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Crimea and the Limits of International Law

Published on March 10, 2014        Author: 

The situation in Crimea has left many an international lawyer in shock. It seems to transport us back to past times when the superpowers did what they pleased and the others suffered what they must. The end of the Cold War, so we hoped, had ushered in a different era in which international law found greater respect. The post-9/11 years sowed doubts about this; now we’re getting closer to certainty that the times haven’t changed that much.

For some, like Eric Posner or Julian Ku, Crimea is yet another piece of evidence that international law is weak. Of course it is, but this weakness is entirely unsurprising. Who would have thought that the rules on the use of force could be effectively enforced against a great power, a regional hegemon, in its own backyard? Great powers – including Western ones – have always treated the law on the use of force somewhat liberally. They have evaded censure, or didn’t care too much about it when the stakes were high. And the UN collective security system is explicitly designed in a way that makes action against them impossible. This tells us something about the limits of international law, and, as Erik Voeten rightly points out, it should give us reason to worry if a legal system allows powerful actors to ignore it so openly. But for international law, this is nothing new. When it comes to the use of force, some states have always been more equal than others.

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Catalonia’s Independence: A Reply to Joseph Weiler

Published on January 18, 2013        Author: 

Nico Krisch (Hertie School of Governance, Berlin & IBEI, Barcelona)

Joseph Weiler’s polemic on Catalan independence has certainly stirred up debate (see the comments on the piece), which is always helpful. But as much as I admire much of Weiler’s academic work, I find this intervention heavily misguided in substance, in part because of a misunderstanding of the reasons behind the Catalan drive, in part because of a misreading of the nature of independence claims in general. I write this having spent a significant part of the last decade in Barcelona, with a growing appreciation for the concerns of Catalans and of sub-state nationalism in general, which has certainly toned down my earlier, perhaps rather naïve cosmopolitanism that had little time for nations and borders.

Weiler laments a return of Catalans to ‘an early 20th-century post-World War I mentality, when the notion that a single state could encompass more than one nationality seemed impossible’, and he finds it ‘laughable and impossible to take seriously Catalan arguments for independence’ when they have a statute of autonomy. He thinks that all Catalans could possibly complain about dates back to the Franco period and before, and that today they should leave this behind, drop talk of independence and work out their differences with the rest of Spain. But the latter is precisely what they have tried for several decades, and with limited success. Spain’s 1978 constitution is an awkward compromise, born out of a transition from dictatorship. It stops well short of establishing a federal state and, despite Spain’s enormous cultural diversity, has many centralist elements. Catalans are a structural minority in that setting – and less protected than the Basques who achieved a more favourable position in and after the constitution. While it is true that they don’t face persecution or any kind of grave human rights violations, discrimination can also take more subtle forms and result in systematic disadvantages when it comes to appointments to public office, investment in infrastructure or the distribution of resources in general. And even achievements in linguistic rights are called into question when the Spanish government can declare – as it has recently done – that it intends to ‘hispanicise’ Catalan school children.

All this does not reach the threshold for remedial secession under international law. But is international law, state-centric and state-made as it is, a good guide for our normative approach here? Probably not. Read the rest of this entry…


The Dream of Reason: A Response to Mattias Kumm

Published on December 16, 2009        Author: 

Nico Krisch is Professor of International Law at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin  

We tend to fill voids with what we know. When we are thrown into unfamiliar spaces, we try to chart them with the maps we possess, construct them with the tools we already have. Working with analogies, extending and adapting existing concepts, seems usually much preferable to the creation of ideas and structures from scratch, not only because of the risks involved in the latter, but also because of our limits of imagination.

When we try to imagine the postnational space, it is not surprising then that we turn for guidance first to the well-known, the space of the national. The postnational, no doubt, is unfamiliar territory; the shape of its institutions, of allegiances and loyalties, of influence and power, submission and resistance is – sometimes radically – different from what we are familiar with. In Ruling the World?, David Kennedy nicely points out how little we actually know about this space, and how much anxiety this can provoke.

The global constitutionalist project seems to rescue us from this anxiety, it appears as a promise to structure the global level in a similar way to what we know from home. It returns to us a feeling of agency in the face of external circumstances, of reason when confronted with an institutional morass created through power, path dependence or mere accident. And it bears the promise that key political values, such as rights or democracy, will not be neglected simply because we are talking about issues beyond the nation state.

When it comes to spelling out what this means, however, the constitutionalist promise often gets watered down. It turns into constitutionalism with a small ‘c’ , into a quest merely for some stronger rights protection and a few more judicial review mechanisms, all part of a process of ‘constitutionalisation’ without a clear end goal. Samantha Besson’s paper in Ruling the World? highlights the gap between such approaches and what she rightly sees as a much more demanding domestic tradition of constitutionalism, but she too is the victim of adaptive preferences. Because the strong unitary, hierarchical element in constitutionalism clashes with the fragmented, chaotic structure of global governance, she quickly reinterprets ‘constitutionalism’ so as to make it fit – as a softer, more accommodating, broadly pluralist notion. Normatively, this may point into the right direction (I have defended a pluralist position elsewhere too, see here), but the link with ‘constitutionalism’ as we know it becomes very weak indeed.

Glossing over the extent of the challenge would not be Mattias Kumm’s style. In his paper in this volume (see Mattias’ EJIL:Talk! post here) - the focus of my short piece – it certainly is not, for it sets him on a ‘revolutionary’ path and promises us nothing less than a ‘Copernican turn’ in thinking about constitutionalism. Read the rest of this entry…

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