Monday, February 6, 2012

Indicia of Civilization

A Foundational Principle in International Law

By Nicole Nielson

Nicole Nielson, a third year student at Albany Law School, is a member of the Albany Law Review, the student Executive Editor of the Law Review's annual State Constitutional Commentary issue, and a Senior Editor of the Center for Judicial Process.
She originally prepared this paper on the concept of "civilization" for the International Law of War and Crime Seminar, Fall 2011.

The term “Civilization” is imbued with deeply subjective meaning. Individuals define the term anecdotally, in relation to and with respect to their own experiences and perspectives, not at all unlike the way that countries, political and geographical entities give the term meaning. As such, given the multitude of perspectives and numerous cultures on our planet, absent substantial consideration and study, civilization is a term ill-suited to a single definition and thus frequently misunderstood. At the core of what civilization means is its application, particularly with respect to notions of sovereignty of a country or political or geographical entity. Classification as a civilized entity carries the benefit of the presumption of sovereignty. This presumption accords deference with respect to the sovereign’s decisions and actions inside its borders.

The tension of civilization and sovereignty are pervasive in the establishment and enforcement of international laws because voluntary and collective agreement through treaty, legislation or agreement otherwise, about what is just and what is permissible are what comprise international law. Thus, international law rests on the relationships built through recognition of sovereignty; recognition predicated on having met a standard of civilization.

The issue with civilization as the foundational principle for international law is that its definition and application are heavily weighted in favor of the lens of western culture, which does not often afford legitimacy to inevitably divergent lenses of multiple civilizations. The inability to accommodate cultural pluralism in international law, and the persistence of the western perspective, is a barrier to the effectiveness of international law and the establishment and maintenance of international relationships.*
* Citations to references in this introduction are available in the paper.
To read the entire paper, open HERE.