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August 28, 2007

International Law: What It Is, Why It Is Important, and Why We Should Stick To It, Part I

Gradually, everything that happens in the world is coming to be of interest everywhere in the world, and, gradually, thoughtful men and women everywhere are sitting in judgment upon the conduct of all nations. – Elihu Root, Senator, Secretary of War, Secretary of State

Just a few years ago I snickered at the concept of international law. I thought to myself, “Law is nothing without guns to back it up; we all know that there’s no real way to enforce international law short of international conflict.” It was just ridiculous to expect that the rule of law would be obeyed by the Mugabes of the world. So what’s the point?


My disdain for international law didn’t stop there. I mean, we all know how useful the U.N. has been, right? Can anyone say “Rwanda” or even “Kosovo?” “And don’t get me started on our ‘allies’ in Europe,” I said. International law is just a way for people Over There to hold us back from doing the things we know must be done. What do they have to do with me? They should just mind their own business.

But my opinion slowly began to change. My prior thinking had focused almost exclusively on nations with criminal leaders, nations in conflict, and the U.N. In other words, my exposure to international law was not exactly filled with success stories. Part of the problem was that everyday experiences with international law don’t often make the news.

As I learned more about the interactions of nations I saw that there was some good to be found. Trade, for example, has flourished under international law. Having a system of rules in place to take care of problems without having to renegotiate each time provides a sense of security. And not just in trade, but every time nations have contact with each other.

Nations have benefited in criminal liability and jurisdiction issues have because of international law. What happens if a crime is committed onboard an airplane? Do the laws of the departure country or arrival country apply? Does your answer change depending on whose airspace the plane was in when the crime occurred? Does the nationality of the offender or the victim matter? All these questions are answered by international law; it’s not necessary for each country involved to negotiate to determine the answers. Having rules set in place becomes helpful when countries disagree; they provide a method of determining who is right.

Resolving disputes isn’t the only purpose of international law, but it is a major one. Other purposes include setting up international organizations (e.g. INTERPOL, WTO, and the World Bank) and doing justice between state and non-state actors. Of course, you’re all familiar with the idea that international law can help keep the peace between nations. Despite some spectacular failures (can anyone say Kellogg-Briand?), international law has seen some success on this front by giving nations options other than the resort to force to resolve disputes.

So I started changing my view of international law. Instead of thinking, “What is it good for?” I started thinking “How can we make it work better?” Along the way I had to get over the notion that “might always makes right.” I also had to deal with serious reservations about the morality and usefulness of the concept of sovereignty.

We will discuss these issues later in the series. The first thing I’m going to do in Part 2 is discuss sources of international law. In Part 3 I will examine how rogue nations fit into the picture. I will go back to talking about issues of war and peace in Part 4. And in Part 5 I will present what I hope is a convincing argument for sticking to international law. I suspect that along the way, commenters will raise some other interesting topics, too.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 01:41 AM

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