Local Space, Global Life: a notable methodological & theoretical contribution to international law scholarship.

Vivek Bhatt is reading for a PhD in Law, and is a Global Justice Academy Student Ambassador for 2016-17. Here, he reviews Luis Eslava’s Local Space, Global Life: The Everyday Operation of International Law and Development (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Luis Eslava’s Local Space, Global Life considers the ways in which international law and the development project jointly produce local spaces and ‘locals’ that conform to global ideals.[1] The author moves beyond the doctrine of legal subjects,[2] a concept that confines many international law scholars to the relationship between law and states, the primary bearers of legal ‘status.’ To Eslava, international legal norms move across spaces and jurisdictions, constituting everyday, local, and private life. Dr Eslava traces the conceptual trajectory of the international development discourse, which became prevalent following Harry S. Truman’s 1949 inaugural address.[3] Truman identified the Third World nation-state as the ideal unit for the attainment of developmental goals. International law and development became inextricable; the former would contribute to the ‘making of a new world order’[4] by aiding the development of Third World nation-states. Yet according to Eslava, world leaders gradually became disenchanted with the idea that development could be achieved through reform at the nation-state level.[5] This led to the identification of the local jurisdiction as the new ideal locus of international development.

Eslava suggests that as the idea of decentralisation became popular, the city became semi-detached from the nation-state. Today, the city is itself capable of being a part of the global normative order. The conjoined forces of international law and the development discourse attempt to transform local spaces by constituting their governments and residents as subjects of the world order. Eslava advances two main arguments about this attempted transformation. Firstly, it is distinctly legal in nature. Development is achieved through establishment of effective local administrations, and underdevelopment is attributed to ‘(cultural) legal deficiency.’[6] Secondly, this transformation enables the ‘‘routinisation’ of (inter)national authority within localities.’[7] Eslava likens the logic of decentralised development to Lugard’s argument that the reorganisation of local jurisdictions was the ideal way to increase European imperial presence.[8] The development project enables the ‘indirect rule’ of locals and localities; through it, international norms become embedded in local governance and everyday life. Eslava calls this process  ‘autochthonous internationalisation’, or ‘internationalisation from within.’[9] The turn to the local, Eslava writes, is ‘driven by a desire… for a more precise control of territory and population that occurs through the devolution of international and national economic, social and political responsibilities to local administrations, and finally to local residents.’[10]

Eslava substantiates his theoretical claims with an in-depth case study of Bogota, Colombia. To Eslava, international law, the development project, and the discourse of decentralisation are ‘shaping both the spatiality of the city and the subjectivity of its residents…in a very particular way.’[11] The decentralisation of governance in Colombia has allowed for Bogota to be conceptualised as a freestanding entity.[12] The city has become renowned for its rapid urbanisation and successful development, while the state of Colombia is widely considered to be rife with socio-economic and political troubles. Eslava opens the book with an anecdote about the tourist information he and fellow passengers were provided while on board a flight to Bogota. In the map provided, the city appears both independent and organised. It seems to float, detached from any other territory, and its perimeters seem neatly defined.[13] Eslava sees this visualisation as part of a broader effort to represent Bogota as a ‘bounded jurisdictional unit’, a place that now correlates with international expectations of how a city should operate.[14]  Yet the production of this image has transformed the relationship between the local administration and residents, particularly those at the city’s peripheries. The promises of peace and improved socio-economic conditions continue to draw Colombian citizens to Bogota. Many settle in illegal neighbourhoods, which are established at the city’s physical and socio-political fringes. The imperative of legal development leads local authorities to sustain this distinction between the city’s  ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ parts. Residents of newly legalised neighbourhoods are ‘schooled’ on the values that accompany inclusion within Bogota’s official cartography.[15] And, through this process, they are constituted as subjects of, and bearers of responsibilities within, the global normative order.

It is through this case study of Bogota that Eslava makes his most novel contribution to international law scholarship. The author describes himself as an ‘international legal ethnographer.’[16] His methodology is presented as a response to Charlesworth’s well known argument that international law is a ‘discipline of crisis.’ [17] Instead of focusing on the law’s most significant failures, Eslava aims to expose the ways in which it affects local, private, and everyday life.[18] In this sense, Eslava draws upon the works of critical international law scholars, many of whom suggest that the principles and power of international law are normalised by a range of actors, from states to local authorities and individuals. International law is, in simpler terminology, a disciplinary force. Yet instead of studying the discursive power play of international law, as many critical scholars do, Eslava examines local manifestations of the international order. Accordingly, the author combines textual analysis with interviews of local officials, community actors, and Colombian academics.[19] The result is a richly detailed text that is as fascinating to read, as it is unique in its insights into the operation of international law. Eslava’s ability to observe international law’s influence upon everyday life was clearly reflected in his 2014 article, Istanbul Vignettes: Observing the Everyday Operation of International Law.[20] Yet further reflection and the wider scope of the 2016 text have enabled the author to express his complex views in a more sophisticated and developed manner. Some things, however, have remained the same. For example, Eslava consistently uses his own photographs to support his arguments. To him, international law is more than the actions of states, and the utterances of lawyers and jurists; it is tangible and observable.

Local Space, Global Life should also be valued as a guide for future research; it demonstrates the importance of analysing the complex ways in which international law shapes everyday life. Foucault’s influence on Eslava’s work is clearest in the latter’s interest in subjectification:[21] the process by which local governments and locals are constituted as subjects or ‘bearers’ of the international legal order. Similar processes may be occurring beyond the context of the development project. For example, international human rights law, taxation and investment laws, data and privacy laws, and counterterrorism laws – though addressed to states and corporations – affect the ways in which individuals choose to live, interact and behave. The idea that international law orders our present realities is an intriguing one, and one that warrants further research.


[1] Luis Eslava, Local Space, Global Life: The Everyday Operation of International Law and Development (Cambridge University Press, 2016) 10.

[2] Kate Parlett, The Individual in the International Legal System: Continuity and Change in

International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2011) 356.

[3] Eslava, above n 1, 96.

[4] Harry S. Truman, quoted by Eslava, ibid 96.

[5] Ibid 118-121.

[6] Ibid 173.

[7] Ibid 19.

[8] Ibid 21.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid 160.

[11] Ibid 174.

[12] Ibid 68.

[13] Ibid 2.

[14] Ibid 174.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid 28.

[17] Hilary Charlesworth, ‘International Law: A Discipline of Crisis’ (2002) 65(3) The Modern Law Review 377.

[18] Eslava, above n 1, 33.

[19] Ibid 52-53.

[20] Luis Eslava, ‘Istanbul Vignettes: Observing the Everyday Operation of International Law’ (2014) 2(1) London Review of International Law 3.

[21] Eslava, above n 1, 18.

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