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Is international law a meaningful concept?

Alice          30 June 2015 03:57 PM

Suppose we want to establish some new international law, that all countries are supposed to abide. How do we do it? The vast majority of countries are non-democratic and have authoritarian regimes. The vast majority of people live in such countries. So if we try the "democratic" approach, we'll have these countries (and their non-democratic regimes) dictate the international law to western democracies, which does not make much sense. The alternative is to have the Western world, or some other subset of powerful countries dictate the international law to all other countries. (This is roughly reflected by today's UN's security council, though why these specific countries should have such powers is not clear, except maybe for historical reasons.) In any case this latter solution also does not sound very fair or democratic. Is there a way to design international law in a meaningful way?

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Silent Cal 10 July 2015 03:47 PM

It can be, with limitations.

One way is to have an opt-in agreement with all members agreeing to punish anyone who violates the agreement. Obviously this can only cover things lots of nations agree on, or else only cover smaller subsets of nations. Fwiffo discusses these well.

The other way is for a group of powerful nations to agree to enforce something and admit the justifications are not internationally impartial. As worrying as this is, I think I'm okay with it as long as it's done carefully. But right or wrong, it's clearly meaningful.

So a group of powerful and like-minded nations could say "We declare the following things illegal, and since we have the guns and the money, what we say goes." This is essentially the League of Democracies proposal.


Fwiffo 6 July 2015 05:16 AM

In law of ruling over people the state has somewhat legitimate monopoly on violence use. If we were to copy that verbatim to laws over states then we would have international monopoly on violence use. This is often seen as a negative outcome where some party has "conquered" earth.

Most of the international laws are actually opt in agreements. That is countries volunteer to abide by them. Thus the problem of enforcing it against unwilling participants doesn't arise. The issue is then when countries are unwilling to commit to principles. For example the USA doesn't want to be accountable to anyone else pretty much no matter how western the values of the proposal would be. So US leaves the option to not be formally required to live up to human rights. There is a somewhat of a PR hit you cease to be a party to such an arrangement but some are able to take it no problem.

Likewise there has been attempts to make distinction of legitimate wars vs unlegitimate wars. However often the process ends up being political instead of juridical. That is when a countrys representatives vote on a issue it has little to do with overarching principles but more how the situation plays in the voters favour. This can devalue the meaning of the process entirely. Thus an "illegit war" label isn't an effectice block to anyways going to war but is like a small footnote in the process. There is a use where a "legit war" label can make other countries more supportive of it. However this usually doesn't have direct formal ties to the decision. Rather it is used as a shorthand for the overall ethical consideration. But making subjective ethical considerations isn't automatically inferior.