How universalized are “universal standards” of human rights: the critical school of international law reappraised

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Author: Andrey Medushevsky

Keywords: cognitive constitutionalism; constitutional justice; critical school of international law; false universalism; global constitutionalism dilemma; global law; human rights; legal asymmetry; post-liberal values; universal legal standards


The idea of the universal character of fundamental human rights and their protection became the cornerstone of international legal theory and practice after the end of the Second World War, opening the way to formation of universal standards of human rights and their implementation by transnational and national courts. This global legal order being formed was based on the rational presumption that Western liberal values could be gradually advanced beyond national borders in order to construct a new cosmopolitan post-national reality of international constitutionalism, thus averting violations of human rights by non-democratic political regimes. However, this idealistic vision has recently been put under question by the growing fragmentation and asymmetry of a multi-polar international order, powerful regional unions and states, and rising anti-globalist forces of a different ideological character. This intellectual trend, summarized as the critical school of international law, proposed an alternative vision of legal globalization and of human rights and their protection. The mainstream concept of global liberal constitutionalism was rejected as an oversimplification of the differentiated legal order, which is ruled not by common values but by very different competing interests. In this intellectual framework the “universal character” of human rights is nothing more than a form of “false universalism” – a new form of dominance by the global superpowers over developing countries in order to maintain the existing unfair system of international order and the inequality of the world’s regions, countries and minorities, which historically had no voice in these debates. The author summarizes the arguments of this critical wave of international debates on such issues as the legitimacy of international law, symmetry and fragmentation, regional strategies of adaptation to international standards, the place of so-called post-liberal values as alternatives to liberal ones, and possible new trajectories in international constitutional justice. In conclusion the author formulates a new dilemma for the universality principle — it could be realized only by reciprocal agreement of all global actors, but this consensus cannot be achieved in the current situation of deep cognitive dissonance. The solution of this problem is possible on the basis of cognitive constitutionalism as a new form of international dialogue about the global legal order.

About the author: Andrey Medushevsky – Doctor of Sciences (Philosophy), Tenured Professor, Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia.

Citation: Medushevsky A. (2022) Naskol'ko universal'ny “universal'nye standarty” prav cheloveka: pereotsenka kriticheskoy shkoly mezhdunarodnogo prava [How universalized are “universal standards” of human rights: the critical school of international law reappraised]. Mezhdunarodnoe pravosudie, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 3–31. (In Russian).


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