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Rule of Law or Rule by Lawyers? On the Politics of Translating in International Law
Maj Grasten (Copenhagen Business School)

  • Melbourne Law School 185 Pelham Street Carlton, VIC, 3053 Australia (map)
Frank Hinder, Non-Objective (Construction) (1943).

Frank Hinder, Non-Objective (Construction) (1943).

What is it about the rule of law that has endowed this ambiguous concept with such normative currency, resilience, and power so that it is increasingly used to justify international interventions and authority, even as many projects carried out in its name fail? In international relations the rule of law has become a signifier of a set of universal promises each of which carries a particular view of what world should be made real. But what happens once the rule of law ‘hits the ground’?

This seminar was about the rule of law in global governance and legal expertise. It addresses the issue of how contested concepts, vague wordings and political promises combine with international legal expertise to shape political and social realities in the making of global order(s). Drawing on the case of internationally administered rule of law reforms in post-conflict Kosovo, Maj Grasten pursued a multi-sited ethnographic exploration of international lawyers’ activities within the UN transitional administration (1999–2008) and the EU’s rule of law mission (2008–), tracing different and often conflicting meanings that these lawyers inscribe into the concept of the rule of law. She reconstructed battles between international actors over the ascendance of a particular meaning of the rule of law, which in turn authorized one group of actors, and their attending solutions to a ‘problem’, over other actors and their solutions. The seminar foregrounded how legal translations, which often reside in the background of humanitarian policies and practices, are indeterminate, contingent, and yet highly performative in momentarily asserting a particular social order within a post-conflict state-building context. Reconstructing the epistemic and social roots of the rule of law’s practical meanings in the case of rule of law reforms in post-conflict Kosovo, the seminar pointed to some general issues and instances regarding the role and rule of international law after intervention, revealing the darker sides of humanitarianism.


Dr Maj Grasten is Assistant Professor in the Department of Business and Politics, Copenhagen Business School. Her research sits at the intersection of International Relations and International Law, with a particular focus on experts and knowledge production in international law and on post-intervention state-building processes. Her research draws mainly on the method of multi-sited ethnography. She has been a visiting fellow at Freie Universität Berlin, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development (KIPRED). Between June and September 2017, she is a Kathleen Fitzpatrick Visiting Fellow with the Laureate Program in International Law at Melbourne Law School. Maj is currently affiliated with the research project ‘Civil Society in the Shadow of the State’ (CISTAS) for which she leads research on the role of civil society actors in international law's expansion and fragmentation. She is a board member of the European International Studies Association (EISA). Her research has recently been published in Journal of International Relations and Development and an edited volume on The Power of Legality (Cambridge University Press, 2016). She is currently editing a volume on the politics of translation in international relations.