The meaning of International Law: Government monopoly, expert precinct or the people’s law?

Historically and in established positive law the power to make international law and to interpret it authoritatively has been a prerogative claimed and exercised primarily by States. It is commonplace to note that the formal and informal participation of non-State actors (including civil society actors) in the making of international law is to be seen in many areas. However, less attention has been given to the significance of the interpretative work in which non-State actors engage as they monitor and critique the implementation by States of their international treaty obligations. While States may not have lost control of the interpretation of international law, they are no longer the sole arbiters of its meaning. This lecture will explore through a number of examples taken mainly from the field of human rights how non-State actors – including formal expert bodies, parliamentary bodies, civil society organisations and peoples’ tribunals – challenge State interpretations of obligations. It will examine the significance of such interventions in a formal sense but also beyond the realm of positive law. Are we all international lawyers now and, if so, is that something to celebrate? 

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