Hamady Ould Hamady, Chairman of the High Level Ad Hoc Committee on Libya of the African Union at the UN Security Council | Photo: UN Photo

Global Governance and Procedural Justice

When and under what circumstances are regional actors more likely to support global norms? This question is at the heart of the current debate on global governance. Recent developments suggest that pivotal actors in the non-Western world that hitherto had been advocates of those norms are about to depart from liberal institutions of global governance. Empirical research on South Africa and the African Union (AU) shows that their growing critique is based on the perception of a lack of procedural justice. For global governance to be successful, fair procedures must be implemented.


This blog is adapted from Matthias Dembinski (2016) Procedural justice and global order: Explaining African reaction to the application of global protection norms, in: European Journal of International Relations (EJIR) | open access until 20.11.2017.


Criticism of global norms by African states

In recent years, African states and organizations in particular have been critical of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, following its application in Libya. This is not an isolated case: A similar criticism has been raised by African states regarding the norm of international criminal justice, which intensified after the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) action against Sudanese President al Bashir. This criticism is even more serious because of the hope that liberal protection norms would also take root beyond the western world was based on the AU’s initial agreement on R2P and international criminal justice. In both cases, African countries justified their departure from these norms by accusing them of selectivity and double standards in their application.

Faced with the accusation of injustice in global governance, many Western decision-makers and academics have so far either been at loss or skeptical. Politicians usually perceive this accusation as a rhetorical strategy used by African governments to distract from their responsibility. Research often refers to the fit between emerging global norms and existing regional interests and practices to explain why African states after first cases of application turned against the global norms they previously supported. According to this interpretation, conflicts over the application of global rules bring to the fore hitherto hidden differences about their substantial meaning.

In an article for the European Journal of International Relations, I develop a more complete answer to this question. The starting point of my considerations is the puzzle of different African reactions to very similar cases of the application of global protection norms in Africa. While the fall of Gaddafi in the name of R2P in 2011 provoked fierce African criticism and accusations of neo-colonialism, the almost simultaneous fall of the President of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, in the name of a related norm, the responsibility to protect civilians on peacekeeping missions (Protection of Civilians: PoC), was agreed upon or at least acknowledged in African capitals. In both cases, the Security Council, with the consent of its African members, had reacted to civil strife and the imminent danger of civil war by authorizing the international community to intervene militarily to protect civilians. In both cases, the intervening parties went far beyond the mandate and overthrew the existing regimes.

Procedural justice as a prerequisite for global governance

To explain these different reactions, the article draws on insights from empirical research on justice in related disciplines, such as social psychology. They show that actors react to fair treatment with pro-social behavior, but to unfair treatment with destructive behavior. Equally important is the relationship between the two dimensions of distributive and procedural justice. If affected actors perceive procedures that lead to decisions on the distribution of goods as fair, they are more likely to accept even those outcomes that do not conform to their initial expectations.

This procedural justice dimension explains the different African reactions to both cases of forced regime change. In the case of Libya, all African representatives on the Security Council voted in favor of resolution 1973, expecting that the threat of force would improve the prospects of an African mediation mission. In implementing this resolution, however, the AU was then completely excluded by the Western coalition and prevented from pursuing its plans for a peaceful compromise. In the case of the Ivory Coast on the other hand, the AU was fully involved in the implementation of the respective resolution. When representatives of the AU realized that their efforts to reach a peaceful solution had failed and faced only the alternative between civil war or regime change due to President Gbagbo’s intransigent stance they gave the French and UN troops the green light to overthrow Gbagbo.

The comparison shows that the criticism of R2P following Libya was essentially motivated by the perception of unfair procedures. Thus, this article points out the crucial role of justice in international relations. At the same time, it identifies procedural justice as a source of legitimacy that has been overlooked by research to date, and which decides whether regional actors support global norms and rules.


Read more on PRIF’s research program “Just Peace Governance” here.

Matthias Dembinski
Matthias Dembinski ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter im Programmbereich Internationale Institutionen und Projektleiter an der HSFK. Er forscht zu Fragen von Gerechtigkeit in den internationalen Beziehungen, regionalen Sicherheitsorganisationen und humanitären Interventionen. Sein regionaler Schwerpunkt ist Westeuropa.
Matthias Dembinski

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Matthias Dembinski

Matthias Dembinski ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter im Programmbereich Internationale Institutionen und Projektleiter an der HSFK. Er forscht zu Fragen von Gerechtigkeit in den internationalen Beziehungen, regionalen Sicherheitsorganisationen und humanitären Interventionen. Sein regionaler Schwerpunkt ist Westeuropa.

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