Claims to Modernity and the Politics of International Law




Koblanck, Maria

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Many scholars have attempted to reframe our understanding of international law in order to re-establish the credibility of international norms in an age of widespread doubt about the power of law. This study seeks to contribute to this project by examining how the relationship between a specific understanding of modernity and the assumption that the modern state is the only proper location of politics enables a discipline built on idealized categories framing active agency in relation to modern politics. The consequence is not only a tightly circumscribed discipline that constantly reproduces particular understandings of the future potential of international law but also limits what we understand meaningful practices of international law to be. The specific example investigated is that of the Sami, the indigenous and transnationally nomadic people of Fennoscandia. Looking not only at how the Sami have made use of supranational avenues to challenge the sovereignty of the Swedish state (especially in the European Court of Human Rights) in the name of individual human rights, this case suggests that human rights are best understood as a political practice among other political practices rather than as a system of idealized, legal abstractions. The analysis works through a reading of international law as one of many modern political tools that may be used in order to engage political problems of modernity, just as, in other circumstances, we may think about political tools in terms of the possibilities of political contestation about the common interests of a society. One of the common assumptions shared by all the texts and writers under examination involves an understanding of modernity as a structured and ordered teleological process towards the realization of man’s enlightened freedom. Considering the limited possibilities exposed by such texts suggest that if we want to re-imagine what we take international law to be then we must begin with engaging alternative understandings of modernity; more precisely, we must acknowledge the heterogeneity of contemporary experiences. My exploration of the joint implications of the work of Marshall Berman and Dipesh Chakrabarty concludes with a call to avoid reductionist accounts of international law and to think about the modern world as a dynamic, ever-changing and always malleable place, a place in which human experiences continuously alter the political orders within which we operate.



international law, political theory, post-colonial theory, legal theory, modernity, Sami