Wednesday, September 22, 2004

International Law Sucks 

What irks me when I read stories like "Iran says ban on its uranium enrichment program 'illegal'" and "Annan: Iraq War 'Illegal' Without U.N. OK" isn't so much the political position of the speakers: it's the term "illegal" that's being tossed around like it actually means something.

News flash: it really doesn't mean jack squat.

There are two aspects to effective law: respecting it and enforcing it. Respect is about people (or states, I suppose, in the case of international law) finding the source and justification for laws to be legitimate and just. Enforcement is about making sure that those who violate laws receive punishment.

International law, by its very definition, will never be 100% effective, because it will never be wholly respected nor consistently enforced. I'm not going to respect a law that treats a country like Burma or North Korea as an equal to my own. They, meanwhile, wouldn't fear enforcement from a United Nations whose biggest role is a "Speaker's Corner" for people who really don't need these things.

It's actually rather disturbing and disappointing that we've returned to this sort of worship of such a flawed concept. I recognize a certain need for international law, such as the Geneva Conventions, as means to maintain a certain degree of humane behaviour in warfare, codifying a reciprocal agreement to decency in combat. But this sort of talk assumes that international law itself is an end, not a mean. The last time international law got to holy grail level was the League of Nations days, which Fareed Zakaria describes as follows:

Wilson's vision was of a universal, law-based system of collective security in which all countries -- or at least all the members of the League of Nations -- would act against aggression, wherever and whenever it took place. The crux of the debate was Article 10 of the Versailles Treaty, the triggering clause that guaranteed the integrity and security of all states. Almost all internationalist Republicans had serious reservations about the open-ended nature of this commitment. They also believed that such an elaborate and legalistic scheme was bound to be worthless in practice because nations would not respond equally to every act of aggression. And they worried that this would reduce America's flexibility to protect itself in its own hemisphere.

The Republicans had a more tangible goal than universal peace -- peace in Europe. For this, they believed, the U.S. should enter into a straightforward alliance with France and Britain. After making a specific commitment to its European allies, Washington could certainly enter the League of Nations, as long as this involved no further ongoing military commitments.

It's like we haven't learned anything in eighty years.

And now Kofi's worked up about the "'shameless disregard' for the rule of law." Well, considering what I just wrote, no surprise there.
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