The future of international law

| Staff Columnist

On Thursday, April 8, 2010, Thomas Buergenthal, the American judge on the International Court of Justice (ICJ), gave a lecture entitled “The International Judicial System: Its Growing Influence,” at the Washington University School of Law. As a person interested in the law, the judicial process and international affairs, I attended this Tyrrell Williams Lecture of 2009-10. The Bryan Cave Moot Courtroom was packed to capacity with notable figures including Missouri State Supreme Court Judge Richard B. Teitelman and Federal District Judges Jean C. Hamilton and Catherine D. Perry; interestingly, all three obtained their law degrees from the Wash. U. School of Law.

Judge Buergenthal mentioned the respect with which most countries regard the ICJ, but also the growing number of international courts, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), the European Court of Human Rights and the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. This nine-person tribunal was created in the early 1980s to adjudicate claims between the two sides following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the storming of the American embassy in Tehran that same year. It is still active and is composed of three Americans, three Iranians and three neutral participants; the point is that, according to Buergenthal, even bitter adversaries can resolve their disputes peacefully without force and bloodshed.

I took notes throughout the lecture, and he emphasized the fact that while the United States wants all countries to adhere to international law and norms, it refuses to submit itself to this same standard. Judge Buergenthal referred to this standard as an “exaggerated assertion of sovereignty, which is an empty slogan if the ICJ is not [even able] to resolve disputes.”

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Thoroughly interested, when given the opportunity to address the judge, I asked, “In the coming decades of this century, as Western democratic nations decline in influence, and non-Western countries correspondingly increase theirs, many of whom do not share the West’s appreciation of the rule of law and human rights, what is the future of international law?”

He disagreed with my premise, and suggested that perhaps the opposite might be true. According to him, countries are becoming increasingly more democratic and committed to the rule of law. Furthermore, events in history once thought impossible have already taken place, e.g. the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of apartheid in South Africa. He ended with, “Try not to be so pessimistic, for you never know what will happen.”

My respectful disagreement with Judge Buergenthal’s response stems from the fact that when we look at the world, especially in regard to human rights, the violators of these rights seem to be increasing their influence worldwide. From Iran to Venezuela, from China to Saudi Arabia, the prohibition of free speech and even freedom to practice one’s beliefs are under assault. With the West in general, and the United States in particular, declining in influence (especially with their soft power), where does that leave the institutionalized system of concepts and values that we call international law? Many countries of the world view international law as an imposed creation after World War II in order to reward and support the victorious allies, and rightfully so.

Thus, it is inevitable that sooner or later the West’s influence will start to falter. As other countries and cultures become increasingly confident in and proud of their own traditions, values and ideas, international law, based on Western values, will no longer be able to maintain itself and must likewise adapt to new situations and new powers. I sincerely hope that I am wrong, that Judge Buergenthal’s response is correct and that more nations will adopt Western values and ideals; thus, I “will try not to be so pessimistic,” for if I am right, the future looks much darker and bleaker than I even dare to imagine.

Isaac is a sophomore in Arts & Sciences. He can be reached via e-mail at iamon@artsci.wustl.edu.