Contact Information

The Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights
Faculty of Law
P.O. BOX 4
Tel: +358 (0)29 4123140


Project Description

The project "International law, Religion and Empire" focuses on two dimensions of the history of international legal thought, the role of religion in the formation and application of international legal concepts and institutions from early modernity (16th century) to the present, and the way those concepts and institutions have contributed to specifically imperial ideas about how the world ought to be governed. "Religion" and "Empire" are historically closely related. They are also often portrayed in contradistinction to ideas about law – especially "modern" law of nations that is claimed to be secular and in opposition to ideas about (universal) empire. Our aim is, however, to show the relatedness of these categories and especially how it is impossible to operate with or do research in international law without comprehending it both as a project of faith and of imperial rule.

  • Religion. International law’s relation to religion is usually conceived through a familiar narrative of secularization, the emancipation of legal thought and institutions from the shackles of religion, especially Roman Catholicism. The present research, however, focuses on the persistence of religious influences and a sensibility of faith in modern international law, from the Peace of Westphalia, the claimed origin of a secular law among sovereign States, to the 21st century. This leads us, on the one hand, to a study of the persistence of Christian themes and metaphors in ostensibly "secular" legal thought and institutions. To what extent, for example, may ideas about sovereign power, human rights or peace transmit or express Christian notions of political community or virtuous life? Might such legal institutions as freedom of trade or humanitarian intervention reflect religious sensibilities about right and duty?

    On the other hand, we shall also trace the role that religious ideas have played in the development of international law specifically in the 20th century. What, for instance, has been the role of major world religions in the developments of international human rights law or ideas about pacific settlement and justified violence? In sum, the idea is to examine religion not as it is conventionally done as in a relevant sense "over" and meaningful only as part of the past of legal thought, but as a live aspect of the content and operation of international legal notions in the present. While much of the attention will be on the influence of religion in the formation of international legal thought, the point is to show its continuous, live influence today.

  • Empire. Histories of international law often (but not always) date its emergence from the demise of the Holy Roman Empire. Depending on where focus is put, that moment may be situated in Northern Italy in the 14th or late 15th centuries or then in France or Germany in the 16th or 17th centuries. The modern law of nations, according to this narrative, is a law of states, formally independent of any overarching structure and equal in their relations with one another. This narrative leaves, however, wholly unaccounted the way international law has operated to organize and support a world-wide network of colonial relations between Europe and non-European territories and peoples. The conventional narrative also looks away from the way international legal concepts and institutions continue to bear within themselves ideas about "civilization", "progress", "development", "modernity" and "globalization" that embody ambitions about world rule in the 20th and 21st centuries. The history of international law has been profoundly aligned with European expansion. After the end of this process in the 20th century, its concepts and institutions have continued to carry imperial ambitions in the form of international governance under the leadership of benevolent hegemonic actors. International law’s universalist ambitions have time and again turned themselves into or been indistinguishable from ideas about world rule. It is the point of the second part of our project to trace the contours of these ambitions in the history of international law up to and including in the late modern era.