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Comparative International Law: Framing the Field

  • Anthea Roberts (a1), Paul B. Stephan (a2), Pierre-Hugues Verdier (a3) and Mila Versteeg (a4)


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.”



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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); Lauterpacht, Hersch, The So-Called Anglo-American and Continental Schools of Thought in International Law, 12 Brit. Y.B. Int’l L. 31 (1931).

2 Gutteridge, H. C., Comparative Law and the Law of Nations, in International Law in Comparative Perspective 13 (Butler, W. E. ed., 1980); see also Reimann, Mathias, Comparative Law and Neighboring Disciplines, in The Cambridge Companion to Comparative Law 13, 18 (Bussani, Mauro & Mattei, Ugo eds., 2012 ) (“[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); Jouannet, Emmanuelle, French and American Perspectives on International Law: Legal Cultures and International Law, 58 Me. L. Rev. 292 (2006); 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); Lorca, Arnulf Becker, Universal International Law: Nineteenth-Century Histories of Imposition and Appropriation, 51 Harv. Int’l L.J. 475 (2010); Messineo, Francesco, Is There an Italian Conception of International Law? 2 Cambridge J. Int’l & Comp. L. 879 (2013); 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); Symposium: French and American Perspectives Towards International Law and International Institutions, 58 Me. L. Rev. 281 (2006); Yasuaki, Onuma, A Transcivilizational Perspective on International Law, 342 Recueil Des Cours 77 (2009); Yusuf, Abdulqawi, Diversity of Legal Traditions and International Law: Keynote Address, 24 Cambridge J. Int’l & Comp. L. 681 (2013).

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); Benvenisti, Eyal, Reclaiming Democracy: The Strategic Uses of Foreign and International Law by National Courts, 102 Ajil 241 (2008); 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).

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); Verdirame, Guglielmo, “The Divided West”: International Lawyers in Europe and America, 18 Eur. J. Int’l L. 553 (2007).

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); Picker, Colin B., International Law’s Mixed Heritage: A Common/Civil Law Jurisdiction, 41 Vand. J. Transnat’L L. 1083, 1086 (2008); 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), 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); Stein, Eric et al., International Law in Domestic Legal Orders: A Comparative Perspective, 91 Asilproc. 289 (1997); Stein, Eric, International Law in Internal Law: Toward Internationalization of Central-Eastern European Constitutions?, 88 Ajil 427 (1994); 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); 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). 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); Mamlyuk, Boris N. & Mattei, Ugo, Comparative International Law, 36 Brook. J. Int’l L. 385, 389 (2011); 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). 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); 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).

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).

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

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); 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); Dzehtsiarou, Kanstantsin & Lukashevich, Vasily, Informed Decision-Making: The Comparative Endeavours of the Strasbourg Court, 30 Neth. Q. Hum. Rts. 272 (2012). 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); 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).

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).

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) [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 ).

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

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); 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) (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); 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); Spamann, Holger, Empirical Comparative Law, 11 Ann. Rev. L. & Soc. Sci. 131 (2015).

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

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

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).

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).

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).

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) 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.

* The authors thank participants in the 2014 Sokol Colloquium on Private International Law for their comments on an earlier version. The Sokol Colloquium Fund at the University of Virginia School of Law provided funding for the Colloquium and for editing the papers of this symposium for publication.

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Comparative International Law: Framing the Field

  • Anthea Roberts (a1), Paul B. Stephan (a2), Pierre-Hugues Verdier (a3) and Mila Versteeg (a4)


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