Michael Byers


Research Interests

international law
international relations
Outer Space
Law of the Sea
Laws of War
International Human Rights
International Environmental Law

Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs

Research Options

I am interested in and conduct interdisciplinary research.


Doctoral students
Postdoctoral Fellows
Any time / year round

Governance of Outer Space; Sustainable Development of Outer Space; International Space Law; Astrophysics

See: outerspaceinstitute.ca

I support public scholarship, e.g. through the Public Scholars Initiative, and am available to supervise students and Postdocs interested in collaborating with external partners as part of their research.
I support experiential learning experiences, such as internships and work placements, for my graduate students and Postdocs.
I am open to hosting Visiting International Research Students (non-degree, up to 12 months).
I am interested in hiring Co-op students for research placements.

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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Soft law and international relations: the arctic, outer space, and climate change (2022)

Soft law has been observed to be increasing within the global system, particularly in regions and issue-areas where scientific and technological knowledge has been substantively integrated into decision-making and governance. The often-used assumption for the prevalence of such instruments has been the uncertainty of scientific knowledge. This dissertation examines this assumption and takes the analysis further by examining contemporary changes to the international system, such as the number and diversity of state and non-state actors as well as their relative influence, through a close examination of three cases — the Arctic, Outer Space, and Climate Change. This dissertation makes three contributions. Firstly, it proposes that soft law instruments can be binding or non-binding. Binding soft law instruments, called “soft treaties”, are made up of permissive, ambiguous, and/or redundant obligations. Secondly, this dissertation empirically establishes that soft law instruments are becoming more prevalent, as the literature has claimed but not verified. In order to identify reasons for this prevalence, the dissertation examines a sample of significant instruments using a mixed methodology that encompasses legal textual analysis, a review of the International Relations and International Law literature, and interviews with academics and practitioners. It finds that the prevalence of soft law is an outcome of, ranked in relative importance: (1) shifting global politics arising from an increasing diversity and influence of states and non-state actors; (2) coordination despite mutual suspicion; (3) the desire for states to paper over differences; (4) a desire to avoid constitutional constraints domestically; (5) the promotion of epistemic communities; (6) a desire to be seen as doing something, and; (7) the gradual crystallization of harder law. Thirdly, this dissertation examines the potential implications of these findings which are: (1) the increased opportunities for states to forum shop; (2) the rise in complacency about soft law-making that may arise from consensus-based decision making structures; (3) the establishment of path dependency to cooperate within discrete areas despite diplomatic challenges elsewhere, and; (4) the non-linear evolution of written international law. In broadening the definition of soft law, this dissertation contributes to understanding the dynamics between International Relations and International Law.

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The politics of the unknown: theorising exploration in international relations (2022)

State-sponsored exploration is often framed as a disinterested pursuit of knowledge to the benefit of all humanity. While this would seem to represent a unique way of intervening in global politics, a deeper examination reveals a host of often contradictory reasons why states explore. This dissertation offers an in-depth examination of what exploration is and why states do it. To this end, a discursive approach is brought to bear on two genealogical case studies: British exploration of the North American Arctic and American exploration of outer space. This dissertation begins by theorizing exploration as a bundle of interlinked narratives and practices focused on a space discursively framed as an unknown. From there it makes three overlapping contributions. The first expands on both the form and function of exploration in global politics. Specifically, it elaborates a set of five functions: exploration as a legitimacy building tool, a platform for cooperation, as a way to build support, a means of obfuscating capacity or intentions, and a way of signaling capacity and building prestige. The second is centered on the conditions under which practices and narratives change. It finds that existing practices and narratives are remarkably stable in uncertain conditions and that change is instead more likely as the result of success. The final contribution surrounds how we, as societies and individuals, approach and understand the unknown. It looks at the troubling stability of patterns of domination and argues that a radical relational approach is required to overcome this in future exploration. More broadly, this dissertation contributes by bringing the study of exploration to International Relations and by offering insights from the study of global politics to the existing work on the subject.

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Lines at sea: why do states resolve their maritime boundary disputes? (2019)

This doctoral thesis was written in the period 2015–2019 at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. It asks: Why are half the world’s maritime boundaries unresolved? How do states delineate such ownership and rights at sea? What does this tell us about international politics concerning the ocean?Boundaries in the ocean are man-made constructs of importance to everything from oil and gas production, to fisheries and environmental protection. By examining a relatively straightforward and simple question – why do some states settle their maritime boundary disputes whereas others do not? – we can find the factors that underpin dispute settlement at sea.This doctoral thesis draws on theories and assumptions within both international relations and international law. Employing a previously compiled dataset of 184 maritime boundaries, as well as in-depth analyses of 33 boundaries across four countries – Australia, Canada, Colombia, Norway – I identify the conditions and the causal factors that motivate and enable the resolution of maritime boundary disputes.I have found it insufficient to study maritime boundary disputes only as individual cases: they must be seen as interdependent complexes. Further, we must conceive of the dependent variable beyond the binary option of settled/not settled. By depicting the outcome as multi-step fluid processes, we can better understand the nuances concerning what drives and what hinders settlement of maritime boundary disputes, at various points in that process. This, in turn, allows a re-think of how states approach maritime space more generally, at a time when oceans are receiving greater political attention.Beyond relative power concerns and security considerations, states’ concern for legal precedent and the increasing engagement of domestic actors in settlement processes confirms the importance of taking a wider approach, acknowledging several layers of foreign policy-making. This thesis also makes an argument for an ongoing ‘territorialisation’ of ocean space and certain trends that might make maritime boundaries more important for society, and thus also more difficult for states to agree on.

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What the border divides: settler geographies and the making of the Northwest Territories (2019)

This dissertation is a critical examination of the historical and political geography of the North- west Territories from the late 1950s to the early 1990s. The study is presented in five body chap- ters, which integrate methods and theories from political geography, settler colonial studies, and northern studies. The study traces the history of Dene political mobilization and resistance to the persistent encroachment upon their lands that resulted from heightened speculation about the mineral and petroleum resources throughout Denendeh, the traditional lands of the Dene. In do- ing so, it links this history to contemporary scholarship that addresses how Indigenous peoples are represented, and how this representation factors into the historical appropriation of Dene lands. The dissertation examines Dene struggle from multiple angles, each of which is used to highlight different aspects of settler colonial relations of power in Canada. These are thematical- ly organized around discussions of time and temporality and their roles in making settler space. Chapters address the politics of postwar Indian Policy as it relates to the Northwest Territories, the expansion of the Mackenzie Highway and the role of Dene labour in it, efforts by Dene to map their historical lands, Dene participation at the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry in the 1970s, and the subsequent period of land claims negotiations of the 1980s. In each of these, longer histories of Dene struggle for treaty rights and land are incorporated with critical discus- sions of economic and political development. The study concludes at the signing of the Nunavut Agreement in 1993, and recounts the various ways that time is a dimension of settler 

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International order in the oceans: Territoriality, security and the policital construction of jurisdiction over resources at sea (2014)

The desire for territory has been a frequent cause of conflict. Latterly, a territorial integrity norm has emerged, rendering conquest illegitimate and contributing to peace. Studies of this development have not examined the politics of maritime space, despite the construction of a territorial-like order at sea last century. The oceans are materially, legally and politically distinct to land, making the extrapolation of a norm of territorial integrity to the oceans problematic. Nevertheless, this thesis concludes that the history of, and standards relating to land have conditioned the practices of states at sea. In particular, it has been assumed that the forceful acquisition of offshore zones and resources belonging to other states would breach an important international standard. I demonstrate this through a study of the changing practices of states towards marine space and by analysing the perspectives of decision-makers as they constructed the contemporary maritime property rights order. In contrast to the past, today states almost exclusively do not seek to expand beyond those offshore areas to which they are entitled. Concerns about the possibility for territorial conflict to take place at sea drove the creation of the present-day marine property rights order. In doing so, states took for granted the illegitimacy of conquest within ocean space. As they created the present-day maritime regime, states agreed that each coastal state would be allocated exclusive rights to maritime resources proximate to their coasts in a spatially fair manner. Both the illegitimacy of conquest and the legitimacy of this maritime order are necessary – and mutually reinforcing – conditions for its stability. Case studies of maritime disputes in the Arctic Ocean and South China Sea suggest states mostly make boundary claims based on the vocabulary of international law. Despite popular concerns, neither China nor Russia can be understood to have breached the prohibition on conquest. However, concern about their intentions has led to serious politicization of their perceived claims, suggesting the international community would react robustly to cases of forceful maritime expansionism. Though a norm proscribing conquest cannot assure the absence of conflict over offshore resources, it should dampen it.

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Arctic legal tides: the politics of international law in the Northwest Passage (2010)

The politics of international law should be seen as a constant condition of international affairs within which the practices of international law and world politics unfold. This work aims to uncover several ways to understand the politics of international law, and in particular, to understand how law and politics interact within extended foreign policy sequences. These long foreign policy episodes are generally centered on a particular component, or body of, international law. Yet they are also subject to numerous elements and functions of international law which give form and content to a state’s policy development. These include complex compliance decisions, repeated public justifications over the terms of legal validity, learning what the law requires to meet thresholds of compliance, and states’ engaging in forms of legal rhetoric known as creative legal arguments: legal justifications that attempt to change international law when states face difficult policy choices. These various areas of international law highlight, in part, how international law ‘works’, or has effects within world politics. This project attempts to consolidate recent scholarship in this subject area by employing eclectic theorizing to explain the politics of international law as it unfolds in policy deliberation and choice. This task involves utilizing many insights from social constructivism and critical international legal theory, but also capturing the central ideas of legal realism, rationalism, and interactionalism in their ability to explain compliance decisions. From this point of departure, this work attempts to build theoretical bridges through a genuine interdisciplinary engagement with international relations and international law. Such an endeavor brings clarity to empirical events and historical legal phenomena. To demonstrate this claim, the analysis offered evaluates the foreign policy sequence in Canadian legal policy over the Arctic waters known as the Northwest Passage, a forty year legal dispute between Canada and the United States. The case study sheds light on how international law-making unfolds over time, by virtue of the numerous iterations between Canada and the United States in bi-lateral settings, international conferences, and the third codification conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

Protecting Arctic waters: advocacy and resistance to the International Maritime Organization's Arctic heavy fuel oil ban (2022)

The increasing interest in Arctic shipping is seen as an opportunity by some and an environmental threat by others. In 2020, the International Maritime Organization considered a draft ban on the use and transport of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic. While the ban was adopted in 2021, the original draft was drastically modified with a delayed implementation timeline and multiple extensions. This thesis asks why and how these changes were made and considers the roles played by the participants in the process. The thesis takes a qualitative approach by interviewing a diverse range of actors, including individuals from state delegations, environmental non-governmental organizations, industry actors, and Indigenous organizations who participated in the ban’s drafting, negotiation, and acceptance. Interviews were coded using the framework of norm entrepreneurs and norm antipreneurs to analyze how actors either fought for the norm or attempted to resist the norm through framing, grafting, coalitions, and other strategies. The thesis finds that while the norm was ultimately accepted, the norm evolved through the course of the process, with some actors quick to switch sides in the debate. The study considers how these findings question the relationship of agency and structure in the broader literature and concludes by calling for greater research on the role of legality in norm acceptance.

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The strategic compulsion of offending states to compliment the virtues of international law : Kremlin's Ukraine Policy (2022)

Since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, studies on the Kremlin’s foreign policy have reached Cold War levels. According to the dominant majority, composed of realist scholars, the Kremlin had executed an expected move by retaliating against Western expansion toward Ukraine. However, despite the apparent influence of realism on the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy, scholars and policymakers neglected to predict the eagerness of the Russian Federation to avoid damaging the existing international legal system, even while systematically violating it. During the two military offensives against Ukraine in less than a decade, Moscow has put great effort into legitimizing its actions with international law. And when it was unable to do so, the Kremlin has sought to avoid challenging the existing international order by identifying its offensive as a “special military operation.” This thesis aims to show that, despite their proactive policy agendas, powerful states are eager to legitimize their actions with international law, and when they cannot, they do not disregard nor challenge it. By drawing on a diversity of examples from four different case studies in which the United States or the Russian Federation played a major role, this study aims to present the commitment of powerful states to follow and preserve the existing international system, for their long-term interests.

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Understanding Cooperation in the Arctic: A Neo-Gramscian Perspective (2016)

Reading the popular media, it would be easy to think that the Arctic is on the verge of conflict. The narrative reflected in the news is a decidedly conflictual one that stands at odds with the cooperation that has come to characterise the region over the last two decades and has been repeatedly debunked by scholars. Surprisingly, this cooperation has largely continued even following the annexation of Crimea and the imposition of sanctions. This raises an important question: why? By way of response, and in an effort to expand the discussion on the Arctic beyond traditional positivist approaches, neo-Gramscian theory is employed using process tracing. By drawing on a diversity of examples and testing them against concepts drawn from the literature, support is found for the neo-Gramscian explanation: that cooperation in the Arctic is the by-product of a neoliberal hegemonic bloc pursuing their interests in the region.

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An Unhealthy Obsession? Supersonic Airpower in an Era of Unconventional Operations (2015)

The use of airpower capabilities in unconventional warfare has become increasingly common in recent years and with that comes an interesting dichotomy: contemporary conflict is more often conducted through counterinsurgency and counterterror missions focused on winning hearts and minds, however states often respond to these situations using conventional forms of airpower. In the most recent unconventional operations Western forces have increasingly shown a preference for the supersonic fighter jets. While supersonic airpower is certainly useful across a variety of platforms and missions, the breed of unconventional warfare that the international community is confronting today commonly occurs in the context of absolute air superiority in which such supersonic power is significantly less useful than subsonic capabilities. While supersonic procurements were a strategic choice during the Cold War, their use is now a ‘preference of necessity’ since most Western forces do not possess the subsonic fighter capabilities best suited to unconventional warfare. This study considers the influence US procurement preferences have on Allied governments’ air procurements and analyze the perceptions, conceptions and assumptions that shape them. It argues that continued, unquestioned supersonic procurement is informed by the perceptual predispositions held by the procurement elite as to what war means and looks like, and the equipment required to fight one. As a result, not only are procurement preferences towards supersonic jets determined by perceptual predispositions in the United States but they, in turn, result in an ‘only choice’ framework whereby the procurement patterns of allied states are dictated by the perceived necessity to ‘fit’ their procurements into those advocated by the United States because of long-term clientelistic relationships. This relationship is demonstrated by analyzing this pattern of US influence on Canadian military procurement patterns. This study asserts that this clientelistic relationship with the United States has, in fact, hindered Canada’s ability to create and maintain full service air force capability and operability, as budget realities and US pressure have forced allies to focus solely on the procurement of supersonic jets rather than procuring strategically relevant purpose-built aircraft for the contemporary security environment.

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On the relevance of international law, theories of international relations and the Crimean case (2015)

The Russian Federation claims the 2014 Crimea reunification is legal. Ukraine, together with NATO countries and others, deems the annexation illegal. Both states agree on most of the facts, with a few significant exceptions, and both states argue their case in terms of international law, on which they both generally agree. Hence, what is the point of international law? Does it have a discernible and independent effect on international politics? If so, is it in principle possible to observe it? This work attempts to be an analysis of these questions in the reunification/annexation of Crimea by Russia of 2014, to see whether an answer can in fact be given. The aim is to address the position of the Russian legal arguments within current international law, together with its implications for two of the currently most credited theories of international politics.

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Marketability of Canadian bitumen: challenges and opportunities (2014)

The thesis examines challenges and opportunities for the Canadian oil sands industry in the three most important markets: the USA, currently the sole export destination, and the European Union and China, the two largest potential consumers of highly carbon-intensive Canadian bitumen. Gradually falling demand for oil imports and increasing carbon consciousness in the American market threaten to impose constraints on the further development of Alberta`s oil sands and prompt the industry to look for alternative export destinations. Energy security concerns in the European Union amid the crisis in Ukraine, and in China due to political instability in the Middle East trump environmental policies of the two jurisdictions and present an opportunity for the Canadian bitumen industry to tap into these markets. However, the current infrastructure constraints stemming from formidable public opposition to the construction of new oil pipelines render Canada unable to capitalize on this opportunity. The long-term future of Alberta`s oil sands is therefore far from certain.

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Recognizing fact from fiction: a social critique of premature recognition in Libya (2011)

Lassa Oppenheim tells us that states and governments become International Persons through recognition only, and exclusively. According to this legally constitutive doctrine, the recognition of governments operates in an intricate system between established states and recipient political entities. In these circumstances existing governments have the power to create international personality and, as a result, yield a high degree of influence and coercion over nascent recipient regimes. It is not surprising, therefore, that countries have repeatedly sought to withhold the recognition of certain governments, or prematurely recognize others, as a means of influencing a recipient regime’s survival or policies. These arguments and practices have been problematic, however, because they treat recognition solely as an act of political or legal coercion, which presumes that recipient regimes may value recognition more then their own contentious domestic or foreign policies. Moreover, viewing recognition solely as an act between states, between governments, and between political entities, obscures the fact that recognition may also be a “social act” whose consequences may extend far beyond a state’s governing apparatus, and into its civil society. Using France’s 2011 recognition of the Libyan rebels as a theoretical test case, this paper analyzes the impact of recognition beyond the legal and into the social realm. In this respect, recognition is treated not simply as a constitutive act of legal rights and duties, but additionally as a symbolic endorsement by one state towards the citizens of another, on the question of the legitimacy of their government. Beginning with a critique of legal recognition’s constitutive impact, and ending with an alternative view of recognition as a social phenomena, this paper asks two central questions: a) Under what circumstances can we expect external recognition to impact a population’s conception of legitimate governance, and b) under what conditions will this impact benefit the goals of the donor and recipient entities?

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Diplomacy and the Lomonosov Ridge: Prospects for International Cooperation in the Arctic (2010)

This paper examines the politics of continental shelf delimitation and cooperation in the central Arctic Ocean, where media and political rhetoric often point to the possibility for conflict. This analysis is divided into two main sections. First, the current political and legal situation is outlined, with a focus on the Lomonosov Ridge which traverses the ocean floor near the North Pole. While several countries including Russia, Denmark, and Canada may have adjacent and even overlapping claims to the continental shelf in this area, these players have also pursued significant scientific and political cooperation concerning the continental shelf, and an elaborate regime of international law, centred on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, has been largely respected by the players in the region. Second, the paper argues that a number of measures, including many interim approaches, are available to avert potential political disputes. The research examines the feasibility of such cooperation towards a political agreement, which could take the form of a joint or coordinated submission to a UN body, a provisional delimitation arrangement, or a joint development zone. The paper argues that in light of the degree of cooperation so far, as well as the existence of political accords elsewhere which may serve as useful models, the countries in the region should consider preempting disputes over the continental shelf by pursuing an interim political agreement in the central Arctic Ocean.

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The ambivalence of religion within the framework of secular humanism: The case of faith based humanitarian organizations (2010)

This paper intends to explore the complex and often implicit relationship between religion, humanitarianism and secularized politics. The research consists of two major parts. The first chapter analyzes the theoretical approaches to the role of religion and faith-based decision-making in modern international politics. It does that by discussing three particular topics: the neglected connection between religion and IR scholarship, major theories of secularization, and the influences of religion on international politics. The second chapter intends to move the research from the level of philosophical and abstract towards more practical levels of analysis. It focuses on the issue of faith-based humanitarianism and the substantial role faith-based organizations play in international politics. The research points to two related conclusions. First, while acknowledging that secular humanism is a historic civilizational achievement, it can be argued that it is impossible and misleading to strive for clear-cut segregation of religious and secular spheres of life. Second, faith-based humanitarianism is one of the phenomena which increasingly challenge this artificial dichotomy between the sacred and the secular by bringing religion back into public discourse. The paper does not suggest that the dominant paradigm of international relations be abandoned. It rather calls for its modification in order to account for religion which norms and values can be used to support the existing regime of human rights and institutions. Faith-based organizations should be thus seen as a potential channel leading towards the reconciliation of the sacred and the secular.

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The Politics of Protection: Conceptualizing Climatic Displacement and a Global Protection Regime (2010)

Climate change is anticipated to drive millions of people from their homes this century. Estimates indicate that between 200 and 250 million people may be displaced because of rising sea levels, desertification, and increased storm surges working in concert. At present, however, there is no protection regime, institutional mandate, or legal architecture capable of responding to the plight of climatically displaced persons (CDPs). Since 2007, a number of legal regimes have been proposed to provide CDPs with legal assistance. Each regime creates compulsory mandates for states in terms of their assistance to the climatically displaced. Though proposed regimes address the existing legal gaps in protection, they fail to address why states would in fact be willing politically to sign such a treaty. This paper argues that a hard legal framework for CDP protection is not politically prudent. Rather, CDP protection should be pursued through soft legalization. In particular, this paper examines the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the ways in which their non-binding nature provide a normative framework for the development of a CDP protection instrument. The 1998 Guiding Principles developed in response to the political limitations of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its contemporary application. States have taken increased measures to limit their existing asylum obligations under the legally binding 1951 framework and the non-binding IDP Guiding Principles emerged in direct response to this political resistance. The non-binding nature of the Guiding Principles has not undermined their authoritative force, however, but rather it has served as a powerful tool for protecting vulnerable populations. Thus, this paper contributes to the literature on climatic displacement by conceptualizing how the evolution and application of contemporary protection regimes, as well as their normative frameworks, can shape efforts to protect those who are displaced by climate change.

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The protection and assistance of internally displaced persons and the creation of customary international law (2010)

Since the mid-1990s, internally displaced persons have outnumbered refugees 2 to 1 in most emergencies. These are dire statistics, but I have been encouraged by recent response developments: the African Union adopted in October of 2009 the Kampala Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Person in Africa, and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region Pact on Security, Stability and Development, which includes the Protocol on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons, and which entered into force in June of 2008. These two hard law documents are based on the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which is considered to be a soft law document.With this foundation, my thesis seeks to examine whether these African responses to internal displacement can have an impact outside the continent’s borders through customary international law. I argue that while it is still early to determine the full influence of the Kampala Convention and the Great Lakes Protocol, these two initiatives are indeed legitimate building blocks toward a generally applicable rule of customary international law. We should anticipate growing reference to them, and to the African experience in general, as issues of internal displacement increase in regions across the globe. However, before this normative framework can become binding international law, we will likely need to see more conventionally powerful states also adopt similar Guiding Principles-based initiatives. To support this statement, I outline the hardening process of soft law and the creation process of customary international law, and find that international legal theory suggests that African leadership can indeed initiate global norm development. I also found, however, that the potential of these two African instruments could not be wholly explained by law, and thus turned to international relations’ theory for supporting analysis.

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