All posts by Kevin E. Davis

What Does it Mean for International Criminal Law to Conform to Local Values?

Kevin E. Davis is the Beller Family Professor of Business Law at New York University School of Law. His current research is focused on contract law, anticorruption law, and the general relationship between law and economic development.

Does international criminal law conform to local values? How can we tell? Why should we care? In their fascinating and illuminating article, The Ahistoricism of Legal Pluralism in International Criminal Law, James Stewart and Asad Kiyani focus on the first of these three questions. Inevitably though they end up addressing the other two questions as well. I say “inevitably” because it would be impossible for them to answer the first question about conformity without answering the methodological question of how to identify it, at least implicitly. And to choose among the variety of ways of assessing conformity they have to determine the purpose of the assessment, again, if only implicitly.

Stewart and Kiyani’s main interest is in debunking the view that doctrines drawn from national criminal laws necessarily conform to local values. The promised payoff is insight into the important issue of whether international criminal law ought to be pluralistic or universal — or as I prefer to put it, should it be uniform or not? They seem to believe that their debunking exercise undermines the case for non-uniform approaches. However, this only follows if a) they have an accurate test for conformity with local values and b), the case for a non-uniform international criminal regime depends in a significant way on the results of that test.

The way that Stewart and Kiyani test for conformity suggests they believe that the main justification for non-uniform approach to international criminal law is political legitimacy. I believe they are mistaken about what political legitimacy demands in this context. I also believe they neglect at least two other plausible justifications for a non-uniform regime: respect for individuals’ rights to be governed by familiar doctrines and effectiveness. For all these reasons I think that Stewart and Kiyani’s historical analysis does less damage to the case for non-uniform international criminal law than they make out. Let me explain.

Political legitimacy

The Ahistoricism of Legal Pluralism in International Criminal Law is organized around a series of case studies that examine whether various criminal law doctrines do or do not conform to local values. In each of the negative cases the reasons for concluding that there is a lack of conformity are slightly different. In the Democratic Republic of Congo the problem is that the colonial doctrine has remained in force without being amended by any local actors. In Pakistan the concern is that local amendments to a colonial doctrine were made by repressive dictators. Etc.

Curiously, nowhere do they test for conformity by referring to direct observations of local values. Stewart and Kiyani could have tried to ascertain the amount of popular support for individual doctrines by examining, say, survey data or commentary in the popular press. It is unclear why they eschew this seemingly obvious approach.

Instead, Stewart and Kiyani focus on assessing the pedigree of the doctrines. When a doctrine is damned it is because: it was originally drafted by a colonial power; if it was revised by local actors they were working at the behest of an un-democratic government or for some other reason failed ensure popular participation in the lawmaking process; or, it has been used, either locally or elsewhere, either as a tool of repression or in a partial fashion.

This is a stringent test, probably too stringent. Given the prevalence of legal transplantation and legislation by non-participatory, un-democratic or repressive regimes, most national criminal law doctrines seem likely to fail. More importantly for their ultimate argument, I believe that even the universalistic doctrines Stewart and Kiyani seem to favor would shrivel under this kind of scrutiny. What international drafting process is likely to ensure participation from all affected people, without intermediation by undemocratic or even repressive governments?

Focusing on whether the formulation of a doctrine involved democratically elected leaders and public participation seems to be a way of determining whether the doctrine in question is politically legitimate. If that is the goal then I think Stewart and Kiyani go astray because they underestimate both the costs of participation and the appeal of an alternative method of taking into account the views of the relevant public, namely, representative government. Drafting legislation from scratch and in full view of the public is a time-consuming exercise whose results may well leave everyone unsatisfied. Participation by all affected individuals is unrealistic, unnecessary and inefficient. Representative government, meaning participation by officials who are accountable to the people, may be sufficient to ensure that the public’s views are respected, and is far less costly.

Civil rights

Another element of Stewart and Kiyani’s test for whether a doctrine conforms to local values is whether it has been used to facilitate repression. That is what I take from their suggestion that the doctrine of association de malfaiteurs fails to conform to local values in France—where it originated—because it has been used repressively against people suspected of terrorism.

By suggesting that even contemporary French criminal law might be a problematic source for international criminal law, Stewart and Kiyani shift the debate away from political legitimacy to a new terrain, individual civil rights. They clearly believe that a test which excludes doctrines that violate civil rights will tend to be biased in favor of universalistic doctrines.

Stewart and Kiyani neglect a countervailing factor though: a non-uniform approach may result in adoption of doctrines that conform to local expectations, assuming that exposure tends to breed familiarity. When it comes to legal doctrine, familiarity is intrinsically desirable, even if, as Stewart and Kiyani might point out, it can also breed contempt. Doctrines that conform to people’s expectations are desirable, all else being equal, because they contribute to legal certainty and avoid situations that are tantamount to ex post facto lawmaking.


Finally, Stewart and Kiyani neglect another type of justification that might weigh in favor of a non-uniform approach to international criminal law: effectiveness. Suppose the effectiveness of criminal law doctrines varies depending on the circumstances. For example, harsh punishment for inchoate offenses might be reasonable in a society where evidence of completed offences is difficult to obtain, but less reasonable where evidence is more accessible. Similarly, a law against blasphemy might be reasonable in a society riven by religious tensions, but unacceptable in a society where religious toleration is better entrenched. In other words, different doctrines might be optimal in different circumstances. A non-uniform approach to international criminal law can accommodate this kind of diversity. Note that if effectiveness is the primary concern the critical issue will not be whether a given doctrine conforms to local values, but rather whether it fits local conditions, which is a slightly different test.

I develop this argument in favor of non-uniform “contextualist” approaches to lawmaking at greater length elsewhere, including in my writing about transnational – and international – anti-corruption law.[1]


For all these reasons, tracing the tainted history of national criminal law doctrines is an interesting and valuable exercise but does not provide compelling reasons to reject non-uniform approaches to international criminal law.

[1] See Legal Universalism: Persistent Objections, 60 University of Toronto Law Journal 537 (2010) and Between Impunity and Imperialism: Rethinking Transnational Anti-Corruption Law (forthcoming).