Straus Fellow

Academic Year 2011-2012

Seyla Benhabib

Seyla Benhabib

Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University and was Director of its Program in Ethics, Politics and Economics (2002-2008).  She is the recipient of the Ernst Bloch prize in 2009 for her contributions to cultural understanding in a global world and holds honorary degrees from the Universities of Utrecht (2004) and Valencia (2008).

Her work has been translated into 12 different languages. Her recent books include: The Rights of Others. Aliens, Citizens and Residents (2004; winner of the Ralph Bunche award of the American Political Science Association and the North American Society for Social Philosophy award ); Another Cosmopolitanism. Hospitality, Sovereignty and Democratic Iterations, with  Jeremy Waldron, Bonnie Honig and Will Kymlicka (Oxford University Press, 2006); Mobility and Immobility. Gender, Borders and Citizenship, edited with Judith Resnik (NYU Press, 2009); Dignity in Adversity. Human Rights in Troubled Times (In press).


The Future of Democratic Sovereignty and Transnational Law - A Philosopher's Take

The status of international law and of transnational legal agreements and treaties with respect to the sovereignty claims of liberal democracies has become a highly contentious theoretical and political issue.  In his highly controversial decision that struck down the death penalty for juvenile delinquents, Justice Kennedy cited the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, among other documents. ( Roper v. Simmons 2005) In his dissenting opinion, Justice Scalia, thundered: “The basic premise of the court’s argument – that American law should conform to the laws of the rest of the world – ought to be rejected out of hand.”

What indeed is the status of foreign and international law in a world of increasing interdependence? Isn’t legal epistemology enriched by looking across the border and even the ocean? What is the source of the anxieties and fears invoked by so many in recent years within the U.S. context in particular about the problematic relation of transnational legal norms and democratic sovereignty? Like Swift’s giant Gulliver, states have been pinned down by hundreds of threads of international law, some of which they can free themselves from while others, much like those which tie the giant, prevent them from escaping their bonds.

It is my thesis that the controversy over international law is the site of contention over the future viability of democracies in a world of growing interdependence. I will distinguish ‘democratic’ and ‘nationalist’ sovereigntiste objections to international law, and develop a mode of ‘jurisgenerativity,’ in part indebted to Robert Cover’s work, to conceptualize democratic sovereignty’s compatibility with international law.