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Standards of Legitimacy as Foundations of Accountability

In world politics, standards of legitimacy against which power-wielders can be held accountable derive primarily from shared norms and secondarily from various legal instruments.  Firstly, legitimacy derives from norms that are widely shared by the elites and publics of the leading states in the global political system, and that are maintained by a public discourse. For example, the Kosovo Report declared the NATO war against Serbia in 1995 to be legitimate, because it was designed to protect an innocent population, even though it was technically illegal according to the UN Charter.  The “responsibility to protect” innocent populations trumped the norm of state sovereignty, even as expressed in the Charter.11

It follows that power-wielders may be held accountable to standards of conduct articulated in transnational civil society, even though there is no applicable international law and even though their power does not derive from authority delegated to them.  When Nike was criticized in the late 1990s for hiring contractors using “sweatshop” labor, it had not necessarily broken any laws.  Activists complained not of legal violation but of the inequity of workers in the Dominican Republic or Vietnam being employed in miserable conditions, and paid badly, to produce luxury goods that would be sold for many times their production costs in rich countries.  Although some of the human rights norms used to hold former leaders accountable in Latin America are legalized, they operated also through non-legalized social processes involving elites’ desires for legitimacy and esteem (Lutz and Sikkink 2000: 658-9).  When standards are not legalized, we would expect accountability to operate chiefly through reputation and peer

11  Independent International Commission on Kosovo 2000, The Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2001).

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