The University of Southampton

LAWS3127 Re-Imagining International Law

Module Overview

• What role does international law play in control over the world by those who exercise power? • Does international law support or challenge the existing distribution of global power, wealth and opportunity? • As it exists today, what kind of global future does international law promote? • Can we imagine alternative futures? What is international law’s role in creating those futures? • Can international law be used to change the world and, if so, how? • Is international law open to anyone – can anyone make an international legal argument? – or is it the exclusive domain of international lawyers, judges, and academics? These are the questions which students will explore throughout this module. International law, as an academic discipline and an area of legal practice, is and historically has been uncertain of what it is, what it does, and what it exists for. Despite that uncertainty certain core elements of international law have always been apparent – an emphasis on the state as the primary actor in world affairs, a commitment to the protection of sovereign independence. In the twentieth century the formation of the UN and a massive expansion in the number and type of international institutions created a ‘constitutional moment’, a shift from the narrow pursuit of state self-interest to a new era of multilateralism in which major challenges such as war, poverty, environmental degradation, inequality, and the protection of human rights, could be addressed through supra-national institutions. Today, in the early years of the twenty-first century, we need to assess that twentieth century experiment and ask ourselves whether the forms, institutions, processes, and patterns of thought which international law has conventionally employed should be preserved. As legal thinkers, as legal researchers, we have a responsibility to evaluate what exists, consider possible alternatives, and explore the implications of our choices.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

• Introduce you to the diversity of competing ideas about what international law is and what its role in the world is. • Encourage you to take a position on the capacity of international law, as a professional practice and a normative structure, to play a role in tackling the most pressing global challenges (for example, climate change, international terrorism, international conflict, widespread human rights abuses). • Enable you to appreciate the connections between different ideas about what international law is today and has been in the past and debates about the current distribution of global wealth, power, and opportunity.

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Current debates about the future of international law and international institutions (such as, for example, the United Nations).
  • The tensions which surround divergent perspectives on the universality of international law and the desirability of a global legal architecture defining the basic conditions of life on earth (what we might call the ‘universality vs. locality’ debate).
  • Divergent perspectives on law’s role and potential in responding to the most pressing global challenges.
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Critically assess the contribution of international law to the creation of the current world order.
  • Analyse and comment on a range of proposals and theoretical perspectives on the future of international law.
  • Engage with on-going debate on the nature of law in the twenty-first century and changes in the relationship between the state and the ‘international community’.
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Critically evaluate others’ arguments;
  • Develop and present a written argument with appropriate evidence;
  • Effectively research, organise and manage an independent project using available primary and secondary, electronic and paper sources;
  • Evaluate the material obtained from primary and secondary, electronic and paper sources.


International law is in a state of flux. Every international law journal is now publishing articles which either defend existing, conventional understandings of international law as a structure of rules, or propose some alternative approach. These alternative approaches have settled into a pattern which makes them accessible to undergraduate students. Approaches considered in this course will include a selection from the following indicative list: Orthodox legal positivism: The conventional image of international law as a collective of rules governing the interaction between states. International legal constitutionalism: The idea that international law has moved beyond a system of inter-state agreement and towards a constitutional structure containing basic values and principles which set limits on both state action and the content of international law. Critical international law: A diversity of views and theories informed by the basic conviction that international law is a professional practice or language rather than a set of rules. The New Haven School: A perspective associated with a particular community of US academics which argues that international law is a process of decision making rather than a rules based structure. ‘Third World Approaches to International Law’: An approach which emphasises the importance of the (global) North / global South relationship to both the history of international law and international law’s current situation. Global Administrative Law: A perspective which argues that international law is, today, a process of decision making in certain power centres (corporations, intergovernmental organisations) rather than a rules based or normative structure. The module will explore these perspectives by linking them to consideration of the most pressing global challenges. The course will begin by outlining the essential features of the divergent perspectives to be considered. The challenges and difficulties which international law has experienced in tackling major global challenges (from the credit crunch to conflict in Syria, for example) will be introduced to illustrate the importance of this theoretical debate. The key point, here, is that the theoretical debate is not purely a matter of theory – the model or approach to international law that is adopted says something distinctive about what it is that international law can do in the face of such challenges. Given the breadth of the literature on the theory of international law which is relevant to this course, readings will be carefully selected and narrowly focused. Students will be expected to engage in detail with a relatively small number of texts. Students will then be expected to analyse, critique, and inter-relate those texts both in class and in their final assessment.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include: • Weekly seminars Learning activities include: • Directed Reading (as per distributed reading lists) • Independent research (for coursework) • Preparing and writing formative coursework and self-reflection of that process • Preparing and writing summative coursework • Preparation and delivery of oral presentation • Class discussion (including small group work).

Completion of assessment task58
Preparation for scheduled sessions70
Total study time150





MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework  (5000 words) 100%


MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework  (5000 words) 100%


MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework  (5000 words) 100%
Share this module Share this on Facebook Share this on Google+ Share this on Twitter Share this on Weibo

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue without changing your settings, we will assume that you are happy to receive cookies on the University of Southampton website.