International lawyers, it is often said, are exceptionally, even ridiculously, fond of “universality.” And this fondness, bordering at times on the obsessive, manifests itself in a variety of forms, the most nebulous and notorious being the idea of “jus cogensnorms”—general principles from which international lawyers are willing to permit no deviation, even in the form of supposedly iron-clad treaties with directly countervailing provisions. Like principles of nonaggression and sovereign equality, prohibitions of piracy, slavery, and genocide are regularly ascribed jus cogens status, typically as part of an effort to win approval for one or another “social” model of international legal order.1 Less frequently recognized, though, is that the kind of farreaching universalism to which international lawyers typically commit themselves has underwritten a variety of proposals for the reorganization of international legal and economic relations.
Arguably the most ambitious such proposal was the project for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) in the 1970s.2Spearheaded by the nonaligned Third World and drawing heavily upon the rhetoric of universalism, the NIEO underscored the need to facilitate technology transfer, regulate foreign investment, supervise transnational corporations, encourage debt-relief and development assistance, and bolster sovereignty in respect to use of natural resources and formulation of economic policy—all with a view to restructuring north-south relations for an age in which many had become suspicious of the trade and investment regimes fostered by the post-1945 class compromise often characterized as “embedded liberalism.”3 If the wave of decolonization that swept through Asia, Africa, and the Pacific during the third quarter of the twentieth century produced a large number of formally independent states, the NIEO sought to consolidate and expand the scope of this transformation in the name of a genuinely inclusive international order—an order in which power would be redistributed on a global scale and de jure sovereignty would be reinforced with full-scale economic development.4 From the fortification of the principle of self-determination to the articulation of a right to development, from the augmentation of the principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resources to the development of a “common heritage of mankind” doctrine, the NIEO’s central claims were clothed in a particularly effusive form of universalism, one that would inaugurate a new, generously “social” conception of international affairs while doing away with the last vestiges of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century classical international law.
This essay revisits the work of Mohammed Bedjaoui, the Algerian jurist and diplomat who played a key role in coordinating efforts to garner support for the NIEO before accepting a seat on the International Court of Justice.5 Focusing upon his principal contribution to the movement, Towards a New International Economic Order (1979), I will analyze Bedjaoui’s account of the Third World as an agent of reform in international law and organization.6 Specifically, I will examine the way in which Bedjaoui attempted to ground his call for a structural transformation of the world order in a sustained defense of legal universalism and closely related critique of legal formalism. Further, I will argue that this insistence on a wholesale reconfiguration of international life—so pervasive and all-encompassing that it occasionally threatened to overwhelm the text in utopian idealism—can only be appreciated against the background of Bedjaoui’s decades-long engagement with the Third World, including, crucially, his involvement in the Algerian war of national liberation.