Prof. Martti Koskenniemi is a distinguished international practitioner and scholar and one of the world’s leading theorists of international law. His many highly acclaimed books include From Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument and The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law, 1879-1960. As a member of the United Nations’ International Law Commission (2002-2006), he led its famous Report on the Fragmentation of International Law. Koskenniemi is currently William D. Zabel `61 Visiting Professor in Human Rights at Harvard Law School; he is Professor Emeritus of International Law at the University of Helsinki, and has held numerous visiting professorships across the world, and has received honorary doctorates from the universities of Uppsala, McGill, Frankfurt, Tartu and the European University Institute.
His talk will address the variable content that “sovereignty” has received in legal and political history as it has been invoked in order to defend or attack particular arrangements of power. The purpose will be to examine sovereignty as a polemical concept. Its special power as such depends on the way it invokes the registers of both description and prescription. As a descriptive notion, it can be used to characterize both the power of a political entity living in complete isolation from others (“sovereignty” as autarky) as well of an entity completely tied in a web of social relations (“sovereignty” as integration). As a prescriptive notion, it may be made to appear as a summary of all the rights, powers and privileges that a particular status entails (sovereignty as “law”), or as a source from which all legal rights, powers and privileges emanate but which stands itself outside them (sovereignty as “political”, or “sociological” notion).
The talk will try to elucidate how “sovereignty” has been invoked in different contexts as a “limit” concept, one that defends a particular arrangement of power but also transgresses the limits of the technical discourse within which it is invoked, pointing to some other, apparently more “fundamental” discourse that the technical world is expected to accept as given. After initial examples of how that concept has operated in the international legal world, the talk will turn to its uses in the historical, sociological and ideological registers. Finally a word will be said about its performative significance, that it to say, how its stabilization signals the stabilization of a specific pattern of powers, rights and privileges.