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The Rhetoric of Fragmentation: Fear and Faith in International Law


Over the last decade international lawyers have been increasingly concerned with the ‘fragmentation’ of international law. However, given that this expression has been repeatedly used by the profession since the mid-nineteenth century to depict the state of international law, one may wonder about its recent revival in the international legal discourse. Why has it re-emerged? What can we learn from previous invocations? An answer may be sought by contextualizing the fragmentation debate in a historical perspective. This brings out the repetitive and relatively stylized modes in which the profession has narrated legal developments. This essay suggests a correlation between periods of crisis in general and a critical view of fragmentation on the one hand, and periods of scholarly enthusiasm and the prevalence of positive views about fragmentation on the other. This analysis sheds critical light on both the implicit assumptions and political implications of the current debate on fragmentation.

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1 M. Bourquin, ‘Règles générales du droit de la paix (cours général)’, (1931-I) 35 RCADI 1, at 5.

2 And in particular those favouring systemic interpretation. Report of the ILC Study Group, Fragmentation of International Law: Difficulties Arising from the Diversification and Expansion of International Law, Doc. A/CN.4/L.702, 18 July 2006.

3 See, e.g., Hafner, G., ‘Pros and Cons Ensuing from Fragmentation of International Law’, (2004) 25 Michigan Journal of International Law 849; Simma, B., ‘Fragmentation in a Positive Light’, (2004) 25 Michigan Journal of International Law 845.

4 One only needs to think about the opposing approaches taken by the European Society for International Law (examining the role of formal sources) and by scholars at US colloquia (focusing on institutional actors). Compare R. Huesa Vinaixa and K. Wellens, L'influence des sources sur l'unité et la fragmentation du droit international (2006), with the various contributions of NYU School of Law's 1998 symposium, ‘The Proliferation of International Tribunals: Piecing Together the Puzzle’.

5 Stark, B., ‘Women and Globalization: The Failure and Postmodern Possibilities of International Law’, (2000) 33 Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 503.

6 Koskenniemi, M. and Leino, P., ‘Fragmentation of International Law? Postmodern Anxieties’, (2003) 15 LJIL 553.

7 Although his analysis focuses on scholars in the United States, it can very well be expanded to include Continental doctrine, given the dynamics of production and the reception of international legal thinking. Accordingly, the last half of the nineteenth century saw a self-confident period of invention and renewal among international lawyers, which took place from roughly 1871 to the First World War. It was followed by a period of confusion and rethinking, which lasted from 1914 to the mid-1920s. This phase was replaced by another period of confidence and consolidation which persisted until the outbreak of the Second World War. But again, the war initiated a period of confusion and rethinking which continued through the early Cold War years. In the 1960s a period of self-confident renewal succeeded, repeating much of the previous enthusiastic periods. It lasted until the end of the Cold War, which gave rise to the current period of confusion and rethinking. Kennedy, D., ‘When Renewal Repeats: Thinking against the Box’, (2000) 32 New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 347. See also Kennedy, D., ‘A New World Order: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow’, (1994) 4 Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems 329; Kennedy, D., ‘International Law and the Nineteenth Century: History of an Illusion’, (1994) 17 Quarterly Law Review 99; Kennedy, D., ‘Move to Institutions’, (1986–7) 8 Cardozo Law Review 845.

8 Koskenniemi, M., ‘International Law: Constitutionalism, Managerialism and the Ethos of Legal Education’, (2007) 1 European Journal of Legal Studies 1, at 2. The notion of functional differentiation has been developed notably by Niklas Luhmann to explain the evolution of late modern societies. For his view on law, see Law as a Social System (2004). Andreas Fischer-Lescano and Gunther Teubner were among the first to transpose this conceptual framework to international law. See their article ‘Regime-Collisions: The Vain Search for Legal Unity in the Fragmentation of Global Law’, (2004) 25 Michigan Journal of International Law 999.

9 As is often the case with words with the same suffix, fragmenta-tion refers both to a result (international law is fragmented) and to a process (it is fragmenting). The two meanings are mutually exclusive: if the law is fragmented or primitive, then it cannot be disintegrating (we assume that it is already so); if the law is disintegrating, then it cannot yet be fragmented (we fear that it might become so). See more generally R. Guastini, Estudios sobre la interpretación jurídica (2003), at 71.

10 This is explained well in Kanwar, V., ‘International Emergency Governance: Fragments of a Driverless System’, (2004) Interdisciplinary Journal of Political Theory 41.

11 P.-M. Dupuy, ‘L'unité de l'ordre juridique international: Cours de droit international public’, (2002) 297 RCADI 432.

12 Delmas-Marty, M., ‘The Contribution of Comparative Law to a Pluralist Conception of International Criminal Law’, (2003) 1 Journal of International Criminal Justice 13.

13 De Wet, E., ‘The Emergence of International and Regional Value Systems as a Manifestation of the Emerging International Constitutional Order’, (2006) 19 LJIL 612.

14 D. Kennedy, ‘The Mystery of Global Governance’, Kormendy Lecture, Ohio Northern University, 25 January 2008, at 16.

15 This is largely inspired by Martti Koskenniemi's analysis of the structure of modern doctrines in his From Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument (1989).

16 M. Koskenniemi, ‘Global Legal Pluralism’, Conference at Harvard University, 5 March 2005.

17 ‘The disunity of the modern world is a fact, but so, in a truer sense, is its unity. Th[e] essential and manifold solidarity, coupled with the necessity of securing the rule of law and the elimination of war, constitutes a harmony of interests which has a basis more real and tangible than the illusions of the sentimentalist or the hypocrisy of those satisfied with the existing status quo’. H. Lauterpacht, ‘The Reality of the Law of Nations’, in H. Lauterpacht, Collected Papers, ed. E. Lauterpacht (1970), II at 26.

18 The connection between economics, liberalism, and political realism has been forcefully made by A. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests (1977).

19 The insoluble character of the tension between community and individuality is developed by Kennedy, Duncan in ‘Form and Substance in Private Law Adjudication’, (1976) 89 Harvard Law Review 1685.

20 M. Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law, 1870–1960 (2002).

21 We cannot simply ask whether international law forms a system, because our response depends precisely on how we have defined the ‘system’. M. Troper, Pour une théorie juridique de l'Etat (1994).

22 This draws on the suggestion that the systematization of international law has two advantages, namely to promote legal (and not political) relations between states and to ensure the primacy of international (and not national) law. See Kennedy, ‘When Renewal Repeats’, supra note 7; J.-L. Halpérin, ‘L'apparition et la portée de la notion d'ordre juridique dans la doctrine internationaliste du XIXe siècle’, (2001) 33 Droits 41, at 48.

23 F. De Holtzendorff, Eléments de droit international public (1881), 37–8.

24 Heffter, A. G., Le droit international de l'Europe (1873), 2.

25 P. Fiore, Organisation juridique de la société des Etats. Le droit international codifié et sa sanction juridique (1890), iv.

26 Referring to the first article of the Statute of Institut de droit international (1873). See Koskenniemi, supra note 20.

27 See E. De Vattel, Le droit des gens ou Principes de la loi naturelle appliqués à la conduite et aux affaires des nations et des souverains (1820), 105–6.

28 P. Fiore, Nouveau droit international public (1868), xxi.

29 H. Bonfils, Manuel de droit international public (droit des gens) (1894), 880, 883.

30 This mindset could frequently be found among the discipline but could be articulated more subtly. See, e.g., Westlake, J., Etudes sur les principes du droit international (1895), 89.

31 J. K. Bluntschli, Le droit international codifié (1870), 101–2.

32 C. Calvo, Le droit international théorique et pratique, précédé d'un exposé historique des progrès de la science du droit des gens (1870), v.

33 M. E. Chauveau, Le droit des gens ou le droit international public (1892), 32–3.

34 C. van Vollenhoven, Les trois phases du droit des gens (1919).

35 A. Álvarez, ‘Préface’, in K. Strupp, Eléments du droit international public universel, européen et américain (1927), vii–ix.

36 However much this sense could be criticized by both the ‘idealist’ and ‘realist’ positions. Kennedy has shown how narratives about the origin of international institutions rest on an ambivalent vision of war, of peace, and of the process by which war gives way to peace. See Kennedy, ‘Move to Institutions’, supra note 7, at 845.

37 A. Pillet, La guerre et le droit (1922), 133.

38 Ibid., at 138. The discipline departed from the previous mainstream (1870–1914), which had criticized natural law as being a set of excessively abstract (and therefore arbitrary) maxims.

39 Otlet, P., Constitution mondiale de la Société des Nations. Le nouveau droit des gens (1917), 5.

40 Oppenheim, L., The League of Nations and Its Problems: Three Lectures (1919), 6.

41 Koskenniemi, M., ‘International Law in Europe: Between Tradition and Renewal’, (2005) 16 European Human Rights Law Review 113.

42 See Kennedy, ‘Move to Institutions’, supra note 7, at 883–93.

43 C. Dupuis, ‘Règles générales du droit de la paix’, (1930-II) 32 RCADI 1, at 5.

44 Sa Vianna, M. A., L'Amérique en face de la conflagration Européenne. Leçon inaugurale du cours de droit international public (1916), 3.

45 Ibid., at 4–5.

46 See Álvarez, supra note 35, at x–xi.

47 This primacy was the result of a political choice for Kelsen, whereas it was presented by Scelle as a natural consequence of the unity of social reality. See H. Kelsen, ‘Les rapports de système entre le droit interne et le droit international public’, (1926-IV) 14 RCADI 233; G. Scelle, Précis de droit des gens (1932–4), 349–64.

48 For Kelsen, ‘norms of general international law are inferior in terms of number and importance as compared to local norms [including] norms of particular international law’. Kelsen, H., Théorie générale du droit et de l'Etat (1997) 327, at 374. Even the solidarist Scelle acknowledged the existence of ‘particular international legal orders’, since these orders were ‘conditioned and absorbed by larger international legal orders (international regionalism), these larger orders being themselves part of the global international legal order’. G. Scelle, ‘Règles générales du droit de la paix’, (1933-IV) 46 RCADI 327, at 343.

49 H. Lauterpacht, The Function of Law in the International Community (1933), 70–84.

50 Anzilotti, D., Cours de droit international (1929), 90.

51 E. Kaufmann, ‘Règles générales du droit de la paix’, (1935-IV) 54 RCADI 309, at 314.

52 And this without exception. A. Cavaglieri, ‘Règles générales du droit de la paix’, (1929-I) 26 RCADI 311, at 330.

53 He claimed to be breaking with ‘the traditional conception of the universality of legal rules’ that he now labelled ‘formalism’. In the 1930s he did not speak of a ‘civilizing mission’ that belonged to Latin America (as he did previously). See, e.g., his La codification du droit international, ses tendances, ses bases (1912).

54 See Álvarez, supra note 35, at x–xi.

55 Strupp, supra note 35, at 21.

56 C. Landauer, ‘A Latin American in Paris: Alejandro Álvarez's Le droit international américain’, (2006) 19 LJIL 957, at 958.

57 See in particular Sirven, A. Bustamante y, Droit international public (1934), 33; and Fauchille, P., Traité de droit international public (1921), at 21.

58 Le Fur, L., Précis de droit international public (1933), at 303.

59 Le Fur's anxiety echoed that of his contemporaries such as Paul Valéry, who depicted France in 1932 as subject to ‘a number of incompatible forces, none of which [could] either win or lose. Never [had] humanity linked so much power with so much disarray, so much anxiety with so many playthings, so much knowledge with so much uncertainty’. For a thorough analysis see E. Weber, The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s (1995). In art, the post-1914 disillusion and sense of chaos were forcefully expressed by Dadaism, using primitivism to represent the fractured world. See C. Sweeney, From Fetish to Subject: Race, Modernism, and Primitivism, 1919–1935 (2004).

60 In the face of Álvarez's strong definition of regionalism, Le Fur's response is marked by a mixture of desire and terror (the latter being prominent) similar to the field's attitude towards nationalism in the inter-war period. See Berman, N., ‘“But the Alternative Is Despair”: European Nationalism and the Modernist Renewal of International Law’, (1993) 106 Harvard Law Review 1792.

61 Ibid., at 1793, quoting T. S. Woolsey on the rights of minorities under the Treaty with Poland.

62 C. Rousseau, ‘De la compatibilité des normes juridiques contradictoires dans l'ordre international’, (1932) RGDIP 132, at 132.

63 Ibid., at 151.

64 J. Basdevant, ‘Règles du droit de la paix’, (1936-IV) 58 RCADI 492.

66 Ibid., at 493.

67 There were some, however, like Joseph Barthélemy, who criticized the field's ‘excesses in abstract legalism’ and its tendency to prefer uniform or general rules over the ‘reality’. Nevertheless, these denunciations seem to have remained in the background. J. Barthélemy, ‘Politique intérieure et droit international’, (1937-I) 59 RCADI 421, at 442.

68 Redslob, R., Les principes du droit des gens moderne (1937), 19. This idea was also expressed by Fauchille, supra note 57, at 301.

69 At that time, narratives about the League tended to differentiate its early days from its later days, considering the League to be successful until emasculated by power politics. See Kennedy, ‘Move to Institutions’, supra note 7, at 876–7.

70 Redslob, supra note 68, at 285, 289.

71 Carr, E. H., The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919–1939: An Introduction of the Study of International Relations (1939), 62.

72 Morgenthau, H., ‘Positivism, Functionalism, and International Law’, (1940) 34 AJIL 260.

73 Hence, the ICJ is as commonly described as the PCIJ's successor, whereas the PCIJ was thought to be related to the Hague system but not to have succeeded it. See Kennedy, ‘Move to Institutions’, supra note 7.

74 H. Rolin, ‘Les principes de droit international public’, (1950-II) 77 RCADI, at 434.

75 H. Waldock, ‘General Course on Public International Law’, (1962-II) 106 RCADI 1, at 28.

76 C. de Visscher, ‘Cours général de principes de droit international public ‘, (1954-II) 88 RCADI 445, at 454.

77 Ibid., at 469.

78 Lauterpacht, H., International Law and Human Rights (1950), 421.

79 For a particularly dramatic tone, see J. Kunz, ‘The Chaotic Status of the Laws of War and the Urgent Necessity for their Revision’, (1951) 45 AJIL 37. The fact that international law was marginal to power proved the urgency of its renewal.

80 E. Giraud, ‘Le droit international public et la politique’, (1963-III) 110 RCADI 419, at 580.

81 P. Reuter, ‘Principes de droit international public’, (1961-II) 103 RCADI 425, at 491.

82 K. Wilk, ‘International and Global Ideological Conflict: Reflections on the Universality of International Law’, (1951) 45 AJIL 648.

83 Grzybowski, K., Soviet Public International Law: Doctrines and Diplomatic Practice (1970), 15. Similarly, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, Serge Krylov made it clear that the Soviet Union rejected the idea of a global law or the presentation of the United Nations as a super-state, for it let the control of the world to capitalist states and was contrary to the notion of sovereignty. S. B. Krylov, ‘Les notions principales du droit des gens (La doctrine soviétique du droit international)’, (1947-I) 70 RCADI 435.

84 G. Fitzmaurice, ‘The General Principles of International Law Considered from the Standpoint of the Rule of Law’, (1957-II) 92 RCADI 95.

85 See de Visscher, supra note 76, at 271.

86 Kolb, R., Les cours généraux de droit international public de l'Académie de La Haye (2006), 286.

87 See, e.g., the study of Sulkowski, J., ‘The Competence of the International Labor Organization under the United Nations System’, (1951) 48 AJIL 286.

88 Wright, Q., ‘The Strengthening of International Law’, (1959-III) 98 RCADI 1, at 289.

89 Jenks, C. W., ‘The Conflict of Law-Making Treaties’, (1953) 30 British Yearbook of International Law 401, at 403.

90 H. Waldock, ‘General Course on Public International Law’, (1962-II) 106 RCADI 1, at 120.

91 Lawson, R., ‘The Problem of the Compulsory Jurisdiction of the World Court’, (1952) 46 AJIL 219.

92 See, e.g., Wright, supra note 88, at 223–59; and W. W. Bishop, ‘General Course of Public International Law’, (1965-II) 115 RCADI 151, at 172.

93 Kelsen's outright rejection of legal gaps was based on the presumption of states’ residual liberty. Any dispute could be resolved by international law if state parties so desired. H. Kelsen, ‘Théorie du droit international public’, (1953-III) 84 RCADI 175.

94 Lauterpacht refuted the distinction between legal and political disputes, considering the legal system to be materially (and not formally) complete. International judges could always resort to contextual standards or other considerations to resolve a case. Because he believed (his) judicial practice to be a privileged instrument for order and justice, he argued that the law's unity would be ensured not so much by UN administrative bodies as by the judicial profession. H. Lauterpacht, ‘Some Observations on the Prohibition of “Non Liquet” and the Completeness of the Law’, in Symbolae Verzijl (1958), 196. He had already formulated this argument in The Function of Law in the International Community (1933), 245–345.

95 See Jütersonke, O., ‘Hans J. Morgenthau on the Limits of Justiciability in International Law’, (2006) 8 Journal of the History of International Law 181.

96 H. Morgenthau, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (1948), 295–6.

97 C. W. Jenks, The Common Law of Mankind (1958). See also Bishop, supra note 92.

98 See Kennedy, ‘When Renewal Repeats: Thinking against the Box’, supra note 7, at 365.

99 W. Friedmann, The Changing Structure of International Law (1964).

100 Leben, C., ‘The Changing Structure of International Law Revisited: By Way of Introduction’, (1997) 8 EJIL 399.

101 See Friedmann, supra note 99, at 367.

102 Ibid., at 114.

103 Ibid., at 367.

104 Ibid., at 122. Also P. de Visscher, ‘Cours général de droit international public’, (1972-II) 165 RCADI 79.

105 Friedmann, supra note 99, at 125. Here again, universality would be achieved through speciality.

106 G. Abi-Saab, ‘Cours général de droit international public’, (1987-VII) 207 RCADI, at 173. Koskenniemi, M., ‘Repetition as Reform: Georges Abi-Saab, Cours Général de droit international public’, (1998) 9 EJIL 408. Bedjaoui, M., Towards a New International Economic Order (1979) 9, at 138.

107 Launched in the 1970s, the NIEO represented ‘the culmination of a decade-long process of attempting to articulate an alternative to the mainstream approach to the international economic system’. Mickelson, K., ‘Rhetoric and Rage: Third World Voices in International Legal Discourse’, (1998) 16 Wisconsin International Law Journal 353, at 365.

108 See, e.g., Chimni, C., International Law and World Order: A Critique of Contemporary Approaches (1993), 9.

109 Each had their domain: coexistence between the First and Second Worlds, co-operation in the Third; coexistence for peace and security, co-operation for development and economy, etc. Kennedy, D., ‘The “Rule of Law”, Political Choices, and Development Common Sense’, in Trubek, D. and Santos, A. (eds.), The New Law and Economic Development: A Critical Appraisal (2006), 120.

110 Anand, R. P., ‘Development and Environment: The Case of the Developing Countries’, (1980) 24 Indian Journal of International Law 1.

111 There were obviously disagreements regarding the appropriate strategy; Third World proponents debated whether the problem was inequality of bargaining power or a more profound structural bias, whether procedural solutions were adequate or not, and so on. Nevertheless, in broad terms the NIEO programme was a compromise between moderate and radical visions – and it was understood as such by both proponents and opponents.

112 In the 1970s the ‘basic needs’ strategy was endorsed by the World Bank, the ILO and other agencies. See, e.g., Report of the Director General of the ILO, Employment and Basic Needs: A One-World Problem (1976).

113 C. Fenwick, ‘International Law: The Old and the New’, (1966) 60 AJIL 475, at 481.

114 Another example is the law of development promoted by René-Jean Dupuy, whose ‘situational logic’ differed from the ‘universal logic’ of traditional international law. Traditionally, he explained, international law did not prescribe derogative rules for Third World countries, although their situation often required it. By contrast, development law was premised on the idea that unequal situations required different treatments, and this could only be done through ‘individualized, differentiated and concrete rules’. R.-J. Dupuy, ‘Communauté internationale et disparités de développement’, (1979-IV) 165 RCADI 9, at 125.

115 For the Yale school's positions on issues related to fragmentation, see especially McDougal, M. and Lasswell, H., ‘The Identification and Appraisal of Diverse Systems of Public Order’, in McDougal, M. (ed.), Studies in World Public Order (1960), 13–18.

116 Weil, P., ‘Towards Relative Normativity in International Law?’, (1983) 77 AJIL 413.

117 P. Weil, ‘Le droit international en quête de son identité. Cours général de droit international public’, (1992-VI) 237 RCADI 90.

118 Simma, B., ‘Self-contained Regimes’, (1985) 15 Netherlands Yearbook of International Law 111.

119 Brownlie, I., ‘The Rights of People in Modern International Law’, in Crawford, J. (ed.), The Rights of Peoples (1988), 15.

120 At the 1977 annual meeting, he introduced his talk on the ‘impact of complex regional systems on the overarching structure’ by stating that ‘every regional system leads to the fractionalizing of the international legal order’. Thus the question was not whether fragmentation was formally possible but whether ‘it served or hindered the progress of international law’. This question could not be answered in the abstract because it depended on state practice: what would they privilege and to what ends? States could very often justify their actions on the basis of both universal law and regional law. L. Dubouis, ‘Les rapports du droit régional et du droit universel’, in Société Française pour le Droit International (SFDI), Régionalisme et universalisme dans le droit international contemporain (1977).

121 See Friedmann, supra note 99, at 142.

122 Ibid., at 143–54.

123 Address by Judge Gilbert Guillaume, president of the ICJ, to the UN General Assembly, 26 October 2000. See the previous address by Judge Stephen M. Schwebel, president of the ICJ, on 26 October 1999. The speeches of the Presidents of the ICJ can be found on the Court's website at (last visited 1 May 2008).

124 M. Koskenniemi, ‘International Law’, supra note 8, at 7.

125 See for instance Kingsbury, B. and Krisch, N., ‘Introduction: Global Governance and Global Administrative Law in the International Legal Order’, (2006) 17 EJIL 1.

126 See Carr, supra note 71.

127 J. Rosenberg, The Empire of Civil Society: A Critique of the Realist Theory of International Relations (1994), ch. 1.

128 This argument is developed by Koskenniemi, supra note 15, ch. 7.

129 Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, General Assembly Resolution 3281 (XXIX), UN Doc. A/RES/29/3281, 1974, Preamble.

* Ph.D. candidate, Université Paris 1 and University of Helsinki. The author would like to thank Martti Koskenniemi and Carl Landauer for their comments, as well as Monica García-Salmones, Alan Tzvika Nissel, and the two anonymous reviewers. All translations are by the author.

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