New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



This is the pre-peer-reviewed version of the following article: Robert Howse and Ruti Teitel, “Beyond Compliance: Rethinking Why International Law Really Matters” Global Policy (2010) 1:2, which has been published in final form at


The conceptual, and more recently empirical, study of compliance has become a central preoccupation, and perhaps the fastest growing sub-field, in international legal scholarship. The authors seek to put in question this trend. They argue that looking at the aspirations of international law through the lens of rule-compliance leads to inadequate scrutiny and understanding of the diverse complex purposes and projects that multiple actors impose and transpose on international legality, and especially a tendency to oversimplify if not distort the relation of international law to politics. Citing a range of examples from different areas of international law-ranging widely from international trade and investment to international criminal and humanitarian law-the authors seek to show how the concept of compliance (especially viewed as rule-observance) is inadequate to understanding how international law has normative effects. A fundamental flaw of compliance studies is they abstract from the problem of interpretation: Interpretation is pervasively determinative of what happens to legal rules when they are out in the world yet “compliance” studies begin with the notion that there is a stable and agreed meaning to a rule, and we need merely observe whether it is obeyed.

Date of Authorship for this Version