Debate: International Law: ineffective and imperialist?

Proposition: Anna Friedler

International law, in principle, seems like a good way to structure the international community, and ‘defend’ all our shining ideals – but in practice, it has a long way to go in terms of transparency and equality.  The UN is not a world government, it has no forces of its own– it relies on the alignment of economic and military interests of its members. Perhaps it is inevitable, then, that the countries with a surfeit of these resources will be the ones with a disproportionately large influence within international bodies. The vast majority of those tried within the International Criminal Court (ICC) are African, and neither America nor Russia are ICC members, granting them immunity from prosecution. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 seems like a prime example of this double standard. What kind of message does this send about colonialism?

Much vaunted treaties like the Koyoto Protocol are not equivalent to the making of a domestic ‘law’ – by living in our society, we agree to abide by its rules, but it would not be ok to back out of our ‘agreement’ not to steal someone else’s car for example, on the premise that it would hurt our economies to stick to our own clapped out Ford. But seeing as it’s rather difficult to enforce international law, it’s easy to make vague promises only back out of them a few years later.

At the start of the emergence of “Saudi-backed” violence in Bahrain, Iran-based news group Press TV summed up the frustrations of the ‘non-West’, commenting: “reports say that the US, Britain and some other Western countries are preventing the Bahrain dossier from reaching the International Criminal Court, and this is yet another indication of the double standards practised by the US and its allies when it comes to human rights violations by their friends in the region and elsewhere.”

It might be easy for the privileged in countries with a controlling interest in the ICC to dismiss such allegations as the anti-West ranting of corrupt regimes and oppressive states, but this sort of thinking is hardly very international. And if, unlike domestic law, you can’t prosecute the offending party via an impartial adjudicator, it’s not much like ‘law’ either. Position or power is not a mandate to treat others, your citizens, as you see fit – nightmarish as it is to untangle human rights from cultural perspective, there has to be universal ground rules. But why should we be so arrogant to think these can only come from the loudest powers in the UN? Surely this is tantamount to the imperialism that not so long ago was imposed by these states over the rest of the world? The internationalism that we fool ourselves into seeing is admirable: respect for human rights, cooperation and understanding between peoples, universal equality for all. That is something that everyone in the world, be they Muslim, Christian, Atheist, of any race of nationality, can empathise with. But we won’t get them by supporting a flawed system.

Rebuttal: Samir Pasha
The concept of international law seems to have warped in our minds.
Mentioned mostly when either politicians on podiums shake hands, having signed a large piece of paper, or when the media shows states committing atrocities against each other. The following short points will hopefully redress the image of international law and show that it was created by political will which greatly limited its accountability purview.
First, the end of WWII sought to hail democracy and equality-among citizens and states- as the ultimate ideals to bring the world out of the colonial rule and in 1945 the United Nations was created which sought to “develop friendly relations among nations”.  The UN was just one of the various international organisations created in the spirit of ‘facilitating cooperation’.  Note these terms are not legally binding compared to the arbitrariness in domestic law; we don’t ‘cooperate’ with murderers, do we? Therefore the agreements made through these bodies merely govern relationships. They were created by states who wanted to be governed in certain situations and so they are more dispute mediators than a court of law. Remember; don’t blame the instrument, but rather the musician.
Secondly, the main demon of enforcing international law is politics. Yes, America was not taken to the ICC over the Iraq invasion, but that is because politics governs the extent of legal adherence a state wishes to comply with, not double standards on the part of the international legal system. We need as much international law as possible to try and contain the often bigoted politics some governments play. International law has actually tried many times to control superpowers; in 1996 Panama took USA to the ICJ- USA simply stated they did not believe in the court’s legitimacy. No matter what the court says, it is governments that must agree to comply with the court’s judgment, much to the frustration of the courts.
Finally, international law has made great leaps in using the little power it has been given by member states to facilitate the creation of protection systems for weak parties such as refugee law, the law of armed conflict and countless citizen-empowering treaties.