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Imperialism, International Law and the Politics of Hypocrisy
Robert Knox (University of Liverpool)

  • Room 609, Melbourne Law School 185 Pelham Street Carlton Australia (map)

Accusations of ‘hypocrisy’ are almost constant in the international arena. Guantanamo Bay has been denounced as undermining the US’ commitment to ‘freedom’. The ICC (and international criminal law in general) is denounced as hypocritical for failing to address the crimes of the powerful. And relatively recently, the US condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea was denounced as hypocritical, with the US responding that the accusations of hypocrisy were themselves hypocritical! The combination of the (supposedly) lofty principles of international law and the cynical motives of states make international law a prime site for accusations of hypocrisy. The typical response of the legal community is to argue that such invocations are merely political, and have no bearing on the law itself. But accusations of hypocrisy in international law are too recurrent and too prevalent simply to write off.

This seminar argued that in fact accusations – and counter-accusations – of hypocrisy are integral to international law, reflecting its imbrication with the material realities of capitalism and imperialism. Robert Knox did this through an engagement with the philosophical literature on the concept of hypocrisy: attempting to historicise the concept and set it within its material context. On this basis he traced the changing historical role accusations of hypocrisy have played within international law, offering a typology of its differing legal modes. Here he paid particular attention to the complex role accusations of hypocrisy played in the colonial period, tracing the transformations – and continuities – that followed the end of formal colonialism. The seminar concluded with an attempt to unpack the political potential of hypocrisy. It asked whether accusations of hypocrisy are politically fruitful, or whether they ultimately reaffirm the wider system in which they are made. It finished with the question of whether ‘anti-hypocrisy’ is a political virtue, examining how radical movements themselves have engaged in more or less hypocritical practices in relation to the discourses of law and rights.

Robert Knox is Lecturer in Law at the School of Law and Social Justice at the University of Liverpool.