbooks in England, France and Germany: Introduction, 11 Eur. J. Int’l L. 615 (2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Verdirame, Guglielmo, “The Divided West”: International Lawyers in Europe and America, 18 Eur. J. Int’l L. 553 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 See, e.g., Droit Internationalet Diversitedes Cultures Juridiques [International Law and Diversity in Legal Cultures] (Société Française pour le Droit International ed., 2008); Les Pratiques Comparees Du Droit International En France Et En Allemagne [Comparative International Law Practice in France and Germany] (Société Française pour le Droit International ed., 2012); Sara Mclaughlin Mitchell & Emilia Justy Napowell, Domestic Law Goes Global: Legal Traditions and International Courts (2011); Dana Zartner, Courts, Codes, and Custom: Legal Tradition and State Policy Toward International Human Rights and Environmental Law (2014); Benatar, Marco, International Law, Domestic Lenses, 3 Cambridge J. Int’l & Comp. L. 357 (2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Picker, Colin B., International Law’s Mixed Heritage: A Common/Civil Law Jurisdiction, 41 Vand. J. Transnat’L L. 1083, 1086 (2008)Google Scholar; Picker, Colin B., The Value of Comparative and Legal Cultural Analyses of International Economic Law (May 13, 2013) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of New South Wales)Google Scholar, available at

7 See, e.g., Bello, Emmanuel G., How Advantageous is the use of Comparative Law in Public International Law, 66 Revue De Droit International, De Sciences Diplomatiques et Politiques 77 (1988)Google Scholar; Stein, Eric et al., International Law in Domestic Legal Orders: A Comparative Perspective, 91 Asilproc. 289 (1997)Google Scholar; Stein, Eric, International Law in Internal Law: Toward Internationalization of Central-Eastern European Constitutions?, 88 Ajil 427 (1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Stein, Eric, National Procedures for Giving Effect to Governmental Obligations Undertaken and Agreements Concluded by Governments, in Rapports Généraux au IXe Congrés International de Droit Comparé 581 (1977)Google Scholar; Wildhaber, Luzius & Breitenmoser, Stephan, The Relationship Between Customary International Law and Municipal Law in Western European Countries, 48 Zeitschrift für AuslÄndisches öffentliches Recht und Völkerrecht 163 (1988)Google Scholar. Other early comparative work on international law included debates on competing Western and Soviet approaches. See, e.g., International Law and International Security: Military and Political Dimensions. A U.S.-Soviet Dialogue (Paul B. Stephan III & Boris M. Klimenko eds., 1991); Perestroika and International Law: Current Anglo-Soviet Approaches to International Law (Anthony Carty & Gennady Danilenko eds., 1990). On the attitude of newly independent states to the international legal order, see, for example, Felix Chuks Okoye, International Law and the New African States (1972); T. O. Elias, Africa and the Development of International Law (1972). On the contribution of non-Western legal systems to international law, see, for example, C G. Weeramantry, Islamic Jurisprudence: An International Perspective (1988).

8 See, e.g., Toronto Grp. for the Study of Int’l, Transnational & Comparative Law, Call for Papers: Concerning States of Mind, Disturbing the Minds of States (Jan. 29–31, 2010), available at (describing a panel entitled “Stories of the Gently Civilized: National Traditions in International Law”); Cambridge Journal of Int’l Law, Conference Schedule, 2013 CJICL Conference: Legal Tradition in a Diverse World (May 18–19, 2013), available at; Duke Univ. Sch. of Law, Duke University-Geneva Conference on Comparative Foreign Relations Law (Jan. 29, 2015), at; Univ. of Va. Sch. of Law, 27th Annual Sokol Colloquium Brings International Law Luminaries to UVA (Sept. 12, 2014), at edu/html/news/2014_fall/sokol.htm.

9 See, e.g., Koskenniemi, Martti, The Case for Comparative International Law, 20 Finnish Y.B. Int’l L. 1 (2009)Google Scholar; Mamlyuk, Boris N. & Mattei, Ugo, Comparative International Law, 36 Brook. J. Int’l L. 385, 389 (2011)Google Scholar; Roberts, supra note 4, at 61–64.

10 For instance, in the American Journal of International Law’s symposium on the methods of international law, comparativism barely rates a mention. See Symposium on Method in International Law, 93 AJIL 291 (1999)Google Scholar. The original symposium also did not include a contribution on third world approaches to international law, which forms part of the comparative international law project, though one later appeared in an edited book based on the symposium and was republished in the Chinese Journal of International Law. See Anghie, Antony & Chimni, B. S., Third World Approaches to International Law and Individual Responsibility in Internal Conflict, in The Methods of International Law 185 (Ratner, Steven R. & Slaughter, Anne-Marie eds., 2004)Google Scholar; Anghie, Antony & Chimni, B. S., Third World Approaches to International Law and Individual Responsibility in Internal Conflicts, 2 Chinese J. Int’l L. 77 (2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Although this forms the core of comparative international law, in some circumstances it may also entail comparisons of how national, regional, and international bodies understand, interpret, apply, and approach international law.

12 See Jain, Neha, Comparative International Law at the Icty: The General Principles Experiment, 109 AJIL 486 (2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 See Forteau, Mathias, Comparative International Law Within, Not Against, International Law: Lessons from the International Law Commission, 109 AJIL 498 (2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 See generally Arato, Julian, Subsequent Practice and Evolutive Interpretation: Techniques of Treaty Interpretation over Time and Their Diverse Consequences, 9 Law & Prac. Int’l Ct. & Tribunals 443 (2010)Google Scholar; Analytical Guide to the Work of the International Law Commission, Treaties over Time/Subsequent Agreements and Subsequent Practice in Relation to Interpretation of Treaties, International Law Commission (Sept. 22, 2015), at The U.S. Supreme Court has also wrestled with this problem in interpreting private international law treaties. See Abbott v. Abbott, 560 U.S. 1, 16–20 (2010) (discussing state practice with respect to ne exeat rights under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction); Olympic Airways v. Husain, 540 U.S. 644, 655 n.9 (2004) (distinguishing British and Australian judicial interpretations of the Warsaw Convention); id. at 658–63 (Scalia, J., dissenting) (criticizing the majority for not giving greater weight to other countries’ judicial interpretations).

15 On the use of comparative surveys in interpreting the scope of human rights provisions, see Mahoney, Paul, The Comparative Method in Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights: Reference Back to National Law, in Comparative Law Before the Courts 135 (Canivet, Guy et al. eds., 2004)Google Scholar; Dzehtsiarou, Kanstantsin & Lukashevich, Vasily, Informed Decision-Making: The Comparative Endeavours of the Strasbourg Court, 30 Neth. Q. Hum. Rts. 272 (2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On similar proposals in investment treaty arbitration, see Roberts, Anthea, Power and Persuasion in Investment Treaty Interpretation: The Dual Role of States, 104 AJIL 179 (2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schill, Stephan W., General Principles of Law and International Investment Law, in International Investment Law: The Sources of Rights and Obligations 133 (Gazzini, Tarcisio & De Brabandere, Eric eds., 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 For instance, the executive arms of the American and Russian governments have produced different national security statements that have a bearing on the interpretation and application of the use of force. Compare U.S. Department of State, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (2010), available at with Министерство Иностранных дел Российской Федерации [The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation], Концепция Внешней ПОЛИТИКИ РОССИЙСКОЙ Федерации [Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation] (2000), available at

17 For instance, a number of states have adopted the international prohibition on genocide in their domestic laws, but with definitions that are broader or narrower than the Rome Statute’s definition. See Ferdinandusse, Ward N., Direct Application of International Criminal Law by National Courts 2 (2006)Google Scholar.

18 McCrudden, Christopher, Why Do National Court Judges Refer to Human Rights Treaties? A Comparative International Law Analysis of Cedaw [Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women], 109 AJIL 534 (2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar [hereinafter McCrudden, Cedaw]; McCrudden, Christopher, Operationalizing the Comparative International Human Rights Law Method: A Case Study of Cedaw in National Courts, in Comparative International Law (Roberts, Anthea et al. eds., forthcoming 2016 Google Scholar).

19 Verdier, Pierre-Hugues & Versteeg, Mila, International Law in National Legal Systems: An Empirical Investigation, 109 AJIL 514 (2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 For an overview, see Michaels, Ralf, The Functional Method of Comparative Law, in The Oxford Hand Book of Comparative Law 339 (Reimann, Mathias & Zimmermann, Reinhard eds., 2006)Google Scholar; see also Reimann, Mathias, The Progress and Failure of Comparative Law in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century, 50 Am. J. Comp. L. 671, 679 (2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar (describing functionalism as the requirement to “analyze not only what rules say, but also what problems they solve in their respective legal system”).

21 See Reitz, John C., How to Do Comparative Law, 46 Am. J. Comp. L. 617, 620 (1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Mathiassiems, Comparative Law 26 (2014).

22 Jain, supra note 12, at 490–95.

23 See, e.g., Siems, supra note 21; Shaffer, Gregory & Ginsburg, Tom, The Empirical Turn in International Legal Scholarship, 106 AJIL 1, 12 (2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Spamann, Holger, Empirical Comparative Law, 11 Ann. Rev. L. & Soc. Sci. 131 (2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Linos, Katerina, How to Select and Develop International Law Case Studies: Lessons from Comparative Law and Comparative Politics, 109 AJIL 475 (2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 See Merry, Sally Engle, Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law in to Local Justice (2006)Google Scholar; Merry, Sally, Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle, 108 Am. Anthropologist 38 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Zwingel, Susanne, How Do Norms Travel? Theorizing International Women’s Rights in Transnational Perspective, 56 Int’l Stud. Q. 115 (2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Roberts, supra note 5.

27 See Kennedy, David, One, Two, Three, Many Legal Orders: Legal Pluralism and the Cosmopolitan Dream, 32 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 641, 649 (2007)Google Scholar.

28 Forteau, supra note 13, at 499.

29 Carruthers, Bruce G. & Halliday, Terence C., Negotiating Globalization: Global Scripts and Intermediation in the Construction of Asian Insolvency Regimes, 31 Law & Soc. Inquiry 521, 543–46 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 McCrudden, Cedaw, supra note 18, at 535.

31 See Berman, Paul Schiff, Global Legal Pluralism, 80 S. Cal. L. Rev. 1155, 1190–91, 1210 (2007)Google Scholar.

32 Forteau, supra note 13, at 507–13.

33 Rep. of the Int’l Law Comm’n, 58th Sess., May 1–June 9, July 3–Aug. 11, 2006, Un Doc. A/61/10; Gaor, 61st Sess., Supp. No. 10 (2006).

34 Compare Bradford, Anu & Posner, Eric A., Universal Exceptionalism in International Law, 52 Harv. Int’l L.J. 1 (2011)Google Scholar with Anghie, supra note 3, at 312 and Koskenniemi, supra note 9, at 4.

35 Roberts, supra note 5.

36 Verdier & Versteeg, supra note 19, at 515.

37 Congyan Cai, International Law in China’s Law and Courts, in Comparative International Law, supra note 18.