Thursday, June 26, 2008

International Law--And Limits

Right Wing News' John Hawkins:
International law is whatever the people with the most weapons and most will to use them say it is.

Coincidentally, Norm Geras looks at the issue from a different perspective, yet makes a related point:
There are many reasons why [arguments for] the sacredness or unchallengeability of law no longer carry persuasive force, but one of them is the development during the last century, and particularly after the Nuremberg Trials, of the body of doctrine we have come to know under the heading 'crimes against humanity': a set of principles limiting the scope of sovereign authority, restricting what governments may rightly do, including (indeed especially) to those living within their jurisdiction. States too, we have become accustomed to thinking, can behave in a criminal manner, for there is a law to which states and those who act for them are answerable.

It is not difficult to see, however, that by theoretically resolving one kind of issue, this locating of another level of law - so to say 'above' states - simply lifts the problem of what to do when the law itself is wrong or remiss on to a different plane, rendering it a global rather than merely national problem. We should not repeat at the planetary level an earlier mistake of treating law and the institutions which are supposed to embody it as above moral question or challenge. Just because international law has the function of holding governments in check, it does not follow that that law and its would-be agents are always to be respected. On the contrary, I propose today, and for a reason that is topically obvious, what I'll call The Zimbabwe Thesis. The thesis could have been proposed earlier and given other names. No matter. The name is merely contingent. It is the thesis itself I want to argue for.

It is this: the regime of international law, that is, the framework of institutions that is meant to uphold international law, should be held in contempt by all those committed to democracy and human rights, so long as and to the extent that those institutions are merely a cover for inaction and/or connive at the most blatant criminality by states against their own peoples.
To which I'd add: and sometimes against other peoples--just ask mid-20th Century "Czechs, Poles, Belgians, Netherlanders, Norwegians, French. . .."

I read both Hawkins and Geras, but suspect scant agreement between them. Let me propose one: a morally responsible, far-sighted government unilaterally can establish and enforce broadly beneficial international law--but only when backed by force (or threat of force). I'm not saying it's inevitable--just that it has happened.

Nation-states can act "in a criminal manner." As Geras recognizes, however, inaction can be worse. When evaluating international law, remember the phrase Edmund Burke is credited with saying (though he did not): "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." So, should the Security Council, sanctions and shame fail, why not try some "gun-boat diplomacy"?


OBloodyHell said...

>>>> International law is whatever the people with the most weapons and most will to use them say it is.
> Agreed.

Well, Duh.

You'd have to be a libtard not to get something that obvious.

MaxedOutMama said...

This is clearly one of the major issues of our time.

We know from experience that checks and balances are needed. The one-party UN is a disaster on multiple fronts, an exercise in hypocrisy, an organization which has come to be a cloak for criminality on a grand scale.

Perhaps competing international bodies would be wise. I still think the only way to reform the UN is to set up an alternate body composed of democratic states.

The problem is that international law is either something or nothing, and right now, it is effectively nothing. The root of good law arises from the people who agree to be bound by them, and if the people are bad a system of good laws is bound to fail, whereas a good people living under bad law can become a bad people. Therefore this is not something to be taken lightly.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Let's acknowledge that there is no such thing as international law. Until we do, we will not make international law happen in a real way. The hypocrisy of pretending there is international law (and justice) impedes progress in actually obtaining international law and justice.