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Law and Justice Forum on 16 June 2017

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(Left to right; Dr Massimo Renzo; Dr Holly Lawford-Smith and Professor Simon Caney) 

On 16 June 2017, the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy and Law held the last of the three Law & Justice Fora for this academic year. Its theme was “Revolution, Oppression and Political Violence” and it featured some of the most prominent legal and political philosophers working on these issues.

The workshop started with a presentation by Anna Stilz (Princeton) on the relationship between political legitimacy and the right of political communities to exercise political self-determination. Drawing on Immanuel Kant’s idea that a legitimate state should represent its people’s “omnilateral will”, Professor Stilz offered an insightful account of how political self-determination should be understood if we are to take seriously the right of political communities not to be subject to the coercion of political institutions that are not responsive to their members’ shared will.  

Lea Ypi’s presentation on “Legitimacy, Dictatorship and Utopia” provided a stimulating counterpart to Stilz’s. Professor Ypi (LSE) explored the notion of political legitimacy grounded on Marx’s idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, suggesting that this notion of legitimacy constitutes a plausible alternative to the dominant liberal views, such as those inspired by Kant’s theory. Moreover, Professor Ypi illustrated some of the important implications of this alternative account of legitimacy for a number of debates in contemporary political theory, including the normative significance of the state as a political institution, the relation between authority and freedom, and the meaning and relevance of utopian thinking.

Simon Caney (Oxford) then addressed the question of the right of resistance possessed by the victims of injustice. Professor Caney argued that victims of global injustice have a right to act against the law both in order to reduce the effects of the injustice (for example, by stealing vital foods and medicines, crossing borders illegally, or even violating patents and other intellectual property rights), and in order to attempt to change unjust policies, practices and political systems (for example, by resorting to illegal protests, blockades, sabotage, riots, land occupation, strikes, cyber resistance, or refusal to pay back international loans and debts).

Law and Justice Forum 2 685x280The question of the permissibility of revolution was at the centre of Christopher H. Wellman’s presentation. Professor Wellman (Washington, St. Louis) discussed the controversial claim that, under conditions of widespread injustice, revolution might be permissible not only against illegitimate states, but also against legitimate ones (for example, the USA). Even more controversially, Professor Wellman, defended the claim that illegitimate governments (for example Assad’s regime) might permissibly assist revolutions against legitimate states.  

Finally, in his intervention Christopher Kutz (Berkley) explored a number of ways in which moral and legal norms erode under democratic pressure. Drawing on the fascinating legal discussion current in the United States about whether judges should breach traditional norms of executive deference, Professor Kutz addressed a host of important issues concerning the use of force in conditions of injustice. He focused in particular on the challenges posed by the use of autonomous weapons, for whose deployment we currently lack reliable norms and institutions at the domestic as well as at the international level.

Each presentation was followed by a vibrant discussion, introduced by short commentaries offered by David Rodin (Oxford/EUI), Avia Pasternak (UCL), Holly Lawford-Smith (Melbourne), Saba Bazargan (UC San Diego) and James Pattison (Manchester).

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