A Transcivilizational Perspective on International Law

Questioning Prevalent Cognitive Frameworks in the Emerging Multi-Polar and Multi-Civilizational World of the Twenty-First Century


The twenty-first century will witness conflicts which may destabilize the international order. These conflicts are likely to arise between emerging Asian States such as China and India whose material power is growing, and the Western nations who wield significant ideational power. A West-centric international society will change to a multi-polar and multi-civilizational global society. This structural change includes, and further needs, changes of understandings and perceptions of the world, including of international law. The perspectives from which we see, understand, appreciate and assess international law must change. We need to interpret international law not only from a prevalent Statecentric international perspective and West-centric transnational perspective. Onuma argues that we must grasp international law from what he calls a trans-civilizational perspective as well. By adopting such three-layered perspectives, international law is shown to be functioning as a tool of politics yet constrained by cultural and civilizational factors. Such complex subjects as global history of international law, concepts of general and customary international law, and human rights could be appreciated in a more nuanced and subtle manner.

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Onuma (family name) Yasuaki (given name), LLB (Tokyo), LLD (Tokyo), is Distinguished Professor at Meiji University and Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo. He has also taught at Columbia, Michigan, Paris, Peking, Yale, etc. His publications include A Normative Approach to War: Peace, War, and Justice in Hugo Grotius (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993); “International Law in and with International Politics”, EJIL, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2003).
"We should be grateful for Onuma's challenging, elaborately reasoned, and moving assessment of our West-centric tradition of international law. I find the central thesis of the book to be persuasive and hope that it will lead in the future to greater multi-civilizational sensitivity in approaching the concerns of international law."
- Richard A. Falk, The American Journal of International Law
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