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Legal theorists are engaged in understanding the legitimacy of techniques by which principles of rights-holding travel across borders. Sovereigntists in the United States object to that migration. The history of both protest about and the incorporation of "foreign" law provides important lessons for contemporary debates. Through examples from conflicts about slavery, the rights of women, and the creation of the United Nations, I chart the anxiety occasioned when American law interacts with human rights movements. At times, through silent absorption rather than express citation, some of the "foreign" sources become lost in translation, and the new rights become constitutive elements of "American" identity.
To conceive of these debates as engaging only questions of national boundaries is, however, to miss the reliance on federalism as a justification for declining to participate in transnational rights work. Yet America's federalist structure also serves as a path for the movement of international rights across borders. As illustrated by the adoption by mayors, city councils, state legislatures, and state judges of transnational rights stemming from the U.N. Charter, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the debate about transnationalism is deeply democratic, with significant popular engagement refraining American norms. Such local government actions require revisiting legal doctrines that presume the exclusivity of national power in foreign affairs—as that which is "foreign" is domesticated through several routes.
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