The Politics of Precedent in International Law: A Social Network Application


Chancellor Day Hall NCDH 202, 3644 rue Peel, Montreal, QC, H3A 1W9, CA

The Legal Theory Workshops and the L. Yves Fortier Chair in International Arbitration and International Commercial Law are pleased to host Krzysztof J. Pelc, Department of Political Science, McGill University.


There is no formal binding precedent in international law. Yet, as this article (view on SSRN) demonstrates, countries nonetheless expend considerable resources in seeking to shape legal precedent. Looking at the international trade regime, I show that while some disputes are initiated to gain market access in response to domestic interests, others are filed primarily to build favorable precedent for future cases of greater commercial value. I construct an original dataset consisting of the network of all rulings spanning the WTO period, and the cases they cite. I analyze this network to provide systematic evidence for the existence of "test cases" in international law: countries initiate commercially unimportant disputes to shape legal precedent to their advantage. And wealthy countries with high legal capacity are significantly better able to do so. While the existence of binding precedent in international law remains a point of continuous debate, countries observably behave in a manner consistent with its existence.

About the speaker

Krzysztof J. Pelc is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at McGill University. His research is in international political economy, with a focus on international rules.  He is interested in how the design of rules affects odds of cooperation, and how it benefits some countries over others. Much of this work looks specifically at the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO).