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Rhetorical uses of justice and international (re-)organization - Developing countries and the WTO world trade rounds

Henrik Schillinger
University of Duisburg-Essen
Henrik Schillinger
University of Duisburg-Essen
Open Panel

Abstract

Arguments appealing to justice are abundant in contexts of international organization. Assuming that appeals to justice are not mere idiosyncratic talk but are employed by actors for strategic reasons, the paper investigates the possible political avails of references to justice in international negotiations. Existing approaches (rational-institutional, constructivist, deliberative, consistent constructivist) to the study of norms in IR base the rhetorical effectiveness of justice arguments on a shared understanding of justice and its requirements as a norm. However, justice is theoretically ''undecidable'' and empirically contested and thus requires a broader analytical view which accommodates its alleged political functionality and its normative indeterminacy. The paper proposes to treat justice as an ''empty signifier'' (as ‘justice’), i.e. as a rhetorical symbol which relates political positions to an indeterminate common good. A discussion of the WTO rounds of trade negotiations reveals and demonstrates the political function of ‘justice’ as an empty signifier. As a rhetorical symbol, ‘justice’ assumes two political functions by providing the broadest possible common denominator in international negotiations – not despite but because of its lack of determinate meaning: Firstly, it facilitates coalition-building between unlikely partners as shown by the emergence of developing country coalitions in the course of the Doha round of negotiations. Secondly, ‘justice’ induces regime change and a re-politicization of established organization by offering an inroad for formerly marginalized concerns as demonstrated by the shift in the WTO’s agenda to include development concerns to the "Doha Development Round". By considering the political functions of ‘justice’, the paper draws attention to the transformative and possibly even disruptive force of norms as rhetorical symbols for international organization both as a process as well as an institutional framework.