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The Making of the Universal: Towards a Critical History of International Law as a Statist Project


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The Making of the Universal: Towards a Critical History of International Law as a Statist Project

Room A7-235.

Speaker: Olivier Barsalou, Co-Director of the Research Centre on International Law and Globalization (CÉDIM), UQAM, Postdoctoral researcher, McGill University

Working with law means first and foremost working with history, conceived as a quest for the foundations of the norm. However, historians and international jurists have only recently (re)started to be interested in international law’s history as a (legitimate) scientific field of investigation. Rational, objective, progressive, international law’s vanishing point is its future and its pre-emption. Yet, working with the history of international law equates to creating a breach in the performance of international law understood as a disciplined and practice-oriented field, subordinated to problem resolution. This breach leads to two perspectives: one classic, the other critical. The history of international law is classically euro-centered, hagiographical, iconographic, progressive and teleological, inasmuch as this history was constructed as a justification of the instrumental and universalist reason of international law. The critical history of international law, for its part, is declined in the plural. It seeks to understand how law participates in the construction of power relations and their reproduction as a power, i.e. as an irreducible universal. In other words, it seeks to understand how the present has been constituted and how it participates in the production of a specific future. The recent resurgence of critical histories of international law thus conveys this ambition of, ultimately, creating the genealogy of the present moment: to understand how the contemporary has been constituted. In terms of subjects as well as sources, the contemporary of international law is manifested through the state, the inevitable disciplinary and professional figure. Using two historical case studies, that of the history of human rights and of the history of the right to self-determination of peoples, this presentation will demonstrate that a critical history of international law is above all a critic of the state as a universalist project irreducible to international law.