The Future of Democratic Sovereignty and Transnational Law: Democratic Iterations, Transjudicial Conversations and Epistemic Communities

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Prof. Seyla BenhabibMax Weber Lecture with Prof. Seyla Benhabib, Yale University,
16 May 2012, 17.00, Villa La Fonte, Conference Room

Seyla Benhabib will be introduced by Rainer Baubock, SPS Department, EUI, will Inés Valdez, Max Weber Fellow, will chair the session.


This lecture will examine the rise of legal cosmopolitanism in the period since the UDHR of 1948 as it gives rise to two very distinct sets of literature and preoccupations.

I contrast the mainly negative conclusions drawn by conventional political theory about the possibility of reconciling democratic sovereignty with a transnational legal order to the utopianism of contemporary legal scholarship that projects varieties of global constitutionalism with or without the state.

I argue that transnational human rights norms strengthen rather than weaken democratic sovereignty. Distinguishing between a ‘concept’ and a ‘conception’ of human rights, I claim that self-government in a free public sphere and free civil society is essential to the concretization of the necessarily abstract norms of human rights.

My thesis is that without the right to self-government, which is exercised through proper legal and political channels, we cannot justify the range of variation in the content of basic human rights as being legitimate. I name processes through which rights-norms are contextualized in polities ‘democratic iterations.’

The institutionalization of human rights norms through democratic iterations that permit their revision, rearticulation and contestation, both within judicial institutions and in the larger spheres of civil society, exhibits certain ‘epistemic virtues’ and shows, in Alan Buchanan’s words, ‘public practical reason’ at work.

In conclusion, in addition to Buchanan’s thesis, I consider Anne-Marie Slaughter’s concept of ‘transjudicial communication,’ and Judith Resnik’s model of ‘law by affiliation’.

These three models, like my model of ‘democratic iterations,’ develop modalities of thinking beyond the binarism of the cosmopolitan versus the civic republican; democratic versus the international and transnational; democratic sovereignty versus human rights law.

All welcome to attend – please register with [email protected].