Reconceptualising Compliance: Street-Level Bureaucrats and the Implementation of International Law

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Harold Koh presents Transnational Legal Process (‘TLP’) as a discursive theory of international legal compliance whereby a variety of actors, in a variety of fora, make, interpret, and internalise rules of transnational law. Yet despite its process-orientation, TLP possesses a decidedly top-down character, suggesting that state behaviour trends towards legal compliance over time through a process of interaction, interpretation, and norm-internalisation, while largely ignoring the influence of street-level bureaucrats in interpreting, framing, and applying the law. If TLP generates compliance with legal norms over time, why do non-compliant legal practices persist when they should be corrected in jurisgenerative fora? And, if norm development is a discursive process, how might assumptions about the willingness of courts to preserve liberal conceptions of rights blind us to less-visible logics that structure policy debates and limit the range of legal action? The thesis develops a more nuanced understanding of 'norm internalisation' by examining implementation of the norm of non-refoulement in case studies of Australia and the United States. The work examines the process of ‘entry screening’ asylum seekers at Australian airports and the emergence of the practice of ‘metering’ asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border to advance a theoretical approach to international legal compliance that builds upon two major critiques of TLP theory: that it does not adequately identify the actors and processes of norm ‘internalization’ and that it does not sufficiently identify and describe norm creation processes. This thesis demonstrates that: (1) TLP’s internalisation thesis fails to account for the practices of street-level bureaucrats, who often prioritize competing norms, discourses, and non-compliant practices that influence or are assimilated into formal sources of law; and that (2) relational sites within the network of actors responsible for implementing norms present countless opportunities for contesting meaning and normative frames. This research reveals an overreliance on the role of courts in preserving the norm of non-refoulement and highlights that how we understand sites of lawmaking and legal contestation has real implications for people’s lives, for questions about how subsequent state practice might impact treaty interpretation, how obligations are prioritised in conflicting treaty regimes, or how international organisations interpret international law and where they make interventions.
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