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Empowering and Liberating International Law and the United Nations


 

  1. Two recent exceptional books, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine (2019) by Noura Erakat and For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq (2018) by Ayça Çubukçu both reject the liberal trope of assuming international law is an ally with respect to their passion for justice. Law as such is a neutral instrument, historically invented to serve the purposes of the strong, and more recently seen as useful for the weak in certain settings. When law is aligned with injustice it gives rise to resistance, which historically is associated with the hallowed tradition of civil disobedience, influential with Tolstoy, Gandhi, and more recently, Martin Luther King, Jr.. In these contexts civil disobedience can involve the nonviolent transgression of any legal norm that calls attention to the specific injustice. For instance, a refusal to pay taxes or trespass on a military base are illustrative. Armed struggle may also achieve law-generating legitimacy as was the case in the decades after World War II for anti-colonial wars or wars of national liberation. So far, there is no traditional of international or global civil disobedience. In a globalizing world, transnational activism needs such a means to protest injustice. Perhaps, the purported criminalization of the BDS Campaign directed at Israel in some Western countries gives this option to activists

 

  1. David Kennedy earlier developed the argument, if I read him correctly, that a principal value of international law in war/peace contexts is to provide a familiar and accepted discoursethat facilitates communication between representatives of governments, diplomats, and other actors. This assertion is more innovative than it appears at first glance. Most of us believe the main function and test of law’s effectiveness is whether it achieves restraints on behavior on the basis of legal prohibitions. Kennedy is skeptical of the ability of international law to shape the behavior of sovereign states in war/peace contexts, yet affirms the relevance of international law to the conduct of international relations. Instead of stressing the regulation of behavior of sovereign states, Kennedy believes that international law is primarily useful for purposes of intra-governmental and inter-governmental communication, helping policymakers determine how policy should be framed and justified. The challenge for most moderate governments is to exercise their discretion in ways responsive to a range of concerns, including humanitarian, security, and strategic. For overall discussion see Kennedy, Of War and Law (2006). There is a further point. In effect, language being inherently malleable, it is always possible to interpret the law to conform to preferred policy options reflecting societal roles and normative background. For this reason, in matters that challenge major state interests law serves mainly to communicate and clarify, but lacks the political traction to restrain. Law does allow the strong to vindicate their claims of belligerent rights as in war crimes trials of the leader(s) of defeated countries. A recent instance is the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein orchestrated by the victorious law-violating aggressor.

 

  1. By contrast, in Revisiting the Vietnam War (2018) I contend that American policies in Vietnam after 1954 were unlawful in various ways, with a special stress on the U.S. extension of the combat zone in South Vietnam to North Vietnam after 1964. In effect, international law, as well as the UN Charter, sought to be regulative with respect to behavior, as well as the incidental benefit of offering a framework for discourse among diplomats. Further, that regulative intentions giving rise to such legal norms were seeking to restrict recourse to international force to situations of self-defense strictly defined. The overriding goal of the. UN Charter is war prevention. The Nicaragua Case decided by the World Court in 1986 confirmed the view that international law governing recourse to force was regulated in a manner entirely consistent with the UN Charter core concepts of unconditional prohibition (Article 2(4)), coupled with an exception for valid claims of self-defense made dependent on the existence of “a prior armed attack” across an international boundary. (Article 51). History is relevant. When the grief and tragedy of war remained an active memory restraint followed, not only because the law so decreed but as a reflection of the psychological anti-war mood that then briefly prevailed.

 

  1. Such a regulative view of international law rests on a premise that there are correct and incorrect (or better and worse) modes of interpretation with respect to theapplicationof legal norms. This premise does not entail a positivist approach that restricts the meaning attributed to legal norms to the language used in formal texts or customary rules. A more appropriate interpretative approach can be adopted, enlarged to take account of context, including ethical, sociological, and historical considerations. When a country has recourse to force, claimint to act in accord with its right of self-defense or contends that its uses of force are proportional and discriminate a regulative approach can disagree by offering contrary factual and interpretative evidence. The absence of authoritative interpreters of international law make theses assessments rest to a greater degree on supposedly neutral scholarly or expert opinion, which is deemed more trustworthy as not forthcoming from a partisan source. Of course, scholars disagree just as judges disagree. For this reason the selection of judges or the appraisal of scholarly merit is crucial and often determinative of ‘the law.’ The significant differences between Brett Kavanaugh and Ruth Bader Ginsberg are not vocational or analytical as much as they are normative and subjective.

 

  1. Myres McDougal in collaboration with Harold Lasswell addressed this issue of ‘normative ambiguity.’ They attempted. to resolve the challenge of authoritativeness by reference to ‘reasonable expectations’ as assessed by reference to the values at stake in a free society. As their work was rooted in the global setting of the Cold War their inclinations were to find that American foreign policy was in most instances compatible with international law as it was assumed guided by a commitment to promote free world values and by reliance on capabilities able to bring effective power to bear on the behavior of political actors. See McDougal & Florentino Feliciano, Law and Minimum World Public Order: The Legal Regulation of International Coercion(1961); see also McDougal & Harold D. Lasswell, “The Identification and Appraisal of Diverse Systems of World Order,” American Journal of International Law53:1 (1959). Such a jurisprudential perspective regards international law as a geopolitical instrument evaluated as good or bad by reference to the normative credentials and material capabilities of political actors. These credentials are given concrete significance by assessing the degree of adherence of a domestic public order system to the values of a free society. The West, from this point of view supposedly adhered to such values, while the Soviet bloc did not. Such a framework was deeply ideological as in contested situations, for instance, Vietnam, where the differences between the Soviet and American forms of government should not have affected the legal assessment of violations of the sovereign rights of Vietnam.

 

  1. Çubukçu explores the relevance of international law in the informal setting of a people’s tribunal established to assess the legality of the Iraq War, including the subsequent occupation of Iraq. The tribunal was charged with determining whether political leaders, military commanders, and corporate officers should be held personally accountable under international criminal law. Admittedly, this is a somewhat misleading way to conceive of the central mission of the Iraq War Tribunal. This appropriation of law by those acting on behalf of civil society are doing so on the basis of already formed judgments that reflect moral convictions. Such a peoples’ tribunal is tasked with documenting violations of international law and international crimes, and is expected to justify conclusions of criminality, which were presumed, and motivated the effort to create such a tribunal. Such a ‘judicial’ undertaking is not motivated by a search for the proper mode of interpretation. The Tribunal’s ‘jury of conscience’ did not rest its authority on the basis of having legal experts pass judgment, although it was permissible to have such individuals participate, but only to the extent that their politics are right and their reputation as exemplary citizens is high. Putting the point differently, these kinds of civic initiatives are undertaken because of anti-war sentiments being considered applicable to the judgment of belligerent behavior being challenged and the failure of formal institutions, including the United Nations, to protect a sovereign nation, in this case Iraq, from military attack and occupation. It is not an inquiry as generally understood, but a gathering of evidence and interpretative argument to mount a challenge directed at a controversial policy of a government, usually a government that enjoys impunity with respect to its wrongdoing. The conclusions of such a tribunal is ultimately an appeal to international public opinion, but usually falls short of its goals because of limits on funding available to disseminate results and antipathy of mainstream media to these activities. These tribunals are portrayed by the media as usurping the role of formal institutions and are constituted without any acceptable constitutional mandate. The underlying question is whether civil society has any lawmaking authority deserving respect. As such tribunals challenge the new political norms of post-truth society, some view their role as benevolent, others as irrelevant if not malevolent. There is no doubt that civil society exerts an influence on public opinion with respect to issues of war/peace, including accountability for war crimes. Such influence tends to be more evident in democratic societies. Yet modern democratic states rely on extensive claims of secrecy, nationalist ideology, money, and militarism to marginalize those citizens who seek to engage more fully and critically with public policy, especially the war/peace agenda, than by voting periodically. Tribunals established by citizens is a dissident mode of participatory democracy, and more important for this reason than as a contribution to upholding the rule of law.

 

  1. Academic international law specialists rarely acknowledge any legal, moral, and political relevance to civil society initiatives that claim a residual authority to act when governments and the UN fail to do so. In this sense, the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II also proceeded on the basis of predetermined results, but because constituted by sovereign states as represented by governments, their undertaking was generally viewed as deserving of respect. The documentation of criminality was widely regarded as an invaluable form of political education. What little criticism of these legal initiatives by academic specialists did occur focused on the fact that the crimes of the victors, including the atomic bombing of Japanese cities, were excluded even from inquiry, much less accountability. In other words, since international law is treated as subject to the statist framework of world order, non-statist initiatives to pronounce on the wrongdoing of states are dismissed as without legal relevance.

 

  1. We are confronting various kinds of partisan scholarship, some overt, some hidden. Çubukçu and Erakat are notable because they make their partisanship explicit, whereas the mainstream jurisprudential traditions, whether positivist, realist, or sociological, claim an objective approach premised on the mystique of ‘the majesty of the law.’ Or as in recent debates about the Trump presidency, rhetorical flourishes such as ‘no one is above the law’ are common yet non-operational. Even before the banner of ‘fake news’ was waved so defiantly, it was obvious that law and legal order depend more on the political and ethical outlook of the interpreter than on legal training and analytical skills or even on the aura of legitimacy surrounding governmental institutions. It is usually more helpful to know the viewpoints of the judges on the U.S. Supreme Court than knowing all about the substantive ins and outs of a legal controversy being addressed.

 

  1. Shall we also admit that the law in the books will not necessarily matter unless it is accompanied by a sufficient political willto seek and achieve implementation? In international life this political will depend heavily on the attitudes of leading geopolitical actors. In domestic society the political will is shaped by what the 20thcentury Austrian sociologist of law, Eugen Erlich, called ‘the living law,’ the values and expectations of the people as the crucial indicator of effective law.For routine matters such as tourism, diplomatic representation, maritime safety governments comply because it is convenient for them to do so, or reciprocity creates mutual benefits. When war/peace is at stake, then law tends to be sidelined by geopolitics, invoked when it serves interests, evaded or refuted when it contradicts interests. The hope after the devastating war that ended in 1945 and generated a well-founded fear that a future war would involve nuclear devastation was that it would incline the most powerful state to abandon war as an instrument of policy as a matter of law reinforced by political will. Instead geopolitical actors, above all the United States and the Soviet Union opted more for prudence than prevention, continuing to advance their interests by investing heavily in military capabilities and by pragmatic recourses to international force. This post-nuclear militarism was tempered by strong efforts to limit the scale and stakes of conflict to avoid a major war that could lead to the use of nuclear weaponry.

 

  1. The substantive context matters. The state, if corruption and incompetence can be minimized, can be relied upon to act lawfully if the subject-matter is What is treated as routine shifts with time, and reflects to some extent the ebb and flow of political outlook, but generally coincides with behavior that reflects reciprocal interests as is the case with diplomatic immunity, maritime safety, and often even treatment of prisoners of war. Geopolitical actors generally have a strong interest in stability for purposes of trade, investment, travel, and communications that depends on reliable international legal frameworks. Law collapses when there is absent a political will to implement the legal norms as is the case with respect to economic and social rights. Such norms come into existence because of widely shared moral aspirations, but lack political traction to challenge entrenched private sector interests that benefit from non-compliance as with the ‘right to food’ or the ‘right to health.’ Beyond this, the absence of an international community dedicated to human interests as distinct from national interests makes it evident that despite economic and social rights anchored in treaty law, any sense of meaningful international responsibility is almost non-existent. What international relief is forthcoming in response to famine and natural disasters is invariably voluntary, a matter of good will, rather than an expression of an obligatory response.

 

11. Where asymmetries of power exist, as in competing claims of sovereign rights, with respect to the delimitation of territorial boundaries or upholding the right of self-determination, law validates grievances, motivates resistance, but cannot shape political outcomes. Asymmetries of power are conventionally associated with relative military capabilities, but this has been demonstrated to be misleading in post-1945 international relations. A major recent prominent example is the overall success of the anti-colonial movement. In case after case a mobilized popular resistance of the nation overcame the superior military capabilities of the colonial power. The exceptions to this pattern involve settler colonial societies in which the native population was exterminated or marginalized as in North America, Australia, New Zealand, or somewhat assimilated as in most of Latin America. Relative military power is still highly relevant in conflicts between states, but not in their subsequent occupation. In the instances of aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq, the military superiority of the United States prevailed in the attack phase of warfare, yet during the subsequent occupation phase it endured a political defeatthat basically nullified the military victory. In the post-colonial world, popular sovereignty when effectively mobilized as resistance can often challenge geopolitical maneuvers, upholding basic rights, but at great human cost. Legitimating resistance through law as occurred in the course of the great anti-colonial struggles of the last half of the 20thcentury may have been the greatest contribution of the United Nations to peace and justice.

12. I will end where I began, celebrating the publication of the recent books by Çubukçu and Erakat. Çubukçu helps us better understand the complex interplay of law and war from the perspective of movement politics; the geopolitical state is the target of disapproval for its behavior—trampling on the sovereign rights of the Iraqi people by waging an unprovoked war. Erakat, in contrast, explores how law has been twisted by governments to serve geopolitical interests at the expense of basic Palestinian rights, and yet normative discourse nevertheless currently serves the struggle of the Palestinian people and strengthens the political will of transnational civil society to challenge Israel.

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