International laws – why bother?

The recent development in the USA, the nation of exceptionalism, of a policy of ‘America first’ has implications for the future of international laws. The following extracts from ‘Lawless World: America and the making and breaking of global rules’ by Philippe Sands, an eminent former professor of law and a practising barrister in the UK, seems pertinent.

“In the 1940s the United States and Britain led efforts to replace a world of chaos and conflict with a new, rules-based system.  … …  they hoped to make the world a better place, free from fear or want. They proposed new international rules to place limits on the use of force, promote the protection of fundamental human rights, and enshrine free trade and international economic liberalisation.”

“Over the next fifty years the mission to deepen and develop international law was, broadly speaking, successful. … … But it may have been too successful a mission. The rules which were intended to constrain others became constraining of their creators.”

“At the opening of the twenty-first century the world was a very different place from the one restructured by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill half a century earlier. International law had wrought a revolution, with rules reaching into the nooks and crannies of everyday life. … … With the election of George W. Bush in November 2000, a US Administration took office that was outspoken in its determination to challenge global rules. Soon it turned into a full-scale assault, a war on law.”

“I trace the efforts of the first George W. Bush Administration to remake the system of global rules, from the abandonment of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, through the attempt to disapply the Geneva Conventions and other human rights norms at Guantanamo and other places, to the virtual disavowal of the United Nations’ prescriptions prohibiting the use of force. … … Faced with this onslaught the British Government was often silent or, in certain respects, a willing handmaiden to some of the worst violations of international law. Together the two countries were trying to remake the global rules.”

The above extracts were from the Preface. The following extract is from the back cover of the book.

“ … America has reneged on agreements governing war, torture and the environment – with Britain often turning a blind eye or colluding in some of the worst violations. In recent years, America had abandoned the Kyoto Protocol and the Statute of the International Criminal Court, ignored human rights standards at Abu Graib and disregarded the UN’s prohibition on pre-emptive force. Are we on the verge of a new world order where the most powerful nations can put aside the rules that no longer suit them?”

“Leading international lawyer Philippe Sands has been involved in high-profile cases including Guantanamo and Pinochet.”

From p. 238 Final chapter

“There are usually good reasons why international laws have been accepted. For the most part they work reasonably well. Imperfect as some of the international rules may be, they reflect minimum standards of acceptable behaviour and, to the extent they can be ascertained, common values. They provide an independent standard for judging the legitimacy of international actions.”

A personal comment.

As a former colonial subject, I am inclined to believe that rules have never applied to, or restrained, the powerful in the history of mankind. Even if agreed international human rights standards are ever established, there has to be a balance between the integrity of sovereign borders and the accountability of international agencies and courts.    

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