Concepts for International Law
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Concepts for International Law

Contributions to Disciplinary Thought

Edited by Jean d’Aspremont and Sahib Singh

Concepts shape how we understand and participate in international legal affairs. They are an important site for order, struggle and change. This comprehensive and authoritative volume introduces a large number of concepts that have shaped, at various points in history, international legal practice and thought; intimates at how the many projects of international law have grappled with, and influenced, the world through certain concepts; and introduces new concepts into the discipline.
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Chapter 58: Universalism

Geoff Gordon


Universality has occupied a consistently central but also historically contingent role in conceptions, operations and mobilizations of international law over time. It has taken on a variety of characters as a matter of doctrine, ideology and historical materiality. Universalism has served in international law as a wellspring for both dominant ideologies and modes of resistance: it has underwritten colonial oppression, but has also been adopted for successful resistance to colonialism, and it has reappeared both in imperialist and counterhegemonic projects in postcolonial legal relations today. Universalism can be doctrinally described as an underlying principle, or abstract tenet, classically related in international law to ends of harmony, equality or autonomy. Understood in terms of dominant ideologies, however, universalism at once obscures and legitimizes the particular interests that drive the operation of international law. This has the effect of naturalizing the interests of the few that are made to apply globally. But universalism can be comprehended in still more quotidian ways. This chapter focuses on an ideological meeting point of universalism between doctrine and daily practice. That meeting point has been a site associated with empire, but it might arguably still be reclaimed and repurposed as a site in support of a different sort of political solidarity under law.

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