May 06, 2006

Global People’s Law? Paper for Z Strategy and Vision Sessions

by Jeremy Brecher

{ This paper was prepared for the June 1 - 7 2006 first Z Sessions on Vision and Strategy, held in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. These sessions gather activists from around the world to share ideas and experiences regarding social vision and strategy. }


“Carried to its logical extreme, the doctrine of human rights and duties under international law is subversive of the whole principle that mankind should be organized as a society of sovereign states. For, if the rights of each man can be asserted on the world political stage over and against the claims of his state, and his duties proclaimed irrespective of his position as a servant or a citizen of that state, then the position of the state as a body sovereign over its citizens, and entitled to command their obedience, has been subject to challenge, and the structure of the society of sovereign states has been placed in jeopardy. The way is left open for the subversion of the society of sovereign states on behalf of the alternative organizing principle of a cosmopolitan community.” -- Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society[1]



We tend to think of the U.S. Constitution as a founding national document. But it actually expressed a movement and a set of principles that were diffused throughout the Atlantic region. The constituting of governments on the basis of human rights, democracy, and the consent of the governed was itself a transnational process.

Similarly the development of rights has been a transnational phenomenon, even when such rights have been incorporated in national constitutions. Abolitionism was an international movement which was ultimately incorporated in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Labor rights campaigns like the demand for limits on working hours international movements; they ultimately overturned core interpretations of the U.S. Constitution that prohibited government regulation of the hours and conditions of labor. Abolitionism and labor rights represented global constitutional visions of basic human rights implemented by global constitutional insurgencies.

Such global constitutional insurgencies differ from both traditional socialist and traditional anarchist conceptions of social change, whether revolutionary or reformist. But it corresponds in many ways to the actual practice of the movement of “globalization from below” that has emerged worldwide over the past few years.

Wherever people attempt to challenge existing conditions on the basis of international human rights and the right of peoples to self-determination, they are in effect expressing an alternative global constitutional vision and engaging in a constitutional insurgency aiming to implement that vision. Protesters often engage in civil disobedience that may be illegal under national law but that they claim is justified under the principles that underlie international law – principles that form, in effect, a global constitution. They are increasingly appealed to by activists all over the world.

The idea of a global constitutional insurgency describes this practice and relates it to a more integrated and fundamental restructuring of the world order. It envisions that transformation as the embodiment of an alternative vision of the global constitution. It sees adjudication and enforcement as occurring through official institutions where possible and through people’s movements and tribunals where official institutions fail to do their job.

Of course, “actually existing international law” as interpreted by the present “powers and principalities” of the earth does far more to deny than to affirm these principles. But that is exactly why existing arrangements need to be challenged by a constitutional insurgency.

Law making power may seem to reside in sovereign states. But under current international law the sovereignty of states is dependent on, and limited by, their responsibility to represent their peoples and meet their obligations to human rights, the U.N. Charter, and other aspects of international law.

In reality, the institutions for making, interpreting, and enforcing the global constitution are contaminated by corruption, usurpation, and bias. In practice, they are largely shaped by undemocratic nation governments, unelected elites, and uncontrolled corporations. The case is strong that at present all states are illegitimate outlaw states. It is this which provides the justification for ordinary persons to develop an alternative constitutional vision and attempt to implement it through a global constitutional insurgency. Given the corruption, usurpation, and bias of the established means for interpreting and enforcing global constitutional law, is the obligation of the people of the world to correct the failures of interpretation and implementation of the global constitution. Given such an obligation, there must also be a right to take the action necessary to fulfill the obligation. Institutional structures, practices, and purported laws which block or punish such action are inherently illegitimate and unconstitutional and therefore void. They represent nothing but illegitimate force and lawless violence.

Such a global constitutional insurgency can also be described in terms of a people’s concept of world law. Such a view sees law as something that must be imposed on nation states, corporations, and other powerful actors by the cumulative pressure of individuals and groups.


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