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Establishing Norms in a Kaleidoscopic World

By Edith Weiss Brown

Edith participated in the Bellagio Residency program in 2016 and worked on “Accountability for Sustainable Development in a Bottom-Up World.” She is a renowned legal scholar and professor of international and environmental law at Georgetown University. She is one of nine members of the United Nations Environment Programme’s International Advisory Council on Environmental Justice.

A few words with Edith

“My interactions in Bellagio were key for developing and exploring a principle of accountability. Bellagio was especially helpful in enabling me to understand that accountability has roots in all cultures and should be understood mutually and that it can be a dynamic process. Bellagio also helped me to explore the difficulties in implementing accountability. Whether the subject is international economic development, supply chain networks, international criminal law, or other areas, accountability is a more dynamic process than normally envisioned.”

A Quote from Establishing Norms in a Kaleidoscopic World

“Public international law has historically been only for States. But this no longer suffices. We need a more inclusive public international law to recognize, establish, and implement norms and obligations, even as we continue the rules that have been developed for States. Fundamental norms for the kaleidoscope can envelop all of us.”


We live in a kaleidoscopic world in the new Anthropocene Epoch. This calls for a more inclusive public international law that accepts diverse actors in addition to States and other sources of law, including individualized voluntary commitments. Norms are critical to the stability and legitimacy of this international system. They underlie responses to rapid change, to new technological developments and to problems of protecting commons, promoting public goods, and providing social and economic justice. Certain fundamental norms can be identified; others are emerging. The norm of mutual accountability underpins the implementation of other norms. Norms are especially relevant to frontier do-it-yourself technologies, such as synthetic biology, digital currencies, cyber activity, and climate interventions, as addressed in the book.

Reconceiving public international law lessens the sharp divide between public and private law and between domestic and international law.

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Read a review of the book in the The American Journal of International Law.