The stagnation of international law

Joost Pauwelyn, Ramses A. Wessel, Jan Wouters

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Traditional international law and its instruments are stagnating both in terms of quantity and quality. New, alternative forms of cross-border cooperation, in particular processes of informal international lawmaking, have emerged and gained prominence since the 2000s in response to an increasingly diverse, networked, and knowledge-based society. This transformation impacts on the three axes of actors, processes and outputs in the international legal order. We challenge the assumption that traditional international law is, by definition, legitimate and that this would not be the case for new forms of informal lawmaking: whereas traditional international law is often based on “thin state consent”, a “thick stakeholder consensus” underlies many of the new forms of cooperation. It is submitted that the evolution in the international legal order demands an adjustment of models to keep both new forms of cooperation and traditional international law in check. This paper thereto assesses the legitimacy of international legal processes, tackling also the question whether new forms benefit powerful actors and how to keep activity accountable, both domestically and internationally, towards internal and external stakeholders, through ex ante, ongoing and ex post control mechanisms, involving not only managerial or administrative checks and balances but also political and judicial oversight. The paper furthermore examines whether some of the new outputs of international cooperation could already be seen as part of traditional international law and how traditional and new forms are (or could be) interacting before international courts and tribunals. To conclude, a redefinition of the academic discipline of international law to keep both the field and its students sociologically relevant is proposed.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherLeuven Centre for Global Governance studies
Number of pages41
Publication statusPublished - 2012

Publication series

NameWorking paper
PublisherLeuven Centre for Global Governance studies


  • METIS-296986
  • IR-86725


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