Stephen Humphreys

Stephen Humphreys

Administrative support: Karen Williams
Room: New Academic Building 6.15
Tel. 020-7955-6814

Stephen Humphreys is an Associate Professor of International Law. He was formerly Research Director at the International Council on Human Rights Policy in Geneva, and, before that, Senior Officer at the Open Society Institute’s Justice Initiative in New York and Budapest. He has conducted policy work on climate change and in human rights in a variety of fora. His research interests include international legal and critical theory; rule of law; law and development; climate change; the laws of war; and transnational legal processes. He holds a PhD from Cambridge and a Master’s degree in law from SOAS. His publications include Theatre of the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and the edited volume, Human Rights and Climate Change (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Research Interests

Current research focuses on the distribution of risk and security under international and transnational law. The work looks at various different areas of law — international security arrangements, international criminal law, environmental law, investment and trade law, transnational developmental and financial arrangements — in order to gauge their overall impact in combination on the experience of risk. I retain a special interest in climate change and human rights, in legal theory, drawing in particular on critical theory, and in rule of law promotion, the contemporary form of law and development.

External Activities
  • Frequently consulted on the relationship between climate change and human rights by international organisations (such as OHCHR, World Bank), universities and NGOs.

  • Founded and edited the journal Justice Initiatives at the Open Society Institute.


Theatre of the Rule of Law: Transnational Legal Intervention in Theory and Practice (Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law No.73; 2010; paperback edition published 2012)

Theatre of the Rule of Law presents the first sustained critique of rule of law promotion – the push to shape laws and institutions that pervades international development and post-conflict reconstruction policy today. While successful in disseminating a policy everywhere privileging the private over the public, this expansive global enterprise has largely failed in its stated goals of alleviating poverty and fortifying ‘fragile states’. Moreover, in its execution, the field deviates sharply from ‘rule of law’ principles as commonly conceived. To explain this, Stephen Humphreys examines the history of the rule of law as a term of art and a spectrum of today’s interventions, as well as earlier examples of legal export to other ends. Rule of law promotion, he suggests, is best understood as a kind of theatre, the staging of a morality tale about the good life, intended for edification and emulation but blind to its own internal contradictions.

Human Rights and Climate Change, edited by Stephen Humphreys Cambridge University Press, 2009  (Foreword by Mary Robinson)

Human Rights and Climate Change - cover As the effects of climate change continue to be felt, appreciation of its future transformational impact on numerous areas of public law and policy is set to grow. Among these, human rights concerns are particularly acute. They include forced mass migration, increased disease incidence and strain on healthcare systems, threatened food and water security, the disappearance and degradation of shelter, land, livelihoods and cultures, and the threat of conflict. This inquiry into the human rights dimensions of climate change looks beyond potential impacts to examine the questions raised by climate change policies: accountability for extraterritorial harms; constructing reliable enforcement mechanisms; assessing redistributional outcomes; and allocating burdens, benefits, rights and duties among perpetrators and victims, both public and private. The book examines a range of so-far unexplored theoretical and practical concerns that international law and other scholars and policy-framers will find increasingly difficult to ignore.

Selected articles
and chapters in books

(editorial): ‘In the shadow of Paris: theories of justice and principles of harm’, 7(1) Journal of Human Rights and the Environment 1-6 (editorial, forthcoming 2016).

'Climate change: too complex for a special regime' J.E.R.L. 2016, 34(1), 51-56.

Reflects on the deficiencies of international climate change law, and comments on the International Bar Association's 2014 report "Achieving Justice and Human Rights in an Era of Climate Disruption” within this context. Discusses the background to the report, its definition of "climate justice", and the timeliness of its publication.

'Conscience in the Datasphere' Open Democracy (March 14, 2016) [blog post]

‘Anthropocentric Rights’, Global Policy (November 12, 2015) [blog post]

‘Climate change poses an existential threat to human life’, Open Democracy (July 15, 2015) [blog post]

‘Conscience in the Datasphere’ (2015)  6(3) Humanity 361-386

Much of the anxiety concerning privacy in contemporary conditions of data immersion — which I here characterise as 'life in the dataspher'’ — may be better understood by reference to the neglected notion of conscience. This article undertakes an historical inquiry into this rich concept to reframe the debate on privacy, law and technology. To simplify, ‘conscience’ has historically articulated an impulse either to hide from an omniscient moral authority ('bad conscience') or to act righteously according to informed reason (‘good conscience’). Originating as a powerful premodern governing principle combining personal with public morality — notably in the medieval notion of synderesis — the personal and political content of conscience were each effectively critiqued by, respectively (in the examples I investigate here), Freud and Hobbes. The concept itself became ultimately marginal to public life. In this article I suggest that conscience in both guises returns forcefully under conditions of data ubiquity, pointing to broader shift in political settlements.

'The Rule of Law as Morality Play'  (2015) 23 Finnish Yearbook of International Law 3-44.

Since the Cold War ended, the world’s principal financial and development institutions have focused extensive attention on ‘rule of law assistance’ or ‘promotion’ in poor and developing countries. This body of work generally treats law in some isolation from broader social and political questions, presented as a technical exercise, recalibrating law in pursuit of undisputed universal goals, such as eradicating poverty or fulfilling human rights. In this article, I undertake a close reading of the literature of two major rule of law funders in the field of market-building — as distinct from, albeit related to, the state-building work also undertaken under this rubric at the UN and elsewhere. My aim is to show how this body of work promotes a thoroughgoing vision of a particular social and political order. Noting that the techniques of rule-of-law promotion align poorly with fundamental principles generally attributed to the rule of law, and that there is little or no evidence that this vision does — or even can — achieve its stated aims, I redescribe rule of law promotion as a kind of rhetorical intervention, a morality play concerned with the universalisation and naturalisation of certain ideas about society, polity and economy. In this essentially pedagogical role, rule of law promotion can claim some modest success.

Stephen Humphreys, ‘Climate Justice: The Claim of the Past’ (2014) 5 Journal of Human Rights and the Environment, pp.134-148 [also published in in Anna Grear and Conor Gearty (eds) Choosing a Future: The Social and Legal Aspects of Climate Change (Edward Elgar, 2014)]

This synthetic appraisal of the collection of papers in this issue argues that historical injustice saturates the problem of climate change. Those most vulnerable to climate change today are largely those who already lack resources – who have been on the wrong end of colonial history, or who have been globalization’s losers, or who have suffered neglect, exclusion or simple rapacity at the hands of their own governments. They are those who have benefitted little or not at all from a carbon-intensive global economy, but who have long suffered its side effects – resource stripping, food price spikes, impoverishment and now the ravages of climate change. Following the other authors in this issue – and examining human rights law, trade law and the overarching ideal of the rule of law – the paper notes that the particular form taken by law in international and transnational affairs, having largely followed the historical progress of industrialism, colonialism and globalization, is peculiarly ill-suited to the task of addressing this vulnerability.

(with Yoriko Otomo) 'Theorising International Environmental Law' LSE Law Society and Economy Working Paper Series, 09-2014

This paper, part of a larger work on international law theory, sketches some early lines of inquiry towards a theoretical understanding of international environmental law. As the body of international law regulating human interaction with the natural world, one might expect this branch of law to be a cornerstone of the international system. Yet in practice, international environmental law’s reach is strikingly circumscribed. Little of the governance of natural resources, for example, is ‘environmental’. Subsisting at the periphery, environmental law focuses on conserving particular (rare, exotic) species and ‘ecosystems’, and curbing certain kinds of pollution. Its principles are vague, peppering the margins of rulings within other judicial fora: it is quintessential soft law. In this paper, we suggest that international environmental law’s dilemmas are due to two competing heritages. On one hand, this law enshrines the peculiar pantheism of the European romantic period, positing the ‘natural world’ as sacred, inviolable, redemptive. On the other, its main antecedents are found in colonial era practices, which provided the data for the earliest environmental science and a laboratory for prototypical attempts at conservation and sustainable development. Caught between irreconcilable demands, international environmental law struggles today to avoid utopian irrelevance or nugatory paralysis.

'Laboratories of Statehood: Legal Intervention in Colonial Africa and Today' Modern Law Review, (2012) 75(4). pp. 475-510.

Challenges the contention that the promotion of the rule of law in foreign jurisdictions is "neo-imperialist". Examines the promotion of the rule of law with reference to the history of British colonialism in Africa, looking at the different ways that European colonial powers sought to derive legitimacy. Argues that the promotion of the rule of law during the colonial period can be characterised as the instigation of "laboratories of statehood".

'Structural Ambiguity: Technology Transfer in Three Regimes' in Margaret A. Young (ed.), Regime Interaction in International Law, Cambridge University Press (2012)

The Fantasy of Success: Climate Change as Discourse’, EUI Working Papers Series, RSCAS 2012/67 (2012).

In this paper, I aim to think through the significance of what we might call the ‘mainstreaming’ of climate science. In doing so, I attempt to explain the apparent paradox that, despite the increasing success of climate change science at discursive level, the failure of that language to frame a viable solution to the problems climate change poses appear ever starker. The inquiry draws on notions of (Foucauldian) ‘discourse’ and (Lacanian) ‘fantasy’, which I introduce by reference to two very different stories to have emerged recently from Norway, a poster child for climate change policy.

'Climate Change and International Human Rights Law' in Rosemary Rayfuse and Shirley Scott (eds), International Law in the Era of Climate Change, Edward Elgar (2012)

'El teatro del rule of law'. Ius et Veritas, (2012) 43. pp. 358-387.

'Das Theater des Rechtsstaates' Peripherie, (2012) 125, 32. Jg (1). pp. 8-43. (2012)

'Competing Claims: Human Rights and Climate Harms', in Stephen Humphreys (ed.), Human Rights and Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, 2009 (see Books above)

'Conceiving Justice: Articulating Common Causes in Distinct Regimes', in Stephen Humphreys (ed.), Human Rights and Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, 2009 (see Books above)

'Polymorphous Sovereignty' in Charles Barbour and George Pavlich (eds.) After Sovereignty: On the Question of Political Beginnings, Routledge (2009)

After Sovereignty addresses the vexed question of sovereignty in contemporary social, political, and legal theory. The emergence, and now apparent implosion, of international capital exceeding the borders of known political entities, the continued expansion of a potentially endless 'war on terror', the often predicted, but still uncertain, establishment of either a new international American Empire or a new era of International Law, the proliferation of social and political struggles among stateless refugees, migrant workers, and partial citizens, the resurgence of religion as a dominant source of political identification among people all over the globe - these developments and others have thrown into crisis the modern concept of sovereignty, and the notions of statehood and citizenship that rest upon it.

'The Emptiness of Empire and Other Hazards of Theory', 57 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 225 (2008)

'Are Social Rights Compatible with the Rule of Law? A Realist Inquiry', Hauser Global Law Working Paper 10/06 (2007).

The motivating puzzle is: why do the many programs promoting the rule of law abroad so rarely address social and economic rights? The approach is to critically examine a view that has been historically central to the reception of the rule of law as a term of art and has critically shaped its contemporary usage--according to which social rights are incompatible with the rule of law. The paper revisits the early twentieth century American legal realists, whose critiques largely set the terms that came to dominate notions of the rule of law. The paper traces some later debates that recycled the realist themes and polarized their terms, and concludes that an insistence on the rule of law is only rhetorically, rather than substantively, hostile to social rights. Nevertheless, the fact that social rights fall outside the ordinary penumbra of a rule of law vocabulary exerts a powerful presumptive force over the interventions carried out in its name.

'Legalizing Lawlessness: On Giorgio Agamben's State of Exception', 17 European Journal of International Law 677 (2006)

This review essay examines in some detail Giorgio Agamben's recent State of Exception, his third in a series of books that reconstruct sovereignty using a range of interdisciplinary and critical tools. Engaging with Agamben's text on its own terms - rather than focusing on the potential deficiencies of an approach that eschews standard doctrinal and empirical research - the essay seeks to distil a set of conceptual and analogical perspectives that might help interpret the significance of the present rise of emergency regimes. The essay concludes by exploring whether Agamben's work might enrich legal inquiry, despite its often alien tenor, by reviewing some recent cases in the UK and the US involving exceptional measures.

'Nomarchy: On the Rule of Law and Authority in Giorgio Agamben and Aristotle', 19 Cambridge Review of International Affairs 331 (2006)

This article suggests that the current rise of the rule of law as a mobilising political principle may be understood as a response to contemporary anxiety about authority. It also argues that the recent increase in states of emergency is complemented by an expansive legalism. First, the paper reviews Giorgio Agamben's description of legal expansion through states of emergency (or 'exception') dictated by a language of fear. Second, in a philological inquiry, it accompanies the 'founding father' of the rule of law, Aristotle, in his discussion of law's sovereignty. The core question posed by Aristotle- regarding the inquiry into the ideal relationship between law and its administration-remains unresolved in his Politics. Finally, the analysis is grounded in judicial responses to states of emergency. In recent case law, the courts both facilitate the production of emergency regimes and provide a locus for contestation of their parameters. 



Reports / discussion papers

International Council on Human Rights Policy, Beyond Technology Transfer: Protecting Human Rights in a Climate-Constrained World (ICHRP, 2011)

International Council on Human Rights Policy, Navigating the Dataverse: Privacy, Technology, Human Rights (ICHRP, 2011)

International Council on Human Rights Policy, Climate Change and Human Rights: A Rough Guide (ICHRP, 2008)

Open Society Justice Initiative, Legal Remedies for the Resource Curse (OSI, 2005).

Open Society Institute, Monitoring EU Accession: Minority Rights (OSI, 2001).

Open Society Institute, Racism in Central and Eastern Europe and Beyond (OSI, 2000).