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What is international law? How has domestic law influenced international law? How is international law now contributing to domestic law?
Beatrice Jin
Beatrice Jin

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Zhenni Li explores answers to such questions as she does research on what she calls the constitutionalization of international law and the internationalization of constitutional law.
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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“Modern-day international law and international institutions are no longer passive actors in their interactions with domestic law, especially in developing countries. They are now playing an active role.”
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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“While working at The Hague, I observed that a country’s regional characterization, and specifically its proximity to the West, drives its attitude toward international law.”
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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After working in international and domestic legal institutions across several continents, Li is completing a doctoral degree at the Cornell Law School.
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank

Law of the World

by Aditya Bhardwaj ’20

While working for domestic and international law institutions across four continents, Zhenni Li became increasingly aware of the symbiotic relationship between domestic law and international law. She observed what she calls the constitutionalizing of international law and the internationalizing of constitutional law. What does this mean for the world?

Li is searching for answers across developed and developing countries. Using a multifaceted analysis of conventional legal paradigms, alongside theoretical frameworks of political science and international relations, she hopes to provide beneficial insight.

After receiving law degrees from Wuhan University (China) and Cornell University, Li pursued public international law at Leiden University in The Netherlands. Following Leiden, she completed an internship at the Trial Chambers of the International Criminal Court as well as a highly sought-after six-month clerkship at the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Subsequently, Li worked as an assistant legal counsel at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Now, she has returned to Cornell to obtain a JSD degree (Doctor of the Science of Law) and to further explore issues in international law.

International Organizations and the Tenets of Western Nations

According to Li, in the years following World War II, international institutions such as the United Nations (UN) proliferated. These institutions established a global platform for member countries to voice their regional grievances and collaborate with each other on seminal socio-economic issues. The constitutional structures of the founding member countries, mostly powerful developed nations, profoundly influenced the legal statutes established by the international institutions. Resolutions on issues such as human rights and environmental laws and civil rights statutes would borrow heavily from existing legal literature of countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

Li says, “The international organizations co-opted the constitutional doctrines of powerful Western countries, which decisively shaped guidance on key social, economic, and political issues. Eventually, these guiding principles would formulate normative frameworks and legal paradigms among the international community.”

Domestic Law versus International Law

Li proposes that the constitutionalization of international law consequently means that the limitations on states’ acts are no longer based exclusively on the traditional doctrine of state consent. They are also dependent on an emerging peremptory international legal framework. Plus, the state sovereignty principle that clearly distinguishes between international law and domestic law has to be a consideration. In order to respect this distinction while simultaneously enforcing the international legal framework, global normative principles permeate through domestic constitutional structures of the member countries.

“The conventional assertion has been that the international community is one defined by anarchy with no singular leading organization.”

Contrary to conventional political thought, Li believes that international normative frameworks are now substantially influencing domestic legal order—the reverse of how the relationship has traditionally been construed.

“The conventional assertion has been that the international community is defined by anarchy with no singular leading organization. It is the interactions between the member countries that completely shape the international system. However, modern-day international law and international institutions are no longer passive actors in their interactions with domestic law, especially in developing countries. They are now playing an active role.”

An Emerging Dynamic among International Communities

People were initially optimistic about the potential of institutions such as the UN, but the failure of international organizations to address a series of tragic conflicts across the world—ranging from Rwanda to Yugoslavia and Afghanistan to Syria—dampened the initial enthusiasm. Li argues, “The growing influence and importance of international normative frameworks indicate this is the right time for us to reconsider the concept.”

Li elaborates, “A secondary Hobbesian social contract is beginning to formulate, in addition to the one between citizens and their governments. This new contract is forming among members of the international community. A plethora of actors, including citizens, non-governmental organizations, and international institutions are playing an active role in determining the terms of this dynamic new contract.”

During her clerkship in South Africa, Li observed the increasing influence of global human rights norms and legal statutes on the South African government’s decisions on key constitutional laws. As a large number of post-colonial countries attempt to manifest their state structures, Li believes existing global normative frameworks are positively influencing this process by providing new countries with prescriptive templates on state organizations.

How Countries Perceive International Organizations

Li argues that a country’s attitude toward global normative frameworks is significantly influenced by geographical factors. “While working at The Hague, I observed that a country’s regional characterization, and specifically its proximity to the West, drives its attitude toward international law.”

Latin American countries, for instance, generally embrace international institutions, because of their cultural similarities to the Western world. African countries are similarly inclined to approach international institutions to settle disputes, but they do so to establish their presence in the international community and to make their voices heard after centuries of economic suppression.

Most Asian countries, on the other hand, are comparatively more isolationist, and they are wary of Western-dominated organizations as a consequence of the colonial era. So, they remain hesitant to settle regional disputes at international institutions. Li says, “International law remains beneficial to relatively smaller countries, as it assists with the economic or military imbalances that may arise during disputes with larger nations."

The International Law Path

Due to Li’s comprehensive theoretical approach to her research at the Cornell Law School, she also pursues coursework Cornell’s government and philosophy departments. Li plans to re-enter the international law sector after completing the JSD degree. She says, however, that she is also open to an academic career.

“International law is not quite as financially rewarding as corporate law. Most of the professionals operating in this sector are deeply passionate about the programs and issues they’re involved in, but we also have to be open to any opportunities that may arise.”

Her ideal professional route, she concludes, would be a return to The Hague, the city she describes as the global capital of international law.