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The political cost

There is much a state can lose through a violation of international law. Apart from the legal sanctions that might be imposed (see section 1.3 above), there are other political and economic costs to be paid. The loss of influence and the loss of trust consequent upon a breach of the law may mean a reduction in overseas trade, loss of foreign aid or a refusal to enter into negotiations over some other matter. Similarly, many states may not be prepared to enter into new treaties with a state if it has a history of violating existing agreements. When the USA invaded Grenada, for example, the loss of influence and trust throughout the states of the non-aligned world was a cost that hampered future US policy in the Caribbean. The same is true of its use of force in Panama in 1989, especially in respect of Latin American states, and the true international cost of US and UK intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan is still not known. Similarly, New Zealand may doubt the bona fides of France after the Rainbow Warrior affair and the UK was for many years wary of Argentinian promises after the latter's invasion of the Falkland Islands. Who will listen to a US lecture on human rights while prisoners are detained without trial at Guantanamo Bay? Moreover, apart from these more tangible considerations, one should not underestimate the very public and embarrassing criticism which flows from a breach of international law, especially in such fields as human rights and crimes against humanity. In November 1998, the USA issued an apology 'to the Government and people of Paraguay' following its violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, as highlighted by the Case Concerning the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (Paraguay v US) (Provisional Measures) 1998 ICJ Rep 248. Unfortunately, this embarrassment was not enough to prevent the USA apparently violating the same Convention in a similar way in the La Grand case (Case Concerning the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (Germany v US) 1999 ICJ Rep). Evidently, some states are more easily embarrassed than others.

1.4.6 Sanctions

The types of sanction and the enforcement machinery known to international law have been considered previously. These also will play some part in ensuring that the

The nature of international law and the international system 13

law is obeyed. They represent one more motive for compliance, as they do in national law.

1.5 The weakness of international law

It would be a mistake to conclude that international law is a perfect system. There is much that could be reformed and enhanced. However, as a practical matter, the development of international law can be achieved only by states themselves. The United Nations, other international organisations and the International Law Commission may propose substantive changes in the law or changes in procedure, but the development of the system depends ultimately on the political will of sov­ereign states. If the system is believed to work satisfactorily for most of the time, as most states appear to believe, there will be no great movement to reform, especially if this involves a diminution of state power. This is not to underestimate the role that non-governmental organisations play in pushing for reform, but in the final analysis it is only states that can enter into effective multilateral treaties concerning questions of global significance and only states whose practice can influence the speedy development of customary rules of international law. The creation of the International Criminal Court is a good example of when this succeeds, but we still wait for effective international rules on such matters as climate change and the pro­tection of ethnic minorities in existing states.

1.5.1 Lack of institutions

International law lacks many of the formal institutions present in national legal systems. There is no formal legislative body, no court machinery with general com­pulsory jurisdiction and no police force. Of course, this does not mean that the functions typically carried out by such bodies are neglected in international law, for new rules can be created, disputes can be settled judicially and obligations can be enforced. It does mean, however, that international law does not operate in the sys­tematic manner so typical of, say, the legal system of the UK. While this may not be a serious defect because of the different purpose of international law, there will always be some difficulties, especially if malefactors are perceived to be able to vio­late the law with impunity. The impact of events in Iraq and The Sudan may well cause many states to ponder these weaknesses and it remains to be seen whether the result is a general willingness to violate the law more often (because it is apparent that the system is imperfect) or a desire to do something about the structural enforcement weaknesses of the system. Again, the absence of a central organisation responsible for law creation may be a disadvantage when there is a need to develop a comprehensive and general body of rules, as with the law concerning protection of the international environment. The customary law-making process may be too slow when new rules are needed quickly or circumstances change rapidly, as in the area of international communications. Lastly, the absence of a compulsory court structure means that some disputes may persist for decades to the detriment of all concerned, as with Argentina and the UK over the Falkland Islands, and India and Pakistan over Jammu-Kashmir.

The nature of international law and the international system

1.5.2 Lack of certainty

The disadvantage of a system of flexible and open-ended rules is a lack of certainty. It sometimes seems that many of the disputes between states occur precisely because the rule of international law governing their conduct is not clear, rather than that one state is deliberately behaving illegally. For example, disputes generated by trans-boundary pollution (e.g. the Chernobyl incident) are only made worse by the lack of clear rules defining the ambit of state responsibility for apparently lawful acts. On the other hand, if lack of certainty does mean less entrenched disputes, this may be advantageous in a system of law that does not have many formal institutions.

1.5.3 Vital interests

It is true of all legal systems that the vital interests of its subjects may prevail over the dictates of the law. Sometimes this is recognised by the legal system itself, as with the law of self-defence and necessity in international law, but usually it is not. International law is no different from national law in this respect and it is unrealis­tic to expect perfect obedience. However, it may be that because international law lacks formal enforcement machinery, the temptation and opportunity to violate the law is greater than in other systems. In this sense, international law is 'weaker' than the law of the UK or other states. When a state believes its 'vital interests' to be threatened, it is not certain that international law will be able to prevent illegal conduct. Such was the case, for example, with the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon and the Israeli violation of Argentinian sovereignty in seizing the war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, in 1960. Yet, this is not to say that international law is irrelevant in times of crises. Importantly, it may serve to modify a state's conduct to bring it closer to the legal norm, if not actually within it. The US bombing of Libya in 1986, for example, appears to have been limited to military targets because this was less likely to be condemned by other states, and the same is true of NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999. So, while international law may not prevent a state from engaging in illegal conduct when its vital interests (or vital community goals?) are at stake, it may soften that state's reaction to a crisis. Also, on a more general level, it may be that the purpose of international law is not to resolve major political and diplomatic problems at all or to be 'inhibitive' in the same way as national law. One view of international law is that its first task should be to ensure that the international community runs on orderly and predictable lines. In this it largely succeeds.

1.5.4 Vital rules

Every system of law contains rules prohibiting certain conduct which, if unchecked, would destroy the society regulated by that system. In national legal systems there are rules prohibiting murder and other forms of violence, and in international law there is a general prohibition against the use of force. For some critics the validity of the legal system as a whole stands or falls by the degree to which these vital rules are obeyed or enforced. International law has had a poor record in this regard and many of the 'glamorous' incidents referred to above involve the use of force by one state against another. International law often seems powerless to prevent these major


The nature of international law and the international system

ruptures of the fabric of international society and, again, it is weak law because of it. Dealing with the consequences of a violation of these rules is often too late, as the peoples of Kuwait, Bosnia, Iraq and The Sudan will bear witness.

This is a valid criticism of international law and needs to be recognised as such. However, the inability of international law to prevent or control outbreaks of vio­lence is not as destructive as it would be if it occurred in national legal systems. The factual context of international law is quite different from the operational field of national law and aggression between states is something quite different from acts of violence between individuals. The violence used by an individual in a society can be overwhelmed easily by the forces at the disposal of the central authority with very little chance of major disruption to the state itself. In international society, an act of aggression by one state against another state has far greater consequences and the costs of controlling it forcefully are exceptionally high. It is quite possible, for example, for the forces available to the aggressor to outweigh the forces available to the enforcers of the law and, even if they do not, the loss of life and consequential economic damage caused by inter-state violence is quantitatively and qualitatively different from anything likely to occur within national boundaries. This is perhaps the reason why more determined action was not taken in the territory of the former Yugoslavia in the early stages of the dispute. Of course, this is not an argument advocating that international law should have no rules prohibiting acts of violence. Rather, it is a suggestion that because of the field of operation of international law, rules of physical enforcement are not as desirable or practical as they are in other legal systems. This is a fact of international life, albeit not a palatable one.

Date: 2014-12-21; view: 1171

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